Healthy Eating

This is not normally a topic I would stray into, but as Heather is hors de combat for a while, I thought I would give it a shot. It certainly strikes me as “bad science” but I may be wrong…

Given the way the UK has got on board this “healthy eating” campaign, it is not surprising that the supermarkets have pulled out all the plugs to use this woo to sell more products. On a fairly regular basis there are adverts on TV how this product or that product is “one of your five a day” with minimal reason behind the claims. It seems Sainsbury’s (supermarket chain) has joined in and in their infinite wisdom have decided that telling their customers how many grams of fat, carbohydrates/sugar, protein etc., are in their food is not effective. As part of the great dumbing down of the UK they now use a “traffic light” system. It is pretty embarrassing.

Sainsburys Cheese Ploughmans PackagingWhat intrigues me the most, is the apparently arbitrary nature of what gets a “green” compared to what gets an “amber” or “red” (I am assuming Green = Good and Red = Bad by the way, can food be “Bad?”). As a recent example, I bought a Sainsbury’s Cheese Ploughmans ready made sandwich which comes on malted bread with “seeds.” The packaging calls it “reduced fat, a healthier option.” In the picture, you can see what the traffic light system looks like, but please note, the fat and salt are supposed to be “amber” rather than red.

It seems reasonably straight forward, doesn’t it. It seems to be saying (unless you are colour blind on the red-green scale) that this “healthy eating” is “good” for carbs but a bit risky for fat and salt. Can’t argue with that, can we? Turning the package round to see what the absolute values are is enlightening. It seems this sandwich has 45.9g of Carbohydrates which Sainsbury’s think is 20% of the guideline daily amount. How they came to this figure is anyone’s guess and as they use the Guideline Daily Amounts (GDA) for women as the benchmark it seems pointless me even looking (assuming I am the “guideline “male”, it is 15.3% of my requirements). However, for now we will work with the GDA for women. Using this, the sandwich is 15.6% of the daily calories, 38.4% of protein (how this can be true is anyone’s guess), 9.3% of the daily fat requirement and 36.7% of the salt intake.

This leads to my confusion. What tortured logic gives this product a green for one thing and an amber for another. If we take calories for example, as this is “only” 15.6% of the GDA calorie total it gets a nice little green box (and is described as “healthy eating), yet as it has 9% of your daily fat, the fat box goes amber. This is mad.

As an example (I suspect this is approaching a reductio ad absurdum), if you were to live on nothing but six (and a bit) of these sandwiches per day, you would fulfil your calorie requirements (assuming you were a GDA woman). So the green make sense. However, you would be 45g over your carbohydrate allowance (yet this is still green) and a whopping 40% below your GDA for fat. Yet it still gets an amber for fat. Oddly, Sainsbury’s don’t feel the need to colour code protein and fiber amounts, even though both have government issued GDA.

I had a fair bit of time to kill today, so I spent some time trying to work out what logic gave the colours but I have still failed to get a definitive answer. It seems to me Sainsbury’s uses an “absolute” value to decide what colour will be used – anything over 5% fat is amber because as we all know FAT IS BAD, without considering the actual dietary implications of the food balance. To me, an item of food which is disproportionately high (compared to GDA of course) in one macronutrient compared to others is not “healthy.” Giving it a green because it has Xg of carbs, fat or what ever is madness.

From my point of view, the whole deal is made worse by the implicit discrimination it shows. A century after the suffragette movement we are still subjected to obnoxious adverts like Cillit Bang (which crows about how many housewives buy it – a blatant appeal to the majority fallacy because it is crap) and now Sainsbury’s obviously assumes the only people interested in “healthy eating” are women, but being women they don’t want to struggle with their pretty little minds about what the values are when a colour coded system is so much simpler…

The fact the colour codes are garbage doesn’t seem to bother anyone. Some days I am ashamed to be British… (I need to find some IDers to rant about now 🙂 )

3 thoughts on “Healthy Eating

  1. Yes, the “food labelling” in use here is pointless, arbitrary and makes no sense in the real world — because kind of like Microsoft’s “security”, it’s regarded by the company as a PR issue, not an actual problem to be sorted out realistically.

    And, I kind of get the impression that you have too much time on your hands. ;-D

  2. Can I highly recommend Sandy Szwarc’s blog
    http://junkfoodscience.blogspot.com/

    to you and your readers for consistently high quality fisking of health and nutrition bollocks in the media.

    Can I also point out that this is the first time I have used the ‘fisk’ word!

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