Category Archives: Nutrition in the news

goodness KNOWS no bounds

Well I have to hand it to Mars. Just when you thought that they had cornered the market of all things confectionary, they’ve done it again. They have created a new brand and with it, an inspiring new reason to snack. Forget hunger or sustenance, that’s old school. Now your elevenses can bring you even closer to realising your dreams. That’s right, every bite of the new goodnessKNOWS snack will help you to take ‘a simple step toward being your best and reaching your goals’!!! And all in 4 little squares! Which makes me wonder, what exactly is in those little bite-sized pieces of perfection? And what is behind Mars’ launching a new brand?

Luckily, Mars is letting us into the secret as they launch their new brand in the UK with a £4.6 million marketing campaign and social media presence. goodnessKNOWS snack squares have been marketed as a new, low-calorie snack containing simple, natural ingredients and its branding invites us to ‘try a little goodness’. The snack is targeted at the growing market of snackers who seek out ‘healthier’ choices as consumers have become more aware of the effect of diet on their health. According to the Euromonitor, UK consumers chomp their way through more than five times as much confectionery as the global average. However, health concerns have caused a downward trend in the sales of sweets and chocolate as consumers are switching to savoury snacks and yoghurts. goodnessKNOWS has arrived just in time, then.

But back to the little squares. What about their ingredients and how are they going to help me be my best? It turns out that the goodnessKNOWS snack range has already been available in the US but Mars had to spend 18 months rejigging the recipe to suit UK palates. Contrary to the widely accepted negative stereotype of American eating habits, the US version of goodnessKNOWS was found to be not sweet enough for UK consumers. As you would expect, just a spoonful of sugar (or two or three) to help the little squares go down, did the trick. Now it may seem odd to mention sugar at all as an ingredient when goodnessKNOWS has marketed itself as a healthy snack food. But here is where it all gets slightly suspect.

The snack squares are advertised as containing whole nuts and real fruit with dark chocolate. So far, that sounds like real food and the packaging certainly displays the real thing. The different flavours are shown to contain slices of crunchy, fresh apple, sun ripened peach and fresh berries together with whole nuts and just a curl or two of dark chocolate. But just in case you even doubted whether this snack was good for you, goodnessKNOWS have done the thinking for you with a marketing blurb that invites you to ‘pat yourself on the back’ for choosing it. goodnessKNOWS also awards you a ‘Well done’ for eating something that does not contain any artificial colours, flavours, preservatives or high fructose corn syrup. However, sugar is not really mentioned, not even the extra spoonful, until you take a closer look at the list of actual ingredients.

In fact, each of the snack squares contain sugar within just about every ingredient listed. For example, the Apple, peanut & almond with dark chocolate snack square is advertised as containing ‘Sweet apples. Roasted peanuts and almonds. Dark chocolate’. But take a look at the ingredients listed. The squares contain sweetened dried apples, rice sweetened with raisin juice concentrate (essentially, sugar) and honey plus some toasted oats sweetened with brown sugar and white sugar. In addition, the squares contain brown rice syrup (more sugar), dried cane syrup (same again) and for good measure, some more sugar. All in all, each 34g pack containing 4 little squares comes out at 12g sugar which is 3 tsp. But at 150kcals a go, many people will not think twice about the sugar content. And to be fair, compared to many of the flapjacks, granola bars and paleo snacks on the market heavily promoted as being ‘healthy’, they are certainly not higher in sugar. But they are not a whole lot less, either.

To be clear, I am not saying that there is anything inherently wrong with the little squares, per se. They may even taste good. After all, I like dried fruit and roasted nuts and I choose dark over milk chocolate every time. But it has nothing to do with the cocoa flavanols, which goodnessKNOWS tells me, ‘are the good stuff in dark chocolate’. And this is exactly why I think Mars’ new confectionary brand should sit a little uneasy on its healthy pedestal.

What I find problematic and slightly disingenuousness about goodnessKNOWS is the fact that it is being promoted as a sort of superior snack of wellness rather than as a confectionary. This is not to say that Mars is alone creating a product that targets the growing number of consumers who are health conscious. Manufacturers have flooded the market with ‘healthy’ bars, snack packs and drinks aimed at followers of clean eating, carb-free diets and any number of wellness trends. So why wouldn’t any company not want to profit from products that they are allowed to market as being better and ‘healthier’ than the alternative? The problem is that these products are more than often not nutritionally better than a biscuit and consumers may not realise this. When it comes to goodnessKNOWS, they have also pushed the boundaries a bit beyond their ‘healthy’ claims by tying up value judgements to their products.

Some very clever marketing and down-to-earth, simple language is used to validate the notion, that eating the snack squares will not only make you healthier but be a better person. For example, goodnessKNOWS is described using numerous self-congratulatory phrases and even a little smugness dressed up as pride. Every time you unwrap a goodnessKNOWS, you will not simply be having a quick bite. These snack squares will enable you to ‘take that one small step toward being your best’. If only I had known this earlier…The marketing materials also tell you that by choosing goodnessKNOWS, you will also be giving an emphatic ‘no’ to some ingredients you may not even care about. Does it make it any more nutritious if it is gluten free, not genetically modified or kosher? The truth is, it’s just an upmarket biscuit. It is not going to change you or the world. And it’s certainly not going to make you healthier.

