Get the balance right
Fatty, sugary, salty food
No-one can have failed to notice that we are facing an obesity crisis. Just over a quarter of adults are already obese, and around three in ten boys and girls (aged 2 to 15) are classed as either overweight or obese. The 2007 Government-sponsored Foresight report noted that, if nothing is done, the proportion of obese people will rise shockingly to more than half of all adults and a quarter of children by 2050, with all the associated individual ill-health and social costs (currently estimated to rise to £50 billion). The same fatty, sugary, salty diet that contributes to obesity also leads to a long and growing list of deadly or debilitating diseases such as coronary heart disease, stroke, several types of cancer, and a number of digestive disorders and oral health problems.
It is difficult to know how much food poisoning there is in the UK, not least because if we get a ‘dodgy tummy’ we don’t always know if it was food that caused it and, even if we are sure, we often don’t report it to our doctor. The Food Standards Agency monitors foodborne illnesses including Campylobacter, Listeria monocytogenes, norovirus, E.coli O157 and salmonella. Despite some progress (rates of salmonella have reduced considerably) food poisoning is still a serious problem and Campylobacter and norovirus are considered to be the most common causes. The FSA’s "…best estimate suggests that there are around a million cases of foodborne illness in the UK each year, resulting in 20,000 hospital admissions and 500 deaths" and the cost to the UK economy in 2010 was calculated at £1.9 billion.
Pesticide poisoning is more common in poorer countries than in the UK, as people applying pesticides in the UK normally wear protective clothing and should be trained in proper procedures. However, there is growing evidence of health damage that can accumulate if people are exposed to low doses, and/or combinations of pesticides over a long period. While the risk to our health from eating pesticide residues in our food is lower than the risk from direct exposure, it is still a risk most of us would prefer not to take.
The same is true of the wide range of artificial colourings, flavourings, artificial sweeteners and a host of other additives that are found in our food. Although some maintain that each additive is, on its own, safe to consume, in real life we eat a complicated cocktail of different additives so it is almost impossible to know if these combinations are safe. What many families do know is that their children can have very bad reactions to some food additives, so avoiding them is very helpful indeed. Buying organic food is one way to avoid controversial additives, which helps to explain why organic baby food is so popular.
In addition, additives are usually used to replace real ingredients in our food, or to make the food look or smell more appetising. So the appearance of additives or ‘E numbers’ in an ingredients list is one way you can spot food that may not contain much real food! The Action on Additives campaign provides information on artificial additives in foods, drinks and medicines, particularly those aimed at children.
Many of us also want to avoid eating food that has been genetically modified (GM) or that that has any GM ingredients in it, and the great majority (89%) want to know from the label if this is the case. Questions about the safety of this technology for our health and for the environment continue to arise, with few satisfactory answers.
What we can do
The Food Standards Agency’s biannual public attitudes surveys continue to show that people are concerned about the nutritional quality and safety of their food. Its May 2012 report lists the main food issues of concern as follows: the amount of salt (49%), fat (45%), saturated fat and sugar (both at 42%). The same survey showed the main food safety concerns were food hygiene when eating out (38%) and food poisoning such as salmonella and e.coli (32%).
- To reduce the risks to our health from food poisoning we can:
- Use schemes that allow us to make choices about where we eat out based on hygiene standards. The Food Standards Agency, in partnership with local authorities, has developed the ‘scores on the doors’ scheme and information about food business hygiene standards.
- Have good food hygiene standards at home. A lot of this is common sense e.g.:
- Thorough kitchen cleaning;
- Washing the soil off vegetables;
- Storing food properly in the fridge – particularly avoiding cross-contamination between raw and cooked food;
- Washing our hands!
- Many people are surprised to know, though, that we shouldn’t wash chicken before cooking it, as it can just spread the bugs around. More information is on the food safety section of the NHS Choices website.
- To reduce the risks to our health from junk food we can:
- Base our main meals on generous portions of wholegrains, other starchy foods and vegetables, and our desserts on lashings of fruit. These ingredients are varied, delicious and good value. Try to eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day (some experts say it should be more than five) – and if these can also be seasonal and sustainably produced, so much the better for our environment!
- Use small amounts of oils and fats. Weight for weight, they have around twice the calories of other foods, so we should use fats and oils sparingly, both in cooking and in dressings.
- Choose healthier options when we’re using oils and fats. Liquid oils are generally healthier than solid fats. Avoid margarines or vegetable fats with hydrogenated ingredients (sometimes called trans fats – and clearly harmful - these can also be described on the label as ‘hydrogenated oils’ or ‘hardened’ fat). Try to choose oils and fats that are high in polyunsaturated fat (like sunflower, rapeseed or canola oil) and monounsaturated fat (such as olive oil), and cut down on saturated fat. Butter is a natural ingredient, but it is high in saturated fat, and often high in salt, so we should use it sparingly.
- Cut back on the white stuff, whether that’s sugar or salt. Fairtrade, organic sugar is still sugar. Sugar’s role in dental diseases is well known and the evidence of its contribution to overweight, cardiovascular disease (such as heart disease and stroke), diabetes and other health problems is accumulating. Similarly, salt is a major cause of high blood pressure, which can lead to a stroke, and a growing number of health problems.
- Encourage children to appreciate fresh, tasty food by offering smaller portions of family dishes. There is no need for children’s food to be – as it often is – covered in breadcrumbs and fried, presented in animal shapes, brightly (and artificially) coloured, and over-salted (or sickly sweet, if a dessert). Children will appreciate being treated like grown-ups if they’re given grown-up food and don’t come to expect food to be made especially for them.
A good rule of thumb, when buying packaged food, is that if the ingredients list is so long that it is barely legible and/or it includes ingredients that we need a degree to understand, it might be a good idea to avoid it!
Ask businesses and policy makers to take action
- Ask government to strengthen protection for children from junk food marketing. Although junk food advertising has now been banned on children’s television, children also need to be protected from such marketing by a 9pm watershed on TV advertising. Similar protection is needed from non-broadcast types of marketing, including websites, sponsorship and promotions. Support the Children’s Food Campaign.
- Ask all businesses to use just one, standard scheme - ‘traffic light’ food labels - as recommended by the Department of Health. With traffic lights customers can very easily identify, at a glance, which products contain high or low amounts of fat, saturated fat, salt, sugar and calories. Although all the major supermarkets have committed to using this scheme, at the time of writing, not all big food manufacturers have done so, particularly those that sell fatty, sugary and salty food.
- Ask your local council to protect food law enforcement services such as trading standards and environmental health. Without these services, and the public analysts who test our food, the laws designed to protect us from unsafe food and misleading labelling are barely worth the paper they are written on.
- Plenty of information about healthy eating for you and your family is available on the following websites.
- For tips on the best foods and drinks to keep teeth healthy visit the British Dental Health Foundation site
- Information, guidance and tips on eating less salt are available on the Consensus Action on Salt and Health website
- Dabble with your dinner helps families eat more vegetables by offering simple tweaks to six meals that most of us cook every week.
- Lots of practical food and nutrition advice for women who are, or may become pregnant, and parents of children under five is available from the First Steps Nutrition Trust
- H.U.S.H is the UK E.coli Support Group for people and their families who have suffered food poisoning from E.coli O157
- Which? not only reports on its regular food investigations in its magazine, it also campaigns for honest labelling and robust food and health policies.
- FoodsMatter has over 5,000 pages of information and research reports on food allergy, food intolerance, the many health conditions related to food sensitivity, and how to find ‘freefrom’ food.