My heart rate was significantly raised this morning while at the gym. Not because of my less than challenging treadmill pace, but because of a news item that came onto breakfast TV about the new food labelling system that is expected to be in place by the Summer of 2013.
I wrote about the public consultation on the subject that took place in July 2012. At that stage I was full of giddy optimism that my eloquently worded appeal would result in a Marvellous New World of clearly labelled, impeccably helpful packaging that assisted the entire UK in making better food choices, but in particular supported the millions of people living with (or at risk of developing) diabetes of one form or another - something upward of 5% of the population by 2010's numbers. The people for whom this stuff really matters.
The precise details of the new front of pack splodges are still being worked out, but from what I've read my life is about to get just a little bit more difficult and I'm going to be very grateful that my phone has a calculator on it.
I don't really have a particular problem with the traffic light system as an infographic device, my concern is based mostly on the information that the current systems display, and in particular the obsession with listing 'of which sugars'.
Let's just get this straight, 'of which sugars' is an almost entirely useless piece of information. Well, not quite. If you were comparing two products side by side that were virtually identical in all other respects, then perhaps 'of which sugars' might be worth casting an eye over.
The Really Big Problem is that most people *think* they know what 'of which sugars' means. People will believe (because they have always been told that this is the case) that all food with lots of sugar in it will zoom straight into the bloodstream, while food with no added sugar will be absorbed more slowly. Like most of the best misconceptions this opinion persists because it is almost true. Food with a large amount of added sugar is likely to hit your bloodstream fast. But there are many many foods which are broken down significantly faster than sucrose. And the REALLY Really Big Problem is that many of the foods that break down in the gut faster than sucrose (table sugar) are the very same ones that people think of as being 'healthy'. Brown or wholemeal bread, for example... Pretty much any breakfast cereal you can think of... Mashed or baked potato...
The Glycemic Index (or more helpfully the Glycemic Load which takes portion size into account) is a measure of how disruptive a food is likely to be to blood glucose levels. To measure GI a smallish number of test subjects are usually given 50g in carbohydrate of a particular food and then their blood glucose levels are measured to establish how fast the energy in the food hits the bloodstream. Simplistically, all carbohydrate is made up of units of monosaccharides (glucose) joined up in chains. The easier it is to break down the chains into glucose, the faster it will be absorbed. On the GI scale, pure glucose scores 100. Sucrose, table sugar scores a 'moderate' 60. Despite it's 'starchy' reputation the carbohydrate in wheat is very readily broken down and there is far less difference between white and brown versions than we might hope for - exact values will vary, but wholemeal bread is likely to be between 68 and 78. Yes, that's right... gram for gram of carbohydrate it's faster than sugar. When you begin to look at breakfast cereals things get even more bizarre as far as the 'of which sugars' is concerned. Cornflakes weigh in at a blistering 77-93, while Crunchy Nut drop a little at 72 and Frosties score a mere 55. These breakfast cereals will be slowed a little when eaten with milk, but completely counter-intuitively the ones with added sugar are *slower* than those without, presumably because the corn itself is so darned fast.
That's not to say that any of the foods I mentioned are necessarily 'off limits' for a person with (or without!) diabetes - but I really think we need to get over our obsession with sugar in this country and especially where food labelling is concerned. A low 'of which sugars' does not make something OK. It cannot be relied upon as a marker of how quickly the carbohydrate in a food will pass into your bloodstream at all. And for a T1 person playing at being their own pancreas, or a T2 attempting to eat in a way which helps their wonky metabolism this stuff really matters.
From a carb-counting type 1 perspective the proposed changes are also incredibly inconvenient. This fatuous obsession with the display of 'sugar content' means that prepackaged foods will, most likely, no longer display total carbohydrate content per portion, certainly not on the front of the packs. Sainsbury's made this change some time ago adopting a 'traffic light' system and it bugs me every time I need to eat something of theirs. I find myself scrabbling around on the back of the pack for the 3.5pt 'per 100g' details then have to fish out a calculator and endure some mathematic acrobatics to evaluate what my portion of a 326g pack will end up being in terms of carbohydrate. And it used to be just written there in big letters 'per serving'.
Of all the groups of people in the UK with a borderline obsessive interest in what food contains, the ones who stand with furrowed brow in supermarkets poring over pack labelling smallprint more often than perhaps any others are those living with diabetes. This initiative *could* have made our lives easier, it could have included GI indications as standard, and scored total carbohydrate as a proportion of Guideline Daily Amounts so that people went easier on carbs generally. Who knows - that could have saved 1000s of people from developing T2D in the first place if their metabolisms are already beginning to struggle. Instead we are stuck in the same old rut of sugar=bad, fat=bad, carbs=good which just isn't helping anyone.
I await next summer's pack designs with a heavy heart.