In fact, the last thing that consumers need right now is more encouragement from manufacturers to eat more snacks between meals, especially ones that contain added sugar. There may now be a general awareness among the public of the high rates of obesity in the UK and the role of our diet plays in our health. However, I wonder if we can also say the same for tooth decay? How many people are aware that the UK is also breaking records when it comes to the rising number of tooth extractions carried out and the rate of dental caries, particularly among children? The evidence based truth is that eating snacks between meals that are full of added sugar, aka free sugars, whether it is the ‘natural’ sort such as honey or agave syrup or heavily processed high fructose corn syrup, is not good for our health, contributes to our waistlines and causes tooth decay. Dried fruit is very high in sugar and sticks to our teeth which makes any snack containing them particularly bad for them. However, goodnessKNOWS says that their snack squares can be eaten all in one go or broken up to eat throughout the day, depending on how you feel. Your teeth do not care how you feel and neither does your dentist. These are the kinds of snacks your dentist hates. I don’t quite see Mars using that as a catch phrase, though.

Despite all this, I am sure that goodnessKNOWS will do well in the ever-growing market of health-conscious consumers. After all, there has been a market for products that promise health and wellness since time immemorial. Perhaps the only thing that has changed has been the degree and sophistication of the marketing messages that make us buy the products. Wouldn’t it be refreshing and even revolutionary, for a company to just come out and be honest about their wares? Especially, when it comes to food and drink. In other words, call a pudding a pudding, even if you are claiming that it is made of better stuff. But there is a time and a place for pudding and it is not every so often, throughout the day, as a snack. If you are going to have a pudding, for goodness sake, everybody KNOWS that you should enjoy it with a main meal.

Now if you are going to have a proper snack, why not try a Roasted nut and nectarine buttermilk scone? They make a great breakfast, too.

roasted nut scone blog (2)

Some like it hot…but will it keep you cool this summer?

I may be tempting fate by saying it, but summer has now truly arrived in the UK. It’s almost hard to believe the weather forecasts of temperatures more akin to holiday destinations. Another day of sun? Again?? It almost feels greedy to experience such a run of glorious sunny days filled with blistering heat. With no end in sight and only the odd interruption of a storm to clear the air, we may actually defy the odds of not having the common English variety of summer, of rain and more rain. However, there appears to be only so much good weather that people can take. It only takes a couple of degrees for the blue skies to transform someone’s sunny outlook to a flared temper that can rapidly morph into the mother of all meltdowns. Luckily, the remedy is always the same: chill. But getting cool is easier said than done and I am often surprised by some of the unusual attempts and methods used to achieve a little comfort. Especially when it comes to food and drink.

There are those that swear by eating spicy foods when the temperatures rise in order to get some relief. They point out that in hotter countries such as Mexico, Vietnam and Malaysia to name a few, the cuisine typically features copious amounts of chilies. Chillies contain capsaicin and as soon as we eat something spicy, the capsaicin in our mouth triggers our bodies’ internal AC to start up and we begin to sweat around our forehead and neck. By sweating, we begin to release more heat from our bodies as our sweat evaporates into the air. We carry on with the sweating until we have cooled down and reached our normal temperature range.

Of course, there are as many types and ways of using chillies in cooking as there are strengths. In Mexico, chillies and chilli powder is sprinkled on just about anything including fruit. In fact, one of the most common street foods available are brightly coloured overflowing pints of ensalada de fruta. These massive plastic cups are filled to the brim with diced pineapple, papaya, watermelon, cucumber, jicama and lots of chillies which is then doused with lime juice. Or you could try to cool down with a chamoyada, a Mexican version of a granita, with a difference. Sounding not too dissimilar to a craving experienced during pregnancy, a chamoyada typically contains mango, chilli powder and salsa that is frozen and blended into a slush. It is then topped with more salsa and served in a cup like a spicy Frappuccino, but not before sprinkling it with some Haribo-type sweets. I don’t imagine Starbucks taking on any of this soon but I could be wrong.

Although I do like my chillies, and will eat Mexican food at every opportunity, I am not so sure if eating something spicy in hot weather to stay cool works for me. If sweating is supposed to cool my body down, why does it make me feel hotter? Can eating spicy foods actually work to dial up my AC if I am already sweating beforehand? What if my internal AC is working on full power when I eat something spicy? Is there a danger my AC could blow after one too many chamoyadas? Perhaps there is a sweating tipping point.

Another school of thought says that to cool down you should bypass the chillies and instead eat or drink something that is hot in temperature. Using the same argument, by the time the hot food or drink hits your stomach, it has triggered your internal AC to do its magic. But this time, you sweat in all the usual places which means that more heat is lost from your body than by eating spicy foods. In terms of food and drink, proponents of this practice point out that tea is traditionally taken in numerous hot countries around the globe. With over 1,500 varieties of teas to choose from, it is the world’s most consumed drink after water. Why would everybody be drinking it to stay cool unless it really worked? As for food, the obvious choice would be a soups, stews and hot pots and this method of cooking is customary in many of these same countries. But many traditional dishes even go one step further in the heat stakes and intensify the heat by combining the hot and spicy. There are many dishes to choose from such as the Ethiopian doro wat, a stew of chicken and whole boiled eggs, the Thai tom saab kra-dook aon, a soup of pork cartilage and Thai bird chillies. However, you always could stick to a favourite culinary import to the UK, the vindaloo curry.

