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Is the 'there is no such thing as bad foods, only bad diets' argument helpful?

By Elaine WATSON, 11-Feb-2013

Related topics: R&D, The obesity problem, Food labeling and marketing, Health & Wellness, Bakery, Beverage, Healthy Foods

A new position statement  from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) which can be paraphrased as 'there is no such thing as good and bad foods, only good and bad diets' is eminently sensible, but will play into the hands of 'junk' food companies opposed to any government intervention in their industry, claims one academic.

The paper - published in the February issue of the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics - says that “labeling specific foods in an overly simplistic manner as ‘good foods’ and ‘bad foods’ is not only inconsistent with the total diet approach, but it can cause many people to abandon efforts to make dietary improvements”.

It adds: “Classification of specific foods as good or bad is overly simplistic and can foster unhealthy eating behaviors.”

However, this argument has repeatedly been used by the food industry to justify its opposition to any government interference in the formulation, distribution or promotion of ‘junk’ foods and beverages, said Marion Nestle, professor in the department of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University.

 Marion Nestle: Paper will play into the hands of junk food manufacturers

While it is perfectly reasonable to argue that occasional treats can be part of a healthy balanced diet, she told FoodNavigator-USA, there is "no question [that] some foods are healthier than others and we all know what they are."

She added: "The AND position may be strictly correct—'if in moderation, if combined with physical activity, etc'—but that’s not how the soda and other junk food industries will interpret it. 

"This kind of position is what makes food companies so eager to pour money into AND sponsorship and what brings disrespect to the organization for its openness to conflict of interest."

Classification of specific foods as good or bad is overly simplistic

Nutrition messages are more effective “when focused on positive ways to make healthy food choices over time, rather than individual foods to be strictly avoided”, argues the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

The AND paper, which you can read here , argues that when too much emphasis is given to a single food or food component, “confusion and controversy can hinder, rather than facilitate, consumers in adopting healthy dietary patterns”.

For example, while some animal research suggested saturated fats increase cardiovascular disease risk, “more recent evidence of a direct causal link is more ambiguous”, claims the Academy, which represents thousands of registered dietitians

“This topic remains highly controversial and it highlights the importance of stressing the total diet over time, rather than giving too much emphasis to specific food components.”

Points-based front of pack labeling schemes must be introduced with caution

Similarly, if the industry is told to adopt a front-of-pack labeling system that ranks foods according to their nutritional profile, it must be accompanied by guidance that reminds consumers that there are no forbidden foods, it says.

“If this proposed system is adopted, consumer guidance will be important to help the public understand how to utilize the point system in making food and beverage choices within a total diet context and avoid an exaggerated focus on single foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’.”

Nutrition messages are more effective when focused on positive ways to make healthy choices

Nutrition messages are more effective “when focused on positive ways to make healthy food choices over time, rather than individual foods to be strictly avoided”, argue the authors.

“The total diet or overall pattern of food eaten is the most important focus of healthy eating. All foods can fit within this pattern if consumed in moderation with appropriate portion size and combined with physical activity.”

Source: Journal Of The Academy Of Nutrition And Dietetics doi: 10.1016/j.jand.2012.12.013

Title: ‘Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Total Diet Approach to Healthy Eating’

Authors: Registered dietitians Jeanne Freeland-Graves; Bess Heflin, Centennial Professor in the department of nutritional sciences at the University of Texas, Austin; and Susan Nitzke, professor emerita and extension specialist in nutritional sciences at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.