Flavour of the Week

Nutrition Newsmakers of 2011


flavour-of-the-week-logoIt has been a newsworthy year in nutrition – manufacturers both improved and regressed in terms of offering healthier products, new fads emerged and research findings challenged some of our long-held beliefs about the impact of diet on health.

Here are some of the highlights (and lowlights!) in food,-nutrition and health from the last 12 months.

1. Weight Watchers comes out on top. While the reporting of results and subsequent media coverage were by no means accurate, the large scale Lighten Up trial gave an evidence boost to the commercial weight loss industry. In a randomized controlled trial, Weight Watchers was the most successful program included in the study. How the results of this trial will influence government, individual fee-for-service and other commercial programs’ approach to providing weight loss services and counselling remains to be seen. What is apparent, however, is that the status quo of program delivery within health care may not be effective and improvements are needed.

2. Campbell’s adds the sodium back in.  To combat poor sales, Campbell’s announced in July that they would be boosting the sodium content of some soups by as much as 35% citing palatability and “culinary credentials”. While the move was met with harsh criticism from advocacy groups, if we weren’t buying the reduced-sodium options, what does that say about us?

Sadly, businesses are most interested in the bottom line and respond to supply and demand accordingly (see #7). Given the marketing expense of their initial “de-salting”, we assume Campbell’s will remain as quiet as possible on this one. For nostalgia’s sake, here’s the original de-salting commercial with Hilton. They had us pretty convinced.

3. The importance of critical appraisal. It is so easy to fall for the headline or take the abstract results at face value, but in September 2011 Dr. Ben Goldacre inspired us to continue our battle against “Bad Science”. See our four-part series dedicated to helping clinicians and researchers alike do just that. A recent post from Obesity Panacea further highlights that inaccuracies in media coverage are as rampant as ever.

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4. The Dukan Diet sensation. The royal wedding was big news in 2011 and rumours of the Middleton family’s French weight loss secret sparked a Dukan Diet explosion. Because nothing says maintainable weight loss quite like ketosis-induced bad breath! Although numerous dietetic groups have come out with cautionary reviews and scathing critiques since the book’s release, The Dukan Diet has still sold over 10 million copies globally and was one of the best selling diet books in 2011. Any guesses on what the diet fad of 2012 will be?

5. The evidence against supplements mounts. From calcium supplements increasing risk of heart disease in older women to vitamin E promoting rather than protecting men from prostate cancer to the complete indifferent effect of multivitamin-mineral use on health, 2011 was the year of anti-supplement research findings.

While there are certain populations who may require or benefit from supplements, like those with restrictive diets or health concerns, supplements do not improve health nor reduce risk of disease for the vast majority of us. (Although the evidence for vitamin D supplementation is still strong for those of us in northern environments). It’s best to get all of the vitamins, mineral and antioxidants you need from whole foods present in a balanced diet.

6. Faced with ongoing pressure, McDonald’s relents (a bit). Health and parent advocacy groups have been trying to improve fast food children’s meals for years… and in 2011 they made some progress. Not only are fries (well, some of them) going to be replaced with more fruit, calories will be slashed and more options provided. Whether parents take advantage of such options is another story. Does this mean that Happy Meals are “healthy” and a good pick for kids? Absolutely not – it’s simply a case of making the best-of-the-worst. A few apple slices will not remedy a diet consisting of pop, fries and chicken nuggets. It is still up to parents and caregivers to choose the what, when and where.

7. Return of the KFC Double Down. It still packs 540 Calories and 30 grams of fat but now only ~ 1566 mg of sodium, which is 10% less sodium than it’s initial release (and still more than the Adequate Intake). The worst part? The sandwich returned because of popular demand: “…fans told us they loved Double Down and they wanted it back in all its delicious glory”, explains KFC. Thankfully, this sandwich will not be on the menu permanently. Sorry fans.

8. “Natural” is not synonymous with “nitrate-free”. Hot dogs, cured bacon and deli meats have long-been pariahs of the grocery store, and for good reason – the nitrates/nitrites used to preserve these foods can increase your risk of developing cancer.

Enter the new “natural” products from big companies like Maple Leap and Schneiders – what the ingredient list doesn’t tell you is that the “cultured celery extract” used as a natural preservative is still a source of unhealthy nitrates/nitrites. Faced with an influx of these so-called “natural” products, Health Canada is currently considering special labelling requirements to prevent consumer confusion, but nothing yet. In the meantime it’s buyer beware.

9. Pizza is a vegetable? In November, a US Senate bill amended US Department of Agriculture suggestions and stipulated that a paltry 2 tbsp of tomato paste on pizza as counts as a vegetable (the USDA has initially listed 1/2 cup of tomato paste (yuck!) as 1 serving). Criticism was soon to follow. Interestingly, the Senate also blocked any restrictions on potatoes in the “starchy vegetables” two servings per week limitation. Marion Nestle believes this has more to do with lobbying than concerns about nutrition, and we have to agree.

And the situation in Canada is no better. The Calgary Board of Education recently released an “approved restaurant list” for special lunch days, which reads more like a who’s-who-of-big-brand-fast-food than a list of best choices. Supposedly chosen based on meeting “choose most often” or “choose sometimes” criteria, we have a hard time imagining that the best salad options come from McDonald’s or Wendy’s! Despite many schools having long-standing relationships with local restaurants, this is a moot point: whether healthier or not, these smaller-scale establishments are now personae non gratae in the business of feeding our kids.

10. 23 and ½ hours. In the most creative 9 minutes and 19 seconds in health promotion this year, Dr. Mike Evans summarizes why getting off our butts and tearing ourselves away from the screen for a mere 30 minutes each day can be enough to boost health.

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One of the biggest questions remains. Did our health actually improve in 2011? According the the Canadian Community Health Survey data, vegetable and fruit intake in 2010 declined for the first time since 2001 and obesity rates continue to rise. BUT… “quinoa salad” was the fourth most common recipe search on Google among Canadians in 2011. Sure, butter chicken and pumpkin pie were still ahead (pork tenderloin was #1) … #4 is not so bad!

Could this be a sign that the tides are turning with respect to Canadians becoming invested in and embracing a healthier lifestyle? We’ll have to wait and see what 2012 holds!

Here are some other great “year in review” lists:

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