Gill Stannard

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Make up your own mind

This morning I was writing a piece about how the 'official' messages we get about food inform our choices even when they fly in the face of common sense. One aspect of this being the impact of corporate sponsorship on some of our professional associations and other authorities we look to for unbiased, nutritional advice. While taking a break I picked up yesterdays “Age” and came across one of those vox pop style bites, this time asking leaders in appropriate professions whether “We should ban junk food such as McDonalds?” There smiling at me was the pretty face of Alison Graham, spokeswoman for the Dieticians Association of Australia. If you represented the peak orthodox organization for nutrition what message would you give about not just junk food, but McDonalds in particular? Her response did not surprise me. In a piece of perfect spin she was quoted as saying, “It’s wonderful that we have such a diverse food supply in Australia, so we can’t take choice away from people. Fast food is more than deep fried fatty foods: it can be quick and convenient and it’s here to stay, but they’re not all bad choices – salads, sushi and wraps can all be healthy”.

Once more, the take home message is that fast, or junk, food can actually be healthy. Let’s ignore the direct issue of the deep fried, empty caloried most popular choices and shift the focus to something innocuous like sushi, which I could be wrong, but don’t believe is actually on the multinational in question’s menu. What is more it is one step away from saying it is UnAustralian if we banned fast food. Choice is important! The positive spin on the fast food industry would seem curious from a member of the Dieticians Association if you didn’t realise that although McDonalds are not direct sponsors of the Association, unlike the industries providing the meat and cheese for their burgers, but have donated generously by way of things like purchasing a stall at their annual conference. The quote obtained from the Association could not have been better written if a lobbyist for McDonalds had dictated it.

While many of us do not directly consult a member of the DAA to teach us about food choices, other than by well-placed media quotes their influence is reaches wider than we would imagine. Recently I spoke to a final year Medical Student at the country’s leading medical. We chatted about the course and how they were assessed. I asked directly about nutritional training and she happily informed me they had a whole semester on it now. “Fantastic a whole semester on how to eat!” No, I was informed, it was actually about digestion and a little nutrition got tagged on the end. “How then do you teach your patients about healthy food choices?” I enquired. To which she responded about the handing over of pamphlets from the Heart Foundation (the organization that McDonalds has now paid at least $330,000 a year for the privilege of a few of their well placed ‘ticks’) and the DAA. “Or”, she added “I’d send them to a dietician or nutritionist”. “I’m curious”, I asked, “what is the difference between the two?” She admitted to not know, but would refer them anyway.

This did not engender me with hope as to the future of orthodox nutritional advice. Does the sponsorship of the DAA, by Nestle (a leading manufacturer of infant formula and controversial for it’s work in the developing world) indirectly influence advice given to a breastfeeding mother? Would a registered dietician ever cite the many studies that repeatedly prove that milk or even high calcium intake does not reduces the risk of fractures nor prevent osteoporosis, when Dairy Australia is a generous sponsor of the Association? Would they point out the biggest study to date, observing 120,000 woman for more than 10 years, not only disproved the dairy-healthy bones link but went further to show the more milk you drank the higher your chances of developing ovarian cancer? Not mentioning a study in one thing, but actively promoting contradictory advice is another.

While individuals of a profession may not speak for every member, using high profile doctors to advertise a product sends a much more universal message. Although that toothpaste ad doesn’t show us the face of the dentist, the milk commercial with high profile GP, Cindy Pan more than trades on her reputation, using her as the face of all doctors. In a nifty and possibly subliminal twist it goes even further by using a Chinese woman it neatly subverts the contradictory message that the majority of Asians are lactose intolerant. We should all drink milk, Cindy the doctor, media personality and Asian tells us it will give us strong bones, so it must be true!

Recently I went shopping with my 80 year old father. He has only had to acquaint himself with the supermarket in recent years and is a good consumer, taking time to read labels and pour over information about food ingredients. Diligently he grabbed the low fat, high calcium milk, the “lite” potato chips and chose a frozen dinner based on the Heart Foundation Tick. When I tried to point out a similar meal that had better ingredients he refused due to its tick-less packaging. I stayed silent on the irony of someone who has a classic lactose allergy choosing a milk that has higher lactose than its full fat counterparts. As for the chips, why bother mentioning the “lite” actually referred to the flavour and well, if you cant have clogged arteries in your ninth decade of life, when can you?

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