The Covid-19 lockdowns forced changes on all of us, workwise and personally. But it wasn’t just in the 12 weeks we were subject to some form of social distancing. In the early weeks of Level 1 we also saw how some of those changes were sticking, and could do so well into the future.

The issue of working from home is one that could change the work landscape forever, with many realising we can conduct a lot of business that way, as long as we have a decent internet connection.

Lewis Road Creamery founder and CEO Peter Cullinane, during a webinar for Food & Grocery Council members, pointed to this as one of the big changes coming out of the lockdowns. He described the virtual meetings many businesses held during Covid-19 as “life-changing”, with most people being more productive when working from home. The daily online meeting, he said, “holds everyone’s feet to the fire”, and this new way of working would likely continue to exist as some sort of “hybrid”.

I know of businesses considering 4/1 or 3/2 splits in favour of office working. Not sitting in traffic and working in a slightly less pressured environment is a good thing, wellbeing-wise.

But you can have too much of a good thing, and the other side of the lockdown was we tended to drop good habits, such as regular exercise and fresh air, and switch them for eating and drinking too much of things we need to be careful of. It’s a combination that, post-Covid-19, could be a bit of a concern unless we change things back.

With that in mind, I was fascinated to read an Australian study indicating people are getting the message around the types of foods and beverages they’re consuming. In this case it was about sugar sweetened beverages, or SSB’s, and it could be one of the defining studies of its type.

It was conducted by a nutrition research company on behalf of the Australian Beverages Council, and revealed something we’ve been talking about in New Zealand for several years – sales of SSB’s, long blamed by public health activists as the single main cause of obesity, are dropping significantly at a time when obesity is rising. (Spoiler alert: some of these numbers are huge).

The study, using beverage sales data gathered by research companies AC Nielsen and Iri, showed per capita volume sales of SSB’s fell from 83 litres per person to 61 litres over the period, a drop of 27%. It said this change was largely driven by declining sales of sugar-sweetened carbonated soft drinks, which fell from 76 litres to 45 litres per capita.

So what were people drinking instead? Well, over the same period, sales of non-SSB’s jumped from 48 litres to 88 litres per capita, with the biggest contributor being pure unflavoured still waters – up from 6 litres per person to a whopping 48 litres. Further, the annual contribution of SSBs to the sugar content of the national Australian diet was dropping from 9 kilograms per person to 6.4 kilograms.

These are massive changes but putting them alongside obesity numbers from the Australian Health Department gives them even more context. These show that 57% of adults were overweight or obese in 1995, but that had jumped to a concerning 67% in 2017/18. So, while sales of SSB’s were dropping by 27%, obesity was going in the opposite direction, rising 17%.

That’s a massive swing. And with Kiwis’ buying, eating and drinking habits not too dissimilar to that of Australians’, perhaps our exit from Covid-19 is an opportune time to re-set the obesity narrative.

(originally published in FMCG Business magazine)

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