Public health advocates meeting in Parliament House will call for a 20 per cent levy on sugar sweetened beverages as part of a broader list of 10 health priorities for Australia.
Professor Tom Calma AO, Chancellor of the University of Canberra will launch Getting Australia’s Health on Track – a policy report for a healthier Australia.
The event is hosted by the Australian Health Policy Collaboration (AHPC) together with the Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA) and Australian Healthcare and Hospitals Association (AHHA). Also speaking are Ministers Gillespie, King and Senator Di Natale.
Getting Australia’s Health on Track was developed by a national collaboration of 70 leading chronic disease experts and organisations who have also worked together on the related Australia’s Health Tracker. Australia’s Health Tracker, a national chronic disease report card was launched in July this year. Recently, the second phase of this work Australia’s Health Tracker by Area launched, providing localised data and reports on chronic diseases.
Now this work enters its third phase – Getting Australia’s Health on Track – which outlines a suite of policies that will help address the problems revealed in the Tracker data sets.
“Currently, less than 1.5 per cent of spending is dedicated to prevention. One in two Australians are now living with a chronic disease; we must take preventative actions now for a healthier future,” commented Rosemary Calder, Director AHPC.
“These 10 priority policy actions are more than health policies and offer significant social and economic benefits for Australia. Australia’s Health Tracker reveals some of the nation’s greatest health challenges – now here is a list of some of the best solutions.”
Apart from the sugar tax, the priority policy actions are:
HEALTHIER DIETS: Protect children and young people from unhealthy food and beverage TV marketing;
REDUCE SMOKING: Enhance media campaigns to reduce smoking;
REDUCE SMOKING: Reduce health and mortality disparities in disadvantaged populations caused by smoking;
INCREASE PHYSICAL ACTIVITY: Invest in active travel initiatives to and from school to kickstart a national physical activity plan;
REDUCE HARM FROM ALCOHOL: Consistent volumetric tax on alcohol products and increase current tax rate;
IMPROVE MENTAL HEALTH: Scale up supported vocational programs for people with a mental illness;
REDUCE BIOMEDICAL RISK: Reduce salt content in processed foods and meals to decrease the risks of high blood pressure;
REDUCE BIOMEDICAL RISK: Scale up primary care capacity in primary and secondary prevention of cardiovascular risks;
MONITOR HEALTH: Invest in comprehensive national measurement and monitoring of chronic diseases and their risk factors in the population over time.
Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce has slammed the proposal to introduce a sugar tax and said eating less and exercise are the ways to reduce obesity.
As the SMH reports, Joyce was responding to a report presented to Parliament which claims there should be a tax of 40 cents per 100 grams of sugar on sugary soft drinks.
The report by the Gratton Institute estimates that community or “third party” costs of obesity were about A$5.3 billion in 2014/15; and says a tax would not only reduce obesity levels but also recoup some of these costs.
But Joyce, who is also Agriculture Minister and has warned of the devastating affect a sugar tax would have on the sugar industry of North Queensland, said the National Party would not support it.
“If you want to deal with being overweight, here’s a suggestion: stop eating so much and do a bit of exercise,” he said.
“This is one of these suggestions right from the start we always thought was bonkers mad but now it’s getting more and more momentum so we have to say, ‘We are not going to be supporting a sugar tax’.”
He said the comparison with the tobacco excise does not hold because all cigarettes are bad for you, while the occasional soft drink is not.
“I believe in the freedom of the individual … We the government are not going to moralise about what you take out of the fridge,” he said.
Each month, 11.5 million Australians consume fast food. Alongside traditional burger, fried chicken and pizza chains, new chains are positioning themselves as healthier alternatives to the typical, energy-, saturated fat-, sugar- and salt-laden meals on offer at traditional chains.
We know the fast food environment influences our food choices. Promotions and marketing on labels and websites influence our decisions about the foods we buy. Many chains are now using claims about nutrient content and health benefits on their websites to create a marketing edge and perhaps make us feel less guilty about our next fast food purchase.
The Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code defines nutrition content claims as those that state the presence or absence of a nutrient, for example, “contains calcium”. Foods with these claims must meet the minimum (or maximum) quantities for the nutrient in the claim, called the qualifying criteria.
Health claims are those that relate to a food-health relationship, such as “contains calcium for healthy bones”. In addition to containing the minimum/maximum quantities of the nutrient, foods carrying these claims must also meet the Nutrient Profiling Scoring Criteria, meaning they are healthier foods based on their energy, saturated fat, sugars, sodium, protein, fibre and fruit, vegetable, nut and legume content.
Previously, there has been close scrutiny of grocery foods carrying these sorts of claims, and whether they comply with the requirements of the code. However, any food sold in Australia is subject to this code, and there has been no scrutiny of the claims being made by fast food outlets.
We noticed fast food chains were increasingly using claims on their websites, and given how influential claims are on food choice, we decided to investigate these claims being made by chains.
How honest are fast food chains in their claims?
In 2015, we assessed the claims fast food chains were making on their websites to promote the nutritional value of their foods.
We found more than 40% of menu items being marketed using claims may not have complied with the requirements of the code. These foods did not meet the qualifying criteria set out in the code, meaning consumers could believe these foods are healthier than they actually are.
The chains that fared worst in our study were those positioning themselves as “healthier” – such as a popular juice chain and a popular salad chain (the authors have chosen not to publish the names of the chains).
For example, a Chipotle Pulled Pork Wrap from the salad chain claimed to be low in energy and salt, despite containing more than four times the permitted amount of energy and sodium per 100g.
This product has a similar amount of energy per serve (2051kJ) as a Big Mac (2060kJ), and contained a whopping 1552mg sodium per serve – two-thirds of an adult’s upper daily sodium intake.
Another example is Green Tea Mango Mantra from the juice chain, that supposedly has immunity-boosting powers, despite not meeting the requirements of the Nutrient Profiling Scoring Criteria and containing between 68-91g sugars per serve – that’s 17-23 teaspoons.
These sorts of claims lull us into a false sense of security that we’re choosing a healthier fast food. Eat these foods too often, and you’ll probably be consuming more kilojoules, fats, and sugars, which could contribute to weight gain.
But it’s not all bad news. Since the study was conducted, several of the offending chains have removed claims that may not have complied. This is because the study was conducted during the phase-in period of the standard on nutrition content and health claims, with this standard becoming mandatory on 18th January 2016. So it’s working to a degree, but many remaining claims still may not comply.
With the “eating-to-go” habit here to stay, healthier fast food chains have an important role to play in ensuring healthy food options are available. They also have a responsibility to ensure the correct nutritional information accompanies them.
The study highlights the need for closer monitoring and enforcement of the Food Standards Code by the state food agencies. Whether fast food chains are deliberately flaunting the code, or have not been adequately educated on the use of claims and the requirements for making them is hard to say.
Regardless, stronger enforcement will ensure customers are able to make healthier fast food choices. In the meantime, relying on the claims is not a good way of making these choices.
The paper reflects a recent wave of evidence supporting a revision of guidelines around dietary fat, including in Australia.
What are dietary fats?
Fats – more correctly referred to as fatty acids – are a major dietary source of energy, along with carbohydrate and protein. Fats can be saturated or unsaturated, terms that refer to the makeup and structure of the fat molecules.
Polyunsaturated fatty acids include the groups of omega-6 and omega-3 fats. The omega-6 linoleic acid and omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid are called essential fats, as humans cannot produce them: we need to obtain these from dietary sources.
