Ultra-processed products. Portion sizes

Cheap eats make you fat

Pre-prepared ultra-processed products like this are cheap, convenient and yummy– and as typically consumed, deliver gut-busting amounts of calories

Our dietary advice team reports. Food labelling can be seriously misleading. By law, in most countries now, the labels of many processed products must state the amount of calories, protein, carbohydrates, fats and salt they contain. But as said in a new book by James Erlichman, Addicted to Food: Understanding the Obesity Epidemic: 'Fortunately for the supermarkets and manufacturers, most of us have only a fuzzy grasp of what 100 grams looks like. So to "help" us, [manufacturers] repeat the same nutrition information alongside in a so-called typical "portion size". The trouble is that the portion size is chosen by them, is arbitrary and often bears little relation to what many people might eat at a sitting. It is consequently all too easy to believe that a product is less fattening than it is'.

He gives examples. 'Take Kellogg's latest chocolate cereal launched in 2010 in Britain, clearly aimed at children,… aptly called Krave' (above, left). 'Krave's chocolate and hazelnut version weighs in at a whopping 440 calories per 100 grams and contains, by weight, more sugar and fat combined than it does "healthy" carbohydrate cereals (oats, rice and wheat). But on the pack, Kellogg's has decided that a portion size is a mere 30 grams, which only contains 132 calories (and a bit more if skimmed milk is added). Yet 30 grams is just four tablespoons'. He adds: 'Can you imagine a five-year-old child, and much less an overweight teenager, being satisfied with so little? And, would anyone take the time and trouble to weigh their portion before the rush to school? Surely not. They would just pour their cereal into a bowl, gobble and go'.

Box 1

UK is the fattest European country

The news on obesity is not bad for everybody. The sales of heavy duty powered 'bariatric wheelchairs' for people who are too obese to walk, continue to boom

New figures from the UK National Health Service show that in 2011-12, there were a total of 11,736 cases of people being admitted for hospital treatment because of obesity (some may have been admitted more than once). That is more than 11 times higher than the 1,019 cases in 2001-02 and more than three times higher than the 3,862 in 2006-07. In the UK a total of 65 per cent of men are now overweight or obese, compared with 58 per cent in 1993. The figures for women have risen from 49 to 58 per cent in the same period. Adult obesity (body mass index of 30+) has risen steeply, from 13 per cent of men in 1993 to 24 per cent in 2011 and from 16 to 26 per cent in women. Almost a third of children aged 2-15 were overweight or obese in 2011 – 31 per cent of boys and 28 per cent of girls. At primary school, a tenth (9.5 per cent) of children arriving in reception class are obese. By the time they leave, a fifth (19.2 per cent) are obese.

James Erlichman continues: 'The sale of toxic products such as cigarettes is highly regulated, and the British government plans to set a minimum unit price for alcohol. But anyone can buy huge volumes of sugary drinks' Referring to a leading UK supermarket chain, he says: 'Asda sells two litres of its own cola for 57p [about $US 1]. For that, you get a staggering 864 calories, all of them coming from 212 grams of sugar. That's more than twice the daily recommended guideline amount for an adult woman, and nearly twice for a man'. The story for any cola drink, including Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola (super-sizes seen in US supermarket, above centre) is the same, depending on when retailers choose to discount their price or to offer BOGOF (buy one, get one free).

James Erlichman's favourite example is custard creams, a lead British biscuit line. (The picture above right shows the successful custard cream entry for the Guinness book of records) 'But for girth-busting temptation, even cheap cola can't compete on price with the traditional custard cream biscuit, a highly seductive blend of sugar, fat and salt. One 400 gram packet of Asda's Smart Price custard creams, costing 31p [about US 50 cents) would load you up with an astonishing 2,000 calories. So for less than £1 [$US 1.50] you can stock the larder (and your stomach) with 6,000 calories'.

Here are examples of 200 calories. Broccoli is 500 grams. Bacon is 34 grams Cheeseburger is 75 grams. And packaged pepperoni pizza: around 40 grams

In conclusion: 'Can you remember an advertisement for broccoli, or any drink or foodstuff that was actually good for you? Virtually every pitch that comes over the airwaves or pops up online is for energy-dense, nutrient-poor products such as big-brand fast foods, breakfast cereals, sweets, crisps, sugary drinks and sweet biscuits. The reason: the biggest profits come from selling highly processed, energy-dense products, not from broccoli, lentils and apples'.

Box 2

Dietary energy: the raw deal

Cooking and pre-preparation makes big differences in the amount of dietary energy contained in food. In general, the more processed any product is, the more energy-dense it is, because the 'pre-digestion' used in the processing of food makes the energy contained in food products more immediately available.

This is a conclusion of primatologist Richard Wrangham of Harvard University (above), author of Catching Fire: How Cooking Made us Human. He presented his findings last month at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The actual calorie contribution from raw and cooked versions of the same food as metabolised by the body are different, but this is not reflected on the food labels of processed products. Much depends on how digestible food and food products are.

In general, the less processed a foodstuff is, the more energy is used to metabolise it. Richard Wrangham says: 'There are two basic reasons why raw foods provide less calories than cooked foods – they are less digestible and also the bits that can be digested take more energy to break down. We are talking at least a difference of between 10 to 30 per cent. So eating raw food is a good way to lose weight'. Or to avoid becoming overweight. Raw food is not advertised.

2013 March HP4. Ultra-processed products. Portion sizes

Cheap eats make you fat
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