Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Heart Foundation gives us a fat chance of chosing healthy foods

“Down, down, prices are down”.

If you haven’t heard this ditty by now you probably live on Mars. Most of us find it rather annoying, yet it is such a catchy tune – thanks to Status Quo from the seventies era - it’s hard to get it out of your mind!

And whilst Coles are reaping the rewards from their campaign to bring prices down, down, there is another reality facing both the retailers and consumers alike: Our obesity levels are, “Up, up and staying up”.

Ironically, as we celebrate our young athletes at the Olympics, the reality for many of us back home is that we are losing the battle of the bulge. In fact the level of obesity in Australia has risen from 8% of the population in 1980, to over 23% in 2011. And our kids are doing their ‘bit’ to help the “Up, up” campaign: 1.5 million children under the age of 18 are now obese. Not just fat, but obese! That’s almost a quarter of all kids.

Recently the Heart Foundation launched a really scary campaign depicting the fat that we don’t see; from ‘inside’ our fat stomachs. It was powerful and confronting.

As someone who has faced ‘terminal’ cancer and headed-up a number of well-known cancer charities, I am passionate about good health and the need to educate my fellow Australians about ‘good’ food and what is ‘lousy’ food. But why aren’t people listening?

Maybe it’s because it’s all too hard. After all one of the amazing things about our bodies is that the natural ‘live’ mechanism within all of us will always encourage us to eat; and to eat sweet, high simple-carbohydrate foods such as sugar for storage in order to protect ourselves from the possibility of a future famine. Clever eh?

No wonder it is so hard to say ‘no’ to another slice of pizza or another piece of chocolate when the brain is sending out strong signals to tell us, “Hey it’s OK. You deserve it and one more piece won’t really make that much difference.” Sadly, it will.

The other reason why we seem to be losing to war against fat is that we don’t know who to believe any more in helping us to make healthy food choices. Manufacturers of processed food essentially self-regulate themselves as to what they print of the food products they flog us at our favourite supermarkets.

Industry groups such as the Australian Food & Grocery Council (AFGC) have long argued against the three-tiered ‘traffic light’ system of grading foods from ‘green’ for healthy to ‘red’ for unhealthy, arguing that industry is ‘responsible’ enough to regulate itself to ensure consumers are not mislead. Yeah, sure!

But the story of why we just can’t win actually has a darker side. Take the Heart Foundation who most Australians see as a highly respected charity that does enormously good work in helping prevent heart disease. But like all charities-and believe me I know-a lack of money is the greatest obstacle to getting the message out there.

So it was to the foundation’s credit that they were smart enough to create the now-famous and respected Tick marketing campaign to help consumers make healthy food choices.

What many consumers don’t know of course is that the foundation actually sells the Tick and pockets over $2.5 million a year from providing endorsements.

There is nothing wrong with that as the money is used for a ‘good cause’.

But what happens when the need for more cash meets the power of some of the world’s biggest food corporations who desperately want their products to enjoy high credibility with consumers through endorsements such as the Tick?

Sadly for us, and our kids, things start to become more than just a little questionable.

Take a walk down the isle of any Coles store (or Woolworths for that matter) and make your way to the where cereals are displayed, you may start to become worried. There in front of you is a barrage of messages about ‘iron-man’, ‘high energy’ and ‘rich-in-nutrients’ food and so on.

My cousin, who has two young children, regularly buys Milo Cereal, from the giant Nestle Group, as it has been ‘awarded’ the Heart Foundation Tick. Yet a careful inspection of the ingredients panel shows this cereal contains over 28% of pure sugar. Now that’s almost one third of the entire contents of the box. And my cousin is feeding this stuff to her kids every morning?

It gets worse. Kellogg’s Fruit Cheerios also gets the Tick. Less sugar than Milo Cereal and it does have ‘fruit flavours’. But then of course the lovely ‘fruity’ colours come from artificial colourings. So if you want to get your kids off to a ‘bouncing’ start each morning this might be the way to go. Probably have them climbing the walls!

The misinformation becomes even more confusing with the Heart Foundation saying, “....Sugar is not a Tick criterion because ..... sugar is not directly linked to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, or obesity. "

Yet, according to the highly respected nutritionist, Dr Rosemary Stanton, Sugar has ... now been officially listed as a heart disease risk.”

Dr Stanton went on to say, “Often the Tick does not translate into healthy choices for consumers, but it does increase sales of the products receiving the Tick."

And in the middle of all this, we have our fruit and vegetable industry with their meagre budget trying to tell the truth about how good their products are for us. And they are!

Compared to places such as Mexico however, we are going relatively well. Mexico now has the fastest growth in obesity amongst children in the world. The fact that Coca-Cola supplies thousands of schools with bottled Coke for the kids to enjoy each morning might just have something to do with it.

Most of us know that food is big business. Money really counts, and food industry giants have the fire-power to overwhelm us all with whatever ‘health’ message their marketing gurus determine.

But when our most respected charities succumb to the need for fundraising over informing us about what really sits in the box with the Tick, you really have to wonder if the race to slow our obesity epidemic is already lost?

Maybe I’ll skip the veggie juice and just have another bowl of Cheerios.

Ross Taylor is a cancer survivor, advocate and is the author of  Creating Health..Yourself.

August 2012

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