The next interview in our series on conscious businesses is with Alyson Greenhalgh-Ball, the founder of Conscious Impact, which works at the intersection of public health, nutrition, agriculture, and climate action. A trained clinical dietitian, she’s also an academic with many years of research on food and public health, and has spent two decades spanning various roles at Kellogg. She talks to Slurrp Farm about the need to be open-minded about diet regimens, how food systems have to be culture-sensitive, and more.
Could you talk a bit about Conscious Impact and the impetus behind it?
To me, it was obvious many years ago that you couldn’t effect any meaningful change in public health without taking into account planetary needs and the planetary consequences of your actions. What I’ve realised, over the varied professional experiences I’ve had, is that to achieve sustainable goals, every stakeholder has to come together: big food, academia, media, investors, not-for-profits. So the idea of Conscious Impact is to broker that understanding, if you like, and act as a mediator across these different sectors to understand how food has such a pivotal role to play in both human and planetary health.
What was your relationship with food like growing up?
I grew up on a farm, which probably explains a lot. We grew arable crops, but we also had lots of chickens — we had free-range eggs even 40, 50 years ago. That I grew up surrounded by people who understood crop cycles and how important the soil is to crop health and the welfare of animals, along with a very balanced, down-to-earth attitude to food and wholesome cooking, became the springboard for my interest in health and how food is a cornerstone for health. I was the kid who went to school with nuts and seeds in her lunchbox. Others thought I was crazy, but actually, I liked to eat well, even then: I enjoyed fruit and yoghurt and grains. That’s not to say we didn’t have treats as well — we had lots of those. It was just really balanced.
So how did you take that interest forward professionally?
I studied food, nutrition, and dietetics at university, and became a clinical dietitian. In those days, there was only that route to work in nutrition in the UK. But much as I loved working in hospital environments, my big passion was public health and nutrition — but you needed clinical experience for credibility.
Later I moved to academia, at the medical school in Manchester, where my work examined the relationship between food, diabetes, and hypertension, and trying to find a biomarker for carbohydrates. Then I started to work on the relationship between food and cancer risk and protection. I ran the UK Women’s Cohort Study, a huge survey of 36,000 women we studied over a long time.
I thought I was pretty set for a career in academia — but then the world changed. We had a digital revolution 20 odd years ago, and I was fascinated with how access to data and evidence would empower people and be a game-changer in terms of our understanding of food, health, and nutrition. I was in the middle of a sabbatical from work, during which I wrote web copy (health information for the BBC, for example), presented on TV, made some health science programme kits, did some consultancy, even set up the health service structure and architecture of the technology for a major telecom company, which really fuelled my interest in innovation technology.
Meanwhile, a job came up at Kellogg, and they were looking for someone with science knowledge and media experience. So I took the plunge and ended up staying for 20 years.
Could you talk about some of the major changes you brought into Kellogg’s product range?
I did all sorts over the years — setting targets for innovation and renovation, like for the reduction of sodium and sugars in many products and the addition of positives (like adding vitamin D to many of our products across the world because we’d worked with some of the leading experts, and we knew that there was a clear need for that fortificant to be added to some of our products). I also worked to increase our nutrient density and plant diversity.
Did you face any resistance and, if so, how did you deal with that? Were there changes you wanted to make but couldn’t?
Of course! Making changes in a huge organisation takes a lot of time and there are a lot of stakeholders involved, whether internal or external: employees, consumers, retailers, so many more. So any product typically takes two to three years to get to the marketplace. And there are many, many negotiations on a daily basis — about what to make, how to make it aspirational yet feasible, whether it’s even possible to make food with those nutrients you’re suggesting, getting the right supply of ingredients in the right volume at the right price point, and to be able to make a delicious product at the end of the day that people will want to eat. So there could be disagreements on targets that you were setting, on why it’s so important to change up the food or develop a new product, on the very real cost implications of, say, fortifying an entire product range with extra nutrients.
I think the only way to get past that is if each person has real humility and an understanding of other roles within the organisation and how they all come together as a team.
Where do you see the solution to the malnutrition and climate crises? And how can food contribute to it?
In one sentence, the power is on the plate. And we make changes by looking at what’s on the plate (or however you eat, because food has to be context-specific). It’s absolutely crystal clear that food systems are failing us (both people and planet) across the world. The numbers are staggering and heartbreaking, and, of course, exacerbated by Covid.
