Issue 34 / 12 September 2011

AS waistlines expand and our lives become more sedentary, the devastating impact of chronic disease rises inexorably across both the developing and developed world.

Next week, the United Nations will be shining a spotlight on what it calls the global epidemic of non-communicable disease at a landmark summit designed to set targets and strategies to reduce the toll.

The Secretary-General’s report ahead of the summit identifies a series of “best buys” — interventions deemed to be feasible, culturally acceptable and highly cost-effective.

Along with public education campaigns and measures to reduce consumption of alcohol and tobacco, these include interventions targeting the food industry — reduction of salt and sugar content in processed foods and replacement of trans fats with unsaturated fats.

Somehow, whenever we start talking about regulating the food industry, tempers start to fray. The unresolved debate over advertising junk food during children’s television programs is a prime example.

The ABC’s Lateline program reported last week that Australia, together with the US and Canada, has been trying to water down proposed recommendations from the UN summit.

In particular, our representatives have apparently been arguing for the removal of a paragraph from the draft declaration that calls on countries to implement “cost-effective interventions … to reduce saturated and trans fats in food … reduce salt and refined sugars in foods, including through discouraging the production and marketing … of unhealthy foods”.

Why is this so hard?

We do not even require labelling of the trans fat content of foods in this country, despite years of lobbying by public health groups such as the Heart Foundation based on the fats’ clear contribution to cardiovascular risk.

A 2009 report by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) found there was no need for increased regulation as the industry was already working to reduce trans fat content in foods. Average Australian consumption had declined as a result and was below the WHO-recommended maximum of 1 % of dietary intake, the report said.

Good news, although the report also found the efforts of fast food operators to reduce trans fat content were inconsistent, with those who were “less advanced” citing the higher cost of healthier fats as the chief problem in effecting change.

In the absence of mandatory labelling, consumers have no way of identifying these resistant operators, something the FSANZ report did not address. It also failed to consider that the toxic foodstuffs might impact disproportionately on some sectors of the population.

It wouldn’t be surprising, for example, if the 10 % of Australians whose trans fat intake was above the WHO-recommended level were more likely to come from socioeconomically disadvantaged groups who we know also bear a greater burden of chronic disease.

The FSANZ report identified saturated fats as a more important issue — the combined intake of saturated and trans fats in Australia was well above recommended levels — and it’s true trans fats are only part of the picture.

But it’s pretty hard to implement successful public health initiatives when people aren’t even told what’s in the food they consume.

Whether it’s salt, sugar or fat, our governments need to take the content of food seriously and not, as was suggested on Lateline, buckle under pressure from the food industry.

Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.

Posted 12 September 2011


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2 thoughts on “Jane McCredie: Watering down fat

  1. Rosemary Stanton says:

    It is hard to understand the reluctance to label trans fats. To say average intake is below problematic levels is silly and reminds me of the story of a man who couldn’t swim but wanted to cross a wide river. Onlookers told him the average depth was only 1 metre so he needn’t worry. He drowned! Some foods do contain high levels of trans fats and they are likely to end up in the same shopping trolley – eg. chicken nuggets, donuts, biscuits and snack foods.
    As for advertising, the food industry’s voluntary code has been shown to be ineffective and it is not applied during the times when kids actually watch TV (between 6-9pm). We can’t test whether removing ads for junk foods at these times will work because there are no two groups of children similar in all respects but with one watching TV and the other not. But do we need more proof than the food industry’s opposition? They wouldn’t spend millions on advertising if it didn’t work. Restricting ads for junk foods is highly likely to reduce consumption – which is what we need and what they don’t want.
    We need a government with sufficient backbone to stand up to industry. We also need the medical profession to continue with its lobbying efforts in this regard.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I think what also should be looked at is the pervasive practice of “strategically” placing McDonald’s outlets at children’s hospitals around the country and labelling some of this as charitable deeds in the context of “Ronald McDonald Foundation”. Shouldn’t these hospitals take an approach of greater integrity, even if they lose out on some of that money, and not have this “right in the face” marketing approach towards a vulnerable population?

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