Wednesday, November 07, 2012

One of Your Five-a-Day

Last week, I found myself shouting at the TV (again). I was watching a show called "Rip-off Food" on iPlayer, which I hadn't initially realised was actually daytime TV. The premise seemed obvious enough - it would be a show about rip-offs in the food genre, presumably highlighting such things as supermarkets charging a higher unit price for larger boxes (rather than the normal lower price for buying in bulk), and suchlike.

Instead, the show (what I watched of it) went on a weird rant about "Five a Day" labelling. (And, yes, it annoyed me enough that I'm posting on it nearly a week later...)

The central point made by the show was this: apparently, there is an official Government-sanctioned "five a day" logo. This was news to me, as I'd never seen it. However, lots of companies were not using that logo, but were instead labelling their products with words (the horror!) like "five a day" and the like.

Now, as we all know, a 'portion' of fruit or veg is reckoned to be 80g, and we're supposed to eat five per day (I'll get back to that). But the key thing is that, in order to get the 'official' logo, it is not enough for a product to include the requisite 80g - it must also not have any added salt or fat. And those products that were not using the logo, but merely saying they counted as one of the five, weren't meeting those additional requirements.

Clearly, this is an outrage! Something must be done forthwith! (Indeed, so important was this that the show's presenter actually met with a representative of the government, presented her with that greatest of evils - a trifle - and challenged her to do something about this iniquity.)

That was the point where I gave up. The stupidity was just overwhelming.

The thing is, the "five a day" stuff is basically a gimmick. At no point did anyone sit down and work out that every adult should eat exaclty 400g of fruit and veg per day. Indeed, they couldn't do that, because the fruit and veg genre is so incredibly diverse that any such simplistic measure is meaningless. "Five a day" came about because the powers-that-be wanted people to eat more fruit and veg... and a figure of "five a day" was an easy and memorable manner to indoctrinate people into doing that.

(Incidentally, it's also telling that they specifically exclude potatoes and nothing else. Not because potatoes are the only lethal vegetable, or any such absurdity... but rather because five-a-day becomes trivial the moment you can count chips. Mmm, chips.)

But the big issue with the show was not that products were saying "five a day" when they didn't include the 80g requirement. The problem is that the 'official' logo has additional requirements, over and above the ones that it should have. Some fool has gotten hold of a logo that might, just possibly, be a good thing, added another requirement that might, just possibly, be a good thing, and by combining the two has muddied the waters, rendering the official logo useless. Large numbers of products that should qualify for it now don't, and so they don't bother trying to use it, and move on.

And, worse, many (but not all) of these products are entirely suitable parts of a healthy diet.

Which brings us, rather neatly, to the silliness of the "no added fat" and "no added salt" requirements. When read as "people should probably eat less salt and fat", they actually represent the germ of a good idea. But when you try to eliminate these things entirely, bad things happen.

See, when you remove fat from a product, and especially when you eliminate it altogether, the flavour is altered, almost invariably for the worse. And so to compensate, the manufacturers need to add something else to replace it. The substitution of choice being the most obvious - sugar. Pump your product full of sugar, remove all the fat, and then you get something that tastes nice (ish), that you get to label as a 'healthy' ('cos, you know, "fat free"!)... and that is ultimately unsatisfying, that is full of empty calories, and that is really bad for people.

It is now believed that a key cause of the obesity crisis is our ongoing obsession with low fat food. Eliminate the fat, bulk up on sugar, and then (to paraphrase Pratchett/Gaiman) you get to a position where people can both become obscenely fat and die of malnutrition. Good one.

The "no added salt" issue is similar, although for a slightly different reason. See, if I cook up a batch of minestrone soup, I can either add salt or not during the cooking. And if I don't, presumably that makes the resulting soup healthier?

But not really. See, what happens is that the resulting soup is indeed healthier... but it also tastes bland and lifeless. This is pretty obvious really, given that the purpose of salt in food is as a flavour enhancer. That being the case, as soon as someone tastes this bland soup, the very next thing they will do is add salt to it. But not all salt is added equal - if I add salt to a cooked meal, I need to add much more for the same effect than if I had added it during the cooking process. A pinch now, or a spoonful later.

We've reached a point where we now have well-meaning 'experts' failing to think through the consequences of various actions, meddling in the foods we eat, and killing us by inches. Good one!

And the absolute worst part of this? Even if their efforts worked as intended, they would be a drop in the ocean. If 60% of the population of the UK are overweight or obese, getting them to eat 400g of fruit a day, and eliminating fat and salt from their diets isn't going to solve the problem. It's a sticking plaster after the guillotine has dropped.

The fundamental, underlying problem is that people are eating way too much, they're eating too much junk, and too much of what they eat is simply empty calories designed to be quick and easy to prepare, to store forever, and to keep them going.

And that's an issue that can't be solved by better food labelling. Food science is too complex. The government's "traffic light" markers are too simplistic to give any meaningful information. But as soon as the data is split out into a form where it does become meaningful, it also becomes too complex to be read. A list of ingredients and a table of nutritional data is meaningless unless you know a lot about the subject or are looking for something specific.

No, if the government seriously wants to do something to improve public health, they need to get people cooking for themselves. Do that, and at a stroke they eliminate almost all artificial additives, preservatives, flavour enhancers. They'll sharply reduce salt content, reduce sugar content (although probably slightly increase fat content, but that's not actually all that bad).

Of course, saying that is easy; doing it is hard. You would need to demonstrate to people that they can quickly, easily, and cheaply produce better food than they could get at anything but a high-end restaurant. That's possible... but even so probably wouldn't be enough. Most likely, convenience would still win out, even over the possibility of adding 20 years of life!

I recommend starting with the schools. Get pupils cooking, get them enjoying creating food and enjoying the food they create, and you might get somewhere. Maybe, just maybe, we might be able to help the next generation a bit. Or some of them, at least.

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