By Val Cocksedge

NCWQ Nutrition Adviser

Australia’s health, well-being and productivity are being threatened by an epidemic of weight-related illness. 63.4% of Australian adults are above a healthy weight, with 27.9% obese and 35.5% overweight. More that a quarter (27%) of Australian children are overweight or obese. Australia, like many countries, is seeing an increase in diseases stemming from these factors – including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and cancers.

There is unequivocal evidence that the marketing of unhealthy foods and sugar-laden beverages is related to childhood obesity. Dr Gary Sacks, Deakin University, says Australians spend 32% of their food budget on takeaways and eating out with unhealthy diets, thus creating a public health issue. It is estimated that in 2009, food companies spent $402 million and $149 million respectively on food and non-alcoholic drink advertising in Australia – targeting children through advertising across a number of different platforms and using a variety of integrated techniques, influencing children’s food preferences, purchase requests and consumption patterns.

Australians are eating too much saturated fat, salt and added sugar in discretionary foods. WHO recommends that as part of a comprehensive strategy to tackle overweight and obesity issues, member countries implement front-of-pack labelling systems supported by public education programs for adults and children to improve attitudes and behaviour around diet, physical activity and sedentary behaviour.

In September 2017, thirty four leading community, public health, medical and academic groups united in calling on the Federal Government to address the serious obesity problem with a new action plan called “Tipping the Scales” highlighting eight areas where action is required.

In an effort to encourage Queenslanders to improve their food intake, the Queensland Government has run several programs on TV and newspapers e.g. Give Colour a Spin, outlining the value of different fruits and vegetables.  The Try for 5 program encourages Australians to increase vegetable consumption to the recommended 5 serves per day. Supermarkets are taking up the challenge to eat more fruit, with baskets of free fruit.

There is a global war on unhealthy food ads. There are 1100 junk food ads on TV that 5-8 year-olds will be exposed to in a year. To continue to make products tasty for consumers, recipes, food products and restaurant meals designed to be “low fat” are substituting with sugar, salt and other miscellaneous ingredients.

Junk food companies spend 27 times more on advertising than the government does on promoting healthy eating. The average Australian consumes 60g (14 teaspoons) of sugar each day. Sugar replacements reduce kilojoules but do not address people’s preference for sweet foods.

Food companies do not have to declare how much sugar is added to their products – there are 42 different types of sugar food manufacturers can use. Choice has been calling on food and health ministers to support labelling of added sugar. For more information view to call for clear and transparent sugar labelling.

Energy drinks have become the choice of Australian kids and with fruit juices and cordials laden with sugars contributing to dental problems and weight gain. Some drinks contain 15-20 teaspoons of sugar. Red Bull with a similar caffeine to a cup of coffee contains 27.5g of sugar. The AMA is reigniting its plea for a tax on sugary drinks. Members of the Australian Beverages Council have vowed to cut the amount of sugar used across the industry by 10% by 2020 and 20% by 2025. Products include soft drinks, energy drinks, frozen products, juices, fruit drinks, cordials, iced teas, coffee milk products. Some drinks with the highest sugar levels, including Coke, will instead ramp up low sugar alternatives and reduce some serving sizes.

Research published in the Medical Journal of Australia estimated that Australian adults are eating 9.6g of salt a day, well above the WHO recommended 5g a day. Almost 80% of Australian children are eating too much salt – the recommended daily allowance for children 4-8 years is 3.5g. Too much salt can lead to high blood pressure – a risk factor for stroke, heart attack and chronic kidney disease. About 75% of the salt we consume is from processed foods – bread, breakfast cereals, crackers, simmer sauces, processed meats, cheese, soups, instant noodles and other “ready” meals. Eating more fresh foods and fewer processed foods is a start to lower our salt intake. Choose lower salt options on packaged foods – check sodium content on the nutrition information panel. One gram of salt contains 400mg of sodium. Food with less than 400 mg of salt per 100g is a good choice.

“Need for Feed” is a food and nutrition program run out-of-school hours and currently available to all schools. The skills-based program, managed by Diabetes Queensland, is funded by the Queensland Government. It is a practical, hands-on cooking program providing students with the opportunity to gain confidence, master skills and enjoy healthy foods. After school and on weekends in schools all over Queensland, a dedicated teacher and a group of students take advantage of 20 hours of cooking and nutrition education. Post program statistics show that 82% of participants feel confident to cook a meal at home, have improved their nutrition literacy and reported an increase in use of fruit and vegetables.

The theme of World Food Day 2017 – was “Invest in Food Security and Rural Development”. National Nutrition Week is held 15 – 21 October each year. In what is believed to be a world first, scientists from UQ are producing purple corn-on-the-cob for cardiovascular health; folate-packed strawberries to boost the nervous system and pre-natal benefits; and macadamias with more healthy fats. An international team, including the CSIRO, has developed a new type of wheat with ten times the amount of fibres of normal wheat, to help improve gut health, fight bowel cancer and type 2 diabetes. The wheat will be processed into flour and incorporated into a range of food products. The western world is looking for plant-based protein. The Goondiwindi-based Woods Group are overseeing products made from pulses, including fava beans and chickpeas. They are about to unleash the chocolate-coated chickpea – puffed with air pressure, covered with chocolate – a healthy version of the Malteser?

Yatala-based Frosty Boy plans to roll out the Philippines cheese and yam flavoured ice cream. A range of desserts is made using coconut combined with pandan leaves, tasting similar to vanilla. Frosty Boy exports its powder-based soft serve to more than 50 countries.

Queen Garnet plums, hailed as a superfood, have 3-6 times the antioxidant level of blueberries. Developed by plant breeders for the Queensland Government a decade ago, they are now grown in all States for the farming co-op Nutrafruit.

The United Nations projects that due to the rising global population, there will be a call for dramatic increase in food production. Suggested solutions include farming infrastructure; increasing farming yields; reform and commercialising agricultural industries in Africa and India; changing the way people buy and consume food; and decreasing waste. A plant-based meat start-up – Beyond Meat – backed by Bill Gates, is on a mission to replace animal protein with plant protein. The Beyond Burger is made from simple, plant-based ingredients – peas provide protein, traces of beetroot provide the beefy, red colour, coconut oil and potato starch ensure the burger’s juiciness. The patty cooks and tastes like a fresh burger and is becoming popular in selected US supermarkets.

A report released by Aust 21, an independent not-for-profit think tank, predicts algae farming could become a major industry in regional economies, providing a range of products such as livestock feed, health foods, plastics, textiles, paper, petro-chemicals and biofuels. Algae is already hailed as a superfood by health and food experts for its nutritional and environmental benefits and has been a staple diet item in Japan, Korea and China – many consuming seaweed, edible algae in sushi, miso soup and as dried snacks.

Gene Ethics campaigns to help farmers and shoppers mobilise for more control of our seed and food supplies. Merged GM and agrochemical giants Bayer/Monsanto, ChemChina Syngenta and Dow/Dupont (now Corteva) control 70% of the world’s commercial seed, including all GM varieties and 60% of agrochemicals. Over 95% of Australian farmers are still GM free – a selling point for our clean, green food.

Agriculture and chemical supplier and seeds developer, Nufarm, has approval for its world-first plant-based source of long chain omega-3 fatty acids. The company predicts its GM modified omega-3 canola will help ease pressure on wild fish stocks, currently the source of long chain omega-3, essential for human and fish health. FSANZ has approved its use in food for humans and the Australian Office of Gene Technology Regulator for use in animal feed.


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