bite my words

Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


Jamie Oliver and the hypocritical sugar tax

Jamie Oliver's Apple Berry Crisp contains over 5 tsp of sugar in a teensy tiny 100 g serving (i.e. 1/10th of this box)

Jamie Oliver’s Apple Berry Crisp contains over 5 tsp of sugar in a teensy tiny 100 g serving (i.e. 1/10th of this box)

This opinion piece about the proposed sugar tax in the UK left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I agree, Jamie Oliver is an hypocritical patronizing bully (remember that time he said “poor people” could well afford to cook better meals if they all have tellies?). On the other hand, the alternative solutions to the sugar tax offered in the article are quite likely to be even less effective. And I’m not being instilled with confidence by the author’s bio: “Alex Deane is an Executive Board Member of the People Against Sugar Tax campaign. He has a spare tyre, because he’s freely chosen to eat too much.” 

According to their website the PAST don’t receive any funding from food and beverage companies, only from private individuals. Of course, there’s no telling precisely who those individuals are and whether or not they have any ties to the food industry. PAST states that by not seeking money from food or drinks companies, “It means that people can be confident that our campaign has no conflicts of interests, and that we are the voice of the people”. Assuming it’s true, that all their money comes from people who just really don’t want to pay extra for pop, I’m still not sure that makes them the voice of the people. People who have money to burn on campaigns against campaigns against sugar certainly aren’t likely to be your average citizens. Interesting, considering that their central argument against the sugar tax is that it will be most damaging to people living in poverty. Since when do a bunch of conservatives and libertarians care about people who are struggling to make ends meet? I guess when it’s convenient to use them to make their argument sound noble.

I too have said that a sugar tax will unfairly hurt people living on limited incomes. I too don’t believe that a tax on sugar is the answer. However, I don’t think that the so-called solutions proposed by the PAST are any better, in fact, I think they detract from the real problems. Suggesting that improved nutrition labelling and “encouraging children to do more exercise” are far more patronising “solutions to obesity” in my mind than a sugar tax would be. Come on. These solutions once again place the onus on the individual and as a result imply that we all just need to make better choices. If only we could understand nutrition labels and get off our fat lazy asses a little more we would all be slim and fit and healthy. No matter that neither of these solutions addresses their central argument. You think that people living in poverty are going to benefit from improved nutrition labels and being told to exercise more as long as they don’t have to pay extra tax on pop and candy? This makes no sense at all.

The onus needs to stop being placed on the individuals. Sugary treats should be more expensive. Not because a higher tax is placed on them though, but because the food industry is no longer subsidized and offered tax breaks to create these products. Grocery stores could also stop selling these items as “loss leaders”, stop accepting money from the companies making these products to place them in prominent displays, stop giving them the prime eye-level shelves, and selling them at checkouts. Other stores that by all rights should not be selling food (I’m looking at you office supply stores, house-ware shops…) could stop selling candy and other food. Until we start realising that profit is not the be all and end all, and that the abundance of food, particularly “sometimes” foods that should not be consumed on a daily basis, is actually costing us more as a society in healthcare significant change in obesity rates and lifestyle related diseases is unlikely. We need to change our environment and shift our priorities. The presence or absence of a sugar tax is not the answer and arguing about it is taking us farther away from the real problems at hand.


Reverse food snobbery: Who has time to cook lasagna after work?

My friend Meaghan shared the above infographic with me last week to see what I thought. I thought that it was worthy of a blog post.

I think that it’s over simplifying a complex issue. How can you possibly put frozen peas in the same category as a packaged frozen lasagna? Frozen peas (and other frozen vegetables) are picked and frozen at their prime, meaning that they’re often more nutritious than their “fresh” counterparts on grocery store shelves. However, as you can see, even with their selection of lasagna, you’re going to be hard-pressed to find a frozen lasagna that’s as healthy and nutritious as one that’s homemade. Who the heck is cooking lasagna as a weekday supper anyhow? Ain’t nobody got time for that! Let’s see some more realistic comparisons of quick and easy homemade suppers.

I’m not sure what the deal is with the packaged stir-fry pictured on the infographic. It appears to be a box but I would think that they’re referring to a frozen stir-fry mix. Sure, if you’re buying the frozen mixed vegetables without a sauce, they’re going to be easy to turn into a healthy stir-fry. However, if they’re already coated in a sauce you’re probably going to get more sodium, sugar, and fat (possibly trans fat) than you would if you made your own sauce.

Minimally processed packaged foods can be a great healthy time saver. However, you can’t equate buying pre-cut vegetables with a frozen tv dinner. As a dietitian, one of the main messages I hope to impart on people is the importance of cooking their own meals. If you’re trying to lose weight or just to be healthier this is probably the best thing you can do for yourself. And sorry, but taking a box out of the freezer and nuking it doesn’t count as cooking. I’d like to see the true cost of the frozen meals they’re pushing if you also factored in the shortened health-spans due to poor nutrition.

There’s also the not so subtle “reverse snobbery” (I’m stealing that one Meaghan) in the post accompanying the infographic. The implication that the average person doesn’t have time to cook and that their time is far too valuable to be spent *gasp* cooking. Yes, we’re all terribly busy, although we do somehow manage to find time to watch Big Brother or binge watch Orange is the New Black. I think that we, as a society, need to re-evaluate our priorities and put cooking right up near the top. The thing is, cooking doesn’t need to be a long torturous laborious process. There are plenty of healthy and delicious meals that you can whip up in less than half an hour after work. If you’re cooking for more than one, you can also enlist the help of other members of the household. You can prep ingredients the night before or batch cook on your days off. You can make extra portions so that you can have your own homemade nutritious frozen dinners ready to grab when you’re short on time. Cooking is not a luxury. It’s a necessity.


The bigger problem with the cosy relationship between dietitians and the food industry


Lots of drama in the dietetic world last week. No, I’m not talking about the wildly popular Dietitians Day. First, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) in the US brokered a facepalm worthy deal with Kraft to have their logo placed on process cheese slices. Dietitians everywhere (myself included) were outraged, certainly not shocked, but definitely outraged. And rightfully so. How are people supposed to take us seriously when an organization claiming to represent thousands of dietitians is promoting process cheese. A product that the majority of us would neither consume nor recommend to clients. On the defensive, AND released a statement (you may need to scroll down a bit to find the post) claiming that the prominent placement of their logo on the process cheese was not indicative of endorsement. Rather, the logo was indicative of Kraft’s support of AND. Right. We all know that doesn’t matter. It’s the perception that matters and everyone perceived the placement of the AND logo as an endorsement of the questionable product. Especially since the initial accompanying pronouncement stated that AND was proud to have their logo appearing on Kraft singles as many children don’t consume enough calcium and vitamin D. AND will be forming a committee to address the concerns of members regarding this deal with Kraft, in MAY. If you agree that this “partnership” is wrong then please take a minute to sign the petition asking AND to “repeal the seal”.

Hot on the heels of the AND Kraft debacle was the news that a number of dietitians had promoted mini-Coke cans as “healthy snacks”. These dietitians were likely all paid for selling their souls this work, although one of them couldn’t recall if she was paid by Coke or not. Gee, I wish I was making so much money that I could forget whether or not I was paid for something. While I hate to rag on fellow dietitians, it frustrates me to no end to hear of others doing such a disservice to our profession.

Both of these stories exemplify how the relationship between the food industry and dietetics/dietitians undermines our integrity as health professionals. There is a larger problem here. Dietetic organizations need sources of funding that do not come with conflicts of interest. Dietitians need more and better job opportunities. I understand that it’s a tough job market. Believe me, I’m not raking in the dough and I’m only quasi working as a dietitian. However, I would sooner give-up my status as a registered dietitian than to use it to promote questionable food and beverage choices. With the constantly changing science and messages in nutrition it’s hard enough to convince people to trust us. Is it really worth sacrificing our credibility to make a buck?

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Why McDonald’s hipster cafe is a scary development


Did you know that McDonald’s is running a “hipster” café called The Corner in Australia? Apparently, after failed attempts to add more nutritious items to the regular McDonald’s menu, McDonald’s has decided to make the effort to capture the more health-conscious consumer by starting a new operation.

It’s difficult to say whether or not the food actually is more nutritious than the traditional McDonald’s fare. They don’t have the nutrition information posted online and seem only to have a facebook page. According to reviewers in this article the food is more upscale than that at McDonald’s. However, it still has that mass manufactured quality to it. Nothing truly artisan about it.

Okay, so without knowledge of the nutrition information, what’s my issue with this Corner Café? You know I must have an issue with it or I wouldn’t be blogging about it! My issue is the domination of our food industry by just a few players.

In grocery stores we see more and more small, quality, ethical companies being purchased by the giants. Starbucks is notorious for swooping in, saturating markets, and edging out the competition. We have Monsanto controlling most of the seeds used to grow our food. McDonald’s is already the most ubiquitous “restaurant” in the world. Now we have them masquerading as a local coffee shop. Allowing giant companies to own (read: control) our food is a dangerous road that we’re already pretty far down.

When there aren’t enough players in the game prices can be driven-up and quality can be neglected. We also run the risk of disaster if something happens along the food supply chain if everything’s coming from one place.

Maybe I’m being alarmist; maybe not. Personally, I’d rather err on the side of caution and support a local café rather than McDonald’s.


Should the food industry be allowed at the obesity debate?


This article: Food firms could be out of the obesity debate baffled me. The by-line reads: “Food and drink manufacturers must emphasize the role of exercise in reducing obesity or risk being sidelined in the debate and hit with stricter regulation, according to new research.” What? Isn’t that exactly what many food and beverage companies are doing? I seem to remember Coke, for example, having an ad campaign based around how many calories it takes to burn off a coke. Isn’t this one of the biggest problems with the current debate? That you can out-run your fork? That food manufacturers want us to believe that we’re fat because we don’t move enough, not because we’re not eating properly? Sorry, hate to break it to ya, but the most important factor in losing, and maintaining weight loss, is diet. And the best way to attain a healthy diet is to prepare it ourselves rather than relying on packaged, processed, manufactured foods.

Of course, the by-line obscures one of the major recommendations of the research. That recommendation is that the role of public health in education and health programming should be emphasized. Sadly, they do state that food manufacturers should be making greater efforts to reformulate their products to meet the weight management needs of the consumers. Honestly, I think this is a fool’s errand. It’s been done before; and look where all those low-fat and fat-free products got us? Here. Greater import needs to be placed on cooking and the food system needs to be restructured so that “junk” foods are no longer subsidized, while fruits and vegetables are.

I for one, don’t see it as any great tragedy if the food industry was to be sidelined in the obesity debate. Frankly, their inclusion only serves their interests and keeps the mistaken belief that individual responsibility is the key to conquering obesity alive.