However, I am not entirely convinced that eating or drinking something hot really works to cool me down. Although I drink the odd cuppa and still enjoy a coffee throughout the summer I have to say that when it is really sweltering, I prefer it on ice. After all, when the humidity doesn’t allow your sweat to evaporate, a hot drink seems to only work to make you sweat in places you didn’t know were possible. As for hot food, I can’t seem to bear it on a hot day even if it contains my beloved chillies.

But there are those in yet another camp who believe that if you want some cool relief, the choice of what to eat and drink is no mystery. You should obviously eat or drink something cold when it is hot outside. As you would expect, there are also a wealth of tempting examples from hotter climes to back up the simple notion that consuming chilled foods and drinks will do exactly what they say on the tin. Instead of trying to lose your body heat by spending all the energy sweating, the theory goes that the low temperature of the cold foods and drinks will instantly shut down your internal AC. By shutting off the power and subsequent sweating, and lowering your temperature, you will get instant relief.

In terms of food and drink, ice cream and iced drinks immediately spring to mind as do frozen grapes, smoothies and chilled fruit. Crisp salads also take centre stage when the sun is beating down, full of leafy greens and crunchy veg that also helps to quench your thirst. Then there are many people who on a hot day, like nothing better than to sit down to eat a nice bowl of soup, but ladled out ice-cold. The chilled soup gold standard has to be the Spanish gazpacho, essentially a tomato soup teaming with garlic and cilantro. However, a rival chilled soup also exists in Spain. Described as a white gazpacho, the ajo blanco, is actually prepared with almonds, bread and masses of garlic. Other well-known chilled soups throughout the world include the vibrant borsht beetroot soup from Poland and the French vichysseoise, a purée of leeks, onions, potatoes, cream and chicken stock. There are also plenty of competing recipes for fruit and vegetable chilled soups which can sometimes turn out as something a little too similar to a smoothie that you have to eat with a spoon. However, I think the most unusual chilled soup I have come across is the Korean mul naengmyun. This cold noodle soup is a bowlful of buckwheat noodles swimming in cold beef stock that is topped with several slices of cold beef, a halved hardboiled egg and slivers of cucumber, Asian pear and pickled radish.

I have to say that the idea of having a cold drink to cool down really works for me. I am also a big salad eater and it is my ‘go to’ meal when it’s hot outside. As for ice cream, if I am going to have one, it has to be on a hot day. However, the idea of eating a chilled soup simply leaves me cold. To me, soup = warmth and the chance to warm up icy fingers on a massive bowl. In fact, during the winter months, my family embraces soup season, where each and every Saturday becomes a ‘souper’ Saturday. On this day we make one of our many hundreds of different soup creations for dinner. As we sit down and dip great hunks of bread into our heaven in a bowl, I am in utter bliss. But dipping bread into a cold gazpacho or a borsht??! Or cold NOODLES?! Admittedly, I have never tried cold noodles in soup and I may be missing out on a bowlful of deliciousness. But instinctively, it just feels wrong because I don’t know what would I do with my hands…and all that bread??

So in the end, we have 3 widely held but different practices of eating and drinking to help stay cool in the heat. But which one works best? Will we stay cooler if we eat or drink something spicy, something hot or something cold? Worldwide, there doesn’t seem to be a consensus of opinion and as you would expect, beliefs are rooted in tradition. What is true is that when you are roasting, you will do anything you believe works. So despite the science and growing evidence that gives a slight edge to the effectiveness to eating or drinking something hot to reducing body heat, I can’t say I will be taking it on board. It may not reduce my body temperature as quickly as a steaming cup of tea but I still believe that there is nothing better than sitting back with an ice cold drink on a hot summer’s day. Unless, of course, there is some especially good ice cream on offer or some cold watermelon or berries…Anything chilled – except soup!

Speaking of which, here is an easy recipe for Summer jelly pops to give you some ice cool relief. It makes a great afterschool (or after work) snack and is a healthier alternative to whatever the ice cream vans are peddling. You will also save yourself the inevitable disappointment of discovering that they have, once again, increased the price of a Flake 99.

Ice lollies blog

 

Is our health threatened by fake news?

You may have noticed that the media is, understandingly, a bit preoccupied with the current political situation in the UK and beyond. Each daily headline and news story seems to feature Brexit gloom and impending election doom with the latest random Trumpism thrown in to really mess with your head. When the murderous dictator of North Korea was described as being a ‘pretty smart cookie’ by the US president, it was difficult to know whether to laugh or cry. At least every now and then, a story about something completely different sneaks onto the news agenda. Of course, if the subject happens to concern itself with nutrition and health my ears begin to prick up like a meerkat in the savannah. Which is exactly how I looked when I heard about the latest threat to our health – diet drinks.

