As a result of increased awareness about the impact our diet has on health and concern about the some of the constituents of processed food, the Government has committed itself to more transparent food labelling. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) – the government body chiefly responsible for setting food policy in the UK – has unveiled five prospective labelling schemes designed to help us make healthy eating choices more easily. While such concepts clearly have the potential to do good, I am also wary that official agencies sometimes dish up nutritional advice that can be short on substance from a scientific perspective.
I thought I use this column to examine at least some of what the FSA has in store for us. One of the FSA’s proposed schemes involves the branding of suitable foods with a ‘healthy’ logo. Foodstuffs seemingly deemed fit for this stamp of approval include diet soft drinks. Such beverages are usually artificially sweetened with a compound known as aspartame. While a 2002 European Commission report and the FSA conclude that aspartame is safe, anecdotal reports that this chemical may have adverse effects on health are rife. Also, there are literally dozens of studies which suggest aspartame has the potential to trigger health issues such as headaches and depression.
A selection of these studies can be found in an on-line review of peer-reviewed studies at www.dorway.com/peerrev.html. Curiously, while 100 per cent of studies funded in whole or part by the aspartame-producing industry conclude that aspartame is safe, the vast majority of independently-funded studies suggest that it is not.
As aspartame is devoid of calories, it is generally assumed to be a useful tool in the battle against excess weight and obesity. However, theory and practice do not always match up, and in order for aspartame’s beneficial effects on weight to be properly assessed it would need to be subjected to what are known as randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled studies. Yet, despite more than 20 years of use in the human diet, not one single study of this nature has been published.
Bearing in mind the contention that exists regarding aspartame’s safety, and the fact that it’s supposed benefits for body weight are simply unproven, it is difficult to see where the FSA appetite for drinks sweetened with this chemical comes from. Whatever the FSA’s rationale, its endorsement of diet drinks clearly implicates the sugar found in regular soft drinks as unhealthy. Oddly, however, another of the food products that FSA claims is deserving of its healthy logo is fat-free fruit yoghurt, a pot of which may contain 5 teaspoons of sugar (most of which is added by the manufacturer).
Another thing not to recommend about fruit yoghurts is that they generally contain precious little real fruit. In my view, a truly healthy option would be natural yoghurt with added fresh fruit. I reckon the FSA’s belief that sugar-sweetened yoghurts and diet soft drinks are deserving of ‘healthy’ status is inconsistent and misleading, and an example of how its proposed food labelling schemes may simply not serve us right.