UK Food Standards Agency continues to mislead the public on the ‘value’ of starchy foods

Recently, in an effort to clarify what healthy eating is all about, the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) have launched its ‘eatwell plate’, which the FSA describes as ‘ a visual tool that illustrates the types and proportions of foods that make up a balanced diet’. You can see the eatwell plate here.

When I heard of the launch of the ‘eatwell plate’ I thought, rather naively, that the FSA had incorporated new knowledge and understanding in nutrition to rectify some of the woefully inadequate nutritional advice dished out to the masses over the last few decades. But, no, actually the eatwell plate is nothing but a re-hash of the same old advice. Though the FSA have really pushed the boat out with regard to design, which the FSA tells us: ‘has been made more contemporary..’ Oh, and: ‘photography of real foods that reflect current eating patterns have been included’.

Take a look at the plate and, as usual, we have the same emphasis on starchy carbs in the diet. In fact, the FSA advises that: ‘Starchy foods should make up about a third of the food we eat. Most people should be eating more starchy foods.’

What it neglects to say, however, is that these are the very same foods that tend to have high glycaemic index and load, which in short means the have considerable capacity to induce surges of insulin which can lead to obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. And it’s also known that such foods tend not to satisfy the appetite well, which is perhaps just one reason why some individuals can find themselves overeating such fare.

So, what is behind the FSA’s appetite for starch? Well, apparently, starchy foods are a good source of energy and the main source of a range of nutrients in our diet. As well as starch, these foods contain fibre, calcium, iron and B vitamins.

Well, if we’re going to recommend starch on the basis of their nutritional content, let’s perhaps look a bit more closely at this. For a start, most starchy carbs are actually really quite un-nutritious [1] when compared to other foodstuffs such as fruit and veg. While the starchy carbs advocated by the FSA are called food, they are actually better described as fodder.

If we’re going to recommend foods on the basis of nutrients such as iron and B-vitamins, then why not advocate meat, which contains these nutrients in abundance? And is it not possible to get our fibre from fruit of veg? (Of course it is).

But remember, it’s not just the lack of nutritional value of many starch carbs that gets my goat, but also their apparent capacity to cause chronic disease and probably shorten life. And yet the FSA continues to promote these foods as ‘healthy’!

And now for the finale…

The FSA recently polled 2000 plus people on their understanding of and attitudes to food. Apparently, of those polled, only 11% said we should eat a lot of starchy foods. According to the FSA, this demonstrates: ‘…that people don’t always realise the benefit of eating bread, rice, potatoes and pasta.’ Could the reality be that the public knows something that the FSA doesn’t (or just chooses to ignore) about the appropriateness of starchy foods in the diet?


1. Drewnowski A. Concept of a nutritious food: toward a nutrient density score. Am J Clin Nutr 2005 82:721-732

20 Responses to UK Food Standards Agency continues to mislead the public on the ‘value’ of starchy foods

  1. lu 21 September 2007 at 4:43 pm #

    as usual you are spot on briff. 🙂

  2. Mark Kavanagh Dublin Ireland 21 September 2007 at 4:58 pm #

    Well said John. We have THREE nations where obesity and diabetes are rife and spiralling out of control — the US, the UK and Ireland — and yet the ‘authorities’ in all three nations keep dishing out the same bad advice repeatedly when it’s obvious what we URGENTLY need to do to rectify matters. The FSA’s board members should ALL realistically be resigning in shame and apologising to your people for aiding the rapid rise in the number of cases of obesity and diabetes but it ignorantly and dangerously will carry on regardless and your British media, just like the Irish and American media, will sadly let these imbeciles away with their outrageous and shameful dietary advice. It is a truly frightening state of affairs.

  3. George 21 September 2007 at 5:18 pm #

    I used to suffer from chronic ulcerative colitis, but since cutting out all starches in grains etc. 2 years ago I have been symtom free, and in better health than before the diagnosis.
    It makes me mad to read that the official booklet given by the nhs when you are diagnosed reccomends that you eat a diet of refind grains (to avoid too much fibre) probably the worst possible food for this condition.
    I live perfectly happily making my bread from ground nuts and I eat like a king.
    When the nhs would have me on a cocktail of steroids which could easly lead to many other much more serious conditions.
    Isnt it a shame that the goverment reports, that we all pay for with our taxes, always seem to come back favouring business rather than the best interests of the public.
    Thanks Dr Briffa, it’s great to have a Dr who speaks honestly about these issues.