Diet drinks??! What now? I couldn’t help but wonder if there was anything left that could be enjoyed with impunity. Especially since there has been so much focus on reducing the population’s consumption of sugar, fizzy drinks had been all but demonised. Diet drinks, on the other hand, with their sugar-free halo, were being heavily promoted as being a healthier alternative. Even the NHS had recently endorsed diet drinks by publicising a plan to remove all sugary drinks from their hospital vending machines and canteens whilst leaving those that are sugar-free. With the sugar tax looming in the near future, manufacturers are also finally starting to reduce the amount of sugar they use in their products and replace them with artificial sweeteners. Was our health threatened by some new evidence that called into question the safety and use of artificial sweeteners? Or was there something else in fizzy drinks that is even more harmful than sugar? Is it Kendall Jenner? Didn’t she start some sort of supermodel Pepsi protest?? Are we about to be hit with a new kind of Pepsi Challenge?? How has it all gone so terribly wrong for sugar-free?

As a Nutritionist detective, I had no choice but to investigate the source behind the recent scary headlines. The culprit was a recent study carried out by researchers from Boston University School of Medicine and Tufts University, Boston. This published study was widely reported in the media as showing that consuming diet drinks triples your risk of stroke and dementia and is far worse for your health than drinking sugary drinks. This sounded pretty shocking but it all sounded quite conclusive. I am sure that many people would not have bothered to read past the dire headlines and they didn’t need to. The same conclusion was repeated in all the newspapers, tv channels, online and in social media. I suspect this may have prompted some smirks of satisfaction from clean eaters and agave syrup aficionados, alike. After all, the news was practically an endorsement of the liberal use of ‘natural’ sweeteners. But oddly enough, the media didn’t really reveal many further details about the findings of the study or offer any explanation as to what it was in the diet drinks that was found to be so harmful to our health.

Of course, it is not as if we even need to drink fizzy drinks, sugar-free or otherwise. Everybody surely knows that drinking water and milk is far better for our health than any soft drink on the market, despite whatever they claim to do on their labels. We are also very aware, nowadays, that consuming too much sugar is very harmful to our bodies and puts us at a serious risk of ill health. However, it is also true that as people still enjoy soft drinks they will continue to go on drinking them. As even the trusted broadsheets featured the diet drink danger story in the nuanced style of tabloids, what is anyone to think? What are parents supposed to do now when they’re faced with the choice between a fizzy drink crammed full of sugar or one without? Which drink is potentially worse for our and our children’s health? Is developing obesity, diabetes or dental caries any worse for us than having a stroke or suffering from dementia? Can’t any parent just have a Diet Coke break anymore without having to consider what’s going to kill them sooner?

Unsurprisingly, like most media flurries, I discovered that the scary claims were only a storm in a teacup because all was not what it seemed. In fact, the conclusions of the study widely quoted by the media were anything but conclusive. The study only concerned a selective group of data, taken from an entirely different, ongoing study – the Framingham Heart Study Offspring – to look for any links between the consumption of soft drinks and dementia and stroke. As you can imagine, using the data from a different study to find new links is not exactly straightforward. Fundamentally, there will be numerous factors and limitations of the study that must be considered throughout as they will inevitably influence the results and the subsequent interpretation. As they were considered in the full interpretation of the study by the authors, you would expect the media to also consider them before they come up with a snappy headline.

But incredibly, they didn’t because despite the negative headlines, the study did not actually show any causal link between the consumption of diet drinks and a risk of stroke or dementia. Yes, you did read that right. So rather than being a new threat to our health, diet drinks still remain the ‘healthier’ choice of fizzy drinks. Although, I wonder how many people realise this? I certainly didn’t see any headlines blaring this out. Sadly, this isn’t the first time that tactics more akin to marketing are used to draw our attention to a health story that isn’t really newsworthy. After all, ‘Diet drinks still ok’ doesn’t really catch anyone’s eye and that includes me. But I wonder if it is getting worse. Have we been bombarded with so many bewildering political headlines of late that we have become primed and ready to believe ‘fake’ health news, too? Perhaps living in uncertain times makes it even more difficult to tell when stories about our health are slightly spurious. Or has nothing changed and as always, we will carry on believing the news that suits us when it comes to health and nutrition?

As we begin the countdown to the UK election and subsequent Brexit negotiations to unravel, only time will tell if any nutrition health threats manage to steal the limelight away again.  For now, I am probably safe to retreat from my meerkat stance as I expect the media to once again focus on all things political. However, if another extraordinary nutrition claim were to emerge again, my advice would be to keep calm and carry on as there is always much more to a story than what is written in black and white. And like Trumpisms, sometimes headlines only represent a warped sense of reality for which you can only shake your head and think, sad.

After reading some of the latest election headlines from France, I managed to come up with an easy recipe that will distract you with its yumminess. Unsurprisingly, it does not involve a fizzy drink but features sweetcorn. These Thai sweetcorn and spring onion fritters are so simple it makes the perfect go-to recipe when you arrive home hungry and the cupboards are pretty bare.

