New Zealand, with a population of just under 4.5 million people, is over 600 miles from its closest neighbors: Fiji, New Caledonia and Tonga. Looking west, Australia sits about 900 miles across the Tasman Sea. As an isolated island in the South Pacific Ocean, New Zealand’s food scene is an interesting one, offering the full spectrum of animal-based foods as well as the occasional vegan and vegetarian items.
Most food establishments favor land animals over plant-based foods, which is not surprising as sheep and cattle roam freely throughout the country. In fact, there are about 1.5 million more cows than there are humans. A more shocking statistic is that there are approximately 8 sheep for every human in New Zealand.
Not only is there an ample supply of locally raised lamb and beef, but the large population of cows supports New Zealand’s dairy industry, making “milk powder, butter and cheese” the country’s #1 export commodity, accounting for 12.4 billion NZ$. Meat and edible offal come in second place at $5.2 billion NZ$. That said, animal products are plentiful here in New Zealand, and from a health perspective, these two food groups have a pretty good reputation among the locals, especially when the animals are locally raised, free-range and grass-fed.
Interestingly, gluten is front and center in New Zealand. Finding gluten-free food is the name of the game, and most locals are winning this game on a daily basis. Gluten-free foods, both packaged and fresh, can be found just about everywhere, from the local pub in a rural coastal town to the trendy bar in Auckland. Additionally, all grocery stores have an extensive gluten-free section, and from day-to-day observation, this section seems to get a nice flow of traffic from the locals. At the popular New World Market grocery chain, with over 135 locations throughout the country, you can find 10+ brands of gluten-free breads, all offering a number of different varieties (linseed, corn, soy, sunflower, poppy, walnut and chia).
From an outsider’s perspective, you get the vibe that meat and dairy are welcomed with open arms whereas gluten is shunned to the sidelines. Why is that? Gluten-free diets were originally used as a way to combat Celiac disease, a serious autoimmune disorder that affects about 1% of the population. However, more than 1% of the general population is going gluten-free these days. The main argument on the street is that a gluten-free diet has the potential to “reduce inflammation” throughout the body. While this inflammation reduction is hard to quantify, from a qualitative perspective, people decide to stick with their gluten-free eating due to increased energy and an improved overall feeling of wellness.
Gluten-free advertising at the Curly Tree Whitebait shack in the rural town of Haast on New Zealand’s south island
I came across an interesting point of view a few weeks ago while reading an article about going gluten-free. “People try gluten-free diets in response to feeling tired, bloated or depressed, and find reducing gluten correlates with feeling better or losing weight. But that outcome is more likely because they’ve cut out the excess calories found in many flour-based snack foods, and they mistakenly attribute feeling better to taking out the gluten.” Of course this is just one view point and does not apply to everyone that chooses a gluten-free diet, but understanding the “why” behind a personal behavioral change, especially a change related to food consumption, is essential. Unfortunately, the motivation that results from losing weight can sometimes perpetuate behavioral changes that aren’t always the healthiest or the most sustainable over the long term.
Many would argue that an entirely gluten-free diet has the potential to be nutrient poor, as many gluten-free products are heavily processed and are made with unenriched, refined grains and starches. The better sources of gluten, such as organic whole grains, are rich in fiber, iron, folate, niacin, thiamine, riboflavin, calcium, vitamin B12, phosphorus and zinc.
For those diagnosed with Celiac disease, I fully support a diet-based treatment approach that involves the elimination of gluten from one’s diet, however, for the remaining 99% of the population, I would argue that gluten may not be the primary guilty party. I am not necessarily advocating a diet that is “gluten-heavy,” as all foods, even plant-based ones, should be consumed in balance and moderation. However, I especially worry when whole grains are replaced by high fat foods like meat, cheese and eggs just because these foods happen to be gluten-free.
Bread & Butter, an organic bakery in Auckland, explains its bread making process from farm to oven.
Even though it may feel like meat, dairy and gluten-free foods rule the roost in New Zealand, grocery stores are plentiful and accessible and offer fresh, seasonal produce, organic unprocessed products (both fresh and packaged), as well as an array of vegan bulk items and packaged goods. I have been thoroughly impressed with the selection of organic nut-based milks as well as an extensive selection of flavorful vegan dips and spreads. My favorite so far has been pumpkin and kumara hummus with toasted pumpkin seeds. Also, while vegan items may not be explicitly presented on restaurant menus, don’t hesitate to ask, most places are more than happy to accommodate a vegan request.