Category Archives: Nutrition in the news

Does parental choice make for Happy decisions?

I had a bit of a double-take the other day when I read about two recent diet-related news stories. The first headline referred to a report on a French study that showed a link between ultra-processed foods and cancer, suggesting that the more of them you ate, the greater your chances were of getting cancer. So far, no surprises there and even my own children’s response when I shared this news with them was a sarcastic shrug and a ‘Yeah, I know?!’ They were not alone in dismissing this as ‘news’ because despite the best efforts of the newspapers and tv programmes who featured the story and tried to whip up interest, the lack of controversy meant the story quickly died away. However, just because it is widely believed that the more processed something is, the worse it is for you, it does not mean that you will change your behaviour. It is also true that not everyone who eats a diet full of ultra-processed foods necessarily chooses to do so. Which brings me to the second piece of news that I read with interest.

McDonald’s have announced with much fanfare that as part of its global commitment to support families, they will be changing the menu of their children’s Happy Meals in a bid to tackle childhood obesity. Although this sounded commendable, I couldn’t help but notice the stark contrast of this press release compared to the discreet phasing out of McDonald’s menu option to Supersize items, some years ago. Back then, McDonald’s released a quiet statement to say that they decided to shelve Supersizing in an effort ‘to simplify their menu and give customers choices that support a balanced lifestyle’. Given the increasingly high obesity rates in children, globally, McDonald’s is reducing its menu choices in order to improve their health. To kick off, from June 2018, the Happy Meal menu will no longer include the choice of a cheeseburger or chocolate milk. Additionally, all Happy Meals will be reduced in the number of calories and the amount of sodium, saturated fat and sugar they contain. McDonald’s aims to get all Happy Meals down to less than 600kcals by 2022.

The news coverage of this announcement was more widespread than the cancer story and was mostly positive. However, many health pundits also expressed the view that it was about time that McDonald’s took some responsibility for the effect of their success on the health of their customers. Since Forbes put the company comfortably in the top spot as the world’s largest restaurant in 2017, it certainly could afford to make an effort. Despite other renewed calls for more fast food restaurants to follow McDonald’s lead, none of them responded with similar healthy pledges of intent. Before long, the Happy Meal press also faded into the background of bigger news stories. But the news may have lingered a little longer inside most households of children and teenagers, alike.

And my children are no different because although they have long outgrown Happy Meals, when I shared the news at home, they looked up from their phones in utter disbelief. At first, they were slightly shocked to learn that each ‘tiny’ Happy Meal was more than 600kcals. How could it be possible, when they weren’t even filling?! But then they were even more outraged by the fact that they had never known that there had been chocolate milk. Why didn’t I tell them?! Why hadn’t I let them have any?! They’d been robbed! They then continued to lament over all the missed opportunities to indulge in glasses of chocolatey pleasure and proceeded to fling accusations at me of unfairness and menu censorship. At least they had forgotten to add the usual, ‘Why do you have to be a nutritionist?!’

I was taken aback by their overreaction for two reasons. First, how can anyone drink chocolate milk alongside a pile of chips that will inevitably be doused with vinegar or ketchup? It is a textbook car crash of opposing flavours and aromas and nobody’s stomach is going to thank them for that combination. Second, I am not part of the anti-chocolate milk brigade and in fact, I think it makes quite a decent recovery snack after a hard workout. Nonetheless, its high sugar content makes it a more suitable drink for children at pudding where it can be dunked into at leisure. Therefore, I do not recall chocolate milk ever entering into the equation of what drink should be picked in a Happy Meal lunch or dinner. Was it really on the menu?

However, I do take full responsibility for depriving my children of McDonald’s, in general, as I confess that I never willingly took them there. My defence is that when my children were younger, they went to more than enough birthday parties that were held at McDonald’s and at similar type establishments. In other words, their school and the propensity of other parents to invite absolutely everybody and their siblings in their year to birthday parties gave me an easy ‘out’ to say no at home. I admit, McDonald’s was relegated to emergency only status but even though I wasn’t a fan, I never stood in the way of hunger.

I decided to look into the news story to learn more about the Happy Meal changes and to get to the bottom of chocolate milk-gate. What I found out only reminded me of the difficulty that parents face when trying to steer their children to make healthy choices, especially when it comes to ultra-processed fast food.

