Coming Soon: Front of Pack Labelling

Many people find that Nutrition Information Panels are anything but simple. Mandatory on almost all packaged food items sold in Australia since 2003, Nutrition Information Panels are the tables on the back of food products showing the nutritional breakdown of the product. Because of how difficult these can be to make sense of, the need for simpler nutrition information on food products has been clear for some time.

And enter the latest development in this space: front of pack labelling. This is the latest effort to make it easier for people to make healthy choices in the supermarket. The idea is that a simple graphic on the front of food products will enable people to, at a glance, choose healthier packaged foods. Globally, this is by no means a new initiative. For example, front of pack labelling has been in the UK since 2006, and a consistent, albeit voluntary, system was rolled out there mid-last year. But I’m writing about it now because this month, front of pack labelling is coming to Australia.

Traffic light

The form of front-of-pack labelling that has received the most attention globally has been the traffic light system. This is the form in place in the UK, and the form that has received the most attention in the media. The traffic light system uses 3 colour codes: green, amber and red, to assess the nutritional value of different aspects of the food item. For example, if the product is high in saturated fat, but low in salt, saturated fat would be coloured red, and salt would be coloured green.

Australia, on the other hand, has opted for a star system, like what we currently have for white goods. They are calling this the Health Star Rating. It’s a similar system to the UK model, but rather than being based on colours, it’s based on stars. It will be policed by an industry code of conduct so, like the UK, it’s also voluntary for food manufacturers to adopt. However, uptake of the Rating will be reviewed in 2016, and there is scope for it to become mandatory if industry uptake is low. Decisions around food policy, like this, are made by a roundtable of representatives from the public health sector, government, food industry and consumer groups.

 

 

The Health Star Rating will start to appear on the front of packaged food products from June onwards. It will give food products between 1/2 a star and 5 stars for their overall nutritional value. The healthier the product, the more stars it will have. The Rating will also display the saturated fat, sugar and sodium content of the product. Manufacturers will be able to add an extra, ‘positive’, fourth nutrient of their choice to this mix. The kilojoule content of the food product will also need to be displayed.

Check out  this article by consumer group Choice for an example of what these Health Star Ratings will look like.

 

I’m interested in hearing from you. Do you think front of pack labelling will make it easier to make healthy food choices in the supermarket, or is it more white noise on packaging that we just don’t need?

What should I eat?

A question which, in bygone days, was assuredly simple to answer:

“What should I eat?”

With organic kale chips, bread high in antioxidants and fat-free ice cream all becoming regular features in the supermarket aisle, anyone would be forgiven for thinking that this supposedly simple question is no longer so simple.

To make things even more confusing, several food outlets here in Australia have started displaying the kilojoule content of their foods. Suddenly, the shopper is no longer merely contending with strange foodstuffs, but an assault of meaningless numbers.

And in comes the revised Australian Dietary Guidelines. Published by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC, an Australian Government body) last year and based on the latest scientific evidence, they provide some refreshingly simple guidance about what we should be eating. Similar guidelines are in use around the world, including MyPlate in the US, and a dietary pagoda (think oriental food pyramid) in China.

Australian Guide to Healthy Eating Source: National Health and Medical Research Council

Source: National Health and Medical Research Council

 

For those of us who prefer it even simpler, the NHMRC summarised what the average Australian should be trying to do with their diet.

The average Australian should be trying to eat more:

  • Vegetables and legumes (beans, lentils, peas) – 5-6 serves a day
  • Fruits – 2 serves a day
  • Wholegrains
  • Reduced fat milk, yoghurt, cheese – 2 serves a day
  • Fish, seafood, poultry, eggs, legumes/beans (including soy), and nuts and seeds
  • Red meat (young females only)

 

The average Australian should be trying to eat less:

  • Starchy vegetables, like potato
  • Refined grains, like white bread or pasta
  • High and medium fat dairy products, including full-fat cheese
  • Red meats (adult males only)
  • Food and drinks high in saturated fat, added sugar, added salt, or alcohol (e.g. fried foods, fast food, cakes and biscuits, chocolate and confectionery, sweetened drinks).

