The Digest

Food labelling: are we in danger of tarring all fats with the same brush?

The so-called Mediterranean diet, consumed in countries of the southern European region, is recognized as being amongst the healthiest in the world. In addition to being rich in fruit and vegetables, the diets of this region contain relatively large amounts of olive oil, fish and nuts. A recent study, carried out to identify the components of the Mediterranean diet responsible for its beneficial effects on health, provided strong evidence that both olive oil and nuts are of particular importance in this regard: compared with a low-fat version of the Mediterranean diet, individuals who consumed large quantities of olive oil (four tablespoons per day) or nuts (15 grams per day) benefitted from a 30 % reduction in their risk of cardiovascular disease (heart attacks and strokes). A reduction in risk of this magnitude is impressive by any standards.

    Although it has been commented that the low-fat version of the Mediterranean diet against which the above comparison was made was, in fact, rather high in fat, this study highlights – perhaps above else – the importance of the type of fat in the diet rather than the actual amount. Fats and oils owe their properties – and therefore their effects on the human body – to the particular fatty acids they contain. There are very good reasons to believe that the monounsaturated fatty acids in olive oil and the omega-3 fatty acids in walnuts and (especially) oily fish are highly beneficial to health.

    The extent to which we in the UK seem to be losing the plot in our relationship with food was brought home to me by two recent experiences. First of all was the bottle of Rich & smooth olive oil dressing I bought from Waitrose. An important factor in my decision to buy this particular dressing was that it is based on olive oil (it is also low in added sugar). I was not particularly swayed by the rather meaningless ‘LOVE life half fat’ banner on the label (I would find ‘Half fat LOVE life’ more intriguing), but what really made my heart sink with despair was the red ‘traffic light’ informing the customer that the product is, in fact, high in fat.

    It is not so much the glaring contradiction between the ‘half fat’ label and the red traffic light – showing just how easy it is for the marketing people to exploit a situation and cause confusion when they start dabbling with the nutritional merits of products – but rather the failure of the traffic-lighting system to take account of the fact that all fats do not have the same impact on health.

    Admittedly, the label does display an orange traffic light against the word ‘saturates’, which of course has its origins in the somewhat oversimplified – and, one could argue, seriously flawed – mantra that a diet ‘low in saturates/high in polyunsaturates’ reduces the risk of heart disease. There are many reasons why polyunsaturated fatty acids may not be as healthy as we are often led to believe. Not only are they very susceptible to damage when heated during cooking or when exposed to iron or copper (e.g. from meat or supplement pills), resulting in the formation of nasty, toxic chemicals, those in the omega-6 family (found in sunflower and many other vegetable oils) favour inflammation, which plays a role in many diseases (including those of the cardiovascular system). Indeed there is a case to be made that the emergence of cardiovascular diseases has accompanied the massive increase in the consumption of vegetable oils that has occurred over the past century, especially those of the partially-hydrogenated variety (containing trans fats).

    The fact of the matter is that a simple traffic-lighting system, which lumps together under a red light all food products with a high fat content, irrespective of whether the fats they contain happen to be those believed to confer protection from cardiovascular disease or those with less desirable effects, is not fit-for-purpose (to use the modern jargon). That a system is quick, simple and easy to understand does not, in itself, justify its implementation; the traffic-lighting system is in fact confusing, flawed and somewhat patronizing. More on the solution to this problem later, but there is also the second of the recent experiences responsible for my despair and exasperation at the situation.

    Last week (8 – 12 August), the You and Yours programme on BBC Radio 4 ran a series of items on ‘unravelling the myths about healthy food’, as Peter White, the presenter, put it. On the Friday programme we had Sioned Quirke, representing the British Dietetic Association, warning of the dangers of ‘healthy’ breakfast cereals. It certainly is old hat that some brands of muesli contain large amounts of added sugar and therefore are only marginally better qualified than Frosties and other sugar-loaded products to be referred to as ‘health foods’. Ms Quirke also warned of the dangers posed by the high levels of salt present in some breakfast cereals. What really astonished me, though, was her warning to check the labels of ‘healthy’ cereals for added nuts, as these are high in calories.

    I was surprised that, in speaking for the British Dietetic Association, Ms Quirke failed to explain the distinction between selecting foods on the basis of their calorie content and selecting on the basis of their effects on cardiovascular health. The two are not the same. Whilst it is true that being overweight can increase one’s risk of heart disease, it is wrong to imply – as she so clearly did – that the health benefits of breakfast cereals are negated if they contain nuts.

