Who’s teaching our children about ‘nutrition’?
I came across a school book for GCSE in Home Economics: Food & Nutrition recently. As someone who has studied nutrition extensively – and found virtually everything being taught to be wrong – I was naturally curious.
Kellogg’s & Coco-pops
I picked up the main textbook “Examining Food & Nutrition” by Jenny Ridgwell (1996). The age of the book was bad enough, but I was then absolutely horrified to have the book open on a picture of Kellogg’s Coco-Pops – the very product against which the fabulous Children’s Food Campaign have been campaigning so passionately. I have also blogged on this in the past. Flicking to the very next page and almost half of this page was covered by a picture of Bran Flakes (see the scans of the pages below). (The Children’s Food Campaign have also done a brilliant expose of the way in which the food & drink industry are feeding junk messages to their next generation of consumers).
In disbelief, I turned to the inside cover to try to understand how this could be allowed. The companies thanked at the beginning of the book included: the Food & Drink Federation (members include every food & drink company in the UK that you can think of – Cadbury, Coca-cola, Kellogg’s, Mars, Pepsi, Unilever, United Biscuits – as examples, as well as more ‘federations’ like The sugar Bureau, The Federation of Bakers etc) and Sainsbury’s. Kellogg’s & Unilever are also especially singled out for thanks in the first paragraph. The second paragraph goes on to thank: The Federation of Bakers; The Co-op; Kellogg’s again; Lo Salt; Quorn makers Marlow Foods; National Dairy Council; Sainsbury’s again and Whole Earth. Most of the companies are thanked for allowing their product placement pictures to be used – what?! Kellogg’s should be thanking the publisher and a GCSE curriculum should not touch this blatant marketing to children in any circumstance.
A balanced diet
The books starts teaching our children nonsense as early as the first page of content. Under the heading “What is a balanced diet”? the entire text (literally – every single word under this heading – all that children apparently need to know about a balanced diet) reads as follows: “A balanced diet provides all the necessary nutrients in the appropriate proportions and quantities to meet our needs. One way to follow a balanced diet is to make sure we eat a variety of foods which supply a range of nutrients. Carbohydrates in the form of starchy foods such as bread, pasta, cereals and potatoes should be a major part of a balanced diet. We should also aim to eat at least five portions of fruit or vegetables each day.“
No mention of essential fats. No mention of essential proteins. The only macro nutrient singled out to form the “major part” of a ‘balanced diet’ is carbohydrates – ironically – the only macro nutrient that is not essential in any way. Get the bread, pasta, cereals and potatoes – things forming the major part of processed foods – mentioned on the first page. And why five a day? Why teach children things that have no evidence base and were started by fruit and veg companies as a marketing campaign? (In 1991) Does the book author even know this? Does she care?
On P10, we have the old (1994) “Balance of Good Health” plate, which has a prominent picture of puffed wheat cereal and breakfast flakes cereal – a quick glance and it passes for Bran Flakes no problem. We have the usual appalling array of processed food, which is still featured on the Eatbadly Plate - the September 2007 replacement for the BOGH plate. On the BOGH version of the plate in our children’s book, we have white bread, white rice, sugary baked beans, sugary yoghurt, crisps, lemonade, cake and man-made spreads (don’t put nature’s butter on view, whatever happens).
On P13 (scan below) we have a picture of Bran Flakes – beautifully positioned – full length all the way down the right hand side of the page. You can’t miss it. On p23 we have a tub of low fat spread and this fat-phobic section of the book stresses that we should choose (Unilever) low fat spreads and not (nature’s) butter.
There is one interesting fact that this section states correctly (I was surprised a) that they knew this and b) that they admitted it) “cholesterol in food has very little effect on blood cholesterol levels.” For “very little” read “none”. However, the text goes on to say “saturated fats from the food we eat are important factors which affect blood cholesterol levels.” This is the subject of significant debate, which the book should have known about even in 1996 when it was published, but all the more reason to have school textbooks as up to date as possible – particularly in an evolving topic, such as nutrition. (I would like the book to explain, biochemically, precisely how any real fat eaten in real food can raise cholesterol. I would also like the book to explain, given that cholesterol is only found in animal foods – meat, fish, eggs, dairy – and given that eating these has no impact on cholesterol in the blood – why are children/people told that these will raise cholesterol levels when we know that they don’t).
P26 & 27 are the Unilever thank you pages – a double page spread of spreads. Ha ha. “Gold low fat spread” (I did say this was an out of date textbook); “Gold unsalted low fat spread” and “Gold lowest low fat spread.” There is then a table comparing two Unilever “Gold” products with a Waitrose spread and two from their rival St Ivel. Unilever win the calorie count (the focus of the table) by a mile. Go Unilever! (Butter was not in the table and the table did not measure natural levels of vitamins A and D, or butter would have cleaned up. Go away Nature!)