Source: http://www.eatforhealth.gov.au/guidelines/about-australian-dietary-guidelines

 

Journalist Michael Pollan, acclaimed author of Omnivore’s Dilemma and Food Rules, summarises what we should be eating into 3 refreshingly SIMPLE guiding principles:

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

 

For more on Michael Pollan, go to: http://michaelpollan.com/books/

7 Facts Behind Vitamin and Mineral Supplements

Vitamin and mineral supplementation is big money in the Western world. There is very limited data regarding the size of the industry, but the National Institute of Complementary Medicine says that as of 2001, the worldwide value of vitamin sales was estimated to be $AUD49 billion. It’s big business here in Australia. The National Health Survey showed that as of 2011-12, almost 1 in 3 (29%) Australians used a dietary supplement. More than half (16%) of this was multi-vitamin or multi-mineral supplements, with the remainder being fish oil. Working in community pharmacy during my high school and university years, I saw first-hand how commonplace supplements have become.

There is a place for vitamin and mineral supplements. The question is whether that place is a niche market for the few who really need them, or a booming industry for the worried well. With such a large percentage of us taking vitamin pills, I thought I’d give a run-down of what the science says.

 

Fact: In wealthy countries, multivitamins are only needed in rare instances.

If you’re eating an average Western diet and don’t have a serious medical disease, chances are you’re wasting your money on that multivitamin. Multivitamins are usually only recommended in isolated cases, for example people suffering from malnutrition (including anorexia nervosa) and diseases of malabsorption, such as cystic fibrosis. In Australia, studies of the population’s nutritional intake that have been conducted by public health bodies have regularly shown that, with the exception of some isolated nutrients such as calcium, we are doing very well. In fact, with current obesity levels in Australia being unprecedented, overnutrition (eating too much) and overall diet quality are now considered to be larger issues here than undernutrition.

 

Fact: Individual vitamin and mineral supplementation can occasionally be necessary.

If you are deficient in a vitamin or mineral, you’ll usually only need that specific nutrient- not a multivitamin.

For example, if you avoid eating dairy products, you may need a calcium supplement (although trying to include more sources of calcium in your diet, such as canned fish with bones or lactose-free products, is recommended). If you have been diagnosed with iron deficiency anaemia, you may need iron tablets. Likewise for Vitamin D. For women planning on becoming pregnant in the next 3 months, and in the first 3 months of pregnancy, public health bodies recommend a folic acid and iodine supplement to support the healthy development of the baby. Vegans will need foods fortified with Vitamin B12 and calcium or a supplement, and should also consider an algal omega-3 supplement. People who drink a large quantity of alcohol on an ongoing basis should consider a thiamin supplement (as well as seeking professional support).

What you probably don’t need is a multivitamin containing everything else.

 

Fact: More of a good thing is not better.

A lot of us who take vitamin pills take them as a safety net. The idea that taking a pill to make up for those days where our diet isn’t so great, on the surface, seems to make sense. However there’s no evidence that getting more than the Recommended Dietary Intake (RDI)- the amount that meets the nutrient requirements of 99% of the healthy population- has any health benefits. While any excess of water-soluble vitamins will just go down the toilet (see below), fat-soluble vitamins (Vitamins A, D, E, K) are stored in your body. Excesses of these can do damage.

Here in Australia, vitamin supplements containing Vitamin A must show a disclaimer that states ‘WARNING – When taken in excess of 3000 micrograms retinol equivalents, vitamin A can cause birth defects’.  2 studies with very large sample sizes conducted in the 1990’s discovered that, rather than reducing the risk of lung cancer as had been expected, Vitamin A supplementation increased the risk, as well as increasing overall mortality. There is also some evidence that Vitamin E  may increase the risk of heart failure and overall mortality. Being acidic, chewable Vitamin C may increase the risk of dental caries.