Major sources of omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids are seeds that are used abundantly in vegetable oils like safflower and sunflower oil. These oils are commonly used to make margarines. Processed foods such as cakes, biscuits, burgers, pizza and chips are therefore high in omega-6.
There is good evidence for the health benefits of monounsaturated fatty acids: these are found in olive oil, macadamia oil, avocado, and selected nuts like almonds and peanuts.
Excess amounts of saturated fatty acids in the diet have been associated with increased risk of clogged arteries and heart disease (although this is complicated and may depend on their source). Saturated fatty acids come primarily from red meat and processed foods, but dairy products, coconut and palm oil also contain them.
Highly processed food also contains trans fatty acids which occur as a result of the hydrogenation of vegetable oils for margarine, commercial cooking and manufacturing. This process alters the structure of the fat, and these are associated with increased risk of heart disease.
How do fats contribute to our health?
Apart from contributing energy that our bodies need to work properly, fats have numerous important health benefits including healthy skin and hair, absorbing fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K), and insulation to keep us warm.
Omega-3 and omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids are important for brain development. Docosahexaenoic acid is particularly concentrated in our brains, where it has multiple important roles in healthy brain function, cognition and mental health.
Furthermore, omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids produce important chemicals that reduce inflammation and blood clotting, and improve blood vessel dilation. Conversely, omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids promote inflammation, clotting and constriction of blood vessels.
A diet low in omega-3 and rich in omega-6 can therefore create a range of problems, including chronic inflammation and poor blood flow. These changes are associated with chronic diseases such as obesity, heart disease, stroke, mental illness and dementia.
What sorts of fats do Australians eat?
In traditional societies, humans consumed a ratio of roughly 2-1:1 of omega-6 to omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. This came about due to diets rich in fish, plant foods and free grazing animals, and eggs from chickens that ate plants high in omega-3 fats.
In industrialised regions such as Europe and the United States, the dietary ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is very different, being closer to 16:1. In Australia it is estimated to be 8:1.
Therefore Australians are not meeting recommended guidelines for omega-3 intake, eating high levels of processed and takeaway foods, a lot of fatty red meat and not enough fish or vegetables.
This diet is associated with high levels of obesity and chronic disease in adult Australians.
It is the responsibility of the governments and international organisations to establish nutrition policies based on science and not continue along the same path of focusing exclusively on calories and energy expenditure, which have failed miserably over the past 30 years.
Confusion around dietary fat: low-fat diets
Since the 1960s there has been a focus on low-fat diets to improve health. However recently recovered documents implicate a role for sugar industry fraud in this focus. A sponsored program of research cast doubt on links between sugar and heart disease, and pointed the finger at fat instead.
There is now increasing high quality evidence that a Mediterranean-style diet high in monounsaturated fat from extra virgin olive oil is superior to a low-fat diet in preventing heart disease and reversing fatty liver, which is associated with metabolic syndrome and risk of type 2 diabetes.
Not only that, but a high fat Mediterranean diet is superior to a low-fat diet for weight loss, and particularly for long term maintenance of weight loss.
This may be at least partly because all calories are not equal: processed foods are thought to provide energy in a form that is more accessible to our bodies compared with raw or unrefined foods.
Fat is also more satiating, which may explain why a Mediterranean-style diet is more sustainable. Extra virgin olive oil is not only highly palatable, but its antioxidant properties have been associated with weight loss.
Confusion around dietary fat: polyunsaturated fatty acids
Guidelines in America and Australia recommend replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat. In practice, this translates to recommending vegetable oils and margarines instead of butter, and thus replacing saturated fat with omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Little heed is paid to dietary content of omega-3 in this approach.
However, omega-3 and omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids are not the same. Recently uncovered data from a study conducted in Sydney in the 1960s showed that margarine containing linoleic acid (omega-6 fat) was associated with increased risk of early death.
When data across a range of studies investigating polyunsaturated fats and heart disease were re-analysed, study outcomes changed when omega-3 and omega-6 were separated rather than treated as a single factor. When separated, omega-6 was found to be a risk factor for mortality, while omega-3 was protective.
Australian dietary guidelines continue to recommend low-fat diets, polyunsaturated fats in place of saturated fats (without segregating omega-6 and omega-3), and no longer specifically recommend omega-3s for preventing heart disease.
Encouragingly, the recent Nutrition Australia food pyramid has incorporated some significant changes reflecting evidence around the health benefits of a Mediterranean-style diet.
These changes include the placement of vegetables, fruit and legumes at the base of the pyramid, indicating the importance of high intake of plant foods, and extra virgin olive oil is depicted as a healthy fat.
True for almost all situations in life, being proactive is best. And this has been a formative lesson in my time so far: whether reaching out to a potential mentor that inspired me and making time for a coffee and a chat, or walking to work to beat any future risk of cardiovascular disease, or simply being the first to say sorry after a heated disagreement with a good friend. Taking initiative, rather than accepting an outcome. A general and helpful rule in most situations is to be proactive.
But maybe not always.
When it comes to food and our food systems, I have written a lot about the challenges we face and the global double burden of malnutrition that sees a food system and approach to food that results in 1.9 billion people going to bed overweight or obese each night, while almost 800 million wake up hungry.
In children, 42 million under five years are now overweight or obese – across rich and poor countries alike. As our food systems globalise and commodify, food is now a leading driver of climate-related greenhouse gasses, while we waste one in three mouthfuls from plates across the planet.
These challenges are big, and while being proactive in solving them is key – maybe some solutions also lie in being reactive. Maybe it’s not just about innovation from nothing, but taking a moment to realise and react to what’s already there. And capitalise on it.
Here are three simple ways being REACTIVE might be proactive for food, for health and for our wallets.
1. React to the season
Learning and appreciating what grows when in the year is not that simple. Is broccoli a summer veg, or winter? Do we pick tomatoes in June, or January? Sounds like a discussion for the elite, but it’s actually an important conversation for us all.
Reacting to the sights and smells of your supermarket, market or store and buying in season can be better for you, better for the planet and best for your hip pocket.
When you’re next buying groceries, stick to a simple rule. Go for what looks fresh, has less packaging and, above all, is cheap. Food that is in season uses less energy and costs less to store and often looks and tastes best too. It needs less packaging to preserve it and buying when there is an abundance means supply is up and often, prices are down.
A shopping list is great for reducing waste and limiting unnecessary purchases, but being flexible to buy what the seasons offer can have big rewards.
Another great reminder is to refer to a season’s chart relevant to your local area.
2. React to your pantry and its contents
Many great things have come with the rise in reality cooking shows, celebrity chefs and complex recipe books. People are fascinated by food again and in some cases, even getting back in the kitchen.
We snapchat our lunch and instagram breakfast. But one serious downside is that with long and complicated recipes often requiring a specialised trip to the store, we lose the important ability to cook reactively.
With a pantry full of seasonal (fresher and cheaper) produce, the next step is to react to your pantry’s contents – not to a complex recipe book. Start simple with recipes of two or three ingredients. Learn some basics and go from there – but start and build the recipe based on what you have and not what you need.
The outcome is food that is uncomplicated, takes less time and effort to create, is less stressful to cook and costs a lot less to plate. It also means we don’t fill our pantries with half-empty packets of once-off ingredients; and with most food-waste in high-income countries occurring after market, including in our homes, this means we might waste less too.
3. React to your body, and your appetite
Finally, two important parts of the nutrition challenge fuelling our obesity epidemics worldwide are the rise and rise in portion sizes – particularly in junk food – and the rapid expansion of processed snack foods including sugary drinks.