Even though fast food is well-known for being bad for our health and we hear alarming stories about its links to cancer, we just can’t stop eating it. But it is easy to understand why. It is produced to be hyper-palatable and attractive, it has a long shelf-life, it’s readily available, largely affordable and it can be consumed anywhere, at any time of the day. The entire formulation, presentation and marketing of fast food not only often promotes consumption but overconsumption. Parents, therefore, often face a battle trying to avoid an overreliance on these foods. Therefore, I was very interested in looking into the fine print of McDonald’s announcement to see how they were going to help parents improve the health of their children. What I found out about their new initiative, however, turned out to be anything but clear.

To start with, despite McDonald’s initiative being part of their global commitment, the reduced menu choices of the Happy Meals only affect restaurants in the US. But that’s not all, the calorie content will be reduced at the same time in the US and so will meet the 600kcals cut-off by June 2018. I wondered why the reduced menu only affected the US and why the rest of the world had to wait until 2022 for any changes? Wouldn’t it make more sense and be far easier for McDonald’s to make their global changes, globally? Curiously, as I read more and began to untangle the details of the changes, it seemed that the reduced menu choices in the US would be nothing more than a slight of hand. Rather than completely phasing out the unhealthy cheeseburgers and chocolate milk, they will both still be available to order from the larger menu after June. The only real change is that they will not appear listed as choices on the Happy Meal menu so that the only mains featured will be the hamburger and the 4 or 6-piece Chicken McNuggets. Bottled water, however, will be added as a Happy Meal drink choice, taking up the place of the chocolate milk on the menu.

As for the situation in the UK, the Happy Meal menu choices are not being reduced and the same cheeseburgers will continue to be featured as a main option. The UK is one of McDonald’s ‘20 major markets’ and as part of the global commitment, these markets aim to meet the new nutritional standards set by 2022. Which means that despite the big announcement, in reality, nothing in the UK has changed unless you think simply having an aim is a news story. As for chocolate milk-gate, I discovered that it is not listed on the Happy Meal menu or even the wider menu at present in the UK. In fact, I couldn’t find any evidence to show that chocolate milk was ever on the menu. Phew! Although I felt slightly relieved and looked forward to sharing this useful nugget of information at home, I had to wonder. Will there actually be any advantage to parents when McDonald’s reduces the menu choices in Happy Meals? In other words, will having a visually limited menu help parents and children make healthy choices even when the unhealthier items are still freely available?

Parents in the UK have never had to face the choice of whether they would let their children choose chocolate milk in a Happy Meal or not but what if it had been on the menu? My teenage children made it pretty clear to me that they would have wanted to choose it. However, they also know that I wouldn’t have let them have it which is why they didn’t entirely trust my lack of chocolate milk memory. Surely other parents would have said ‘no’ to a chocolate milk option. It is not exactly impossible. But if it’s listed on the menu as a perfectly acceptable drink choice and other children around you are happily slurping away on it with their Happy Meal, it is not easy. If you decide to give your hungry children a choice but then try to convince them that chocolate milk is not a good option for them, you might as well be trying to reason with a Tasmanian Devil. Which means that even if you know that chocolate milk is loaded with sugar, it is far too easy to convince yourself that it is an absolutely sensible drink. After all, at least it’s milk which has some nutritional value, unlike a horrible fizzy drink.

But then what would happen when the chocolate milk is no longer listed on the menu but is still lurking around? How do parents avoid buying chocolate milk (or a cheeseburger) if that’s what their child has always chosen before? How do you reason with a little angry person who doesn’t believe that chocolate milk is not on the Happy Meal menu when there are plenty of children with chocolatey moustaches running around showing you that it is very much available? There is nothing that children hate more than when a parent changes their mind, especially when it is about something that they previously allowed their children to do.

I can only conclude that McDonald’s reduced menu is not going to improve the health of children unless they have the most willing, able and determined parents. Because to make healthier choices for their children, parents will need to be strong enough to ignore the unhealthy choices still available and heavily promoted on the wider menu. Those parents will probably rue the day when chocolate milk was ever a Happy Meal menu choice. Fortunately for McDonald’s, there will still be enough parents who, for a number of reasons, will find themselves having to order some extra chocolate milk off the main menu every time they purchase a Happy Meal. Ultimately, McDonald’s will benefit the most because these families will even have to pay more for unhealthy choices.

