There is general agreement among nutritional scientists and the community at large that dietary habits are related to good health and the prevention of disease. While the link between food and short-term health consequences (such as vitamin deficiencies, weight loss) has been documented for nearly a century, the last few decades are witness to a growing recognition
that the quality of the diet affects long-term health -that is, the risk of chronic disease and premature death.
Today, in Australia and other developed nations, the greatest risk to health associated with eating is incorrect nutrient balance. This is much greater than other risks such as microbial hazards, toxicants -naturally occurring or contaminating, chemical residues, food additives or food hypersensitivity.
There is a large body of evidence linking diet with chronic diseases.
Improved nutrition for the prevention of disease has become a major component of public health initiatives, both in Australia and overseas.
Government statistics show that up to 50% of heart disease in this country is attributable to bad diet, 40% of strokes, 50% of stomach cancers, 35% of bowel cancers and 50% of non-insulin dependent diabetes. These account for significant numbers of premature deaths and also produce considerable illness and disability. In addition, the economic cost of all diet-related disease in Australia has been estimated to be in excess of $3 billion dollars annually or over 8% of Australia’s Gross Domestic Product.
The Food Industry Response
The Australian food industry is technologically advanced and innovative. A close collaboration with nutritional scientists in Universities and CSIRO has resulted in a wide range of food products being developed with optimised nutrient composition to help consumers select healthy diets. These products include:
- low or reduced fat products;
- products with altered fatty acid ratios (ie elevated unsaturated fats and oils);
- low salt products;
- high fibre products; and
- products with elevated calcium levels.
In addition, the food industry is supporting further research into functional foods and foods with health potential which promise to further enhance health outcomes.
Merely supplying wholesome and nutritious foods is not enough to meet the health challenge of poor nutrition. Consumers must be provided with sound nutritional information which allows them to choose foods and construct diets which are most appropriate for their own personal situation.
Nutritional advice and the way it is conveyed to the community has been identified as an issue of prime importance by the AFC. The AFC considers that sound dietary advice is underscored by three fundamental principles:
- it must be scientifically substantiated and accepted as current nutritional wisdom by a large majority of nutritional experts
- it must be achievable using the foods currently available and widely consumed by the community; and
- it must recognise food is consumed for enjoyment and plays important social and cultural roles in our society.
Good nutrition is a major part of successful health management. But the AFC, recognises that consumers must implement other important health strategies such as keeping active and exercising, not smoking, consuming alcohol in moderation and having medical check-ups regularly.
Health Claims and Messages About Foods
The AFC believes information delivered at point of purchase or consumption through nutritional messages or health claims on product labels is a critical reinforcement of, and necessary capitalisation on, other educational strategies.
Provision of health claims on food products represents a moderate extension of current consumer education efforts, but the benefits likely to flow to the community are substantial. Health claims will not be the panacea of all diet-related illness but they can be a pivotal educational tool in the overall effort toward improving Australians’ awareness and reaction to the critical equation of diet, lifestyle and health.
Health claims may be used to attract consumers to the already wide range of nutrition enhanced products such as high fibre products or foods with modified fatty acids ratios.
The fundamental requirements of health claims is that:
- there is scientific substantiation of efficacy;
- they can be acted upon practically and maintain sound nutrition;
- the wording is clear and concise; and
- they are not be overly optimistic in their claimed health outcomes.
Further research and development in the nutritional sciences will lead to food products with even greater health benefits. For maximum public health benefit, it is crucial that consumers are made aware of these products and are attracted to them.
High Tech Nutrition
Perhaps the most exciting and speculative science at the moment is the realisation that some components of foods, which are not strictly nutrients, have health-promoting biological activities. The anti-oxidants found in fruits and vegetables are thought to protect against a number of diseases. The epidemiological evidence for their effects is supported by hard science which demonstrates that some anti-oxidants protect against LDL-cholesterol oxidation, and “anecdotal” evidence such as the Chinese belief that green tea is healthy which also happens to be loaded with polyphenolic anti-oxidants.
Findings such as these are the spring board to industry innovation. Novel food production, processing and packaging technologies enhance and protect the bioactive components as raw materials are transformed into foods of high appeal to the consumer.