With a pantry full of foods that react to the season, and recipes that react to what you have at home and not what your recipe prescribes, the final step could be to react to ourselves.
Eating slower and eating with others have both been associated with eating less and eating more healthily. In other words, by giving our bodies time to feel full and dining with attention on our food, and our bodies, we give ourselves the chance to stop when we want, and not overconsume.
Eating smaller serves on smaller plates, but coming back for seconds as needed, is also associated with healthier portions and a healthier us.
Reactive is proactive
When it comes to addressing our broken food system with progressive pricing on junk foods, or better supporting school breakfast programmes, or limiting harmful advertising of unhealthy foods aimed at our kids, there is no question.
We must be proactive.
This is also not to put blame on any individual or suggest that ill health is a choice, forgetting the obesogenic environment and deeply broken food system many of us live with.
But from time to time, maybe there are some simple things that many of us can do – and react to – that can make health a little more likely.
When it comes to food, maybe “reactive” is also sometimes proactive.
Love food, health or just hanging out with friends? To celebrate the role food plays in directly and indirectly solving many of our great health challenges, this month the team from NCDFREE have launched a new global campaign. Entitled Feast of Ideas, the concept is for proactive people in all countries to host a meal with friends (be it in a cafe, a park, or at home), over which you discuss topics and challenges proposed by the NCDFREE team and their network. NCDFREE even includes recipes, a shopping list and a step-by-step “how to” guide. Crowdsourcing solutions worldwide and with 200 dinners registered, and counting, you then feed the health solutions from your dinner discussions back to NCDFREE via social media, using #FeastOfIdeas. It is free to take part and running throughout the month of October. Sign up today at ncdfree.org/campaign
Connect with Sandro on Twitter (@sandrodemaio) to comment or share.
The 2016 CSIRO Healthy Diet Score report, released today, canvassed the dietary habits of more than 86,500 adults across the country over a 12-month period.
An early snapshot of the survey results released in August 2015 awarded the nation’s diet a score of 61 on a 100-point scale.
With almost 47,000 additional surveys completed since then that figure now stands at just 59 out of 100, confirming that Australian diets are worse than first thought.
“We have an image of being fit and healthy, but with a collective diet score of 59/100 that image could be very different unless we act now,” CSIRO Research Director and co-author of the CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet, Professor Manny Noakes said.
According to the 2016 Healthy Diet Score, 80 per cent of respondents received an individual score below 70, which is a benchmark figure.
“If we can raise our collective score by just over 10 points, we help Australia mitigate against the growing rates of obesity and lifestyle diseases such as heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and a third of all cancers, Professor Noakes said.
“All people need to do is halve the bad and double the good. In other words, halve the amount of discretionary food you eat and double your vegetable intake.”
People across Australia, in all occupations and age groups were invited to participate in the online survey between May 2015 and June 2016.
CSIRO researchers have used this information to create a detailed picture of the country’s eating habits.
The closest we get to meeting Australian Dietary Guidelines is the fruit food group where 49 per cent of respondents meet the recommended intake.
That means one in two of us still have room to improve.
But of greater concern is dietary performance in regard to discretionary, or junk foods.
Just 1 per cent of Australians are abstaining from junk food, while more than one third admitted to eating more than the recommended maximum allowance.
“We find that there is often a tendency to under-report on certain types of food, so in all likelihood that figure is even higher,” Professor Noakes said.
The report showed that women have better nutritional levels than men (60 v 56/100).
Construction workers were among those with the poorest diets, while public servants, real estate agents and health industry workers reported some of the healthiest eating patterns.
The 2016 CSIRO Healthy Diet Score also tracked food avoidance in diets for the first time, and found that approximately one in three Australian adults are avoiding one or more foods such as gluten, dairy or meat.
To get involved CSIRO is asking people to undertake The Healthy Diet Score – a free online assessment which evaluates diet quality and identifies individual areas of improvement, as well as providing a personal diet score out of 100.
“It is never too late to eat better and increase your score, and the nation’s,” Professor Noakes said.
“We encourage people to also take the test regularly to ensure they are improving their eating behaviour and overall health and wellbeing.”
A friend reckons he has it good. His partner cooks a bacon-hash-brown-fry-up for breakfast every day. “Are you sure?” I said. “Cause that’s exactly what I would feed my partner if I wanted to bump him off!”
It is easy to fall into the trap of giving people you love lots of ultra-processed, high-kilojoule, nutrient-poor foods because they like them. But immediate pleasure comes at a cost.
When the food your loved ones eat is of poor nutritional quality, their odds of developing tooth decay, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some cancers increase. Is that what you really want for them?
Why shouldn’t you feed them bacon?
Processed meats are preserved by curing, salting, smoking or adding preservatives. They include bacon, ham, salami, chorizo, luncheon meats and some sausages.
Swap your breakfast bacon for a poached egg and grilled tomato on wholegrain bread. Swap chopped bacon in recipes for an onion browned with garlic and a tablespoon of sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds or nuts to add flavour, crunch and nutrients.
Support those you love to cut back their alcohol intake.
Tough love rules
It takes some tough love to serve up what’s “good” for your family members, especially when it is not their favourite.
My child came home from school declaring “You don’t know what it’s like to be the only one without potato chips in your lunch box.” My response? “That must be hard, but you do not know how tough it is being a parent who loves you sooo much that I can’t put chips in your lunchbox.”
These nutrition tips will help get you started at home:
Make food rules. Parents without rules about things such as not skipping breakfast or eating in front of TV have adolescents with worse food habits than those with rules. A supportive home environment for nutrition means kids do eat better.
Never give up encouraging your loved ones to eat more, and a bigger variety, of vegetables and fruit. People who increase their intake of vegetables and fruit also report increased life satisfaction, happiness and well-being.
Show them which foods belong to the basic foods groups and which do not. Young children find it easy to recognise foods packed with essential nutrients, but harder to identify energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods or junk foods. Discretionary foods make up more than one-third (35%) of what Australians eat, compared to the recommended maximum of 15%. Most people need to cut their “discretionary foods” by more than half.
Plan meals and snacks ahead of time. Base them around the five nutrient-rich core foods: vegetables, fruits, wholegrains, lean sources of protein (fish, chicken, meat, eggs, tofu, nuts, seeds, legumes, dried beans and lentils) and dairy products such as yoghurt, cheese and milk. Prepare school and work lunches the night before and refrigerate them.
Try healthy fast food cooked at home. Instead of ordering in, spread a pizza base with tomato paste and top it with grated carrot and zucchini or other vegetables, some cooked chicken, meat or four-bean mix and grated cheese. Bake until crispy and serve with salad. People who cook more have healthier eating habits, better nutrient intakes and spend less money on take-aways.
Time you spend planning, cooking and getting nutrient-rich food into your loved ones helps them feel better, perform better at school and work, and improves well-being.
Acting Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce has dismissed a Liberal backbencher’s suggestion that a sugar tax should be considered as a means to tackle child obesity.
As the Australian reports, on Monday Victorian MP Russell Broadbent told Parliament a 20 per cent tax on all manufacturers and importers of soft drinks would provide the Government with much needed funds to fight the increased incidence of obesity among children.
However, Joyce (pictured) ruled the proposal of hand, saying such a move would devastate the sugar industry.
“We believe that the sugar industry is an incredibly strong industry, especially for the development of north Queensland,” he said
“I’m always reticent to believe that a tax is a cure for anything.”