Corn fritters blog

Burnt toast, fake news and the inconvenient truth

Ever since I woke up to the shocking Brexit result, I am just a little more guarded every time I listen to the news on tv. Lately, I have also adopted a delay technique that works as a pre-warn system when something else has happened unexpectedly. By simply reading the faces of my children as they eat breakfast and listen to the news before I enter the kitchen, I am able to predict with a high degree of accuracy if what I am about to tune into is bad. For example, finding my children gaping at the tv in silence, mid-bite, on the morning after the US general election gave me the necessary seconds needed to grab onto something (or someone). However, the system is not perfect and at times their quizzical looks and rumpled foreheads mean that I have to face the news blindsided.

A couple of weeks ago, for instance, just when I thought that I had heard enough ‘fake news’ stories and actual fake news stories, I found myself listening to the news that the latest cancer risk is now burnt toast. The Food Standards Agency’s latest campaign ‘Go for Gold’ was behind the story by highlighting the possible cancer risk of acrylamide, a chemical formed when starchy foods are subjected to a high temperature. Every news channel appeared to be covering the launch of the campaign, accompanied by a display of every shade of toast as if to demonstrate when toast = cancer. You could almost sense a certain smugness in the news presenters who said they preferred theirs toasted barely beige. While other presenters seemed silently preoccupied and even defensive about their habit of toasting to a mahogany hue.

The news seemed quite improbable amid the abundance of news fakery, especially as it only referred to acrylamide as being a ‘possible risk’. If burnt toast was really so lethal, why haven’t we experienced an epidemic of death by crust? Will burnt toast be a weapon of choice in a future episode of Midsummer Murders? What about the burnt crumbs? Do I finally have a valid excuse not to clean out the toaster? And what about the risk of cancer through second-hand burnt toast aroma? Is my husband trying to kill me???

Whilst looking further into the Food Standards Agency’s campaign, ‘Go for Gold’, I discovered even worse news; this cancer risk is not only about toast. Acrylamide is actually present in most foods and it is impossible to completely avoid it. In fact, the majority of foods containing high levels make up a large part of many people’s diets. For example, starchy foods such as root vegetables, potatoes, potato products, for example, crisps, breakfast cereals, biscuits and bread all contain high levels of acrylamide. This is because acrylamide is produced when these foods are cooked at >120˚C, such as when they are fried, baked, toasted or roasted.

The World Health Organization says that acrylamide is ‘probably carcinogenic’ to humans based on studies of rodents who were exposed to high levels and then developed cancer. Therefore, the recommendation is to reduce prolonged exposure to acrylamide, just in case it might cause cancer somewhere down the road. The ‘Go for Gold’ campaign says we can do this by cooking starchy foods less and aiming for a golden yellow colour. Better yet, stay safer and steam or boil, where possible. The campaign also advises to stop storing raw potatoes in refrigerators if they are going to be fried, roasted or baked later as it increases the level of acrylamide produced.

Unsurprisingly, the response to the campaign has hardly been successful and there are many who simply refuse to believe, on principle, that they must change their diets. After all, only the ‘worried well’ generally follow dietary advice for an unproven risk of cancer. And since the range of foods implicated in the advice is so vast, it does not seem realistic to expect many people to reduce their consumption or drastically change the way they have always cooked. The campaign has also caused much confusion over how to follow the advice on a practical level. For example, how are we now supposed to deal with frozen oven chips when they are doubly dangerous for their storage and preparation methods? Are there any biscuits left that are safe to eat? Is caramelising sweet potatoes just another nail in the coffin?

It is likely that the vast majority of the population will ignore the campaign with all the other difficult guidelines such as smoke and drink less, eat a healthy, balanced diet with more veg and less meat and exercise more. In the end, whether the morning news alarms us to burnt toast risks or bizarre political events what we do about it comes down to what we think is ‘fake’ and whether the truth is convenient. Because like fake news stories, people have a habit of accepting that something is true, however outlandish it sounds, if it more readily fits into their lives. Therefore, if there is a real risk of cancer, the Food Standards Agency would do better to concentrate on the food industry and look to methods of manufacturing that will reduce acrylamide levels in foods. This way, the risk of cancer due to acrylamide levels can be reduced at a population level ‘just in case’ regardless of whether or not the risk is believed. However, I imagine that it is also an inconvenient truth that the food industry has a long history of being resilient to any pressure that threatens their profits.

In the meantime, I don’t think that there is any reason to panic about your acrylamide levels and we have not drastically changed the way we cook in my family. Although I live in hope that the campaign will help to encourage my family to stop burning toast because I cannot bear the lingering smell. If anything has changed, we are now eating less potatoes because we have forgotten where they are stored…

In the meantime, I found some sweet potatoes which I used to make my favourite Sweet potato veggie burgers with tahini sauce. If I ever find the potatoes, I may even make my own oven chips!

veggie-burger-blog

Spoiler alert

After many of us in the UK enjoyed a very indulgent Christmas and New Year, it may have come as a surprise to hear that as a nation, we also wasted much food that could have been eaten. After witnessing 3 hungry teenagers take full advantage of our over stocked kitchen, I wondered if there had even been as much as a morsel of wasted food in our house. Especially as my middle child’s favourite Christmas present of a sandwich press seemed to be permanently glowing on standby. It had not only inspired sandwich creations only dreamt of but its constant use heated the kitchen better than any Aga. My children could not have been the only ones who had made a concerted effort to clean their plates over the holidays. That is, if you go by the number of targeted features on tv now focused on losing weight and the competing advertisements for ‘diet’ pills, meal replacements and fitness DVDs. If the UK is really throwing away so much edible food, why is my gym now packed with new members?