One thing to keep in mind, too, is that science is constantly learning more about the effects of many of these supplements. For now, it’s probably best to keep to your fruit and vegetables to be safe.

 

Fact: Water-soluble vitamins get flushed down the toilet.

‘Water-soluble’ literally means ‘dissolves in water’. Water-soluble vitamins are Vitamin C and the B-group vitamins (Thiamin, riboflavin, niacin (B6), folate/folic acid, Vitamin B12, biotin and pantothenic acid). Your body takes what it needs from food, and excretes the rest out in your urine.

 

Fact: Supplements are not all clinically tested.

In Australia, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) divides therapeutic goods (including medicines and vitamins) into 2 classes: listed and registered. Vitamin supplements are usually classed as ‘listed’, although a select few are ‘registered’. Listed medicines (contain ‘Aust L’ on the label) are assessed as having a lower level of risk than those that need to be registered. Crucially, ‘listed’ medicines do not need to be tested to show that they actually work, and many may be no better than a placebo.

 

The Nutrition Information Panel of a packaged breakfast cereal sold in Australia. Note the number of vitamins and minerals that have been added (see bottom half of the table)

 

Fact: A lot of packaged foods are already fortified with vitamins.

Next time you eat breakfast cereal (if you eat it), look at the Nutrition Information Panel on the box. Chances are there’ll be a whole bucketload of vitamins and minerals added to the product. Also, in Australia as of 2009, all bread-making flour (except organic) must be fortified with iodine and folic acid. Iodine because Australian soil is very low in iodine, and Australia has high rates of iodine deficiency. Folic acid fortification was introduced as a means of reducing the rate of neural tube defects, like spina bifida.

 

So there you have it: 7 facts behind vitamin pills. Hopefully that’s helped clear some confusion! Of course, this is general advice for the average healthy population. If you want advice about your own situation, consult your GP or Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD).

Welcome to Nourish Me Simply!

Stuart Miles. 10094977. Free Digital Photos; 2012. Available from: http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/images/Other_Health_and_Bea_g278-Eat_Diet_Keys_p94977.html

Source: Stuart Miles. 10094977. Free Digital Photos; 2012.

 

I’m really excited to be starting Nourish Me Simply. I have always loved writing. Blogging seemed the next logical step to marry this love of writing with my other passion, nutrition.

Nutrition articles in newspapers definitely played a major part in me deciding that I wanted to become a dietitian as a teenager. I remember hearing about the health benefits of olive oil, and eagerly adding extra olive oil when eating tuna, canned in oil, and pasta (don’t try this at home, kids!). One time, I heard that eating black pepper and green tea at the same sitting boosted your metabolism, and guess what I tried soon after? (!) I eagerly read about the nutritional benefits of individual foods, but then couldn’t quite work out how to include them in my everyday diet. If blueberries were full of antioxidants and garlic was good for blood pressure, did that mean that these two foods should now become the mainstay of my diet?

You see, reading about nutrition in popular press often opens up a can of worms. What starts out as a simple interest in doing right by one’s body, can all-too-easily morph into overwhelming confusion. Depending on your personality, this seems to often lead to either anxious, hyper restrictive eating, or feelings of apathy- “We’re all going to die one day anyway”. The truth is, nutrition for the average, healthy person IS simple. It’s not about individual ‘super’ foods being a panacea, or that one spoon of ice cream giving you a heart attack- it’s your whole dietary pattern that matters. There is strong evidence that what’s best for you is eating a mainly plant-based diet, with plenty of fruits, vegetables and legumes (beans) and moderate amounts of fish, dairy and nuts.

At Nourish Me Simply, I aim to look at different aspects of nutrition- including scientific studies featured in the popular press, health conditions, diets, healthy eating across different cultures, you name it! And in all that, live up to the central theme of this blog:

Keeping nutrition SIMPLE.