As the AFR reports, Nationals MP for Capricornia in North Queensland Michelle Landry, agreed with Joyce and claimed a sugar tax would leave many workers from her electorate, which has two sugar mills, out of work.
However, Landry added that food makers could be put under more scrutiny regarding the amount of sugar they use.
“These manufacturers when they make food they do put a lot of sugar into things, and perhaps they should start being more careful about what ingredients they’ll put into things because there’s a lot of sugar,” she said.
Many Australian toddlers are consuming their recommended daily salt intake in just one sitting, an examination of supermarket toddler meals has found. Salty foods accustom the tastebuds to salt and excess sodium intake from salt is linked to high blood pressure and increased risk of stroke and heart attacks in adulthood.
A range of prepared toddler meals investigated by nutritionist Dr Rosemary Stanton and advocacy group Parents’ Voice, have failed the Food Detectives’ test with products found to contain too much sodium for young children.
Dr Stanton questioned the use of added salt in Only Organic Vegetable Macaroni Cheese (pictured), Only Organic Beef Bolognese Pasta and Heinz Little Kids Ravioli Bolognaise.
“Latest health advice discourages parents from adding salt when they’re cooking at home for toddlers. Adding salt to products marketed to children is unwise and unnecessary.”
Dr Stanton was also concerned with the sodium content in foods marketed for toddlers such as Only Organic Vegetable Macaroni Cheese (273mg), Annabel Karmel Cheeky Chicken & Pumpkin Risotto (230mg) Heinz Little Kids Ravioli Bolognaise (220mg) and Annabel Karmel Beautiful Bolognese Pasta Bake (202mg) per serve
“The Nutrient Reference Value for sodium consumption for Australian children aged 1 to 3 years is 200-400mg per day. It would be hard for parents to keep their children’s sodium consumption to recommended levels if these types of products are consumed regularly.
“These meals are not difficult to prepare and could feature as regular family meals. The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend that by the age of 12 months, toddlers should be consuming a wide variety of nutritious food as enjoyed by the rest of the family. It is not a good idea to encourage parents/carers, or children themselves, to consume food that’s different to the family’s normal diet. This can result in the development of poor eating habits.”
Another concerning addition was the use of apple juice concentrate and apple juice in the Annabel Karmel meals examined. “These add sugar and accustom young palates to a sweeter taste, but won’t add any significant nutrient content,” Dr Stanton added.
Alice Pryor, Campaigns Manager for Parents’ Voice is concerned that the availability of these products, which are not healthier choices, will reinforce the message that toddlers need special food.
“Parents want to give their children the best start to life, and these products lead parents to believe they are healthy and nutritional meals for their children when many of them are actual laden with hidden salt and sugar. In particular, both Annabel Karmel meals proudly proclaim ‘low in sodium’ on the front of the pack, a claim we think is misleading.
“Most parents of toddlers would struggle to find time in the supermarket to read and compare the small print on the backs of these products. Parents’ Voice is calling on Only Organic, Heinz, and Annabel Karmel to reformulate these products and ensure that their marketing claims are more closely matched to the reality.”
Australians are being urged to be wary of foods which claim to be ‘natural’ with new research showing that almost 5 in 10 ‘natural’ products are high in saturated fat, sugar and/or salt.
LiveLighter analysed the nutritional quality of 331 supermarket foods with the words ‘natural’ or ‘nature’ on the packaging and found that 154 (47%) were not a core part of a healthy diet, as recommended by the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating.
Despite this, more than three in five Australian adults said they were more likely to buy food or drinks described as ‘natural’ .
LiveLighter Victoria Campaign Manager and Accredited Practicing Dietitian Alison McAleese warned that natural doesn’t always equal healthy.
“Just because something says it’s natural, doesn’t mean it’s good for you,” Ms McAleese said.
“The word natural can be very hard to define and in Australia there are no clear guidelines for its use on food and drink products, leaving manufacturers free to use the word in a way consumers might not expect.”
Of the 97 ‘natural’ foods found in the snack food aisles, almost 9 in 10 were found to be unhealthy and should not regularly be part of a healthy diet.
“We found that ‘natural’ is most commonly used on products like snack bars, muesli bars, chips, lollies, crackers and biscuits located in the snack food aisles of the supermarket,” Ms McAleese said.
“Unfortunately, the majority of these items are high in saturated fat, sugar and/or salt and should not be eaten on a regular basis.”
Some brands use the words natural or nature in a product name or to describe a product, such as Heinz Organic Tomato Ketchup with ‘natural’ ingredients and Ajitas Vege Chips ‘Natural’ flavour, while others go as far as to feature ‘natural’ in their company name, for example the Natural Chip Company and The Natural Confectionery Co.
Heart Foundation Victoria Healthy Living Manager Roni Beauchamp said if you’re looking for a snack that is truly natural and good for you, steer clear of the products in the snack aisles entirely.
“Stick to the outer aisles of the supermarket where you’ll find an abundance of nutritious foods to snack on, like seasonal fruit, vegetables like celery and carrots which you can cut up and enjoy with hummus or ricotta cheese and reduced-fat plain or Greek yoghurt,” Ms Beauchamp said.
“Also consider doing your food shopping at greengrocers, markets, butchers and fish mongers, where you are more likely to be presented with less processed, healthier options.”
Which types of food and drink products carried natural claims?
47 per cent of natural claims were found on discretionary foods (foods high in saturated fat, salt and/or added sugar) – including snack bars and muesli bars, chips, crackers, biscuits and lollies.
21 per cent were found on dairy products – including yoghurt, milk and cheese.
16 per cent were on meat and alternatives – including fish, eggs, nuts and legumes.
10 per cent were on grain foods – including breakfast cereals, quinoa and bread.
5 per cent were on fruit.
2 per cent were on water.
1 per cent were on vegetables – including legumes and beans.
The headline image of the University of Melbourne’s Facebook link to its press release about recent research on Bisphenol A (BPA) is of a takeaway coffee cup. The kind that does not have any BPA in it at all . The headline “Obesity Link to BPA” directly below the image of the cup is guaranteed to cause unwarranted consternation in consumers of our favourite takeaway beverage which I’m sure the researchers did not intend.
Bisphenol A (BPA) is one of the most recognizable chemicals to the general public. A component of some kinds of hard plastics, plastic liners for tins (but not paper cups) and certain kinds of thermal paper, it has generated quite a lot of concern as BPA is a mimic of the hormone estrogen.
However, it is a very weak mimic of estrogen (and some other hormones). BPA is typically 10,000 to 100,000 times weaker than estrogen (see for example here). BPA may also act through some other pathways, but again it is not very strong. Studies of our exposure to BPA have consistently shown that we have a safety margin of about 100-1000 fold between the threshold for BPA to produce biological effects and the levels in our bodies.
Still, we are not cavalier about BPA’s presence in our environment and studies continuously reevaluate BPA’s potential for harm, which is where this latest study from the University of Melbourne comes in.
So what did the researchers do?
They took cow embryos and placed them in tissue culture conditions. They then exposed them for four days to either BPA at 1 or 10 nanogram per millilitre of tissue culture solution (1ng/mL) or estrogen at 1 or 10 ng/mL . To make sure that BPA was working through estrogen receptors they also exposed some of the embryos to a combination of BPA and a specific blocker of estrogen receptors.
What did they find?
Both 10 ng/mL BPA and estrogen reduced the number of 8 cell embryos that progressed to blastocysts by around 7% (1 ng/ml of BPA and estrogen had no significant effect). Roughly 10% fewer of the 10 ng/mL treated blastocysts were of implantation quality.
What about obesity where does that fit in?
