Blog 

Here is where I share my thoughts, ideas and opinions about the world of nutrition, food and health. I hope you find good sense, helpful guidance and inspiration to eat great healthy food that makes you feel good.

I write regularly for GI News, an online newsletter for 60,000+ Australasian and International subscribers interested in the glycemic index (GI) and associated health topics such as diabetes, weight loss and a healthy heart. It’s a great read. http://www.gisymbol.com/category/gi-news/

 

04 Dec 2017

vegan food products are not always the healthier option

Posted by Nicole Senior on Monday, December 04, 2017

The vegan diet is one that is exclusively plant-based and excludes any food derived from animals including meat, fish, eggs and dairy products. According to Google Trends, interest in veganism is exploding; searches for the word ‘vegan’ have tripled over the past 5 years. Australia shows the most interest in vegan foods, followed by Canada and the United States. Vegan diet followers typically do so for a combination of: ethical reasons (not killing animals for food), environmental reasons (generally, plant foods have a smaller environmental footprint than animal foods), or health reasons (they believe a plant-only diet is better for them). It’s this last health-related reason we’re examining in this post.

Foods marketed as vegan have a perceived health halo but are they always the healthier option? Plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds are nutritious options, no question. But like many food and diet trends, when opportunity knocks the market answers with a myriad of products of varying nutritional quality. We take a closer look at the nutritional profile of some good and not-so-good vegan products.

 THE GOOD: good options for meat-free eating

Quorn sausages - Quorn is the brand name for an interesting meat alternative composed of mycoprotein, which is a kind of stringy fungus (similar to mushrooms) that is compressed into more familiar food products such as “mince” and sausages. Quorn sausages contain more fibre per 50g serve than beef sausages, but unfortunately they don’t contain added Vitamin B12.  Vitamin B12 only occurs in animal foods, so adding this essential vitamin to vegan products helps fill this dietary gap. Read more in our previous article on faux meats here (Insert link to faux meat article from Sept issue)

Chickpea & Sesame Seeds Vegetable Burgerscontain less than half the protein of a beef burger but it’s packed with fibre to keep you feeling full. It’s much lower in saturated fat than regular beef burgers.

Soy milk with added calcium - This particular soy milk is a good option as it is naturally higher in protein and has been fortified with calcium and Vitamin D. Be wary that not all dairy-free milks are fortified and may have little protein, vitamins or minerals.

THE NOT SO GOOD: don’t choose these for health reasons

Tofutti Cream Cheese- is soy-based and contains less than half the fat of regular cream cheese, but also less than half the protein. There are 13+ ingredients including sugar, salt, thickening agents, emulsifiers and preservatives. To be fair, regular cream cheese is not a healthy choice either.

Choc Chip Cookies - are gluten-free, egg-free, dairy-free and yeast-free, but they are made with refined flours, chocolate, sugar and salt. Like any cookie (vegan or not) these are high kilojoule/calorie treats best eaten sparingly and in small amounts.

Dairy-Free Chocolate- chocolate without the dairy is still chocolate, just because it is vegan doesn’t give you a free pass to eat it in unlimited amounts.

Unsweetened Coconut Milk  - is better than regular coconut milk because it is has half the fat and some calcium added. However, it has 16 times less protein than regular dairy milk, and lots of additives.

Protein Snack Bar - this bar claims it is made from ‘peas, leafy greens, sprouts, grasses and vegetables’ but it doesn’t look green, so we wonder how much green stuff is actually in it. It looks like a cereal bar with caramel and chocolate drizzle. By weight this product actually contains more sugar than it does protein, and the ingredients list is over 50 long!

Chocolate Frozen Dessert- This soy-based frozen dessert is lower in saturated fat than regular dairy ice creams as the fat predominantly comes from vegetable oils. However the kilojoules are similar (or a little higher) to regular chocolate ice cream and the main ingredient is sugar. This is not a health food and best enjoyed in small portions.

