09/26/2014 08:17 EDT | Updated 11/26/2014 05:59 EST

Goodbye Sugary Cereals and Soft Drinks. Canada's Getting Healthier

Recent statistics on consumption of breakfast cereals in the US contain some good news for health advocates: sales of these foods are declining. Those with high sugar content are decreasing the fastest. Cereals targeting children, such as Lucky Charms and Cocoa Puffs, led the way with a 10.7 per cent decline between 2003-2013. The only cereals that experienced an increase in sales were those of the muesli variety; they had a 1.8 per cent increase during the same period. These are all American figures but trends in Canada appear to be similar.

This decline in sales of sugary cereals comes at the same time that purchases of other sugar laden products such as soda (soft drinks) are also decreasing. Purchases of soft drinks have been consistently falling since 2005. At the same time we are witnessing the growth of "virtuous fast foods." These are small but rapidly growing chains, such as Chipotle Mexican Grill and Tender Greens, that are focussed on food that is fast and affordable but also nutritious. The former recently reported an increase in quarterly profits of almost 26 per cent.

These trends are positive but we shouldn't leap to conclusions. A whole lot more will have to change in terms of overall eating and drinking patterns before we can be confident that healthy consumption has won out. And we'll need more reliable information.

Let's go back to sugary breakfast cereals and soft drinks. Their sales are declining; they are being consumed less. But until we know overall eating and drinking patterns we can't be confident that folks are consuming other food and drinks that are healthier. There may be "substitution effects": a child may no longer be eating Lucky Charms but, instead, is having a sugary doughnut or a double chocolate muffin for breakfast.

A notorious Canadian campaign attempted to have people drink one per cent rather than full fat milk to decrease consumption of butter fat. The light milk quickly gained market share and sales of the full fat variety declined. However, at, more or less, the same time sales of cream and cheese increased substantially: one source of butterfat had been substituted for another. Another factor that may be relevant but has little to do with development of healthy eating and drinking habits is the declining birth rate. Children are the biggest consumers of cereals and fewer of them likely means that less cereal will be purchased.

Still declining sales of soft drinks and sugary cereals (but a small increase for muesli) and the growth of virtuous fast foods all point in the right direction. And some experts think that at least many millennials (ages 14 to 32) are, indeed, substituting healthy alternatives as they view cereals as just another variety of processed foods to be shunned.

Another piece of good news is that these shifts are largely taking place without government intervention. Though there has been much debate about law makers imposing junk food taxes few have done so at anywhere near the level that experts claim would be need to suppress consumption. Similarly, despite much urging from advocates, few jurisdictions have banned advertising of food and beverages to children. (Quebec and Mexico are exceptions.)

And the growth of virtuous fast food springs from astute business people -- with no help from government -- having confidence that if food is nutritious, fast and affordable, a market for it will develop.

None of this is an argument suggesting that governments have no role in promoting healthy eating/drinking (and more physical exercise). There's lots that governments can and should do in this area, especially to improve the lives of children. And they should be bold in experimenting with a variety of measures. But as they do so they should carefully monitor developments. When change is in the right direction they should salute it -- and not get in the way.


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