In embryos treated 10 ng/mL of either BPA or estrogen, there was a roughly 50% increase in glucose uptake and lactate production. This increase was prevented by the selective estrogen receptor blocker (the 1 ng/mL concentration of BPA had no effect).
While there is no direct evidence that increased glucose uptake and utilisation in the embryo will cause obesity later in life, it is at least plausible that this could somehow predispose organisms to obesity later in life.
So should we be worried?
Not really, as well as the link being weak, there are two key issues which means that the relevance to humans is limited.
One is that the concentrations used in the study are very unlikely to be achieved in the human body under normal conditions. 10 ng/mL is a really tiny quantity, and it is hard to visualise this , but the quantities in the human body are even smaller, on the order of picograms/mL (that is a thousand times less).
Measuring the levels of BPA in blood and biological fluid accurately is very difficult. BPA is very rapidly metabolised, most of BPA in the circulation is inactive metabolites. Not only do the low levels stretch the limits of our measuring devices, but BPA present in the plastics that are used to draw and store blood and other biological fluids can contaminate these fluids, giving spuriously high readings.
Very careful measurements and studies using BPA where the hydrogen atoms have been replaced with a heavier isotope of hydrogen (deuterium) have shown that levels of BPA in blood (and hence other body fluids) are well below the 1ng/mL concentration that had no effect in this study (see also here). This is backed up by back calculation from measurement of urinary excretion of BPA and its metabolites.
Another check is calculation of intake from foods and the environment. These show that intake of BPA is 100 to 1000 times less than the new, temporary European Food Safety tolerably daily intake of 4 micrograms per kilogram body weight (which is 1,000 times lower than the lowest levels that show no effect in animal studies).
Recent studies of food exposure from Australian foods showed very low intake levels (with the new limits, you only need to consume 10 cans of soup a day of the soups with the highest BPA content to reach the tolerably daily intake).
So, altogether the evidence is that human levels of BPA are well below the levels that produce these metabolic effects in these cow embryos.
Another issue is the response to BPA. Remember how I said that BPA is 10,000-100,000 times weaker than estrogen? This has been shown in numerous receptor and functional studies, including studies on human estrogen receptors. In the current cow embryo studies BPA and estrogen were approximately equally effective, and the blocker study confirmed that the effect of BPA was through the estrogen receptor, not some novel mechanism (as in this study).
This implies that cow embryo estrogen receptors are different to human receptors and that any extrapolation to humans must be made very carefully.
The take home message?
Don’t panic over BPA and obesity. You are very unlikely to reach the bodily levels of BPA that will cause disruption of glucose metabolism in early embryos. Of course, as I have said before, the best way to reduce BPA intake is to eat fresh, rather than pre-prepared foods, especially fresh fruit and vegetables as Australians in general do not eat enough fresh fruit an vegetables (and eat too many calories, and don’t exercise enough).
Another take home message is to make sure the containers you use to illustrate your press release actually do have BPA in them. You may be consuming too many calories from the milk and sugar in your takeaway coffee, but BPA? No.
 I can’t link directly to the Facebook advertisement. The main illustration on the University of Melbourne press release webpage is cans of soft drink, these do not measurably contribute to BPA intake. It also has the takeaway coffee cup, which is lined with polyethylene, not BPA containing plastic.
 A milligram will cover the head of a pin, a microgram would be a single speck on the head of a pin, you would need a microscope to see a nanogram. In contrast, a teaspoon full of sugar is around 4 grams, one teaspoon in a 250 mL coffee will result in 20 milligrams per millilitre (mg/mL) coffee. Now dilute that a million times and you will get 20 ng/mL.
In the final month of the countdown to the Olympic Games, our sports stars are probably not eating and drinking the Games sponsors’ foods. Again, as in previous Olympics, the Olympic Games sponsors are Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Cadburys, whose foods and drinks are not good choices for athletes due to their lack of nutrition and high levels of salt, sugar and saturated fats.
Unhealthy sponsorship of sport filters all the way down through sport from the elite level to Saturday morning kids’ clubs.
New research released by Cancer Council NSW has revealed eight out of nine food and beverage sponsors of children’s sports development programs in Australia are classified as unhealthy. Brands including McDonald’s, Schweppes, Gatorade and Nutrigrain are all competing for brand exposure in kids’ sport.
Junior development programs are modified versions of popular adult sports, designed to increase children’s participation in sports and encourage more children to be active. Beyond just providing physical activity, these programs should promote healthy behaviours, instead of undermining the healthy lifestyle the programs aim to promote.
Besides logo placement on website homepages, we found sponsorship gave companies naming rights to the development program (such as Nippy’s Spikezone – Nippy’s is a brand of flavoured beverages and Spikezone is kids’ volleyball), branded participant packs (such as Milo in2cricket and McDonald’s for Platypus Lagoon swimming) and branded equipment (McDonald’s for junior cricket and basketball).
While the study was done in 2015, this year the sponsorship landscape for children’s sports looks just as unhealthy. At the time of the study McDonald’s was sponsoring three separate junior sports programs across the country.
In 2016, while no longer a sponsor of Little Athletics nationally, McDonald’s is still involved in Little Athletics across five states, provides branded sports equipment to junior basketball and cricket, provides participant packs and sponsors swimming in Queensland and is a naming rights partner for the South Australian National Football League junior development program.
Schweppes, Gatorade and a local confectionery company are among state Little Athletics sponsors. Surf-lifesaving sponsors include Schweppes and Nutrigrain.
Our study follows on from a 2015 study that looked at sponsors on websites of state and national adult sports and found 10% of sponsors on adult sports sites were unhealthy. The 2015 study found only 14 of 53 different sports organisations in Australia didn’t have “unhealthy” sponsors.
The influence of advertising on children
Children are a major target market for advertising, as they influence their parents’ spending, have their own independent spending habits and have the potential to become brand-loyal and life-long customers.
Sponsorship of development programs offers companies another avenue to expose children to their brand and foster a connection between children and their brand.
An Australian study of five- to 12-year-olds found they associated team sports with the products and messages promoted via the sports’ sponsors.
Sponsorship and branding within sports can influence product recall and enhance children’s attitudes towards that sponsor. Interviews of 10- to 14-year-olds found they think of food and drink companies that sponsor their club and favourite team as “cool”. They even said they’d like to return the favour to these sponsors by buying their products.
Reducing the impact of unhealthy food marketing on children
In recent years we have seen the closure of the National Preventive Health Agency. The agency was set up to drive preventive health policy and programs focusing on obesity, tobacco and harmful alcohol consumption.
One consequence has been the withdrawal of funding to sporting organisations that allowed them to have alcohol-free sponsorship. Some reports suggest these funding cuts have pushed sports to rely again on alcohol sponsorship in the absence of other public funding.
The good news is many sponsors of children’s sports development programs are not food or drink sponsors. It is encouraging that only 11 out of 246 sponsors were food, drink, alcohol or gambling companies. This indicates that many sports are able to seek alternative sponsors. Other major sponsors of kids’ sports development programs included airlines and banks.
The World Health Organisation has made recommendations to reduce children’s exposure to and the power of marketing of foods high in fat, added sugars or salt, including marketing in children’s settings.
Currently, there is no Australian regulation that limits or restricts the type of companies allowed to sponsor children’s sport. Sponsorship of children’s sport should be included in food marketing regulation to reduce the impact unhealthy food marketing has on children.
In the absence of regulation, these companies should exercise responsible marketing practices and withdraw from sports sponsorship so sports consistently promotes healthy messages to those participating and watching.