As for my family, despite knowing that chocolate milk was not a drink choice in a Happy Meal, they still feel slightly cheated. It doesn’t make any difference that they know it’s unlikely that I would have let them have it as a main drink. Of course, it’s always easier to make healthy choices if there are no other options. But surely parenting is about making choices for our children precisely when it’s not easy. As a nutritionist and a parent, McDonald’s announcement of their new nutritional standards can only be welcomed. But simply reducing the menu choices of Happy Meals by shifting the unhealthy items onto the larger menu does little to help parents. The only healthy benefits that I can see are McDonald’s.

Although I have chocolate milk on my mind, I am more tempted to share a recipe for something else that is dark and rich to be enjoyed on St Patrick’s Day: Irish soda bread with Guinness. We will be eating it while watching Ireland win the Rugby Six Nations and more than likely, the Grand Slam, too.

Blog 1

Snacks attacked

With our Christmas tree down and the accompanying paraphernalia long packed away, our empty house and bare walls only emphasise a clean start to the new year. Change is in the air. At least, most hope things will improve on many fronts in 2018. Meanwhile, on an individual level, many have already made a change for themselves and are halfway through January as a teetotaller, vegan, raw water drinker or exercise fanatic. But even if you haven’t joined the masses and embraced a new food or exercise fad, you will still have to contend with the repetitive commercials and programs focusing on diet trends and quick weight loss. Amongst all this comes the news that parents are failing their children, again, when it comes to a healthy diet. Yes, it’s a cheery Happy New Year from Public Health England (PHE) who have launched their latest campaign even while the remnants of Christmas stockings are still hanging around many households.

The timing of Change4Life launch on the 2nd January meant it could have easily been sold as a New Year’s resolution for parents. Christmas was evidence enough for most parents to witness just how much sugary indulgence their children could pack in each day. Therefore, parents didn’t need to be reminded of the PHE’s National Diet and Nutrition Survey that showed that we are all eating far too much added sugar. As a result, there are a record number of children with dental caries and eating snacks containing added sugar between mealtimes is the main cause. Of course, the more visible effect of eating too much sugar can be seen in our nurseries and schools. Who could dispute that over a third of children are still leaving primary school overweight or obese? Which is why the focus of PHE’s new campaign is on the amount of sugar and calories that children and teenagers graze on throughout the day. With over half of amount of added sugar children and teenagers consume coming from unhealthy snacks such as biscuits, cakes, pastries, buns, sweets, juice and fizzy drinks, PHE are now calling on all parents to get a grip.

The ‘100 calorie snacks, two a day max!’ Change4Life campaign aims to help parents take back control of their children’s snacking habits by closing down the 24-hour buffet of high calorie sugary snacks available to them. Using the slogan’s simple rule of thumb, Change4Life wants parents to reduce the number of snacks their children eat each day and cut down on the amount of sugar and calories contained in each snack. Parents are advised to offer a maximum of two healthy snacks per day using the ‘100 calorie’ rule. However, the rule does not apply to fruit and veg as PHE wants everyone to eat more of these.

The Change4Life campaign is spreading its message with their distinctive Aardman characters. In the new ad, the characters try to avoid being squashed by a growing number of sugar cubes that pour out from some sugary foods and drinks while exploring the supermarket aisles. This is quite a feat, as apart from a mouth, they have no facial features whatsoever, but perhaps they can taste danger. In any case, all is ok because as a voiceover asks what we can do to protect our children from the harmful snacks, we see the characters safely singing and dancing near the clearly labelled ‘healthier snacks’. Just in case we weren’t following the plot, an actual parent appears and checks the label of a box of healthier snacks before reassuringly popping it into their shopping basket with a happy child in tow.

In conjunction with the 8-week campaign, a Smarter Snacking Pack that includes money-off vouchers for healthier snacks and stickers can be ordered by signing up to the Change4Life website. In addition, the handy Change4Life Food Scanner app has been relaunched to help parents identify which snacks are healthy while they shop. The app scans the barcodes of foods and drinks and gives a calorie count and ‘traffic light’ rating according to the amount of sugar, sat fat and salt contained. An amber or red traffic light will trigger a ‘More ideas’ link underneath the traffic light which will bring up a relevant Change4Life webpage suggesting a healthier swap to something more ‘green light’.

