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Shopping for ‘healthy’ food? It’s a minefield

Making the “right” food choice isn’t easy. Tavallai

Let me ask you, do you enjoy your food? When you cook, do you aim for nutritious or delicious? Delicious and nutritious aren’t mutually exclusive, of course. But eating for pleasure as opposed to treating food as fuel are quite different propositions.

Even from the perspective of someone who never eats take-away of the deep-fried mega-chain variety, making the “right” choice is not straightforward but confronts you with contradictions and conflicting advice and beliefs.

As for calorie counting, I don’t know how many people actually know how many calories, or kilojoules, they are supposed to eat each day. Perhaps devotees of The Biggest Loser might know, but counting your energy input daily is actually a really big ask and quite a time-consuming and confusing process.

The weight loss companies understand this and although, WeightWatchers® for example, currently uses ProPoints™, the number to reach is around 26 per day rather than the thousands of kilojoules required by us all. Furthermore, to encourage people to eat more nutitious foods, WeightWatchers® places zero value on all fruit and veggies.

But we’re still bombarded with media articles telling us to take stock of our collective health by managing our food intake. It’s simple: make the right food decisions, choose the right products and raw ingredients and cook something nutritious and healthy for dinner each night. Give up take-aways and fast food, buy fresh and wholesome. Just follow the guidelines in the Food for Health guide and we’ll all be better off.


So why, if it’s this easy, is it so hard?

With the draft Australian Dietary Guidelines in hand, let’s head to the supermarket. For breakfast, we need to buy a wholegrain cereal – Guideline 1. That can’t be hard, the aisle is packed with more varieties that you can count, each box painted in bright primary colours and covered in healthy heart ticks and wholegrain ticks. And the words “natural” and “healthy” repeat over and over down the aisle.

Here’s a cereal made from five whole grains, it must be good, right? But a closer look at the really small writing on the nutrition panel states that the product is 13% sugar. Another choice states that 26% of the product is sugar, and some of those healthy cereals for growing kids are up to a whopping 32% sugar.

Not only does Guideline 2 tell us to limit the intake of foods containing sugars, but David Gillespie has been telling us how dangerous sugar is and extolling the virtues of a sugar-free diet in the quest for weight management and a reduced likelihood of contracting Type 2 diabetes.

Yes, we can choose oats (have you noticed no one says porridge anymore?), a cheap and healthy alternative providing it hasn’t been toasted in oil and sweetened with sugars. But occasionally we do want a really quick alternative if we’re a little rushed.

Australia’s favourite breakfast wheat biscuit contains just under 4% sugar. It pays to search through the shelves; some brands have far less sugar. But be aware, less sugar usually means more of something else to make the bland biscuit tastier.

Peter Guthrie

Let’s go with wholemeal bread instead and have toast for breakfast. A similarly dazzling display of breads accosts you in the aisle. The supersized loaves of super-processed product are labelled two for $5; the “farmhouse” and “country” type with more whole-grains are twice as much.

Now, bread is a simple product, but these packages contain a scary concoction of chemicals and additives all designed to keep the bread fresh longer, give it softness, an even set of small airy holes and to give it back some of the goodness that’s lost when the flour was super-milled. But perhaps the most disturbing additive is the salt.

Guideline 2 states that we should limit the intake of foods containing salt. But, salt isn’t an ingredient mentioned in the nutrition panel. You have to look for sodium. We all know that’s the component of salt that we should measure, right? Well, do we? Some of these packaged breads contain 585mg sodium in every three slices. That’s more than the daily allowance recommended in the Australian and New Zealand Dietary Guidelines for children aged 12 months to three years and pretty close to the upper level for children aged four to eight.

Good grief, what a minefield. Let’s go to McDonald’s. Bacon and egg McMuffin is 1240 kJ. That’s good, right? An English muffin is 618 kJ so we may as well have it filled with bacon and egg. Easy, no fuss. But here we are back to trying to remember how many kilojoules we need each day and what, if anything, is wrong with a McMuffin.

But one of the things that McDonald’s gets right is making food sound enjoyable, a happy experience. Isn’t that what’s missing in the “eat right” messages? Enjoyment and pleasure, taste and flavour?

A paper examining food and eating habits of the French and Americans notes that the French eat a diet containing more fat and more wine than Americans but paradoxically, they live longer, a fact that has been subject to considerable research over time. The study finds that while Americans worry about the food they eat, the French see food as a pleasure, a joy.

What’s more, the French eat more slowly, eat smaller portions, a more varied diet and enjoy a more sociable experience when eating. According to the World Health Statistics 2012, in 2009, the average life expectancy in France was 81 while the average life expectancy for an American was 79. In Australia, our life expectancy in 2009 was 82, beaten only by the residents of Japan and San Marino who, on average, lived to be 83.

Eating is a more sociable experience for the French. Joshua Rappeneker

We’re being made to feel guilty and inadequate when it comes to food. We are not being helped by the creeping additives, sly sugars and salt being slipped into staples or the bigger portions being served up in stores and food outlets. And the fat-free, nutritious offerings suggested by the Food Guides are just not appetising.

In fact, those scientists researching taste agree that people don’t find low-fat, low-salt, low-calorie foods as satisfying as the full fat variety.

Furthermore, the dietary guidelines would encourage us to eat reduced fat margarine, a highly manufactured product, rather than a moderate serve of flavourful natural butter, straight from a cow. Heavens, “butter tastes better” was a slogan in the 1980s and it’s still true today.

We must be doing something right if we’re living to such a grand age. Perhaps it’s time to rethink our eating messages and put enjoyment and sociability back into our food guidelines.

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