Wendy Watson, Senior Nutrition Project Officer, Cancer Council NSW, and Clare Hughes, Nutrition Program Manager, Cancer Council NSW, contributed to this article.
The report card is in. The results are not good. Almost three in four Australian children consume too much sugar, 91.5% of young people do not meet physical activity recommendations, and Australians are among the most obese people in the world.
Today we released Australia’s Health Tracker. It shows how Australia’s health is tracking in terms of preventable chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease, and their most common risk factors.
Unhealthy lifestyles during childhood lead to chronic diseases later in life. So it’s concerning that one in four Australian children are overweight or obese. More than 70% don’t meet physical activity recommendations. And junk food contributes too much (39.4% on average) to their daily energy requirements.
To keep children healthy, Australia has national recommendations that those aged five to 17 do at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day.
Junk foods (high in kilojoules, saturated fat, added sugars and salt) should be eaten only sometimes and in small amounts. International guidelines recommend that added sugar should make up a maximum of 10% of energy consumed.
For young people, the proportion aged 12-17 who smoke daily is relatively low (1.2%). But that increases to 4% of 15- to 17-year-olds.
As well, around 6% of young people binge drink. The most recent data show slightly higher numbers of women attending emergency departments for alcohol-related presentations than in the past (7.5 per 1,000, up from 6.7 per 1,000).
On average, Australian adults consume 62% above the recommended daily intake of salt. High salt consumption contributes to the development of high blood pressure and is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke.
Unsurprisingly then, Australia’s Health Tracker shows that more than four million adults have high blood pressure and one in three have high cholesterol.
As a nation, we’re not on track to reach the 2025 adult targets relevant to mental health, obesity, diabetes and blood pressure.
The good news is that public health efforts to reduce risky alcohol consumption and smoking in adults are working.
And Australians are heeding advice to participate in screening programs for breast and bowel cancers. We are well on track to meet our target of 41% of Australians participating in bowel cancer screening (currently 36%) and 54% of women participating in breast cancer screening (currently 53.7%).
What about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders?
Indigenous children and young people are more active than their non-Indigenous peers; 59.5% of children and 34.8% of young people meet the physical activity recommendations. However, Indigenous people aged 15-17 years are 4.5 times more likely to smoke daily than non-Indigenous young people.
Australia’s Health Tracker shows the urgent need for active and effective public health policies and services to improve the health of all Australians. A national collaboration of health organisations and experts has endorsed the report card and urges all Australian governments to commit to substantial and collaborative investment and action.
Governments have significant opportunities to improve Australians’ health by:
implementing national, standardised salt limits in bread, margarine and cereals;
better regulating food marketing to reduce the consumption of sugar and junk foods;
promoting and supporting physical activity in schools, workplaces and communities to help to get us active;
continuing efforts in tobacco control.
Policies should focus on low-income and Indigenous populations who are at greater risk.
If you’re worried about your risk of chronic disease and want to make changes to your lifestyle, talk to your doctor, or seek out information and help on:
buying and eating healthier foods;
increasing your levels of physical activity;
participating in cancer screening programs;
protecting yourself from the sun;
drinking no more than two standard drinks on any day.
Australians can have a healthier future. Governments can and must do more to provide healthier food and healthier environments, and act early on risks for poor health and chronic disease.
New research challenges the long-standing belief that grains contribute to excess weight, and suggests they are more beneficial than Australians think – for our BMI, our waistlines and our fibre intakes.
An analysis of national ABS data of 9,3411 Australian adults found that eating core grain foods was not linked to the size of your waistline. This is despite 42 per cent of Australians reporting that they limit grain foods to assist with weight loss.
The analysis of the 2011-12 National Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey commissioned by the Grains & Legumes Nutrition Council (GLNC) will be unveiled today at an industry Grains for Health Forum in Sydney, hosted by GLNC.
The data reveals that people who eat six or more serves of core grain foods each day, including bread and pasta, have a similar waistline and Body Mass Index (BMI) as people who restrict their intake of grain foods.
Six serves of core grain foods a day, which is the recommendation for Australian adults aged 19 to 50 years, is as easy as a bowl of high fibre breakfast cereal in the morning, a wholemeal sandwich for lunch and a stir-fry with rice for dinner.
Chris Cashman, GLNC Nutrition Program Manager and Accredited Practising Dietitian, said core grain foods are increasingly being viewed as non-essential due to misconceptions that they make people overweight and have minimum nutritional value.
“Grains don’t deserve the bad rap they often get as a result of fad diet trends,” Mr Cashman said.
“In fact, a recent comprehensive audit of all grains on the shelf has confirmed that the vast majority (95 per cent) of white and wholemeal breads are low in sugar – less than 5g per 100g, which equals about one teaspoon; while 81 per cent of loaf breads are a source of plant-based protein and 88 per cent of breakfast cereals are a source of fibre.”
The 2015-2016 Product Audit4, commissioned by GLNC, involved a systematic analysis of 1,890 grain foods, including bread (253 loaves), breakfast cereals (420), as well as pasta, noodles and rice.
The consumer watchdog is taking action against Heinz for claiming a food which contains 60 per cent sugar is good for toddlers.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has commenced proceedings in the Federal Court against Heinz in relation to its Little Kids Shredz products.
The Shredz products’ packaging features prominent images of fresh fruit and vegetables and statements such as ‘99% fruit and veg’ and ‘Our range of snacks and meals encourages your toddler to independently discover the delicious taste of nutritious food’.
The ACCC alleges that these images and statements represent to consumers that the products are of equivalent nutritional value to fruit and vegetables and are a healthy and nutritious food for children aged one to three years, when this is not the case.
“The ACCC has brought these proceedings because it alleges that Heinz is marketing these products as healthy options for young children when they are not. These products contain over 60 per cent sugar, which is significantly higher than that of natural fruit and vegetables – for example, an apple contains approximately 10 per cent sugar,” ACCC Chairman Rod Sims said.
The ACCC is seeking declarations, injunctions, pecuniary penalties, corrective notices and costs.
The British Government’s recent decision to combat the rising incidence of obesity in the UK by introducing a 20 per cent tax on sugary drinks has stimulated debate about whether a similar tax should be introduced in Australia. Hartley Henderson investigates.
But is a tax an appropriate way to address the issue of overweight and obesity in Australia? Or is more education and better labelling needed, and should more be done by the beverage industry sector to reduce the amount of sugar added to non-alcoholic beverages?
The Obesity Policy Coalition (OPC) points out that in Australia two thirds of adults and one quarter of children are overweight or obese, that sugary drinks are a major contributor to this, and that they are a risk factor for overweight and obesity, which can increase the risk of many common diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.
According to the OPC’s Executive Manager, Jane Martin, the introduction of a levy of 20 percent on the retail price of sugary drinks is recommended by the World Health Organisation as a key policy to address overweight and obesity, particularly in children.
“Added sugar is a key contributor to overweight and obesity and sugary drinks are by far the largest contributor of added sugar in Australian diets,” she told Food & Beverage Industry News.
“Increasing the price of sugary drinks in Australia has the potential to reduce consumption by around 12 percent, putting downward pressure on weight gain and thereby preventing disease and premature death.
“While education around a healthy diet is important, a single intervention in isolation cannot be expected to have a substantial effect on overweight and obesity rates. That is why it is important to have a national healthy weight strategy which includes a range of elements to support healthy eating.
