You could be forgiven for thinking that obesity and other worrying health and nutrition issues were simply a concern of the West, with the UK following the lead of the US in terms of growing consumer greed and the development of the so-called 'junk food nations'.
It may then come as some surprise to learn that many other countries are plagued by the prospect of expanding waistlines and all the health and social problems that follow.
Health and nutrition was a key theme of the International Spar Congress, held recently in London. A great surprise was that the issue was growing in relevance even in countries that would traditionally be regarded as having a healthy diet namely Greece, Austria and Japan.
Greece is the word
The southern European diet with its fresh vegetables, fish and the abundance of olive oil is widely regarded as being among the healthiest in the world. However, according to Nick Veropoulos, managing director of Spar Greece, times are changing and as Greece becomes more developed then some of the traditions are disappearing. One such tradition is cooking, says Veropoulos.
"People are no longer learning how to cook. They don't know what is healthy and what isn't so they don't know what to buy," he explains.
In order to give people more information about health, nutrition, and how and what to cook, Spar Greece launched a new campaign in April called Smart Move.
The idea behind the campaign, explains Veropoulos, is to answer two questions that puzzle a modern household: what to eat tomorrow and whether it is a healthy option. The project, which is themed around a game of chess which everyone wins, sees the group linking up with a famous Greek chef and a well-known nutritionist. These two work together with Spar to produce a fortnightly menu leaflet that suggests to consumers a variety of meals for a balanced diet.
The dishes are suggested by the chef and checked by the nutritionist.
The leaflets also include special offers on the ingredients designed to make healthy eating more affordable.
The campaign is further supported in-store with point of sale material offering nutritional tips placed conspicuously around the store. It is also supported nationwide by television. radio and outdoor advertising.
Veropoulos says that in Greece consumers were getting to a point where they were beginning to blame retailers for leading them to the wrong choices and thus adding to the obesity problem. He sees this campaign as the best way to cut through consumer confusion and offer straightforward advice which is easy to follow and implement.
A mountain to climb
The use of celebrity chefs to sell food is hardly unique, given the 'Jamie Oliver effect' that we have all witnessed in this country. In Austria Spar has commandeered the services of a popular television chef. However in the Austrian example, the help of a famous personality is a very small part of a much wider strategy in which Spar is aiming to become a pioneer in the nutrition market, which itself is an important element of its own corporate social responsibility programme.
Despite the outdoors image and active lifestyle associated with the Alpine region, research commissioned by Spar Austria revealed that 20% of the juvenile population of Austria is overweight and 4% are chronically overweight.
Taking these concerns on board, Dr Gerhard Drexel, president of Spar Austria, launched the Scientific Advisory Board, which in turn launched the 'Ernährung heute' strategy meaning 'nutrition today'.
The key element of this was to work with chefs and dieticians to develop healthier own-label options and functional foods. Says Drexel: "In order that our products meet the most modern requirements for healthy and tasty nutrition, we are working with leading members of the medical profession and nutritional experts.
"At the same time, we are doing everything we can so that Austrians are increasingly aware of the subject of healthy eating. We want people to discuss healthy eating and try to supplement their everyday diet with healthy, high-quality products."
As an example, Spar Austria has developed its Tann brand of reduced fat sausages which also contain sunflower oil. It also claims to have been the first retailer in the country to introduce lactose-free fresh milk.
The most important element for Drexel is the communication of this message. Leaflets are delivered weekly to three million households in Austria. These provide information on new products and the latest developments in terms of nutrition and health.
The company has also published more than 100,000 copies of a cookbook which it launched in partnership with one of the country's leading newspapers.
It is currently promoting a new concept known as 'the 10 commandments of anti-ageing cuisine'. These are detailed in its own in-store magazine called Spar Feine Kuche. According to Drexel the concept has proved a big hit in Austria and the group is currently looking to export its ideas to Slovenia and Hungary.
Turning Japanese
Finally to Japan, which has one of the highest life expectancy rates in the world, thanks in part to a diet based on boiled rice, steamed vegetables and fresh fish. So with healthy eating already firmly established among consumers, it is interesting to see how demand for functional foods with added health-giving properties are exploding onto the Japanese market and the steps retailers are taking to capitalise on this.
According to Michio Kirito, president of Spar Japan, there is a lot of truth in the old Japanese expression "medicine and food are of the same root", which he says demonstrates how closely diet and medical care are related.
The diet food market in Japan has doubled and consumers are also drifting more towards shopping in convenience style stores such as Spar Japan's
Hotspar outlets.
Another driving factor for Spar Japan is that in 2001 the government enacted a new scheme by which food products which are recognised as having a health effect can carry a label indicating that effectiveness.
In its Hotspar stores, Spar Japan has developed a counter called self-medication, which offers foods that carry the label. Its latest trial involves jellies that use elements of collagen which is said to have anti-aging properties.
Its food to go offer meanwhile combines the need for fast, tasty food with healthy credentials. The food is prepared fresh in-store with ingredients that are distributed via three daily deliveries.
There is a significant cultural difference, however. Typical Japanese fast foods such a Onigiri (rice ball) are more like homemade food and fit easier into a healthy diet than some of the fast food or food to go that is the norm in this country.
Kirito explains: "We have many well-balanced traditional menus in Japan. Now, we will modify them to meet the taste of current consumers. Our task is to enrich fast foods of Japanese style so that people can really say that Japanese food is healthy food."