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Is there a perfect food?

Internet marketing has now joined regular advertising in making claims about the value of particular food products. I’m often asked which food I’d rate as the healthiest.

The only ‘perfect’ food that can completely meet a human’s nutritional needs is breast milk, and then only for the first six months of life. It’s great for a baby’s health if breast milk continues to be part of its diet for the following 6-18 months, but supplementary foods will be needed.As infants’ teeth come through, it’s important they learn to chew foods (and not just toys).

Contrary to what many marketers may tell you, there’s no need for special ‘kid’s foods’. Infant feeding guidelines state that ‘toddler formula’ is not recommended. Sadly, it is marketed with similar brand names and packaging to infant formula products, which by-passes the Australian law that doesn’t allow advertising for infant formula (recommended for the first year of life for infants who are not breast-fed). 

As teeth appear, infants do not need mushy foods. They like to chew and most healthy foods from the family’s diet are suitable. They certainly never need foods in tubes designed to be squirted into a young child’s mouth!

Food industry dominance

What most people eat these days is largely decided by food companies. As regular readers know, I don’t think any food needs to be totally forbidden, but when half our daily energy intake comes from highly processed foods, most of which have some negative effects on health, we have a problem. That problem is compounded when companies try to make out foods they are selling have special virtues, often because they’ve added a few vitamins to some sugary product.

Nuts

Some healthy foods are promoted in a way that suggests they should be the major choice in their category. There are many good reasons why most of us should eat more nuts, but the marketing board for almost every variety of nut funds research that purports to show the superiority of their product. The research promoting some specific fact about the nut in question is then fed to news outlets, making it sound as though that nut is superior to its relatives. Sales then increase.

Over the last few years, papers have been published about the specific virtues of walnuts, pistachios, macadamias, pecans, almonds, hazel nuts, Brazil nuts, pine nuts and peanuts (technically a legume but usually listed with nuts due to many similar nutritional features).

It’s not difficult to find some specific beneficial characteristic – for example, walnuts are a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, almonds have more calcium than other nuts, pistachios get the gong for potassium, cashews shine for iron and zinc, peanuts are tops for some B complex vitamins and just one Brazil nut will meet the recommended dietary intake for selenium!

Publicity about these facts by those who market each particular variety of nut generates the idea that particular nut is the best choice. In fact, every one of these nuts contains healthy fats and a great range of essential nutrients. The message should be not to choose just one, but to eat a variety of nuts on a regular basis. No processed snack food can compete with any of them!

Chocolate

Dark chocolate is another product now described as healthy. Most of the publicity about its virtues comes from research sponsored by companies marketing chocolate. The research may have involved compounds such as flavanols, polyphenols and theobromine, all found in dark chocolate and having potential health benefits, but not necessarily in the quantities being tested in the research.

When cocoa is processed to make dark chocolate, the bitterness is tempered by adding sugar, milk and other ingredients. Citing its benefits, publicity from the funded research implies that more dark chocolate would be better, ignoring the fact that researchers usually removed some other foods to make up for the kilojoules provided by the chocolate.

There is also a potential dark side to this ‘healthier’ chocolate. Recent research has found that dark chocolate contains cadmium and lead—two heavy metals linked to a host of health problems in children and adults.

Cadmium comes from the soil and is absorbed into the centre of the cocoa beans by the cocoa tree. Lead comes after harvest from dust or soil that clings to the sticky outside part of the cocoa pods while it is being dried, fermented and transported. The chocolate industry is striving to reduce lead by ensuring the cocoa bean extract isn’t exposed to wet soil. They’re also looking at the cadmium content of different soils.

If you love dark chocolate, it may help to know that although all 28 dark chocolates tested contained both cadmium and lead, five had only low levels. Sadly, another five had high levels. The dose always determines the poison, but the upshot isn’t that you need to avoid dark chocolate, but note that ‘more is not better’. This may contrast with the implication in some headlines and promotion that follows previous research. Chocolate can have a place in healthy diets—just not one that requires eating more of it. Surely the taste of quality chocolate is enough reason to enjoy a small amount, without trying to prove it’s super healthy.

Red wine

Red wine contains a polyphenol found in the skins of red grapes (also in blueberries, cranberries and peanuts) called resveratrol. It was lauded as the reason for the ‘French paradox’, assumed to protect the French from the high levels of heart disease that might be expected in a population that doesn’t seem to stint on butter and cheese.

With many other potential health benefits, supplement suppliers got in on the act, assuming that ‘more must be better’.

Laboratory and animal studies looked good and red wine drinkers were delighted. Human clinical trials, however, are giving conflicting results. Too much resveratrol is toxic. Large doses can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea, may interrupt the action of the thyroid gland and can increase some types of cancer cells.

Red wine drinkers should note that the quantity of resveratrol present in wine is small. If you drank enough to get a higher dose, you’d almost certainly suffer serious damage from the alcohol.

The ‘French paradox’ appears to relate to their much greater consumption of vegetables, their smaller meals, few snacks and their general lower level of obesity. Note too that the French do not butter bread consumed with main meals.

Take home message: Nuts are highly nutritious; choose a variety for the full benefit. Dark chocolate doesn’t live up to its supposed health halo; if you like it, enjoy it in moderation. And if you enjoy red wine, check the number of standard drinks on the label, stick to sensible drinking guidelines and make sure the rest of your diet is healthy.

Dr Rosemary Stanton OAM

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