“This should align with recommendations from the World Health Organisation including a tax on sugary drinks, tough restrictions on the marketing of unhealthy food to children, making healthier food available in settings such as hospitals, as well as supporting the widespread adoption of clear food and drink labelling to support healthier choices. This will work to help make the healthy choice the easy choice for Australians.”
Martin believes the nutrition information panel on sugary drinks can be difficult for people to understand and interpret.
“Some health advocates have suggested that icons like teaspoons be used to more clearly represent the amount of sugar in products like soft drinks. The public is interested in how much sugar there is in food and drinks, so this could be a way of helping them better understand how much sugar packaged food and drinks contain,” she said.
“Some work has been done around reformulation and we have seen Coca Cola and Pepsi low sugar cola options and smaller can sizes. However, these tend to be more expensive per 100ml and not as widely available or heavily promoted as their high-sugar products.”
Education not enough
Dr Lennert Veerman from the University of Queensland’s School of Public Health says the current policy of informing people about healthy diets combined with diet and exercise interventions for people with overweight or obesity has failed to slim Australia down.
“It is time to step up the efforts to combat obesity, and a tax on sugary drinks is one promising way to do this. Sugary drinks add calories but no nutrients, and because they don’t contribute to satiety, those calories are ‘extra’,” he told Food & Beverage Industry News.
“There is strong evidence that links consumption of sugary drinks to weight gain and obesity. We also know from studies in Australia and around the world that as prices go up, consumption goes down. The example of Mexico shows that this is no different for a tax on sugary drinks.
“In sum, the evidence is pretty strong that such a levy on sugary drinks would have a beneficial health impact in Australia. Our own findings suggest, for instance, that a levy that increases the price of sugary drinks by 20 percent is likely to prevent 800 new cases of diabetes per year.”
Lennert believes that educating people about a healthy diet is important but not enough, and that it is useful to draw a parallel with tobacco policy.
“Telling people to stop smoking was a start, but not very effective. What brought smoking rates down was a combination of information, help lines, smoking restrictions, advertising bans, and taxes. It looks like we are going to need a similar approach with sugary drinks to reduce obesity rates,” he said.
However, Geoff Parker CEO of the Australian Beverages Council claims a soft drinks tax will not solve the obesity problem as soft drinks contribute just 1.7 per cent of the daily intake of kilojoules for Australian adults.
“There is still no evidence globally that soft drink has any impact on obesity rates. In fact, European countries like Denmark have introduced and subsequently repealed a ‘fat tax’ within 18 months due to its blatant ineffectiveness. When introduced in Mexico, the tax only reduced dietary intake by 6 calories,” he told Food & Beverage Industry News.
“Whilst theoretical modelling might point to taxes as a solution, in reality these punitive measures are ineffective, inefficient and unfair for a number of reasons.
“On the other hand, there certainly is a need to increase education. A 2014 national poll of 2,136 Australians found that unequivocally, people saw education programs about a healthy diet and physical activity as the most effective way to address overweight and obesity, and the most supported.
“On a scale of nine options to address the problem, respondents ranked nutritional information on labels (2nd) and vending machines (3rd) as the next most effective and supported options. Those measures to address overweight and obesity viewed as the least effective and least supported were a tax on soft drinks (8th out of 9) and restrictions by government on where parents can give their children soft drinks (9th out of 9).
“The non-alcoholic beverages industry has always been committed to ensuring that consumers are provided with high quality, safe and appropriately labelled products. Launched in 2006, the Daily Intake Guide (DIG) was introduced to ensure the energy (kilojoule) content of our beverages is clearly visible for consumers to compare products at the supermarket shelf and therefore make more informed choices.
“In 2014, the Health Star Rating system was developed by the Australian, state and territory governments in collaboration with industry, public health and consumer groups. The energy-only declaration for beverages as part of the new labelling system is slowly replacing the original DIG which the beverages industry voluntarily introduced in 2006.”
Parker said the industry is continuously developing new low and mid-level sugar-sweetened beverages to offer the consumer alternatives to regular kilojoule beverages.
“The industry is working closely with suppliers of various natural sweeteners to decrease the sugar content without altering the taste. In addition to offering more low sugar alternatives, the industry is also working on decreasing the serving sizes,” he said.
Most food products promoted by music celebrities like Beyonce, Katy Perry or Snoop Dogg are unhealthy, according to a new study.
A study in the July 2016 Pediatrics examines the food industry’s use of music celebrities to endorse sugary soft drinks and nutrient-poor foods through multi-million-dollar campaigns. Results also demonstrated that these celebrities are highly popular among teenage audiences.
The study, “Popular Music Celebrity Endorsements in Food and Non-Alcoholic Beverage Marketing,” assessed 163 celebrities associated with the 2013 and 2014 Billboard Hot 100 chart, and found 65 entertainers who had one or more food and beverage endorsements between 2000 and 2014.
The study, to be released online June 6, also looked at the nutritional value of endorsed products, and found 81 percent were unhealthy, according to the Nutrient Profile Index.
The healthiest product endorsed was pistachios, but no celebrities endorsed fruits, vegetables, or whole grains. Seventy-one percent of the non-alcoholic beverage endorsements were for sugar-sweetened beverages, with only three endorsements for water or a water-related product, such as a filter.
The food and beverage industry spends $2 billion annually on youth-targeted advertisements. Public health experts have expressed concern over the marketing techniques aimed at teens, and have called for messages that encourage consumption of healthy foods and beverages.
Consuming too much energy – whether from fat or carbohydrates, including sugar – will make you gain weight. If left unchecked, this excess weight increases your risk of lifestyle-related diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.
In recognition of this, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends adults and children limit their intake of “free sugars” to less than 10% of their total energy intake. Below 5% is even better and carries additional health benefits.
Free sugars refer to monosaccharides (such as glucose) and disaccharides (sucrose or table sugar) added to foods and drinks by the manufacturer, cook or consumer. It also refers to sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates.
Free sugars are different from sugars found in whole fresh fruits and vegetables. There is no scientific evidence that consuming these sugars leads to health problems. So the guidelines don’t apply to fresh fruit and vegetables.
If you’re an average-sized adult eating and drinking enough to maintain a healthy body weight (roughly 8,700 kilojoules per day), 10% of your total energy intake from free sugar roughly translates to no more than 54 grams, or around 12 teaspoons, per day.
Most sugar we eat (around 75%) comes from processed and pre-packaged foods and drinks. The rest we add to tea, coffee and cereal, and other foods we cook.
Sugary drinks account for the largest proportion of Australians’ free sugar intake. A single can or 600ml bottle of soft drink can easily exceed the WHO recommendation, providing around 40-70g sugar. One teaspoon equates to 4.5g white sugar, so soft drinks range from 8.5 to 15.5 teaspoons.
More insidious sources of sugar are drinks marketed as “healthier” options, such as iced teas, coconut water, juices and smoothies. Some medium-sized smoothies have up to 14 teaspoons of sugar (63.5g) in a 475ml drink.
Flavoured milks are also high in free sugars (11 teaspoons in a 500ml carton) but can be a good source of calcium.
Other foods high in sugar are breakfast cereals. While some sugar is derived from dried fruit, many popular granola mixes add various forms of sugar. Sugar content for one cup of cereal ranges from 12.5g for creamy honey quick oats to 20.5g for granola. A cup of some types of cereal can contain 30% to 50% of your daily free sugar allowance.
A surprise for many is the added sugars in savoury foods including sauces and condiments. Tomato and barbecue sauce, salad dressing and sweet’n’sour stirfry sauces contain one to two teaspoons of sugar in each tablespoon (20ml).
