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Chief Scientific Advisor Blog - How Food Standards Scotland is using science and evidence in diet and nutrition

Food is one of the great pleasures in life and we all enjoy some foods we know are not so good for us. My weaknesses include bacon rolls and lemon drizzle cake. I was however surprised when the FSS nutrition team told me that one bacon roll could contain over half the recommended maximum salt intake for the day, and a slice of lemon drizzle cake is not only high in fat but could contain 80% of the recommended maximum intake of free sugar* for the day! I will now think twice and enjoy these a bit less often!

So is my diet really that bad or any different from the people in Scotland? FSS research shows that the Scottish diet, (including mine) is in fact too high in fat, salt and sugar and too low in fibre, oil rich fish and fruit and veg. This ultimately impacts our health, and the latest Scottish Health Survey reports that in 2015 65% of adults were overweight, including 29% who were obese, and this has not changed much since 2008.

The Scottish Government has published Dietary Goals setting limits for the amounts of salt, fat and free sugar we should be aiming to have in our diet. Progress so far has been very slow as we are still eating too much sugar, salt and fat.  So how does science and evidence help us understand the problem and how does FSS make use of the evidence? I’d like to share two examples with you - the consequences of having too much salt and the potential for unhealthy promotions influencing consumer purchases.

Salt

Too much salt in the diet can increase blood pressure and the risk of health problems such as heart disease and stroke.  In Scotland this was recognised back in 1996 and a goal was set to reduce salt to 6g per day per person. This evidence was reviewed in 2003 by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) which also recommend a maximum intake of 6g per day.

It might not be widely known that approx 75% of the salt we consume in the UK comes from processed foods. To help reduce salt intakes, the UK government set food industry targets to reduce the salt content of their products, originally set in 2006 and updated several times. The most recent set of salt targets have been set for achievement by the end of this year.

To help consumers make healthier choices, front of pack labelling (often referred to as traffic light labelling) was introduced in 2007 to highlight high, medium and low levels of salt, fat and sugar.  

These industry actions together with consumer messaging highlighting the link between salt and health contributed to a significant reduction in salt intakes between 2006 and 2014 in Scotland from 8.2g to 7.1g/day. This is really encouraging, although we recognise there is still a way to go if we are to meet our goal of 6g per day.  We will continue to urge the food industry to reduce salt in their products and achieve the 2017 salt targets.  We will also keep encouraging people in Scotland to look at food labels and choose lower salt products.

Unhealthy Promotions

I went to a talk earlier this year by Giles Yeo - an expert on the role of genetics in diet and obesity. He told a story about a nurse who went to the supermarket with the intention of buying a healthy lunch, salad and yoghurt - which she did. However, at the same time, she was bombarded with offers of high fat, salt and sugar foods and also ended up buying crisps and chocolate. He asked the question who is to blame for this? The nurse, the shop, or the government?

A recently published report commissioned by FSS highlighted the challenge faced by shoppers, who can be bombarded with presentations, prices and promotions on products that are high in salt, fat, sugar and calories. The report produced a number of recommendations which included regulation to balance both the promotion and provision between healthy and unhealthy products.

The links below provide more information about FSS’s proposals and advice for improving the diet in Scotland:

January 2016 – Proposals for setting the direction of the Scottish Diet
March 2017 –  Proposals for setting the direction of the Scottish Diet, one year on
More information on healthy eating can be found on our healthy eating pages.

Watch this space as I will return to this in future blogs.

 

* We eat too much free sugar which for example, is sugar added to food or drink and found naturally in honey, syrups and fruit juices. We don’t need to worry about sugar which is naturally present in whole fruits, vegetables or milk.

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