Should you care about what you eat?

Should you care about what you eat?

The food industry, and consumers obsesses over food safety issue, but while underplaying the real threat to humans: the nutritional content of the food.

Should you care about what you eat?

That was the gist of a presentation by food science and technology consultant Nigel Sunley at the SA Association for Food Science and Technology (SAAFoST) Congress held on Durban’s beachfront earlier this week.

He argued that food safety has become a huge industry, with food manufacturers forced to have multiple expensive, time consuming audits done, when only a tiny percentage of people die as a result of food poisoning,  versus a global epidemic of hypertension, diabetes, and cancer, largely linked to poor nutritional choices.

As he put it - individual, high profile food safety cases with a short-term impact versus the ongoing slow death nutrition cases with a lower profile.

I get that - people complain to me about food - imitation cream cakes, or sweet biscuits, for example being past their ‘best by’ dates or finding a worm in a chocolate bar, or even all that drama about the infamous KFC chicken washing, but they are seemingly unconcerned about the nutritional value or lack of it in the safe food they’re eating.

To underline his point, Sunley trawled some statistics - American stats, since we don’t have any and came up with this… 

Statistics you need to know  

In 2014, 71 people died from various forms of food poisoning in the US, in a population of almost 319 million people.

In 2013 the number of people who died from diet-related medical conditions - heart disease, cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure - was 1,4 million. Given that not all of those deaths could have been diet related, he took a conservative 5% of that number to come up with 71 500 cases.

71 deaths from food poisoning in a year, compared with at least 71 000 deaths from bad eating habits the year before. 

And worldwide food product recall statistics suggest that there is no cause for alarm over food safety issues, Sunley said.

His conclusion: we should be far more concerned about poor nutritional quality as a threat a public health than food safety.

Yet food safety gets all the attention and the resources. One small, highly ethical food manufacturer in Joburg spends R40 00 a month to manage food safety documentation, he said, and he has a low-risk product range. He passes the cost on to his customers, of course.

The food safety industry had exploded in the last 20 years, a bureaucracy creating monster and meal ticket for those involved, and food safety hadn't increased to same extent, he said.

In South Africa... 

Meanwhile, 29% of men and 56% of women in South Africa and are overweight or obese and while the food industry was what Sunley called “a convenient scapegoat for irresponsible consumer behaviour and lack of education about nutrition”, the industry is guilty of the aggressive marketing of foods with poor nutritional quality.

You won’t find a food scientist referring to junk food, by the way.

“It’s not easy to make the nutritional quality of a bar of chocolate or a packet of potato chips significantly better. But for a lot of products you can make the nutritional quality better. And if you make small incremental improvements, the nett effect on public health is going to be beneficial.”

And if the industry didn’t start doing it themselves, the government would do it for them, Sunley said.

`’Most food companies have a range of products with different levels of nutritional desirability. They need to look at how they can push their marketing in such a way as to encourage people to eat more of the products with better nutritional qualities. And sometimes that’s a tough commercial decision to make. But if they don’t make those decisions they are going to be hit with a lot of very impractical legislation to try and force them to do it. Rather do it internally.”

And now for some bite sized take-outs from some of the other presentations I attended:

*The other side of the obesity epidemic is the tragic reality that many thousands of South African children are stunted due to lack of proper nutrition - a whopping 15,4%. Very sobering.

*A study conducted by Maphuti Kutu of Tshwane University of Technology on the effects of different levels of chicken brining injection found that the injection of 5 to 10% of brine improved the succulence and flavour of the chicken but that there was no justification for higher levels. In the absence of any legal limit, frozen chicken pieces on the market currently contain between 25 and 30% of injected brine, essentially salty water, which is lost during cooking. The government has proposed a brining cap of a compromise 15%.

*UHT or long-life milk is no less nutritious than “normal” milk, nor does it have any “chemical additives”. 

*The sweetener aspartame is the most researched food additive in history, studies having been done both on rats and humans since the 70s. Dr John Fernstrom of the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Medicine, says there’s no scientific study to back up ongoing claims that it makes you fat by stimulating your taste receptors, or that it’s harmful. 

*Chicken is one of the riskiest foods when it comes to food borne illnesses, the biggest cause being consumers putting it into their hot cars after purchase. So if fresh chicken is on your shopping list, take a cooler bag and ice brick with you to the supermarket to maintain the cold chain, especially in summer.

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