Incredibly, research from the supermarket, Sainsbury’s, found that people actually throw away more food that was once edible over the festive season. Rather than this simply being the consequence of buying too much food and reaching mince pie tipping point early, Sainsbury’s has reported a different root cause. Their research showed that festive food is more likely to be wasted because people do not know how to prepare and cook it. And if that isn’t bad enough, according to the waste and recycling advisory body, Wrap, we aren’t much better at thinking before binning household food waste during the rest of the year, either.

The problem with food waste is not just a case of finding ways to get rid of it all besides making a giant food waste mountain. It has now become a global problem with far-reaching implications. Depressingly, it is estimated that worldwide, 30% of agricultural land is used to grow food that is eventually wasted every year. Of course, the waste also generates greenhouse gasses over its lifetime and this will only increase as the population grows and the demand for more agricultural land to feed the world continues.

In the UK, previous efforts from food manufacturers, supermarkets and every part of the food supply chain to encourage us to reduce our food waste have been largely successful. However, Wrap is now saying that we have hit a food waste plateau. Using figures from 2015, they estimate that the UK throws away 4.4m tonnes of avoidable household food waste, annually. This is food that was edible at some point but for whatever reason was binned or composted. In effect, each household in the UK is wasting the equivalent of £470 worth of food every year which seems like a shocking number of supermarket trollies. Wrap attributes the fall in food prices and rising income since 2014 as being behind the food waste plateau.

However, I find this explanation hard to believe considering the unrelenting aftershocks still felt from our annus horribilis 2016. As everyone knows, the result of the UK referendum has changed everything and is still causing the pound to tank, food prices to rise and incomes to be anything but certain. Surely, if Wrap had some more recent figures post 2015, they would show that it has also affected the level of household food waste and worked as an incentive to reduce it. Even superhuman Jamie Oliver has had to close 6 restaurants because of the rising costs in a tough market and ‘pressures and unknowns’! If he can’t make the Brexit vote fallout work then how are the rest of us going to do it?

Without a crystal ball, it is difficult to predict if the Brexit unknowns and political shenanigans happening afar in 2017 will help to continue a downward trend in UK household food waste. How will people react while they tighten their belts amid a growing climate of uncertainty? Will it prompt people to shop wisely, plan their meals carefully in advance and cook everything from scratch? Will there be a growing demand for food with longer and longer ‘use by’ dates? Will ‘leftovers’ become this year’s biggest trend among foodies? Will vegetable peelings overtake spiralised courgetti ‘noodles’ as the new anti-carb?

Only time will tell as we wait for 2017 to pan out. But even if recent circumstances have meant that we are already starting to reduce our food waste, it is still worth mentioning the obvious (and not so obvious) things that you can do to limit your ‘avoidable’ waste.

  1. First and foremost, the obvious. Make a shopping list, stick to it and don’t buy too much of it. Pretty straightforward, I think.
  2. Don’t shop when you are hungry. Again, we’ve all found out the hard way when our stomachs rule the supermarket aisles, that we buy too much of the wrong things. To make it worse, when our brains finally kick in at home, we return again to buy what we actually needed. Shop when your brain is stronger than your stomach.
  3. Learn from your mistakes or at least try to remember them. If you know from past purchases that no one likes a particular flavour of bagel etc; don’t buy it just because they are out of the ones that they do like. No one is going to appreciate that you tried to get the right one. They will only remind you how much they don’t like the one you bought them, if they actually eat it.
  4. When you do buy too much food or if your plans change and you can see that something is threatening to go off, freeze it. Yes, it is a slightly ‘sticking plaster’ solution but at least it buys you time to figure out what you are going to do with it.
  5. If you cannot freeze it then be a bit social. Why not invite people over for a meal? Or cook it and deliver it to someone who could use it. After all, if they can’t use it then they’ll freeze it!
  6. Don’t forget that teenagers are particularly good at making surplus food disappear. They will eat just about anything served to them, especially if it is stuffed into a toasted sandwich, because they are always hungry.
  7. If all else fails and there is no way to cook it, preserve it, freeze it or give it to someone else then you must compost or bin it. Under no circumstances eat it because you cannot bear the thought of ‘wasting it’. Do not treat your body as a bin (that is an entirely different blog).

Now for the recipe. This week, another way to use up stale bread besides turning it into bruschetta, croutons or breadcrumbs. Pappa al Pomodoro is a classic Italian country soup and is a great winter warm-up that will also fuel you up before bracing the elements.

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New Year, new you?