With the campaign now in full swing and children back at school and away from any leftover Christmas treats, it is a very good opportunity to try to help families make a healthy change to their diet. Therefore, this initiative seems to be a very positive way to encourage parents and children to think more about what they are eating and promote healthier snacking. However, as I looked further into the details of the Change4Life campaign as both a health professional and a parent of big snackers, I was a little surprised by what I found.

I thought I would start by visiting my nearest supermarket armed with the Food Scanner app to check out some of the the100kcal healthier snack options available through the Change4Life money-off vouchers. The snacks featured in the vouchers included malt loaf, lower-sugar fromage frais, mini-packs of nuts and flavoured water with no added sugar. Although they weren’t the kinds of snacks I expected to see in the vouchers, I forged ahead, ready to watch out for any sugar cubes lurking in the aisles.

After scanning some random foods on the shelves for comparison, I went to the first snack on my list, Petit Filous fromage frais. I recognised the little pots and had bought them in the past as my children used to eat them for their pudding. But from memory, they used to contain added sugar. However, when I scanned the pack, rather than getting a traffic light rating of the fromage frais, my screen filled with a bright yellow Change4Life ‘Woohoo! This is a healthier yoghurt choice and makes a great snack, yum!’ I was a little surprised by this but I thought Petit Filous must have changed the ingredients. What did I know? I hadn’t bought it for several years. I took a closer look at the ingredients label but there it was, the second ingredient was still sugar. How could Change4Life be saying this was a good snack choice? What about tooth decay?

I went back again to the scan of the fromage frais, which I had to pick out from my list of previous scans. I clicked on it and interestingly, the scan now looked very different. The ‘Woohoo’ had now shrunk to the bottom of the screen and now the missing traffic light appeared. Only it showed amber for sugar and sat fat and green for salt. Now I was really confused. Is Change4Life saying the Petit Filous was still a healthier snack option and that amber, amber green snacks were ok? The traffic light told me that each tiny pot was 41kcals and contained 4.7g sugar (more than1tsp). To be fair, there are much worse fromage frais and yoghurts and this one was certainly not sugar-laden. But eating it as a snack still counted as eating the white stuff between meals. Our teeth don’t care if it’s the least worst fromage frais.

I then clicked on the link underneath to ‘Find out more’ and it showed that Change4Life had had second thoughts about the fromage frais. The screen showed a blue Aardman figure holding up a large sign saying, ‘There’s no reds but can you find a swap with more greens?’ So now they do want me to swap the Petit Filous for something healthier? Let me see, if only I could find a healthier fromage frais to swap with? I wonder what Change4Life would recommend? Of course, I scanned the same Petit Filous again and rewarded with the same healthier ‘Woohoo!’ Sorted!

While scanning and Woohooing the fromage frais several times to see if I could trip it up, I thought I might as well check out the rest of Petit Filous range as they appeared to only differ in flavour. Scanning them didn’t produce any initial Woohoos, but funnily enough, the traffic light rating of the Petit Filous Big Pots, Greek Style and Frubes were all the same. In fact they shared the same traffic light ambers for sugar and sat fat and greens for salt as the recommended fromage frais. But did this mean that these were just as ‘healthy’?

A quick look at the ingredients revealed that Greek Style and Frubes fromage frais contained considerably more added sugar than the original fromage frais but worse was to come. I scanned the Petit Filous Little Desserts Chocolate & Vanilla flavour expecting to see some red traffic lights because as the name implies, they are desserts. In addition, the ingredients label clearly showed that each 55g pot contains almost 17tsp of added sugar. However, inexplicably, a quick scan of the Little Desserts gave the same traffic light rating as the ‘healthy’ fromage frais.

