Sunday, December 07, 2008

A wake-up call for a return to nutrition basics

More than 800 million people, or about 13 percent of the global population, are classifi ed as undernourished. The defi ciency in essential nutrients is said to be the underlying cause of an estimated 3.5 million deaths each year, mostly in young children and pregnant women. Under-nutrition among pregnant women in developing
countries is reported to lead to one out of six infants born with low birth weight.

In Malaysia, diabetes has reached very alarming proportions. In the first National
Health and Morbidity Survey (NHMS)carried out in 1986, the prevalence of diabetes was 6.3 percent. Just ten years later this figure increased to 8.3 percent. Now, based on the latest NHMS III, conducted in 2006, diabetes prevalence has increased to 14.9 percent.

Diabetes Type II is strongly linked to high sugar consumption and obesity.

Nutrition can be defi ned as the process of taking in the substances needed to nourish and support life and growth. Access to nutritious food is a key element in
achieving a well-balanced nutrition. But as the world becomes more dependent on artifi cially processed food, balanced nutrition is compromised, resulting in chronic
health problems. Worsening the problem is the addition of toxic chemicals on essential food products.

Tainted milk
The recent scandal where four children in China died following the consumption of baby formula milk contaminated with the toxic chemical known as melamine should serve as a wake-up call.

Melamine, used as an ingredient in the manufacture of some plastics and fertilizers, has found its way into food products such as infant formula and confectionaries. It
is abhorrent that melamine has been deliberately added to milk to give the false
impression of higher levels of protein than actually exists.

Authorities try to allay the fears of the public by announcing that the levels of melamine in certain foods are within “permissible levels”. This term should be questioned.

Melamine is a synthetic chemical. It does not occur naturally in food. Should permissible levels be set for substances that are not naturally occurring in food?
By law, there should be a zero tolerance for melamine, as well as other synthetic toxic chemicals in food, rather than waiting for all the evidence to come in, which might be too late – when harm has already been done.

There is the danger of the cumulative doses or ingestions that enhance the harm posed by such chemicals. Furthermore, the full effects of chemicals not meant for humans may not have been studied fully, and for over a suffi ciently long period of time. It is not ethical to conduct such tests on people. In cases such as these, the *Precautionary Principle should be applied and the consumption of this chemical should be fully avoided.

In the case of infants, breast milk is the safest and healthiest choice – fully for the fi rst six months, and thereafter as a complement to solid foods right up to at
least two years. Governments and the community as a whole would need to make a commitment to move in this direction and create a supportive environment.

Buyers beware
Overall, the Consumer Association of Penang (CAP) believes that it is timely for people to move away from eating so much artifi cially-processed foods, and instead
move towards natural healthy produce and home-cooked meals. There are countless additives included in many of the highly-processed foods in the market. Foods are altered so far from their original state. We did not require all these artificial additives at one time. If really needed, there are numerous natural substances such as natural colours or flavours that can be used for food. We do not see that it is possible for the public to take any realistic precautions themselves when it comes to
products on the shelves as it is impossible for people to know which foods contain dangerous chemicals. At the very least, food manufacturers should be required
to list the common names of all additives, such as preservatives, coloring, fl avors, flavor enhancers, antioxidants and conditioners, on the food labels and outer
packaging - as opposed to using numerical or alphabet codes or merely using phrases such as “Permitted Coloring” or “Permitted Conditioners” under the ingredients list. Information on the concentrations of these additives should also be provided.

The excuse sometimes given is that there is not enough space on the food label. We ask - should there be so many additives in a product that the information cannot even fit on a label, and should this be permitted by the authorities?

In view of the rise of critical chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure, the information on salt, sugar, saturated fats and trans fats should be listed on current food labels. These particular components should be separated out from the general “Nutrition facts” or “Nutritional Labelling” so that the public is not lulled into a false sense of security. Rather, the attention of consumers can be immediately drawn towards taking special note of these ingredients that are linked to adverse health outcomes.

In view of our country’s alarming diabetic rates, which are only expected to worsen over the coming years, CAP believes that much more needs to be done, and with greater sense of urgency. Firm action needs to be taken against the numerous sweets and confectionaries that have fl ooded the market. These products that are being marketed to children are not conducive to health. They contain basically nothing more than sugar, coloring and other additives, which are not even labeled on the
packaging. Children received no nutritional benefit from consuming these products.
Sugary soft drinks, either carbonated or non-carbonated, used to be more of a luxury in the past and they were consumed as a treat. Nowadays, these drinks are sold in abundance everywhere. Vending machines proffering these drinks are also found at many locations, including airports, hospitals and schools. It is also becoming
increasingly common to see these drinks being offered in “jumbo” portions at various restaurants and food joints.

S.M. Mohamed Idris is the president of the Consumers’ Association of Penang (CAP). The organization may be contacted at Tel. No. 60-4-8299511, or through its website at Graphics from Consumer Association of Penang.

This article appeared in the Health Alert Asia Pacific newsletter, Issue 13 2008. For copies of the newsletter, please write to