Fake nutrition news: Food Safety Authority sifts fact from fiction

Dr Pamela Byrne, chief executive FSAI, and Catherine Byrne, Minister of State at the Department of Health, at the launch of the updated FSAI food guide. Picture:SON Photographic

Beware fake news about nutrition. In the same way that stories of dubious origin can take hold on social media, people should also be alert to false or confusing messages about food, warns Dr Mary Flynn, chief specialist in Public Health Nutrition at the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI).

Everybody who eats has an opinion on food, but that doesn’t mean all opinions carry equal weight, she says.

“When it comes to nutrition and what is good for your body, there is such an array of nutrition qualifications out there that it’s very difficult for consumers at the moment,” she tells Feelgood.

Before following any advice, make sure it comes from a reliable source, she says.

If you go to a registered dietician, for example, you know you are being seen by a person who is held to account by a code of practice.

There are many very well-qualified nutritionists too but the sector is not regulated in the same way so make sure that your therapist is qualified.

At a time when people are confused about what to eat, it is more important than ever to question dietary advice and in particular to question those who recommend cutting out certain food groups.

“There are 100,000 different ways to have a healthy diet,” says Flynn, explaining that good nutrition means achieving a balance, in any number of combinations, between a wide variety of different foods.

How you might get that balance is spelled out in clear detail in the Food Safety Authority’s newly updated guide to healthy eating, food safety and food legislation.

Drawing on the latest scientific research, it describes how to make the best food choices for health and scotches many myths.

Speaking of which, Flynn says one of the biggest fads of recent years was the rush to embrace coconut oil — with everything. That was a fake news story because coconut oil is very high in saturated fats and some of the studies show that it raises blood cholesterol.

Rub it on to your skin, put it in your hair but don’t eat it,” she says.

She says people tend to overdo oils and fats in general and warns that even the purest of virgin olive oil is high in fat and should be used sparingly – even if the TV celebrity chefs splash it about generously.

Flynn also advises caution with other food trends. While alternative milks, and in particular nut milks, are omnipresent on supermarket shelves, they do not have anything near the calcium or protein of dairy milk.

With vegetarianism and veganism on the rise, it is vital to make sure that you are getting enough B12 and iron if you are taking meat out of your diet.

On the subject of meat, she said it was healthy to have two or three portions of red meat a week — an entire daily portion should be no bigger than the palm of your hand — but to avoid processed meat such as rashers and sausages. If you want to have a breakfast fry-up, limit the number of rashers and sausages and fill the plate instead with mushrooms, tomatoes and baked beans.

The new guide is nearly 100 pages long but it is colourful and copiously illustrated and succeeds in communicating all aspects of food – nutrition, safety and legislation – in bite-sized pieces, if you’ll pardon the pun.

While it is aimed at health professionals and food businesses, it will also be an invaluable guide to confused punters.

Dr Pamela Byrne, the Food Safety Authority’s CEO, said: “We live in an age where there are so many confusing messages about food and nutrition and this guide provides independent and unbiased science-based advice that people can trust.

It draws on international best practice and the latest Irish research to give food advice designed to protect anybody, from five years up, against diet-related illnesses such as heart disease, cancer, obesity and diabetes.

Developed with the Department of Health and Health Service Executive, it includes advice on portion sizes and allergens and the most up-to-date version of the pyramid.

So the next time there’s a food fight, so to speak, you know where to go to get science-based answers.

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