1 December 2014

Food for Thought

Reaching for the stars. 
How do you sum up the nutritional quality of a food on its label? How can a food labelling rating system be simple, but not too simple? How can we be sure it does not have unintended consequences? How does it keep pace with advances in nutrition science? In this edited transcript of a presentation given in Sydney, Australia, in July 2013, Professor Jennie Brand-Miller talks about what we really need on food labels to help us make better choices. 

“I am uncomfortable with traffic lights and rating stars. Why? If breast milk were sold in the dairy compartment, it would have at least two red marks – one for saturated fat and one for sugar (human milk has the highest sugar content of any mammalian milk). This is because the algorithms that underpin traffic lights and rating stars are based on the old nutrition that has past its use-by date.

  • The energy content (calories/kilojoules) of a food is not the best way to judge a food – lentils and liquorice have the same energy density. 
  • The fat content of food is not the best way to judge a food – nuts have more fat and are more energy dense than French fries. 
  • The sugar content is not the best way to judge a food – dried fruit is full of sugar. 
  • The sodium content is not the best way to judge a food – soft drinks are low in sodium. 
What’s wrong with the current traffic lights and rating stars? They ignore micronutrients – vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals. They ignore two important proven attributes of foods in the new nutrition – the protein content and the GI of the carbohydrates. Both these factors are proven to help to curb appetite.

Appetite matters. Appetite is what drives our energy intake.

It is not possible to balance energy intake and energy expenditure by counting calories. Firstly, no one knows how many calories they expend each day. Even if you knew, the calories on the food label are not precise enough.

Secondly, mathematical modelling shows that a small but persistent excess of only 7 calories or 30 kilojoules per day over and above energy requirements for 10 years underlies the current epidemic of obesity. The best way to balance calories in and calories out, is to weigh yourself regularly or use the belt test.

What would I like to see on food labels? I’d like to see a system that:
  • Focuses on the positive. 
  • Rates foods according to their contribution to desirable macronutrient and micronutrient intakes. 
  • Uses Adam Drewnowski’s Nutrient Rich Foods Index, which rates individual foods based on their overall nutritional value, as an essential component. 
  • Encourages higher protein intake, particularly from legumes. 
  • Distinguishes between naturally-occurring and added sugars. 
I would advocate that we make the most of something we already have available to use on our food packaging here in Australia and that is proven to work: two certified and recognisable symbols that are signposts to both healthy foods and healthy diets.

One is the Heart Foundation Tick, which encourages eating healthy types of fat.
Olive oil with Heart Foundation Tick
The other is the Glycemic Index Foundation Low GI Symbol, which encourages eating healthy carbs. And here I have a duality of interest to declare. The University of Sydney owns the Low GI Symbol trademark. Research shows that the low GI focus automatically improves diet quality because it increases fibre intake, it reduces saturated fat, and it improves micronutrient intake. While the low fat focus had unintended, undesirable consequences, the low GI focus has had unexpected benefits.
Low GI Rice with GI Symbol

My take home message for Australians: The Low GI Symbol + the Heart Foundation Tick = is good nutrition by default.”

You can download the full “Old Nutrition, New Nutrition” presentation HERE.

Professor Jennie Brand-Miller holds a Personal Chair in Human Nutrition in the Boden Institute of Obesity, Nutrition, Exercise and Eating Disorders and Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney.