Sweet Talk About Food Labels

Philippa Sandall, Alan Barclay, and Jennie Brand-MillerHi Alan.

I’ve still got a bee in my bonnet about oranges only getting 4½ stars when you ran them through the Australian Health Star Rating system for May GI News despite their being packed with good stuff like vitamin C, fibre, potassium, folate and over 170 different types of phytochemicals that have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-cancer effects. I find it hard to believe we have a star rating system that denies an all-natural whole food that comes straight off a tree and that’s been nowhere near a food manufacturing plant the full five. Next, you’ll tell me breast milk only gets 4½ stars.
– Cheers, Philippa

Hi Philippa.

I’m going to disappoint you. Breast milk doesn’t get 4½ stars. It gets three. As Jennie wrote in “Old Nutrition, New Nutrition” (GI News, December 2014) “If breast milk were sold in the dairy compartment, it would have at least two red marks – one for saturated fat and one for sugars – human milk, along with the milk from donkeys and minks, has the highest sugar content (i.e. per cent lactose), of any mammalian milk.” – Cheers, Alan.

Hi Alan.

This is heading into a classic Monty Python script. Only three stars for the food that Mother Nature designed for our babies as a perfect nutritional package with all the proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals they need to grow and thrive and fight infection because it contains lactose? – Cheers, Philippa

Hi Philippa.

Well, it’s the sugars problem (as it was with oranges), but this time there’s also no dietary fibre to push the star numbers up. The nub of the problem is that while the real concern is about added sugars in our food supply, we currently can’t separate added sugars from the sugars naturally present in a food or drink on food labels. So current star rating systems use the total sugars which are on the labels for their ratings, and bonus-points for fibre to adjust for less-refined carbohydrates.

Some definitions. “Added sugars” according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) are all the mono- and disaccharides added to foods by food manufacturers, cooks or consumers. “Free sugars” include all those added sugars, plus all the sugars naturally present in honey, syrups (e.g., agave, maple, rice), fruit juices and concentrates. “Total sugars” are the added sugars; plus all the sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and concentrates; plus the naturally occurring sugars in whole foods such as fruit, vegetables, grains, seeds, milk etc. Also, it’s important to remember that Australia’s health star rating system (like traffic lights) is actually meant for processed packaged foods not core foods – minimally processed fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds. One solution is to assign 5 stars to all core foods. The ratings system here is currently being reviewed to see what needs to be done to align it better with existing dietary guidelines. Australia’s need updating though of course. – Cheers, Alan.

Hi Alan and Philippa.

The algorithms that underpin traffic lights and rating stars are based on the old nutrition that has long passed its use-by date. Here are some reasons why.

  • The energy content (calories/kilojoules) of a food is not alone the best way to judge a food – lentils and licorice have the same energy density.
  • The fat content of food is not alone the best way to judge a food – nuts have more fat and are more energy dense than French fries.
  • The sugars content is not alone the best way to judge a food – fruit is full of sugars.
  • The sodium content is not alone the best way to judge a food – soft drinks are low in sodium.
  • They ignore micronutrients – vitamins, most minerals (other than sodium) and phytochemicals.
  • They ignore one important proven attribute of foods in the new nutrition – their glycemic load per serving. This factor is proven to influence appetite and the risk of developing diabetes. Appetite matters.

Appetite is what drives our energy intake. It is not possible to balance energy intake and energy expenditure by counting calories. Firstly, no one knows how many calories they expend each day. Even if you could, the calories on the food label are not precise enough. Secondly, mathematical modelling shows that a small but persistent excess of only 7 calories or 30 kilojoules per day over and above energy requirements for 10 years underlies the current epidemic of obesity. Here in Australia, I’d like to see a food label system that:

  • Focused on the positive – not just the negative.
  • Tied in with our dietary guidelines (which need updating).
  • Rated foods according to their contribution to desirable macronutrient and micronutrient intakes.
  • Used Adam Drewnowski’s Nutrient Rich Foods Index, which rates individual foods based on their overall nutritional value, as an essential component.
  • Encouraged higher protein intake, particularly from plant sources like legumes.
  • Distinguished effectively between naturally occurring and added sugars.

– Cheers, Jennie

Read more: Milk composition species table.

This article, by Philippa Sandall, Alan Barclay, and Jennie Brand-Miller, was originally published in the GI News. With thanks to the authors, we urge you to check out the GI News and subscribe here.

Subscribe by email to follow the accumulating evidence and observations that shape our view of health, obesity, and policy.


June 2, 2018

2 Responses to “Sweet Talk About Food Labels”

  1. June 02, 2018 at 9:58 pm, John Dixon said:

    If we could just channel Jennie and make nutrition logical, practical and common sense. Breast milk and oranges are excellent foods and we don’t need macronutrient evangelists.

    Keep up the good fight Jennie.

  2. June 03, 2018 at 12:14 pm, David Stone said:

    “Secondly, mathematical modelling shows that a small but persistent excess of only 7 calories or 30 kilojoules per day over and above energy requirements for 10 years underlies the current epidemic of obesity.”

    Yes, it is well known that a persistent positive energy balance will inevitably result in gain of weight (the law of Conservation of Energy applies to humans, too), and the larger the increment, the greater/faster the gain. But just to clarify the above quote, merely adding 7 Cals to one’s energy intake at the start (that is, eating 2007 instead of 2000 Cals for 10 years) will not result in a gain in weight of even 1 pound. That’s because as weight is very slowly gained, energy needs very slowly also increase to carry/manage the extra weight and thereby offset the 7-Cal excess intake. To keep the gain going, a new higher intake (moving the goal post, as it were) must occur. By the time a person has gained from a BMI of, say, 23 to a BMI of 30, the difference in intake vs. the starting intake will be far above 7 Cals. Perhaps the latter scenario is what the author had in mind.

    And I agree with John Dixon.