The un-plugged truth

  • A ‘vegan’ label does not guarantee a healthy product. Highly processed foods -vegan or not – can be high in kilojoules, saturated fat, salt and sugar.
  • Highly processed vegan foods can still have a large environmental footprint from the resources and energy to manufacture them, and if they’re not nutritious they don’t represent a good health return on the environmental inputs required to make them.
  • For the healthiest vegan options stick to minimally processed plant foods, including products fortified with essential vitamins lacking in vegan diets.

01 Sep 2017

Can your breakfast clean your liver?

Posted by Nicole Senior on Friday, September 01, 2017

You might remember the lemon detox diet, requiring you to drink a tear-jerking lemon, cayenne pepper and sugar water concoction. Or perhaps you recall the book on the subject of liver cleansing with diet. The concepts of detoxing and cleansing have been heavily criticized by real health experts (the liver and kidneys detox the body already) but they refuse to lay down and die.  Nonetheless, the liver detox/cleansing market is lucrative, and there are loads of detox and cleanse products and diets still out there despite the lack of scientific studies to support them. And now they’re even in our supermarkets. We recently came across a liver cleansing muesli developed by a naturopath and thought we’d investigate.

The liver cleansing muesli contains oats, sunflower seeds, almonds, barley bran, psyllium, barley bran, linseeds, pepitas, which are all good nutritious and high fibre ingredients good for bowel health, but questionable in their liver cleansing abilities.

The product also has an “added botanical for digestive support”, which we assume is the slippery elm ingredient. Slippery elm is herbal medicine made from the bark of the slippery elm tree. Using this ingredient in your breakfast is taking the idea of food as medicine very literally. The company website praises the anti-inflammatory effects of this bark on the digestive tract.

We’re not herbalists, so we checked a professional text on the subject: Herbs and Natural Supplements- an evidence based guide by Lesley Braun and Marc Cohen (Elsevier). We learned that slippery elm was traditionally used by native American tribes to treat wounds and skin irritations, sore throat and coughs and gastrointestinal conditions. Slippery elm contains mucilages that are capable of trapping water and forming a gel that are thought to have soothing properties. Unfortunately the therapeutic effectiveness of slippery elm has not been well investigated under clinical conditions in humans so any beneficial effects are anecdotal, or from in-vitro and animal studies. The ingredients list states the slippery elm is 0.5% of the total, or ¼ of a gram (250mg) per 50g serve, however the typical manufacturer recommended dose is 1 teaspoon three times daily. In summary, this product contains the benefits of fibre from the grains and seeds however it probably doesn’t clean your liver. It might soothe your gut but this is unproven and the dose in a serve of muesli is less than recommended.

The bigger picture here is this product is arguably making health claims and these are strictly regulated in many countries. Under consumer law it is not permitted to make false or misleading claims about a product and a case could be made this product does not deliver on its liver-cleansing promise. Using a health professional endorsement like this product uses a naturopath is a well-used strategy to give the product credibility.

How to look after your liver

To care for your liver, eat plenty of plant foods such as wholegrains, legumes, fruits vegetables, nuts and seeds; exercise regularly; maintain a healthy weight and drink water. Limit alcohol, caffeine and fatty processed foods.

The un-plugged truth

You don’t need to buy detox products or follow detox diets
Muesli is a healthy breakfast choice but probably won’t clean your liver.
To care of your liver, drink less alcohol, exercise regularly, enjoy a healthy plant-based diet, maintain a healthy body weight and drink plenty of water

23 Feb 2016

Making sense of Health Stars

Posted by Nicole Senior on Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Now that the Health Star Ratings (HSR) have been around for a while, the 'commentariat' has had time and opportunity to weigh in with their opinions. You can read my previous post on the HSR here. While no system can ever be perfect, I think the HSR is a good system but it has copped some unfair criticism, and mostly from a misunderstanding of food and nutrition as well as how the HSR should be used. Here are some of the issues that have been raised.