Popular “health foods” and sugar-free recipes can be particularly misleading as they can contain as much sugar as their sweet alternatives. Usually this is referring to “sucrose-free” (what we know as white sugar) and doesn’t exclude the use of other sugar derivatives such as rice malt syrup, agave or maple syrup, typical of popular sugar-free recipes. These are still forms of sugar and contribute to energy intake and unhealthy weight gain when consumed in excess.
We know treats such as chocolate, pastries and ice-cream do contain sugar, but just how much might surprise you. A chocolate-coated icecream will contribute five teaspoons of sugar, or almost half the daily limit.
Sugar added to foods and drink can have different names depending on where it comes from. When reading labels, alternative names for sugar include:
fruit juice concentrate
The main ingredient is sugar if any of these are listed as the first three ingredients.
Note that products with “no added sugar” nutrition claims may still contain high levels of natural sugars, also considered as free sugars. A good example of this is fruit juice: the sugar content of 200ml of sweetened orange juice (21g) is 7g higher than unsweetened juice (14g).
So how can you cut down on your added sugars?
First, eat fewer foods with free sugars. Reduce your intake of sweets such as chocolate and lollies, cakes, biscuits, sugar-sweetened soft drinks, cordials, fruit drinks, vitamin waters and sports drinks.
Second, make some swaps. Swap your cereal for a lower-sugar variety and limit the amount of sugar you add. Drink plain tap water and swap brands for sugar-free or those with lower added sugar. Swap fruit juices for whole fruits, which also give you fibre and other health-promoting nutrients.
Finally, read the labels on packaged food and drink. If the product has more than 15g of sugar per 100g, check to see if sugar is one of the main ingredients. If it is, use the nutrient information panel to compare and choose products containing less sugar.
More than 60% of UK adults are obese and one in five children start school already overweight – rising to around one in three once children hit the ages of 10 and 11.
Obese children become obese adults, and the resulting costs to our healthcare system are substantial. In 2007, the direct cost of obesity to the NHS was calculated at £2.3 billion. This figure is expected to rise to £7.1 billion by 2050.
The consultation is also looking at possibly relaxing the “limits” put on celebrities and characters to sell food to children, to allow healthy foods to be advertised in more “creative ways”.
Alongside this, the Local Government Association in England, which represents more than 370 councils, has recently called for councils to be given the power to ban junk food advertising near schools, nurseries and children’s centres.
Under the current system, if councils wish to restrict food and drink advertising near schools they have to apply to the secretary of state, followed by a period of consultation before a decision is reached. This seems ridiculous and burdensome, given the impact we know food and drink advertising has on children’s health – councils need to be able to act with more urgency.
Shaping the future
Children in the UK today are natives of a so called “obesogenic” or “obesity-promoting” environment. This term describes the outcome of a food system that is producing increasing quantities of processed, affordable and effectively marketed food. Simply put, if there is more food, we eat more food – particularly when those foods are persuasively marketed.
Children are very important targets for marketers. They have independent spending power – average weekly pocket money in the UK is now said to be £6.20 and this figure is rising twice as fast as parents’ wages. Children also have influence over family purchases – no parent wants to be the one with a screaming child in the supermarket to contend with. Those children are the teenage and adult shoppers of the future – and any brand loyalty fostered now could reward the food company with a lifetime of sales.
A recent UK study also found that greater exposure to takeaway food outlets – across community, work and commuting environments – was associated with greater consumption of takeaway food, increased body mass index and a higher likelihood of obesity.
Arguably, obesity is a normal human response to the “obesogenic” environment in which we live today. It makes sense that if we live in a society which is “producing more processed, affordable, and effectively marketed food”, people are going to end up eating more of the types of food that are being marketed directly to them – but we can do something about this.
The advertising of unhealthy foods to children on TV was restricted in 2007 and may be limited further in the childhood obesity strategy – the health committee’s inquiry into what the Government’s policy priorities should be for addressing childhood obesity. Plus this latest consultation by the Committee of Advertising Practice could look to change the way unhealthy foods are advertised to children beyond TV.
Food can be an extremely effective tool for calming young children. If they are bored on a long car journey, or fed up with being in the pushchair, many parents use snack foods to distract them for a little longer. Or if children are upset because they have hurt themselves or want something they cannot have, the offer of something sweet is often used to “make them feel better”.
But what are the effects of using food as a tool to deal with emotions like boredom or sadness? Does it turn children into adults who cannot cope with being bored or upset without a sweet snack? Probably not. There certainly isn’t any evidence to suggest that occasionally resorting to the biscuit tin will affect children in this way. But what if we do it on a regular basis? What happens when sweets and biscuits become the tool for rewarding children for good behaviour and doing well? Or if food is consistently withheld as a punishment?
There is a growing body of evidence which suggests that using food as a tool or as a reward regularly with children may be associated with a greater risk of emotional eating. In a recent study we explored whether children as young as three preferred to play with toys or eat snack foods if they were feeling stressed.
All the children had just eaten lunch so were not hungry, and were then observed to see what they did in a four minute period – eat or play with toys – whilst waiting for someone to look for a missing final piece of a jigsaw. Children aged three to five did not tend to eat much more in comparison to a control group. However, in a similar experiment when the children were two years older, we found many of the children would eat foods when they were not hungry (emotional overeating), rather than play.
It appears that somewhere between the ages of four and six, the tendency to emotionally overeat may increase in many children. And parents who told us they frequently used food as a reward (or its withdrawal as a punishment) when their children were younger, were more likely to have children who emotionally overate when they were aged five to seven. This suggests that frequent use of food as a reward or punishment in that younger period may predict a greater chance of children using food as an emotional tool later in life.
Of course you may be thinking that your own exposure to “reward” foods hasn’t had any lasting impact on your current eating behaviour. But it is worth considering how society has changed in the last few decades to market and promote high calorie foods to children. Many people believe we live in an “obesogenic society”, where our environment has evolved to promote obesity rather than support healthy eating. The fact that around a third of English school children are overweight or obese is testament to this. With grab-bag sized bags of chocolates being promoted to children, supersized portions in fast-food outlets and even clothes shops selling sweets at children’s eye level in queues, it is clear our children need to adapt to cope with constantly being marketed large portions of high calorie foods.
So how can we navigate this complex environment, juggling the balance of making food enjoyable and sociable, whilst helping children to achieve a healthy and balanced diet? Sweet foods are a fun part of life and not necessarily something we want to remove. Even if we eliminated all links between food, emotion and reward in the home, the reality is that society is full of situations where children will experience being given calorie dense foods as a reward or as part of celebrations. It would be a pity to take away the joy that children find in party bags, birthday cakes, Easter eggs and other celebration foods. Perhaps thinking about not just what foods we give children, but also how and why we give certain foods to children at particular times is a good way to start.
Teaching children how to manage their appetites, to eat if they are hungry and to stop if they are full, is an important lesson which is often overlooked.
Eating patterns can usually be tracked across life, so children who learn to use food as a tool to deal with emotional distress early on are much more likely to follow a similar pattern of eating later in adult life. Around three quarters of children who are obese will continue to be obese as adults. Emotional overeating is one factor that has been linked not only with overeating and obesity, but also with the development of eating disorders. To combat this, the way we feed children, and the lessons we provide about how to use food, may be just as important as what we feed them.
Claire Farrow is Senior Lecturer in Psychology, Aston University.
Emma Haycraft is Senior Lecturer in Psychology, Loughborough University.
Jackie Blissett is a Reader in Childhood Eating Behaviour, University of Birmingham.