Health food on the horizon

Unhealthy eating habits and a surge of foreign fast food jointshave led to an obesity epedemic in Russia

Unhealthy eating habits and a surge of foreign fast food jointshave led to an obesity epedemic in Russia

With shortages a thing of the past, Russians are paying more attention to the food they consume. What’s on offer leaves much to be desired.

Russians love food and it looks like they finally have it too easy. Store shelves are full of everything from sausage to sushi, grocery stores offer take out and fast food joints can be found on every corner. But there’s a catch: Thirty eight percent of Moscow’s population is clinically overweight, and diabetes and heart disease are rampant.

Russians have started to think seriously about what they’re eating.

“Excess weight was making my heart like a body-builder’s biceps. The doctors said that if I didn’t start to lose weight immediately it might not hold out,” said Ivan Butman, a former sportsman and now head of a department at a medium-sized Moscow bank. “When my heart problems started I had to switch to low-fat products.”

Butman is not alone: Almost half of deaths in Russia are due to heart attacks, and 37 percent to strokes. According to the World Health Organization, 9.6 million people in Russia today are suffering from Type 1 diabetes, due in large part to unhealthy lifestyles.

Attitudes are slowly changing: About half of Russia’s population has started buying organic products, according to research carried out by the Nielsen company in autumn 2009. Pre-packaged salads, yogurts and dairy products with near-zero fat content now appear in Moscow’s hypermarkets.

“In the morning I now eat only yogurts, which I buy after work. Of course, that means I’m spending more on food,” Butman added.

Andrei Khodus, director of the Non-Commercial Partnership on the Development of Organic and Bio-Dynamic Farming, describes the market as being in its infancy. “Healthy food is less profitable than unhealthy food, but it’s still profitable,” noted Lidiya Seryogina, founder of the company.

Khodus said that a growing number of Russian manufacturers are gradually beginning to emerge on the Russian healthy food market. “The demand for imported bio-products is down, but the demand for Russian-made ones is up. As a result, Russian production of bio-products for the domestic markets is also growing,” he said.

According to the Institute for Biological Agriculture, the market for biologically pure food products in Russia still amounts to a very modest sum—60 million euros. “We should note the currently popular effect of passing off ordinary products as ‘healthy,' and the appearance of words like eco-, bio-, natural and so on, which enable the manufacturer to bump up the price,” Seryogina added. “The manufacturers make lots of claims, which are aimed most of all at increasing profits; no precise criteria that are adopted by everyone have been established,” Andrei Khodus said. In some sectors, the amount of “phony healthy food” is as high as 60-70 percent of the market.

Indeed, you don’t find a line forming in the Bio-Market chain’s organic produce shops, even though Bio-Market is the only such chain in Russia. Bio-Market shops are part of the Organic Corporation, which belongs to Nikolai Tsvetkov, owner of Uralsib, one of the country’s largest banks. He first got involved in selling ecologically pure products in 2005. His project is still scarcely profitable, noted Yelena Komkova, a consultant with SERVICEMAN Training & Consulting.

As more truly healthy food is available, that may change. “We are receiving more and more inquiries, by email and by phone, asking where people can get a hold of ecologically safe produce in Russia. We tell them what it is, where you can find it, what ecological labelling on this kind of produce looks like, which brands can be trusted and why,” Galechyan said.

Russians also like to grow their own food locally, and often do so at their dacha. This too can offer a form of healthy living. Produce from the local markets or rinok may not be organic, but the food, fruits and vegetables from Armenia to Uzbekistan is certainly a healthy alternative to the foreign-brand frozen foods at the grocery stores. Some of the unhealthy food, and most of the fast food that has come into Russia over the past 20 years, can be traced back to the United States. Moscow has a McDonald's on every corner, with the occasional KFC.

The Russian Consumers’ Rights Inspection—the Russian federal inspection agency for protecting consumers' rights and health—intends to establish norms and principles for healthy food by as early as the end of this summer, which will give manufacturers and consumers the necessary guidelines and will help to strengthen trust in “healthy” products.

And the potential is there: in the United States, the market for packaged produce labeled “organic” grew by 19.3 percent in 2007, and by 9.4 percent in 2008. Russia, where healthy lifestyles are just becoming popular, will inevitably follow suit.

“It’s true to say that in the end I realized you cannot solve the problem of excess weight just by changing the quality of your food. You have to change your way of life,” Butman added.

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