These days, people are becoming afraid to eat. Food has become so complicated that many feel as though they don’t understand it anymore. Even if we try to buy healthy food, we can get misled by the label, or end up facing so much conflicting information that we just give up and go back to our unhealthy habits—the ones that made us overweight in the first place!
None of this is helped by food manufacturers, who place profits well above health and fitness—fat and sugar equal flavour, and that equals sales. While it’s true that the general public is becoming more aware of what goes into food—it’s now common knowledge that “low fat” really means “high sugar”—the more savvy they become, the harder food manufacturers work to outwit them.
Most people only ever look at the front of a food label, and that can be a minefield of misinformation. Interestingly, while Australian law protects consumers against really misleading information via FSANZ (Food Standards Australia New Zealand), the Code of Practice on Nutrient Claims in Food Labels and Advertisements (CoPoNC) is actually administered by the Food and Grocery Council of Australia—that is, the food manufacturers themselves. This code states what information consumers should be given about nutrient claims and content, but complying with it isn’t mandated by law.
Much like the journalists’ code of ethics, it’s up to the companies themselves whether or not they choose to conform to the regulations. For example, “96% fat free” is something that we’ve all seen—and continue to see—on numerous products, but it doesn’t actually comply with the code at all. Similarly, a study of the claims about fat content in Greek-style yoghurt bar products revealed that all contain more fat than they claim to—one product had over 2% more than its label declared! So if someone bought 300g of yoghurt and thought they were eating 12g of fat, they’d actually be eating 18g—that’s a big difference.
Comparing individual products on the supermarket shelves doesn’t solve the problem. Entire product ranges are becoming less healthy. Recently, a study of supermarket yoghurts and dairy snacks revealed that the number of products deemed “less healthy” nearly doubled in just three years due to median increases in packet sizes and total energy, fat and sugar content. Because these changes were so gradual and widespread, most consumers didn’t notice. Nonetheless, they resulted in a new version of what is “normal” and what is not. Unfortunately, the “new normal” is a lot less healthy than the old one.
Today, many food companies are trying to produce healthier versions of their products. But who does this really benefit—you, or them? The answer might surprise you. One area that often prompts food companies to create healthier options is healthy food badges—those familiar symbols such as the Heart Foundation tick and the Low GI label. But even these have their limitations.
When consumers see these labels, they make the mistake of assuming the “halo effect”—they think the food in question is super healthy, when it’s probably only a slightly healthier version of what was an unhealthy food to begin with. Consequently, consumers end up buying and eating more than they would if there were no healthy options available.
Research shows that the “halo effect” occurs in fast food restaurants, too. “Healthy” food badges can even be found on products such as potato chips, pastries and ice cream. Far from wearing a halo, it seems that many of these products have just temporarily put down their pitchforks instead.
Each “healthy” badge comes with its own set of hidden implications. The Heart Foundation tick, for example, can’t be bought, but food manufacturers do have to pay to have their products tested to see if they’re eligible for the tick. But this means that foods manufactured by smaller, less profitable companies won’t get the tick, because they can’t afford it.
Similarly, the Low GI label requires an annual fee. However, unlike the Heart Foundation tick, there is actually a speciﬁc number relevant across all products and categories that determines whether a food can be classiﬁed as Low GI or not. Low GI can still mean high in fat, but if you have an understanding of how the GI system works, it’s a lot easier to know what the symbol means if you see it on a product. But while you know you’re getting a healthier version of a product when you see the Heart Foundation tick, how much healthier is it, and in what way?
Some of the more dubious labels are “Treatwise” (a registered trademark of the Confectionery Manufacturers of Australasia Limited) and the “Healthy School Canteen” label (which is owned by Arnotts). Again, these labels don’t necessarily mean much in terms of health—all they can tell you for sure is that the products in question are just slightly better versions of the regular junk.
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Visit Sally at http://www.sallysymonds.com.au
Medical Doctor, author, speaker, media presenter and health industry consultant, Dr Joe Kosterich wants you to be healthy and get the most out of life.
Joe writes for numerous medical and mainstream publications, is clinical editor at Medical Forum Magazine, and is also a regular on radio and television. He is often called to give opinions in medico legal cases and is an advisor to Reed Medical Conferences.
Joe is Medical Advisor to Medicinal Cannabis Company Little Green Pharma, Chairman of Australian Tobacco Harm Reduction Association and sits on the board of Arthritis and Osteoporosis WA.