I had had enough of the chilled aisle by now and went in search of the next healthy snack available through the vouchers. Soreen Banana and Original Malt Lunchbox Loaves were in my sight and I quickly got down to work scanning. Each of the 25g different flavoured Lunchbox Loaves was roughly 95kcals and the scans prompted the same congratulatory ‘Woohoos’ as the fromage frais. Delving further, I called up the scans again through my scan history to get a traffic light. This time, the Loaves were given a traffic light rating of amber for sugar, green for sat fat and amber for salt. Looking closer again at the ingredients label, I found that the Banana and Original Malt flavours contained 5.8g and 5.1g added sugar, respectively. Which meant that there was even more sugar than the fromage frais hidden behind the Woohoo! What about the teeth??! I clicked on the link underneath the traffic light to ‘Find out more’. As expected, another blue Aardman figure appeared holding up a sign saying ‘This is mostly amber. Can you find foods with more greens?’ Not again!

Looking on the supermarket shelves, I saw two more flavours of Soreen’s range of individually packaged loaves. Soreen’s Mini Loaves weren’t included in the money-off vouchers but that wasn’t surprising as they came in toffee and chocolate flavours and featured Disney characters on the packets. A quick scan of the Mini Loaves didn’t result in a Woohoo but in the expected traffic light. It told me that the Mini Loaves were a fraction larger than the Lunchbox Loaves at 30g but were still under 100kcals. Surprisingly, the amber, green, amber traffic lights also showed that their sugar content was comparable to Soreen’s healthy Lunchbox Loaves. Toffee flavour contained 5.4g added sugar and chocolate flavour contained 5.8g added sugar.

I felt like I was scanning in a parallel universe as it seemed utterly bizarre that the larger Toffee Mini Loaf contained less sugar than the recommended ‘healthier’ Banana Lunchbox Loaf. I could not understand why Change4Life was telling parents to give these to their children as healthy snacks. Why would any parent think that the Toffee Mini Loaves are any less healthy than the Banana Lunchbox Loaves if they have less sugar? The loaves even resemble mini cakes so what’s the difference between giving your child the recommended Lunchbox Loaf or just giving them a slice of cake? Would toffee cake be better than banana? How can any parent know what a healthy snack is if Change4Life is blurring the lines? I despair…

By this point, I had had enough of disappointing scans and I simply couldn’t face the last two snacks on the vouchers. I also was tired of getting odd looks from supermarket staff and other shoppers who had watched me pick up a series of different foods to scan and only to scowl and put them back in the wrong place. Despite the time I had spent, my shopping basket was still empty and I was starting to get hungry. I headed straight for the large green light section of fruit and veg to fill up my basket before heading home.

Although it is clear that we need to do something about the unhealthy snacking culture of our children and teenagers, parents need all the help they can get. Which is why a campaign that encourages healthier snacking with money-off vouchers and a handy app is very welcome. However, I think that PHE, through the Change4Life ‘100 calorie snacks, two a day max!’, have confused the message of what is a healthy snack. It is not helpful that they are encouraging snacks containing added sugar because not only do they cause tooth decay and contain empty calories but they can be easily confused with similar snacks containing even more sugar. And if Change4Life’s own app can’t make up its mind on whether a snack it’s supposed to be promoting is healthy or not, how can they expect parents to?

So, what is the answer? Well, as a parent I would say that there’s no time like the present to have another look at what your family is eating and take on the broad message of the Change4Life campaign. Make changes, where needed, to your children’s snacks and limit them to between meals.

When it comes to what is a healthy snack, my own rule of thumb is to keep it simple. Start with the super greens of fruit and veg. Add some carbs such as bread/toast, a bagel, pitta bread, rice cakes or bread sticks. If they’re really hungry, add a little protein such as cottage cheese, hummus, peanut butter or cheese. At the moment, some of the snacks eaten in my kitchen by teenagers include a peanut butter and banana wrap, cheese bun with an apple, hunk of bread with a carrot and even porridge and banana. Clearly, different children will have different tastes so the trick is find out what works for you.

Speaking of which, what works for my family is a slice of Banana walnut loaf which can be sliced up and packed into a lunchbox or tucked into for a mid-afternoon break. And fear not, there are no sugar cubes lurking in it.

Loaf web 2

A heart to heart with the Christmas cheese board

As we head towards Christmas, I feel like a speeding train, incapable of stopping shopping, baking and wrapping unless I simply run out of fuel. Meanwhile, my fridge seems to have been taken over by mice. Every time I open it, I am met with a shelf packed entirely of every variety of cheese, sandwiched together carefully like a stinky puzzle. Each pack balances precariously against the rest, threatening to topple Jenga-like if I dare remove it.