  4. Cali Bird 21 September 2007 at 5:36 pm #

    Someone agrees with you. Have just seen this on the BBC News website

  5. Robyn 22 September 2007 at 5:16 am #

    It is more a question. I do not disagree with you about the starches, weight gain etc. BUT, why is it that the staple in most Asian countries is rice (quite often eaten 3 times a day), however they are not obese or as far as I’m aware, are not suffering gigantic proportions of Type 2 diabetes? What are they doing differently?

  6. James Hogan 22 September 2007 at 8:03 am #

    Re the Asian question. They live on a mostly plant based diet with small amounts of animal protein. It has been shown once these people start eating a more “western” diet with increased meat consumption etc, the incidence of type 2 diabetes increase.

  7. Mike Hardy 22 September 2007 at 11:28 am #

    I have Ankylosing Spondylitis and probably suffered from it since my late teens. I am now 59. After a period of increasing digestion and bowel problems, some 18 months ago I took the plunge, with the help of a Nutritionist (Dip ION) and have reduced my intake of all starchy foods.

    Also, I have stopped all dairy foodstuffs as well. As a consequence, I feel heaps better. My diet is generally low GI and much more balanced. I have actually lost weight as well and my appetite is more on an even keel with no highs and lows.

    The theory behind AS and starchy foods, as I understand it, is that starch feeds the bad bacteria that we all have in our systems but with AS sufferers we have an extra ‘bad one’ which thrives on starch. This action attacks our immune system which sets off the inflammatory process which gives rise to pain and discomfort to joints and indeed the digestive system generally. Now that I have generally cut out the very starchy foods, my digestion is so better and bowels more regular.

    Also, as my a result of improved digestion, I have been able to reduce my medication both in type and dosage. This must be a real benefit as it is well known that prescription medication of any type taken for prolonged periods (in my case for over 35 years) can damage the stomach lining.

    If anyone is interested in my case and my current dietary regime, please email me as I am very willing to divulge everything!

  8. Neil 22 September 2007 at 8:18 pm #

    I agree John, the Eatwell plate is a mess. What’s wrong with teaching based on the 3 food groups, Carbohydrates, Fats and Protein?

    Robyn, this is from Medscape
    “Hospital records in Kolkata in the 1930’s, and Mumbai and Delhi in the 1950’s revealed that diabetes, as diagnosed by glycosuria, was not uncommon (0.7-1% of all patients). Similar observations were reported by subsequent opportunistic-screening studies from Kolkata, Mumbai, Lucknow and Vellore in the 1950’s.”

    This links to the Indian Task Force on Diabetes Care In India and is well worth a look.

    James Hogan, how do you link you meat eating and Diabetes ( a disorder of carbohydrate metabolism)?

    Any science you can refer us to please?

  9. Hilda Glickman 22 September 2007 at 8:49 pm #

    I am also very concerned about this advice as it is the people who want better health and who care that will take this advice(unless they are trained in another way) just as those who want to eat well often use veg oils and margarine thinking they are good for us. Is there anything we can do? When I tell my clients that veg oil and pasta etc is not good for us they look at me as if I am mad. Hilda

  10. Tracey 23 September 2007 at 10:14 am #

    Mike – my sister has AS – could you share any advice pls – did you cut all starches completely? What about starchy veg such as potatoes/parsnips etc?
    you didnt have an e-mail address so I couldnt contact you directly,

  11. Mags 23 September 2007 at 2:01 pm #

    Does anyone know of any French publications (books, articles) on this same subject to show to my doubting husband? He persists in believing that (white) pasta, rice & mash are what’s best for our kids.

  12. ally 24 September 2007 at 8:21 am #

    what is wrong with wholemeal pasta and brown rice? Interesting why the french – they appear to eat mountains of carbs in the form of bread.

  13. Mel 24 September 2007 at 3:59 pm #

    Whilst I do agree with much of this, I also see it form another side. I am trained in Nutritional Therapy, but teach disadvantaged groups about healthy eating and cooking. Many of the people I see exist entirely on sweets, fizzy drinks and chocolate bars. Isn’t the Eat Well plate designed to try to change peoples habits from eating excessive amounts of foods high in salt, fat and sugar? Isn’t it unrealistic to expect the general population who do not have much nutritional knowledge to convert to plate loads of veg and meat (baring in mind they would not be able to afford organic/free-range meat). Most of the people I see do not believe it is possible to eat 1 portion of veg a day.