Fairfax media covered a report NSW Health prepared examining alignment between School Canteen Guidelines and the HSR. While the report concluded a fairly good alignment between canteen recommended foods and foods scoring three stars and above, in sensational fashion only exceptional foods were highlighted- foods that were red and amber rated in canteen guidelines which scored three or more health stars.  The NSW Health report was not proposing the HSR be used in school canteens right away, but simply looking into utilising it in some way in the future. The one glaring difference to be overcome is that canteen guidelines are based on a serve of food while the HSR is based on 100g of a food. (School canteen guidelines are a dogs breakfast in Australia with the states and territories doing their own criteria making it a nightmare for food companies trying to market products to canteens nationally. Moving them toward agreed national guidelines would be a step forward.) 

Some criticise the HSR as giving processed foods a 'health halo'. The fact is, the HSR is meant to be used to identify healthier choices within processed and packaged foods. In my experience this is where people need the most help; when they're staring at a myriad of products with lots of small print on the supermarket shelf and wondering which one is best (this is where the Heart Foundation Tick was excellent - it was easy to spot). It is assumed that people know that fresh whole foods are healthy. It makes intuitive sense that people don't need stars on fresh fruit and vegetables to know they are healthy, but I'd welcome any evidence to the contrary.

A journalist highlighted the example of a flavoured milk scoring 4.5 out of 5 stars and was appalled when she checked the nutrition information panel to find it contained 22g of sugar. She was similarly disappointed at a fruit flavoured yoghurt. What she didn't realise was that milk contains natural sugars which inflates the total sugars listed on the label. And what she failed to appreciate (no small thanks to the quitting sugar bandwagon) was that milk and yoghurt are a nutrient dense core foods and its OK to enjoy a little sugar in these foods- it makes them taste good.These foods score well under the HSR because they contains lots of good stuff that offsets the sugar added. Its the nutrient poor foods like soft drinks and confectionery we need to be wary of. General paranoia in the community about processed foods and the predominance of fad diet culture has created misunderstandings about food and nutrition and increased skepticism about front of pack labelling.

The underlying question that both school canteen guidelines and the HSR aim to answer is: which foods are healthy and which aren't? This is a harder question to answer than you might think. The Dietary Guidelines classifies foods as 'core' and 'discretionary' but by no means provide all the answers when you're faced with a smorgasbord of supermarket products. Its easy at the extreme ends of the spectrum: apples are healthy 'core' foods and apple flavoured cordial is discretionary. But where the lines get fuzzy is with the foods in between that have been changed, combined or added to in some way (which lets face it is a lot of foods we eat). For example, an apple bircher muesli made with apple, muesli, nuts, yoghurt and honey. It has all the goodness of the core foods in the recipe with some added sweetening. And what about an apple cake made with wholemeal flour, walnuts, olive oil, apple and prunes? Its a cake, but its a pretty healthy one. Cake is discretionary but the HSR would offset the beneficial components with the overall kilojoule density. A more traditional cake would not score as well - and isn't that the whole idea? If you want cake, choose the healthier one with more stars. Its hard to define a healthy food versus an unhealthy food (or should we say less healthy?), and perhaps we should not expect any tool to do this perfectly. Food is complicated.

The HSR rating scoring system will be reviewed over time and hopefully this will reduce anomalies but in the meantime lets give the HSR a chance and use it correctly. You can be confident that eating fresh, whole, minimally processed foods is good for you even if they have no stars. And just because a processed food has stars, doesn't mean you should eat more of these and less whole foods. Use the HSR to choose healthier options of processed and packaged foods of the same type, such as soup A vs soup B. Don't use the HSR to choose the healthiest between soup and cheese because they are too different. 

Everyone knows a banana is healthy but the HSR can help you choose a healthier banana cake and help banana cake bakers to change to healthier recipes to earn more stars

09 Oct 2015

Happy healthy eating anecdotes

Posted by Nicole Senior on Friday, October 09, 2015

Two stories were shared with me this week that made me feel really good. We hear a lot about the evils of big food, and the media is awash with bad news stories about the state of our national diet, but this week I heard some good news.