Two billion people have micronutrient deficiencies across the world — two billion! That is just astonishing and horrendous. And yet we’ve got the same number of people who are obese and overweight. We also understand that food is one of the biggest sectors that contributes to environmental pressures, and it can be one of the biggest sectors in reducing the problem, in being part of the solution.
Also, food systems are extremely complex, involving different cultures, communities, traditions, and can, by that token, also solve different problems. For example, food can be a great tool to empower women and to bring to the fore local indigenous ingredients — so it’s important that the solutions we come up with are culture-sensitive and context-specific. Food isn’t just about nutrients. It has a special place in our hearts, our celebrations, our rituals, our love for ourselves and others. So for any food solution to be effective, it needs to understand this, because it’s only when people are presented with this kind of solution that they’ll start to change their behaviour — which is the hardest thing to change.
What are your thoughts on diet regimens like Keto, Atkins, or even intermittent fasting?
I’d say I’m sceptical but open-minded. I would be cautious about jumping into any new regimen and I certainly have a real adversity to anything that cuts out entire food groups, because we know that many of our food groups are really important for good health. And I’d certainly be very cautious, if someone’s very young or has certain conditions. But if evidence about a particular regimen starts to build, then I’m interested to see what that looks like, as long as it’s not cutting out vital food groups. So I think one to watch is intermittent fasting, where some evidence is starting to build, and key global organisations are looking at the evidence. And remember those two billion people who are overweight or obese across the world — clearly, we really need solutions. So if we have the evidence and we can combine that with the right behaviour change, then we have to be open-minded.
When we talk about food marketing, what do we need to change to develop a healthy relationship with food?
We have a tendency to create heroes and villains. It’s easy to think of food in black and white, good or bad. But no one food is ever going to be a true solution or truly detrimental if it’s only consumed rarely — the impact of any food really depends on how much of it you have and how often.
What’s important is what your overall diet looks like, what your shopping basket looks like, what your store cupboard and fridge are filled with, how often and where you go out to eat, what you order there. So let’s stop creating heroes and villains, let’s ditch the superpowers. And let’s have a truthful narrative in food marketing.
I’d also like greater equity in food marketing. Mostly, across the world, the way food is marketed and advertised is not representative of a healthy, balanced, sustainable diet. It’s disproportionate to some of the other foods that should be included in your diet. So how do we incentivise, how do we make sure that we’re all seeing a variety of foods advertised?
What do food companies need to change about their labelling?
I think we’ve made many mistakes over the years, because there’s been lots of infighting about the right type of regimen, the right type of label. I think we’ve sweated the small stuff and missed the bigger question, which is: are we adequately signposting our foods in an easy, digestible way that helps someone make a quick decision while buying? Also, most of us don’t make a rational decision when buying food at the point of purchase. We’re grabbing something because it’s familiar, we’ve had it before, we know our kids will eat it. So how do we have signposting that’s sufficiently accurate and really compelling and easy to digest?
My personal bugbear is when some of these systems only focus on negatives, instead of both positives and negatives. On some food labels, the traffic lights are only the negatives, whereas I’m much more supportive of those that also include, for example, nutri scores, or the Australian Health Star Rating System.
The next challenge is how we do environmental labelling, and how we do that along with nutrition labelling. We’re either going to completely confuse everybody or we can develop something that makes people really think about what that product means for them and for the planet. That’s the sweet spot I’d like us to get to — simple signposts for both.
Has Covid led to an increase in people’s interest in healthy food and nutrition? How do you see that playing out in the future from both the investment and consumer perspective?
Yes, yes, yes! I think it is already happening. Even last year, when the pandemic really started to take hold, we could see, very quickly, the impact on consumers and an understanding of food and nutrients — of course it was centred, at the time, on immune system support. That’s not going to go away.
We’ve also seen an absolute proliferation in investment in small food startups, agriculture, green bonds — twinned with the food systems dialogue. And it’s clear that we’re seeing a changing retail space.
Does this mean people are dramatically shifting? I’m not sure. There’s always going to be room for those foods that provide comfort or are associated with rituals, and I don’t think there’s going to be a pendulum swing totally away from those types of foods. But the attitudes are changing, consumers are increasingly understanding how important diet is to their personal health. I still don’t think that’s truly understood, but we’re getting there. Perhaps the shift won’t be away from a certain type of food but certain ingredients.
This is a period of rapid change, and we desperately need that. And all these interesting food startups, small and big food brands, have a real opportunity to provide those solutions.