I have had a self-imposed break over the Christmas and New Year period after a hectic end to the year. Like everyone else, it seems, I am back with good intentions and resolutions to start off the year. The annual onslaught of competing fitness DVDs, diet books and ‘easy’ programmes that promise a New Year, New You is in full force. As is the publication of bad health news in the shape of more studies that show us how unhealthy the UK has become. Among it all, another call to parents by Public Health England’s Change4Life initiative to change their ways when it comes to feeding their children. This time, the focus is on sugar.

It is hardly new news that our children are eating too much sugar after finishing a recent holiday where it was positively encouraged and even endorsed by the fat man, himself. But anyone who experienced the repercussions of their offspring coming off a sugar high as the mince pies and chocolates dwindled will understand the potential damage it can do to our bodies. There’s tooth decay and the risk of becoming overweight and obese with the BOGOF risks of developing diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and more. But, didn’t we already know this?

In fact, the hard, cold and depressing facts were released last September, when the results of the National Diet and Nutrition Survey were published. The Survey showed that children aged 4-10yrs and those aged 11-18yrs consume 13.4% and 15.2%, respectively, of their daily calories from ‘free’ sugars. Far from consuming the government recommendation of no more than 5% of calories coming from additional sugars, children consume far too many sweetened cereals, yoghurts, cakes, biscuits and everyone’s favourite health villain, sweetened fizzy drinks. So what has changed?

Well, nothing. But it hasn’t stopped Public Health England from publicising the results of a small online survey they commissioned in November 2016. The survey was completed by 200 parents of children aged between 4 and 10 years about their child’s breakfast. Approximately half of the respondents answered questions about a weekday breakfast and half about a weekend breakfast. The survey showed that children consume over half of the maximum daily allowance of added sugar at breakfast, mainly in breakfast cereals, spreads and drinks.

Although online surveys with such tiny numbers are far from the gold standard of scientific research it has been used with the National Diet and Nutrition Survey as the basis for the new Change4Life campaign focusing on children’s breakfasts. The ad campaign highlights this by featuring a child eating a typical breakfast of sugary cereal, toast with chocolate spread and a glass of orange drink that transform to the respective numbers of sugar cubes that they contain. Although it is hard to believe that there could be any parents or children out there who would be surprised that this breakfast could be anything but high in sugar, the ad campaign is actually entirely about something else. Rather than being another reminder from Change4Life that names and shames sources of free sugars that our bodies could do without, the ad campaign is really about promoting their new app.

Yes, Change4Life continues to be down with the kids in their pursuit of technology that markets their public health mantra. Their new Be Food Smart app is similar to the Change4Life’s Sugar Smart app that was released almost exactly a year ago and allows the user to scan the barcodes of foods and drinks using their phone. The app then produces a readout of the product’s sugar content as long as it is actually on their database. The Be Food Smart app follows the same simple concept and allows smartphone users to be even better informed about what they are putting into their shopping trolleys. The original app has been supersized and Be Food Smart reveals the sat fat and salt content as well. To avoid any misinterpretation of the numbers, the app also produces the results in the form of a traffic light label.

I have to say that at first I was a bit cynical about the app as it does not tell us anything new about our food that a label cannot and this is especially true when you scan a product that is not on the database. However, the truth is that many people simply do not read ingredients labels or understand what they mean in the real world let alone, have the time to figure it all out. Manufacturers have not helped as they have not adopted clear, universal traffic light labels that are meaningful to consumers. Therefore, even if using an app to do all the work is slightly gimmicky, if it helps more people understand which foods contain hidden sugars (and sat fat and salt) and means they can make healthier choices, I am all for it. Best of all, like anything new in technology, children will naturally adopt it with ease and be encouraged to use it, even if it’s only used simply to lecture their parents about their bad choices. If you think about it, what could be more irresistible to them?

Which brings me to one of my New Year’s resolutions that many other parents may not like to admit to. In 2017, I am going to try to keep up with any new technology that my children take on and also make time to master my new iPhone before it is due for an upgrade. Which means that I will be enlisting the help of my teenagers to help me eventually achieve the technological equivalent of New Year, New Me. I have a feeling that they are going to enjoy this more than I am…

In the meantime, I will settle for New Year, New Recipe and we might as well start with breakfast. This Banana apple bread is an easy recipe that can be eaten as part of a healthy breakfast or a ready to eat snack.

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A spin on children’s exercise

I read with interest, the other day, that a recent international study has found that British children are some of the least active in the world. Rather than getting their minimum of an hour a day physical activity that is the official government advice, the majority are spending their time watching box sets, playing games consoles and texting while they eat their weight in sugar. As a result, the alliance of health experts has awarded England and Wales a grade of D- for ‘Overall Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour’ while Scotland was one of 5 countries to come joint last with a big, fat F.