But for now it is safe, as I know that it will be impossible to help myself to a little Wensleydale and cranberry without sending out a silent cheese alert, compelling my children to swiftly come to the kitchen. Once there, before I have even finished the last creamy crumb, they will begin to take out every morsel of cheese from the fridge, not to mention the collection of chutneys that lurk in its dark recesses. Then they will scavenge through the cupboards and take out all the boxes of crackers that they can find, regardless of whether they actually like them or not. And in an instant, my intended tiny snack will have kickstarted a cheese party. Unlike a quick bite, the cheese fest will be a crumbly, sticky mess of loveliness that never seems to end.

Now that would be fine if there wasn’t so much to do before Christmas because like many people, I like a good cheese board. However, breaking for cheese means you might as well give up on getting anything useful done for the rest of the day. If not for the time lost whilst indulging in the infinite combination of different flavours, then for the cheese-induced foggy state that will inevitably follow.

Which is why it made me smile, the other day, when a cheese-related headline caught my eye. A study was reported in the national press as showing that eating a small portion of cheese every day could reduce your chance of developing heart disease or stroke. The study was actually a review of 15 previous observational studies and it was reported that cheese eaters had a 10% reduction of risk of cardiovascular disease such as heart disease, heart attacks and strokes. The largest reduction of risk was seen in people who ate 40g of cheese per day.

40g of cheese a day? This ‘small’ amount was larger than the UK standard portion of cheese of 30g, or ‘matchbox’ size. How could it be possible that cheese, known for containing copious amounts of saturated fat and salt, could play some role in reducing cardiovascular risk? It seemed extremely unlikely when sat fat and salt are the archenemies of heart health. Was this another case of ‘fake’ news? Or was there something else going on? I knew I had to investigate before the cheesy headline would be used by some hungry teenagers to justify overconsumption on my home turf. And time was of the essence, with Christmas coming up and cheese aplenty being promoted in every supermarket aisle. It was already becoming harder to resist yet another new cheese to try for festive entertaining. Especially because with kids off from school, we were suddenly going through food quicker which meant being accompanied more often whilst grocery shopping.

I looked into the study and it was clear that all was not what it seemed. As the analysis focused solely on the amount of cheese consumed, it didn’t look at what type of cheese and its fat content or any other dairy products consumed, let alone anything else in the participants’ diets. In addition, the analysis only looked at several observational studies which are not the gold standard of studies. They rely on participants to accurately recall information but common sense tells you that when it comes to questions about food consumption, people are rarely precise with their portion sizes nor are they very forthcoming. Which makes the findings rather curious. Why did they find that eating the magic 40g cheese per day reduced risk when eating less than or more than 40g increased the risk?

The truth is that we simply don’t know why the study showed a decrease in risk. But that does not conclusively mean that the cheese should get all the credit. Cheese may taste great and be a good source of protein, calcium and vitamins. However, there is no getting around the fact that eating too much of it can lead to becoming overweight and developing ill health, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol and cardiovascular disease. Many people already eat far more than a matchbox size piece of cheese on a daily basis and clearly the amount of cheese increases significantly over Christmas. In other words, we don’t need any encouraging to eat even more cheese. In the end, this study may be another small addition to the body of evidence that is looking closer at the role of saturated fat from dairy products in our diets. Until we know whether it may be protective or not to eat particular sources of dietary fat, it is always sensible to return to what we already know. When it comes to a healthy diet it pays to eat everything in moderation.

So as I attempt to finish my final preparations before Christmas, I will still try to have the odd little snack of Wensleydale and cranberry without alerting the hungry troops. I have realised that when it comes to cheese, the selective listening of teenagers only translates the concept of eating in moderation to eating everything moderately quickly. My only hope is that they will reach a tipping point of peak cheese consumption. Only a couple of days before Christmas and they still seem to be winning the war of teenagers vs cheese…

Thinking I could perhaps reduce the cheese consumption or at least hide it among some healthy stuff, I decided to make a Wholewheat cheese bread. You can make it using any leftover cheese you have from Christmas.

Blog cheese bread

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!