Expiry dates, sugar intake and other food lessons

LISTEN: Expiry dates, sugar intake and other food lessons

Is sugar addictive? Are there any studies, which haven’t been discredited, proving that GM food is harmful to humans? Should we take best-before dates on food seriously? How much of produced food ends up being wasted?

Food Congress - pancakes

Listen to Wendy on the topic below, or read the details under the podcast.

These are dozens of questions which food scientists from around the world addressed at the South African Association for Food Science and Technology's (SAAFoST)  international congress in Cape Town. 

So here’s a little of what went down:

Substituting breast milk

Growing Up milk, sold by the same companies that produce infant formula, but aimed at toddlers (children from one to three-years-old) is totally unnecessary, according to the World Health Organisation. 

Johannesburg-based dietician Jane Badham says it’s all about slick marketing. Children can be given cow’s milk from the age of one. 

So-called breast milk substitutes are a massive market and the Growing Up products make up the biggest section of that market. They are sold alongside the formulas for babies from birth to six months, and six to 12 months in each range. So it’s a natural for parents to assume that they need to keep spending money on formulas until the child is three, Badham says.

“There’s no doubt that a huge amount of marketing spend is put behind these products, because they are very lucrative. And the problem with public health messaging is our government doesn’t have the money to compete against the huge budgets spent by these companies, so mothers and caregivers aren’t hearing the message loudly enough that these products are not necessary.”

Myths about sugar

As for the sugar debate, there’s no such thing as a sugar rush, says UCT’s Jacques Rousseau. 

“There are no studies proving that sugar causes hyperactivity. Children are hyperactive at parties whatever you feed them.”

And sugar isn’t addictive either, he says. The food substance which is an additive is caffeine. People who binge on sugar have poor impulse control. 

“You don’t see people breaking into houses to fund their sugar addition,” he says.  

Sugar is a major contributor to obesity but according to food scientist, Nigel Sunley, a major study into effective strategies to combat obesity worldwide had put a sugar tax quite far down the list. At the top of the list is portion control - smaller cans of fizzy drinks, and reformulating foods to be less fattening.

Sunley did have some very harsh words for the industry - he had sent a survey via the Consumer Goods Council to food companies, asking what they were doing to combat the obesity crisis and the response was abysmal, he said. 

Denone had the best response, outlining its plans to reduce sugar in its products. Woolies got rid of all the sweets and chocolates in the check-out queue, which I know had a dramatic effect on sales. Doing the right thing even when it hurts your bottom line is admirable.

Incidentally SA’s health promotion levy, also known as the sugar-sweetened beverages tax, has been delayed until April 2018.

How expiry dates work

On the subject of “expiry dates”, I learnt that a study conducted last year by DSM Nutritional Products revealed that expiry dates are the number one thing South African adults look for on a food pack.

That’s the good news. The bad news is most South Africans don’t understand how expiry dates work and it doesn’t help that there are three different ones.

Best-before (BB) dates are found mostly on shelf-stable foods such as canned goods, pasta, coffee and biscuits, are about food quality and taste, not safety.

So eating a biscuit a few weeks or even months past, its best by date may not taste great but it’s highly unlikely to make you ill. It’s not illegal for shops to sell food past its best before date, not without discounting the price. 

So don’t throw away food that’s perfectly safe to eat, instead do your bit to reverse an awful food waste statistic. About 30% of all food produced is wasted rather than consumed.

Use-by dates, on the other hand, are about safety. So don’t risk eating food past its use-by date. And it’s illegal to sell or donate food which is past its use-by date because of the health risks.

Sell-by dates were introduced by retailers for stock management purposes - they give consumers two to three days to eat in their homes after purchase.

The 'buffalo' in Buffalo mozzarella

Finally, I learnt that just because the pack or the menu says it’s buffalo mozzarella, it doesn’t mean that a buffalo had anything to do with the cheese.

Buffalo mozzarella is made from the milk of domesticated water buffalo of which most of it is imported from Italy. There’s one local supplier in the Cape. 

Jana du Plessis of FACTS in Cape Town - Food and Allergy Consulting and Testing Services - revealed that she’d DNA tested 16 samples of so-called buffalo mozzarella from both supermarkets and restaurants. Of those, 11 were indeed made from buffalo mozzarella and five did not.

But of those five - three were from Cape Town restaurants, and pretty expensive ones at that. 

That’s food fraud and a rip-off. We don’t know if the restaurants knowingly passed off cow’s milk mozzarella as buffalo or if it’s their suppliers who are pulling a fast one. Sadly, Jana didn’t confront or name those restaurants.

But I intend to send them some samples of my own from Durban restaurants to expand their sample size a bit.

And I won’t be shy to confront and name those restaurants who are passing off.

Is genetically modified food harmful?

As for that GM question - are there any studies proving that GM food is harmful to humans? Apparently not. The rats-with-tumours study which the GM lobby quotes has been retracted because those rats were bred to develop tumours no matter what they ate. 

The movie Food Evolution, commissioned by the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) provides fascinating insights into the war on GM foods and was screened at the congress. It has caused a stir in the US where it premiered in June. 

In its review, Daniel M Gold of the New York Times said: “With a soft tone, respectful to opponents but insistent on the data, “Food Evolution” posits an inconvenient truth for organic boosters to swallow: In a world desperate for safe, sustainable food, GMOs may well be a force for good.”

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