Then we have the p34 Coco-Pops and P36 Bran Flakes promotions to children. Because these foods have little to no natural nutrition, they are invariably fortified. The textbook fronts this off by saying “Some foods are fortified with vitamins which are manufactured. These are identical in structure to vitamins found naturally in food and behave in the body in the same way.” Really? You don’t need fat to accompany fat soluble vitamins any more? I’ve seen numerous studies showing that the whole food, with the accompanying macro nutrients, antioxidants and phyto nutrients, is the best way to get vitamins. And what about minerals? Or essential proteins? Or essential fats? Do we not need these?
This is what our children are being taught – lies to position food industry products as nutritious equals to real food. Mother Nature doesn’t need to fortify her foods – they are naturally abundant in nutrients. If cereals have to add vitamins in to have any nutritional value, what does this say about them? They are high calorie, sugary vitamin tablets – that’s what.
On p45, all about dietary fibre, the first four products listed are not the products highest in dietary fibre, nor the products in alphabetical order, they are the cereals – All Bran, Weetabix, Porridge oats and cornflakes. Only one of those can come in a natural form – oats. Tomatoes, lentils and peas are at the bottom of the list.
P99 devotes just one side (less than the space devoted to Bran Flakes packets) to eggs and cannot find a good thing to say about them. Salmonella and cross contamination are mentioned and eggs are described as little more than things that bind ingredients together. This is part of the dual strategy of cereal manufacturers 1) promote one’s own sugary products and 2) denigrate what people used to eat for breakfast, so that your products become the preferred alternative. It is disgraceful for a GCSE textbook to be supporting this propaganda.
What caused the obesity epidemic?
I could go on turning the pages with misinformation after misinformation. No mention of the difference between retinol and carotene and the necessary, and not always possible, conversion to obtain vitamin A in the right form; margarine claimed to be a good source of vitamin D – not naturally it isn’t. That’s an even higher calorie vitamin tablet. No mention of vitamin K1 and K2, or the need to get both plant and animal forms of this vitamin. Vitamin E is declared as “deficiency rare.” Last time I looked at the UK Family Food Survey, the average Brit was getting barely the ridiculous UK Recommended Daily Allowance (we are apparently only ‘allowed’ a certain level of nutrition) and this, 10mg per day, is two thirds of the minimum USA ‘allowance’ – unless we need less of this vital antioxidant than our American friends? There is no mention that vitamin B12 is the unique nutrient that is only found in animal foods (hence why humans are not intended to be vegan). Instead, the textbook tells children that B12 is found in breakfast cereals – the high calorie vitamin tablets again. Not naturally it isn’t – again.
My favourite page is p173 where there is a highly revealing graph (the one on the right hand side of the page scan below), which tells us lots about the obesity epidemic, but the book doesn’t realise that it is sat on a gem. Rather amusingly, the text next to the graph says “The chart below shows how our eating habits are changing. We are slowly changing to a healthier diet.”
The graph then shows that, between the years of 1971 and 1991 (don’t forget how out of date this is) the index of breakfast cereal consumption has gone up from 100 to about 170; the index of white meat (think KFC) has gone up to approximately 175. The index of red meat (beef and veal – quality stuff) has gone down from 100 to approximately 60 and the index for eggs has more than halved from 100 to less than 50. So – having breakfast cereals for breakfast is apparently healthier than eggs. Just one thing – obesity for men was 2.7% in 1972 and 22.6% in 1999 and obesity for women was 2.7% in 1972 and 25.8% in 1999. So, during this time when our diet was ‘healthier’ – according to the companies funding our children’s text books – obesity multiplied almost ten fold, diabetes type 2 has reached almost epidemic levels and childhood obesity has become a household term.
The WJEC specifications for teaching this Home Economics: Food & Nutrition GCSE include in their specification of tasks (p17):
Cereals make an important contribution to the diet.
(a) Investigate the role of cereals in the diet.
(b) Develop a range of ideas for dishes using cereals.
(c) Plan a course of action for making a selection of dishes using cereals.
(d) Make and present the selection of dishes.
(e) Evaluate your work.
I could understand if they wanted children to know about the super foods liver, eggs or spinach, but fortified cereals?
And finally, because the exam is what this is all about at the end of the day, take a look at this specimen exam: one mark for knowing that strawberry milk shake is higher in calcium than orange & mango juice and another point for knowing that the fruit juice is higher in vitamin C. Question 4 is all about how can we eat at least 4 slices of bread a day – that should fuel the Federation of Baker profits and childhood obesity nicely. Question 9 beggars belief – “Explain how the addition of modified starch is of benefit to the consumer.” Would I get any marks for saying – it is of no benefit to the consumer. The chemically altered FrankenFood that is modified starch is of great benefit to the producer because it extends shelf life, it is cheap, it speeds up the thickening process (saves more costs) and it takes lumps out of things otherwise so hideous that people probably wouldn’t eat them.
Next time you’re at parents evening – start asking the teachers about how and what they are teaching, not how your little darling is performing. I hope that your little treasure skips nutrition class – better to learn nothing than to learn these appalling, conflicted messages.