Is breast milk a ‘junk food’?

Food representatives tell spiked that the Food Standards Agency's clumsy new 'scientific model' is demonising perfectly healthy grub.

Emily Hill

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‘If breast milk were a commercially available product you wouldn’t be able to advertise it, though you could still advertise Diet Coke. That doesn’t make sense, does it?’

Nigel White, secretary of the British Cheese Board, is more than a little cheesed off by the UK Food Standards Agency’s new attitude to various foodstuffs. Next month, the Office for Communications (Ofcom) will enact its ban on TV advertising of junk food to children. But first, a model had to be constructed whereby foods could be judged ‘unhealthy’, and therefore subject to the ban, or ‘healthy’, and therefore not subject to the ban. The arbitrary and clumsy model conjured up by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) will mean that foods such as cheese, raisins and bran flakes – as well as breast milk, if it were available in shops – will be branded ‘unhealthy’ and thus banned from kids’ TV.

The FSA aimed to formulate a scientific schema for judging the healthiness or otherwise of food products. It devised the ‘Nutrient Profile Model’, a complicated system based around overall energy (number of calories) and the percentage of salt, sugar and saturated fats in a product per 100 grams (regardless of the average serving size). According to this model, cheese, alongside honey, certain cereals, marmite and a host of other pretty nice and healthy foods, will be classified as junk foods to be hidden from children. And according to the same Nutrient Profile Model, chicken nuggets, microwaveable curries, oven chips and diet fizzy drinks – which are seen by many today as ‘junk’ – are healthy foods and therefore it’s okay to show them on kids’ TV.

So sweetened carbonated water will be promoted to children, but cheese, which has been part of children’s healthy diets for decades, and which is packed with calcium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc and A and B vitamins, will not. Some mistake, surely? Not according to the FSA, which, despite protests from food representatives, is standing by its model.

The model was supposed to take total calories, saturated fats, sugar and salt per 100g and balance these ‘negative’ aspects against the ‘redeeming features’ of the food, which may be in ‘the form of fibre, fruit and vegetable content, or protein’. But the Cheese Board’s Nigel White tells me: ‘We think they tried numerous iterations of this model, whereby for different levels of calories per 100g they had different bands, so between 0 to 100 would be one point, and over 1,000 would be 10 points, and then they would calibrate this for salt, sugar and fats.’ These points are then used to work out if there’s ‘too much’ of these things in a certain food product, and whether that makes it unhealthy. ‘But the bands where you score between 0 and 10 points have almost been plucked out of the air because they bear no relation to anything. They have been designed to hit certain foods and to make sure they come into that zone’, White argues. Items such as cheese, raisins and bran flakes have, he says, been ‘caught in the crossfire’.

Cheese should not be demonised, he says. He points out that in other EU countries they eat on average 10 to 15 grams more cheese per head than Britons do, and they don’t have any grave health or obesity problems. ‘The frustrating thing for me and my cheese makers is that the FSA has dressed this up as being a science-based approach to nutrition and changing people’s diets. But it isn’t science-based. It’s flawed. It’s scientifically weak, and it comes up with obtuse results.’

White argues that the FSA’s strange model doesn’t take into consideration the size of the serving – so yes, cheese does have a high number of calories, due to the fact that it is an energy-dense foodstuff, but it is typically served in ‘matchbox-sized’ 30 to 40g portions. So measuring cheese on the basis of a 100g chunk, as the FSA has done, ends with skewed results. White points out that a 30g serving of cheese provides around 30 to 40 per cent of a growing child’s daily calcium needs, and according to government figures 45 per cent of children in the UK have diets deficient in calcium.

Here we can see how today’s obesity panic ends up eating itself: arbitrary measures of the health content of cheese will mean it is banned from advertising on TV by the government bodies Ofcom and the FSA, while elsewhere the government worries that children aren’t getting enough calcium, which is prevalent in cheese.

Is the ban, supported by the FSA’s model and enforced by Ofcom, likely to have a detrimental impact on the sale and consumption of cheese? White says it will. The amount of cheese advertising on TV is minimal, but this is ‘the thin end of the wedge’, he says, because once a product is categorised as ‘unhealthy’, branded as junk, then other restrictions can quickly fall into place. This might include ‘communicating anything about your product… what a company can put on the packaging… whether it can say “this product is naturally high in calcium”, which cheese is…. All these things will fall into line and cheese will just be regarded as a junk food’, he says.

‘And it’s not. If you asked a hundred nutritionists whether they think children should be eating some cheese, they would all say yes.’

The Cheese Board is raising the issue in parliament and winning support for its cause. Why aren’t the raisin board and cereal board, and the food industry in general, following suit and taking a stand against the FSA’s seemingly mad model? Andrew Leyland, editor of The Grocer, a prominent trade magazine for the food and drinks industry, says it is because ‘every time [food representatives] put their head above the parapet they’re gunned down by various factions within the media and the public watchdogs’.

Leyland’s magazine has launched a campaign called ‘Weigh It Up’, which also challenges the FSA’s Nutrient Profile Model. Leyland tells me that the food industry has been cowed into submission by officials and lobbyists, who seem to treat food like it is tobacco, and the food industry as if it’s the new tobacco industry. ‘The FSA is constantly briefing against the food industry as if it sees them as the public enemy number one’, he says. According to Leyland, the FSA fails to take into account the efforts made by industry to promote healthier eating, and when anyone else tries to point this out they are accused of being ‘apologists’ for the industry and its alleged untold crimes against the nation’s arteries.

‘Whenever we raise our point about healthy and nutritious foods being banned [such as honey and bran flakes] the FSA says, “Oh well, you would say that, you’re The Grocer, you’re supported by the food industry!”. It’s schoolboy tactics. It’s not actually having a serious debate. They’re like a student union with a big budget. But actually, what they should say is, “You know what? This isn’t working yet. We need to think again.”’

It seems that thinking again would indeed be a wise move. The Ofcom ban and its framework in the FSA’s Nutrient Profile Model appear to be ill-thought-out symptoms of the political and media-whipped hysteria over our expanding waistlines. No matter that we’re healthier and living longer than ever before, apparently we must be constantly told what to eat, when to eat it, how much exercise to take, and so on.

The latest strand in food classification, which is used to justify draconian bans on TV advertising, could lead to the development of a fetishistic attitude to food, where we see certain grub as ‘good’ and other grub as ‘bad’. Yet the idea that a particular food is evil is ridiculous; mother’s old adage that ‘a bit of whatever you fancy does you good’ should surely still hold true. The confusion caused by the FSA model and the Ofcom ban shows how silly it is to make arbitrary judgements about food and to demonise certain foodstuffs. The ban is as irrational as it is unnecessary – and it could ultimately lead to the creation of abnormal, obsessive attitudes to the things we eat when we’re hungry.

Surely that’s not the ‘message’ we want to be sending to the nation’s kids?

Emily Hill is staff writer at spiked and a blogger for Dazed and Confused. Visit the website of the British Cheese Board here, and The Grocer’s website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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