The first story came from a playgroup mum whose 5 year old son is really switched on by the new Health Star Ratings. He loves using it, especially in the breakfast cereal aisle. When his sister chooses a cereal with one or two stars he objects and points her in the direction of cereals with more stars. And mum is pleasantly surprised by the number of cereals the kids like that also have 4 or 5 stars. It’s a fact that the breakfast cereal category has the highest take-up of the voluntary Health Star Rating system, making it easy to find healthier options in a very large and potentially confusing category. And this category is getting healthier all the time- there is no shortage of healthier options with 3.5 stars or more. And we know how important breakfast is for kids. Research tells us that cereal is the most popular breakfast choice among Australian children, and eating them is associated with diets higher in vitamins and minerals, a greater likelihood of meeting nutrient intakes, and a lower risk of being overweight. 

The second story came from another mum who spends a lot of time on the road with two under five year-old- boys. She was delighted that McDonald’s restaurant offered a children’s meal with a wrap, apple slices and water, with no chips or sugary drink. She said sometimes it’s just easier to eat in the car, and Macca’s is one of the few options available. To have healthy items on the menu was enough for her to text me about her triumph - and it made me smile to receive it. Sure, she and I know its better to eat a meal at the table with the whole family but in her busy life its sometimes a necessity to eat on the go, and fast food meets her needs on these occasions. Isn't it great there are now healthier fast foods available?

These two stories exemplify the progress being made in the Australian food supply: the development of healthier food products, and a useful and trustworthy front of pack labelling system to point people toward them in the supermarket.  I'm proud to say this work is being supported and enabled by dietitian colleagues. Yes, dietitians are working every day behind the scenes to bring you healthier food products, and then telling you about them in an honest and responsible way. It’s one of the things I do, and I love doing it knowing I am contributing toward a healthier food supply. The end game is making healthy choices available, and making them easy choices as well.

08 Jul 2015

Seeing (health) stars on food

Posted by Nicole Senior on Wednesday, July 08, 2015

You may have noticed stars appearing on a growing number of products in the supermarket, but what are they and how can they help?

 What is the Health Star Rating?

The Health Star Rating (HSR) system is a government scheme to help you choose healthier products quickly. It aims to help you make more informed choices and hopefully improve your diet overall. It is a great example of what is called Front of Pack Labelling (FOPL) to help bring simpler information you can easily understand to the front of the pack where you can easily see it when shopping.


 How are the stars awarded?

Companies that choose to add the HSR to their products can use an online calculator that allocates a score according the nutrition information they enter. The score is based on an algorithm that deducts points for adverse nutrients (energy, saturated fat, salt and sugars) and adds points for positive components such as fibre, protein, fruit, vegetable and legumes content, for various categories of food.

 How do you use it?

Simply compare the number of stars when choosing between different brands of the same food; the more stars it has, the healthier it is. Remember that the system was designed for processed packaged foods and lots of healthy whole foods are not packaged and are healthy even though they don’t have stars. Remember that the stars are given on nutrition information per 100g, not serving size so be warned that foods with high star ratings (such as fruit juice) can still contain kilojoules you can over-consume; be portion-savvy.

 Are there any problems to watch out for?

Food is marvellously complex and to try and rate healthiness using a limited number of variables is inevitably an oversimplification. However, this system does a good job of balancing the negatives and positives within a food and is way better than the UK traffic light system that only looks at the negative nutrients. There are still anomalies: for example some fruits and nuts do not score a perfect 5 stars due to natural sugars and fat content whereas some formulated breakfast drinks do. Olive oil loses points for saturated fat content even though it’s healthy oil (all fats and oils contain saturated fat, it is the proportion that is important for heart health). There is a system to report anomalies but some of them will remain and we need a good amount of common sense to judge whether a food is healthy or not.

Can we trust Health Stars?

Although not perfect, I believe the assessment system underpinning the Australian HSR system is the best there is in the world today. Having the complex nutrition information on a food product interpreted for you into a simple star system you can use at a glance is a great thing and I hope many more food products use it. If they don’t, let’s use our consumer power and ask why not.

To hear an interview I did with Gabrielle Maston on the Health Star Rating, visit her website 

For more information, check out the official HSR website