    For many years, my breakfast cereal of choice has been Tesco Fruit & Nut Muesli. The only sugar ‘added’ to this cereal-based product is that present in the relatively small amounts of the various additional ingredients (e.g. the sweetened banana and pineapple pieces), over which I have no particular concerns. I consider the presence of nuts in the product to be a positive feature: not only because I enjoy their taste, but because I consider nuts to be a genuine health food (as indeed, no doubt, do the scientists who conducted the study described in the opening paragraph, showing the remarkable protective properties of nuts against cardiovascular disease). Indeed such is my enjoyment of nuts (health properties aside), I snack on them throughout the day (unsalted ones, of course).

    In view of the known health benefits of nuts, Ms Quirke should have made this important distinction: nuts are a healthy component of breakfast cereals. How difficult is it to slip in the proviso that consumers should be aware that nuts are high in calories, which they need to keep in mind if watching their weight? Perhaps Ms Quirke believes the public to be incapable of dealing with complicated messages. Keep it simple and to hell with the facts (which is what we have with the traffic lights – fine when you are waiting to pull out at a road junction, not so when dealing with the complexities of nutrition). How many of the overweight people walking our streets today can attribute their obesity to nuts – in muesli, at that? If we really must have a traffic-lighting system (other than on our roads), then we have to reserve the red lights for burgers, kebabs, pizzas, pies, sausages and chips. These foods (a status which I am not so sure they all deserve) are not only high in calories, but they are nutritionally unhealthy in a way that simply cannot be said of nuts – despite the fact that nuts get the same red light!

    I recently had sight of the ‘Cholesterol Lowering and Weight Reducing Dietary Advice’ sheets issued by the nutrition and dietetics departments of a major NHS hospital trust. There were two sheets. The first carried a few words on fruit and vegetables, fish, starchy foods and fats, explaining in a very simple manner their place in a healthy, balanced diet. The second sheet consisted of a table headed by three columns (‘Choose’, ‘Eat in Moderation’ and ‘Avoid’), under which simple guidelines were given for various categories of food. Whilst I would question some of the advice (e.g. oven chips can be eaten in moderation, but nuts are to be avoided), the general format worked very well indeed. The point is that that these sheets carried information: they gave explanations and meaningful advice on how to choose foods within particular categories. The problem with traffic-lighting systems, as we have seen with fats, is that they oversimplify matters. It is far better to give more general, worded advice – such as ‘Eat oily fish at least twice a week’, ‘Avoid breakfast cereals containing added sugar’ and ‘Choose wholemeal bread’ – than the confusing cacophony of coloured lights we see on food packaging, devoid of any meaningful context. This advice does not need to be printed on the packaging of foods – there are other means of dissemination. All we need on the packaging are a list of ingredients and the standard nutritional information (calories, protein, simple sugars and complex carbohydrates per 100 g etc).

    The longer-term solution lies in ensuring that all children leave school with a good appreciation of the relevance of the material they are taught in biology lessons to the lifestyle choices they will be making, with increasing levels of independence, in their future lives. The GCSE specification provides a reasonable grounding in the rudiments of nutrition – the major food groups and the workings of the digestive system – so perhaps there is an opportunity to extend and apply this to nutrition. Surely our schools can do better than offer the ‘good cholesterol/bad cholesterol’ nonsense and credit young people with the capacity to cope with slightly more complex arguments, closer to reality? Otherwise, we run the risk of producing adults considered unable to cope with anything more intellectually challenging than traffic-light analogies.

    As well as enjoying my Fruit & Nut Muesli from Tesco, I for one will continue to enjoy (and sing the praises of) Waitrose’s Rich & smooth olive oil dressing. However, having just harvested an excellent crop of garlic from the allotment, I will for the next few weeks be knocking-up my own dressing of crushed garlic, vinegar and generous amounts of extra virgin olive oil, all held together by an emulsifier in the form of a hint of mustard powder. I may even go the whole hog and add some walnut pieces.

Further information

The study referred to above, demonstrating the importance of olive oil and nuts as beneficial components of the Mediterranean diet, was the subject of Dr Burkitt’s article, Two Sides of the Same Coin , published recently in The Digest.

Mark Burkitt

Westcott Research and Consulting [Home Page]

Article published 21 July 2013

If you would like to learn more about the topics discussed in this article it is recommended you read Dr Burkitt’s book, Healthy Eating Through Informed Choice, where you will find, for example, descriptions of the various types of fats and oils (saturates, monounsaturates, polyunsaturates, trans fats, omega-3 oils etc) and explanations of how they affect health.

The book also explains how emulsifiers act to prevent the oil and water in salad dressings from 'separating' (similar processes are involved in the packaging of fats and oils for transportation in the bloodstream).

Whilst the book is written in non-technical language and is intended primarily for readers with absolutely no background in science, it is hoped that trained scientists and health professionals will also find the material to be of interest – the book is extensive in its scope and challenges some of the conventional views on the role of nutrition in human disease.