However, I found this really hard to believe and could not help thinking that they must have got it wrong. How could this be true when the number of my children’s sports fixtures for school and outside clubs was increasing lately, causing an even worse nightmare of co-ordinating the taxiing to and from pitches. Every weekend we had to sit down together with the home diary and I attempted to broker a negotiation with 3 teenagers about who was being picked up when, who could get the public bus and if we could ride share with anyone. From the arguments that entailed and the complexities of trying pick up at the same time in three different locations you would think that I was trying to settle a peace agreement between rouge states. In a sense, I was because inevitably, agreements were reneged when fixtures were unexpectedly added or cancelled causing the whole plan to fall by the wayside. Therefore, I could not relate to the news that children were not getting enough daily physical exercise. In fact, I was beginning to wonder that if this continues, my children could singlehandedly up the stats. To top all this off, they have now invaded the gym I go to which has had an unexpected effect on my own level of physical exercise. I have been roped into joining them in a weekly spin class, despite promising myself never to get back into that saddle.

About a year ago, I made the mistake of going to my first spin class at a different gym with one of my children and the members of his cycling team because I thought it would be a ‘fun’ thing to try out. However, what I hadn’t bargained for was a class of sweaty, highly competitive alpha males lead by a teacher who shouted at anyone that he thought wasn’t pulling their weight. It was difficult enough for me to understand what we were actually supposed to be doing without falling off my bike so I just tried to copy my son. Unfortunately, his long legs and speed didn’t match mine so in addition to tipping my water bottle all over the floor, I spent the entire time lagging behind everyone while counting down the minutes until I could finally stop.

Of course, when my son joined my gym, like all teenagers, he instantly knew the run of it and began to tell me things about it that I hadn’t noticed in all the years that I had been going. He also quickly established that there was a spin class and insisted that we had to try it out even though I was extremely reluctant. In retrospect, I think that he knew that if he ignored my replies of ‘We’ll see’, I would cave in if I believed that he wouldn’t go on his own. Before I knew it, we were heading into a class, trying to find a bike amongst the crowd. I claimed what I thought was a good bike as it had been left in the centre of the room, which also saved me from hefting over another one. However, as the class quickly started with the blare of the music, I realised that I was starting to fall off my bike as my saddle tilted sharply. I was quickly identified as the newbie as I ran to swap my wonky bike and start again.

Finally sorted out on a different bike, I pedalled away and tried to listen to the rapid fire instructions being shouted out. We did a series of short sprints to warm up but this rapidly progressed into racing and climbing imaginary 3rd category hills in the Tour de France. Unlike the professionals, I didn’t feel that I was gliding past anyone as I tried to pedal out of the saddle as if I was climbing a never ending ladder. It was quite bizarre to be cycling hard in an indoor peloton, sweating to loud techno music trapped in what felt like the worst 90’s disco. Looking up, you could see our pained reflections on the mirrored walls, like some grimaced Tour spectators. The class seemed to last forever but just when I thought I couldn’t pedal anymore, I finally felt a wave of relief as we reached the cooldown and I lowered the resistance on the bike to nought.

I was a fool to think that after a shaky start, I could get out of the next spin class because the following week only got worse. By then, my daughter had also decided to join the gym on the premise that she had injured her knee playing rugby and needed to cycle to help her recovery. And what better way to do this but in a spin class! So pressured now by two persuasive teenagers, I didn’t really have a chance to get out of spinning. This time, the class was even more packed and the bikes were bunched up into a peloton. However, I managed to grab a good bike and squeeze it into the gap between my two offspring. Once again, the blaring music announced the start of the class and instructions were shouted out as we started to pedal. I thought that this time, I had a good chance at not standing out quite so much as I struggled as at least I was hidden in the middle of the pack. Besides, I wouldn’t be the only one at the back of the pack as my daughter would have to be taking it easy with her knee. But as expected, an injured teenager is still stronger than any adult having a Beroca day. The instructor only urged us to go faster with shouts of ‘If it doesn’t hurt, you’re not going hard enough!’. I tried to pedal at a manic pace but glancing aside I soon realised that my ‘hard enough’ is quite different from my children’s. They pedalled possessed as they effortlessly soared past imaginary cyclists on the steepest mountain climbs and left me behind in their wake. They seemed to only get stronger as they accomplished the never ending sprint intervals and they almost looked like they were enjoying it.

By the end of the class I had reduced to crawling on my bike until we finally reached the cooldown. We left the class sweaty and exhausted and unsurprisingly, my children absolutely loved it. They have already signed us up for the next one and so this spin class agony is only going to continue. I know I should be happy that at least they are getting the minimum one hour of physical activity a day but unless I can stop them from trying to meet the maximum then I am afraid that I am going to have to continue spinning. Which means that unless my children get bored of it, I am just going to have to get better at it.

But perhaps that is the key to keeping children active and upping these depressing statistics? Find them an activity or sport that they enjoy and even better, one that takes full advantage of their natural abilities and competitiveness. In other words, if you can find the physical activity that ‘fits’ your child, it will hook them as long as they keep enjoying it. The long list of physical rewards they will get in return from taking part such as feeling good, relaxed and stronger will help to encourage them to do it again. Of course, it is easier said than done to find the Holy Grail of an activity that they enjoy, you have access to and can afford. But no one said being a parent is easy. And be warned, once you find the sport that fits, you may also find yourself joining them for the ride.

All that spinning has made me hungry so here’s the recipe for a great recovery snack. This Pecan and date bread is very easy to make, very easy to eat. Enjoy!

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