A leading nutrition expert is calling for government intervention on food labelling as a first step to equip consumers to make more informed choices and turn the tide on the diabesity epidemic.
With 275 Australians becoming -diabetic' each day, Professor Kerin O'Dea, Population Health and Nutrition, University of South Australia, told delegates at Australia's premier diabetes conference that awareness campaigns on their own are not enough to curb the problem.
'The government's plain cigarette packaging legislation is a victory for public health and food labelling needs similar government impetus. Greater label transparency, particularly on -obesogenic' foods, would be a positive first step towards helping Australians to eat healthier foods," said Dr O'Dea.
'It's time to see the marketing messages on food packaging replaced with a simple indicator of whether the food is healthy or not, based on fat, sugar and salt content.
'Too often, food labelled -low fat' isn't a healthy option as the fat is simply substituted with a large amount of refined carbohydrate," said Dr O'Dea.
Speaking at the Annual Scientific Meeting of the Australian Diabetes Society and the Australian Diabetes Educators Association on the Gold Coast, Dr O'Dea explained that the last 30 years has seen a dramatic rise in obesity rates due to growing portion sizes, increased snacking and much wider availability of foods that are high in fat and sugar but relatively low in protein.
'Diabesity rates are being fuelled by the relative low cost of highly processed foods in terms of calories per dollar compared with healthier foods such as fruit and vegetables," said Dr O'Dea.
'In 2012, 25 per cent of Australian adults are considered obese and as a result diabetes rates are spiralling."
Dr O'Dea believes intervention is needed to arrest weight gain, particularly in childhood, highlighting that prevention is more sustainable than achieving weight-loss in those who are already overweight or obese.
As well as intervention at the population level, Dr O'Dea believes individuals can also make dietary changes that can help reduce the risk of weight gain and progression to diabetes.
Research has shown that a Mediterranean diet can result in sustainable weight-loss. This typically consists of olive oil as the primary source of fat, lean meat and fish, plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts and pulses and moderate amounts of fermented dairy products (cheese and yogurt).
'Focusing on low energy density rather than low fat is key and the Mediterranean diet is a good example of this, being a bulky diet despite the olive oil, due to its high content of vegetables and fresh fruit.
'Other ways to reduce energy intake are limiting portion sizes, eating slowly and minimising liquid calories," Dr O'Dea concluded.
Professor Kerin O'Dea is a Population Health and Nutrition at University of South Australia.
Question: What would you like to see on food labelling?
Kerin O'Dea: I'd like to see something very simple, like traffic light labelling where a single traffic light would represent a summary for each food product (red, yellow or green). I'd also like to see very clear rules established that are based on public health principals not marketing. In my opinion food labels are driven by marketing, they are not really meant to inform people in a very clear way.
Question: How will that equip consumers with the information to make informed choices?
Kerin O'Dea: The product will still be labelled but the traffic light labelling system will provide a public health judgement on the quality of each product. For example breakfast foods would all have a label whether that was green, yellow/orange or red and it would allow consumers to make an informed and objective choice provided by public health expertise.
Question: What are -obesogenic' foods?
Kerin O'Dea: The obesogenic food supply promotes obesity which are made up of foods that are energy dense which means they have lots of calories in a small volume and that is often the highly processed foods.
Question: How does food labelled trick consumers?
Kerin O'Dea: Quite often the messages are very mixed on labels such as -low fat'; the product is low fat, there is no question but it has a whole lot of sugar in it to still make yoghurts and other products more palatable even though it's low fat. In actual fact you consume more calories when choosing a -low fat' product than having the full fat product.
These types of labels may have started out seriously with the food industry taking on the low fat message but in fact we can't have single messages such as -low fat' on products as we need to look at the food as a whole. That's why I suggest a label that makes the judgement on the basis of agree public health principals.
At the moment people don't know what to believe on food packaging and fair enough as they tend to believe what is marketed such as -low fat' although it's not that simple.
Question: How will this directly relate to reducing diabetes rates?
Kerin O'Dea: Until we do it, we don't actually know but consumers do want information that is clear to them and that they can trust. This labelling system won't be the only answer, that's for sure but I see it as a first step. I would like to introduce the clear labelling model that is driven by public health and not marketing to monitor the impact of diabetes. I also believe this system would help drive new products that are healthier from the industry which would be very positive.
Question: With 275 Australians becoming -diabetic' each day; what is vital in terms of food choices?
Kerin O'Dea: Good education is important. I believe one of the big problems with our food supply is that highly processed foods have a long shelf life and are very profitable for companies and are much more cost effective to produce than fresh foods paradoxically because they have a shorter life and are relatively more costly. Fresh fruit and vegetables, fish and seafood is expensive and lean meat is more expensive than fattier cuts of meat. We need to think about how to get a healthy food supply which is affordable for those on low incomes.
Question: Why is it vital that we decrease our rates of -obesogenic' foods?
Kerin O'Dea: One of the realities of obesity in Australia and elsewhere in the developing world is that the more disadvantaged sectors of the population are more affected by it because processed foods are actually more cost effective, in many ways than healthy foods.
Many people have pointed out that nowadays people have lost the ability to prepare healthy meals and that is what we need to work on. I am very keen on programs like the Kitchen Garden program run in schools where children are educated and involved in growing vegetables and fruit and learn to prepare and enjoy them.
Question: Do you believe implementing the Kitchen Garden program in schools will help decrease the rising obesity rates?
Kerin O'Dea: The recent data we've received on obesity in Australia is the Aus Diet Study which is the study of diabetes in Australia and what they've shown in their follow up in 2005 was the weight gain is greatest in the youngest age group and in that study the youngest age group is 24-34 years of age. This rate could possibly be worse in teenagers, which really tells us that there is a big, big problem coming in the future if we don't do anything about it.
The food and beverage industry is brilliant in understanding what drives human behaviour better than most scientists do and they tailor their products to maximise sales.
Interview by Brooke Hunter