MARCH 2014 WHAT’S HOT IN NUTRITION UPDATE
World Health Organization draft guidelines on sugar released
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently released draft guidelines on sugar intakes, having conducted new analysis of the research surrounding the effects of sugar on tooth decay and sugar on obesity. The report still recommends that intake of added sugars and sugar naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit concentrates should aim to be <10% of our total energy intake but it has gone on to recommend that reducing intake to <5% would have additional benefits to health.
Of course, these are only recommendations, which we are advised to follow in order to protect our health. However, Dame Sally Davies (England’s Chief Medical Officer) has said to the Commons Health Select Committee that the government may need to introduce a sugar tax. This is not new news with prominent Health Care Professionals mentioning that a 20% tax, particularly on sugar-laden fizzy drinks, could help reduce the number of obese people in the UK by 180,000. They state that a move towards legislation is necessary as the Responsibility Deal has not been effective enough in reducing calorie content of the high fat and sugar foods we eat.
The move toward legislating sugar is unlikely to be implemented any time soon but is certainly something that needs to be kept an eye on.
On this note, there was due to be an important meeting with Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) on 27th February to discuss the relationship between carbohydrates and health this meeting was cancelled in place of an ‘extra-ordinary’ meeting on 9th April which will be used to help form the draft publication of the findings in summer 2014. This will be a big report, which, particularly in light of recent media coverage, will likely lead to amends in public recommendations, including whether the government will take the big step of putting a tax on sugar.
‘Lighter’ cheeses are proving popular
Whilst the nation’s waistlines expand, our desire to try and curb our calorie and fat intake surges. However, trend predictors for 2014 have stated that consumers are increasingly looking for products that are ‘naturally healthy’ rather than products that have been modified to try and be healthier.
It would seem though, that cheese is one area where this trend is not proving to be true as sales of ‘lighter cheese’ are booming with sales up 5.6% and value up 2.8% to £70million. In terms of fat reductions, lighter cheeses offer a 13% reduction in fat content compared to standard cheddar. Interestingly however, sales of ‘half-fat’ cheeses, which have a significantly lower fat content than lighter cheeses, are declining. It would seem, therefore, that shoppers are switching from full-fat to reduced-fat cheeses but trading up from half-fat. What this implies therefore is that consumers wish to reduce their calorie intake but perhaps not at the expense of taste.
Tesco pledges to help make our nation healthier
In March 2013, Tesco, the UK’s largest retailer, pledged to play its part in a massive health promotion campaign about the risks of diabetes linked to lifestyle and obesity by raising more than £10 million for Diabetes UK. This is certainly a worthwhile campaign considering that there are 2.5 million individuals who suffer with type 2 diabetes and over seven million who are at risk of developing it in the future; all at a huge financial cost to the NHS.
However, whilst Tesco has shown that it can be a heavyweight for fundraising, it also is playing its own role in helping consumers eat healthier. In November 2013, Tesco launched a ten-point action plan for soft drinks in order to cut the sugar content of their own-label soft drink products. They have also developed a ‘Health and Wellness’ category, which focuses on drinks with specific health benefits, such as added vitamins. The reason for this move, says Tesco, is that they believe that this area is one of the high growth categories in 2014. Indeed, throughout 2014 they plan to extend this further by introducing more products that specifically target consumer health.
To add to this mission, Tesco is also launching free ‘health tours’ of its stores in a bid to help consumers wean themselves off foods high in salt, fat and sugar. The tours, which are being trialed in 13 Tesco Extra stores across England, are aiming to help customers get more information about labelling and the content of their foods so that they can develop healthier diets.
Anything that educates and encourages consumers to become more engaged and take control of their eating habits can only be of benefit in terms of improving public health, however having more educated consumers means that brands’ health credentials will be under even more scrutiny.
The government is finally set to decide about fortifying flour with folic acid
After more than twenty-three years of back and forth, it finally looks as if the government is set to make a decision on whether the UK should implement mandatory fortification of flour with folic acid.
The reason behind mandatory folic acid supplementation in the first place is that there is strong evidence that consuming higher folic acid intakes before pregnancy and during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy can reduce the risk of the baby developing neural tube defects. Spina bifida is the most common neural tube defect and the UK has the highest rates in Europe. However, concerns have been raised by the recently released results of the National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) which show that the population as a whole is not getting enough folate. In addition, a new study of 500,000 women attending antenatal clinics in England found that fewer than one in three women took folic acid before becoming pregnant despite being advised to do so. It has also been shown that folic acid may have a cardio protective effect.
Therefore, whilst on paper it looks as if mandatory folic acid fortification of flour can only be a good thing the reason for the twenty year, back and forth debate is that this plan would effectively remove any choice for the consumer and secondly and perhaps more importantly is that increased folic acid fortification to flour may actually be harmful to older generations. This is because, folic acid can mask B12 deficiency in this age group, which if left untreated can lead to devastating damage to the nervous system.
In this delicate balance between individual rights and national wellbeing, it will be interesting to see which line the government goes down.
Vegetarian diets linked to lower blood pressure
A meta analysis published this week in a major medical journal (Journal of the American Medial Association) by Dr. Neil Barnard et al. confirmed a very promising health benefit of being a vegetarian: a substantially lower blood pressure than omnivores, with the effect being about half as strong as taking a medication.
This is not overly new news with observational studies carried out by DASH (Dietary Approached to Stop Hypertension) reporting similar findings. What is new with the Barnard study is that the meta-analysis used is one of the highest quality pieces of research evidence out there and that the findings show a really good average blood pressure lowering effect of a vegetarian diet.
This is of interest as vegetarianism is on the up, with the horse-meat scandal and consumers’ increased desire to eat more healthily being two influential factors. The story gains more weight when you factor in the fact that anti-hypertensive medications could be reduced or even stopped if patients are encouraged to increasingly choose a vegetarian style diet.
Mediterranean diet to battle dementia
The Mediterranean diet is one that is high in fruit, vegetables, legumes, cereals and mono-unsaturated oils (such as nuts, olives and olive oil), with moderate consumption of fish, white meat and alcohol. Saturated fats and red meat are avoided. The composition of this diet has long been associated with improved positive health outcomes, including decreased risk from suffering with coronary heart disease, certain cancers, hypertension, hypercholesteremia and type 2 diabetes.
However, the Mediterranean diet is now also being linked as a tool to help prevent the onset of dementia. Reviews of various studies as well as new research carried out in 2013 has shown that people on a Mediterranean diet had better cognitive function, lower rates of cognitive decline and a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
These findings arrived just in time to be presented at a crucial summit in London (December 2013), where the G8 group of nations met to plan a new approach to researching and treating the disease. Such plans are desperately needed considering that the condition currently costs the world an estimated £370billion a year.
This renewed interest in the Mediterranean diet is likely to remain in the press, especially as experts from Britain, France, the United States, Italy and Greece all have signed a letter to David Cameron and Jeremy Hunt calling for governments to invest more in teaching the public, including children, about the benefits of a healthy diet and lifestyle, based around a Mediterranean diet.