  14. James 24 September 2007 at 7:49 pm #

    The site doesn’t appear to want to include my answer, this may be because I am including a url, so I will post without the url…

    China up until a decade ago had very low incidence of diabetes. Obviously the traditional chinese diet included staples such as rice

    However since turning towards a more western diet, which of course includes large amounts of factory farmed animals, the incidence of diabetes has risen.

    Try googling “the china study” (try wikipedia too). An alternative view, which some may find controversial. Also try googling “vegan diabetes” and you will find news stories of a study that suggested that a vegan diet can may reverse diabetes. Food for thought eh!

  15. helen 24 September 2007 at 10:02 pm #

    to Robyn & James Asians do not eat a lot of plant based foods that is rice etc it is an extra in their meals that actually eat a lot of fish meat & animal fats the truth is they do get lots of “western” diseases when they start eating lots more rice, noodles & other starchy foods & stray from their normal diets. An asian persons consumption of rice would consist of about one cup per day according to most western dietitians a serve of rice equals about half a cup! do you think you are eating too much sure you are if you eat more than half a cup of pasta or rice! all things in moderation but no one tells you who’s moderate measure we are using!! & moderate isn’t much at all if you are really being honest with yourself!

  16. James 25 September 2007 at 7:47 pm #

    A decade ago the Chinese were eating far less meat and milk products than they are today. Over the same period diabetes has increased. Obviously other diet changes could be the cause, but this article was suggesting eating foods such as rice caused chronic disease.

    I do agree with the case that processed starchy foods such as white bread etc. are unhealthy and will contibute to diabetes. Whole foods are the way to go. However even with something with a high GI such as white rice, eating this with lower Gi foods such as legumes and vegetables will counteract the affect and ensure a blood glucose spike does not occur.

  17. Hilda Glickman 25 September 2007 at 11:14 pm #

    Hi, I have been studying nutrition for 30 years and have read hundreds of books.After looking at all sorts of diets, I have come to this conclusion. Mankind has lived well on different types of diet, some vegetarian, some not. However, the main point is that they should be foods which are as unprocessed as possible, so the traditional Asian diet of lentils, peas,beans , yogurt and chickpeas is good but when Asians come here they switch to our processed junk foods such as pasta, and the diabetes rate goes up. A traditional unprocessed diet as the Chinese used to eat could also be good. When at university I met a Chinese student who had never had a filling in her teeth (At 20) until she came here. THey eat almost NO sugar.

    There is also the question of biological inheritance. People who have lived in an area where there is a lot of a certain type of food eg fish still need it when they move to other countries, such as Scandinavians. So some people are more biologically adapted to certain foods than others. But none of us adapted to processed foods like pasta, margarine, pot noodles, cornflakes etc, sweets, cakes etc etc

    It is easy to analyse pasta for nutrients and if you do it is clear that it is very low in everything except starch which turns into sugar. Even wholemeal pasta is highly processed.

    I don’t agree that we should eat ‘all things in moderation’ What is moderate? This is just a tautology which means that we should not eat too much which is true by definition. Some foods are just bad! Full stop! If we have these such as sweets or crisps we should just see these as something we like DESPITE the fact that they are NOT and never will be healthy.


  18. Neil 26 September 2007 at 3:31 pm #

    You cannot infer causation from association, that is how many women used to be prescribed HRT for heart disease prevention.
    The China Study is epidemiology, not science. Epidemiology can provide hypotheses for real science, but very very, rarely can it show causation on its own. (think smoking and lung cancer).

    Chris Masterjohn has written a lot on the China Study, and is well worth googling too. I won’t quote from it, if anyone’s interested they can look it up and and the study and make their own mind up.

    Study yes Science No way

    Thanks for the vegan diabetes study James. (In Diabetes Care Aug 2006, full text, no subscription)
    Had a quick look, one thing that stands out is the weight loss. From what I read, it would be equally reasonable to conclude that the notable improvements in HbA1c were down to the weight loss rather than the type of diet.. Ditto for the reduction in triglycerides. Weight loss was therefore not a controlled variable.
    Interesting that HDL (so called good cholesterol) fell slightly. If you want that to increase, then you need saturated fat.

  19. Jackie Bushell 24 November 2007 at 2:07 pm #

    Re the Asian question: I have read (sorry can’t remember where) that the rice that they eat is quite different (lower in GI) than the types of rice we usually have in the West. Another reason why it’s too simplistic to say that rice can’t be a problem to people with carbohydrate sensitivity because people in Asian countries eat it and don’t get fat.


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