Healthy eating is desperately over rated. It is not that I believe we should not think about what we eat. Or that we should not do something about it if we are obese, or plan things so we ensure we eat all the things we need to. What I am referring to is how we measure ‘healthiness’ in eating. You may be nursing doubts that the following is another boffin about to bang on about some obscure point that does not really concern anyone. But, in the immortal words of Miranda Hart, “Bear with…”

Going to a large supermarket, where surely most people do most of their shopping, can be bewildering for the uninitiated shopper. One of the turmoils facing many a student who is out shopping for the first time is the question of how to choose between Sainsbury’s Basics and the cheapest branded product. The array of types of baked beans is frankly dizzying. More generally, I have seen many a shopper tight with anguish about which sugar to buy or which milk will be best. (Supermarkets are great places for watching people. You just have to make sure you are doing enough yourself such that if you are being watched, you do not arouse the suspicion of the security staff). But the problem can go a stage further. What if the shopper has it in mind that they should eat less salt or more fibre? Or, more complicatedly, less saturated but more unsaturated fat, with less fat over all? Difficult stuff. In Britain we are lucky and well organised that the food packaging we have tells us what is in something – both the ingredients and the nutrition information. This may seem obvious but it is far from universal: the Americans have a list of ‘nutrition facts’ which is manifestly token, and say very little. However, even though we have all the information, this does not necessarily make it easier to judge what we should or should not buy.

Enter, the ‘Wheel of Health’ from Sainsbury’s and the less pretentious but equally useless ‘Guideline daily amounts’ on Tesco packaging. In case you cannot recall them, these little note-diagrams comprise 5 of the entries from the Nutrition Information listThis list is: calories, fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt. I imagine the list has been chosen quite carefully by marketing types and focus groups. It certainly has not been chosen by scientists. Typically, the information is also used to give the listing a colour code – apparently red is dangerous, amber is not that good for you, and green is fine. Despite my blustering tone you might be wondering what all the fuss is about – it is perfectly reasonable to want to advise and inform people on what they are buying. And that is fine. If it is that. But it is not.
The trouble with telling people how low in fat or amazingly sugarless a product is, especially with a crass colour-coding system, is that the logical outcome is that a set of five green wedges in the Wheel of Health is something to aspire to. Now these quintupletly-green-wedged foods may or may not be more profitable than others (fat is cheap, emulsifiers are not), but there is seemingly no understanding of where this leads. Their website (See here) explains the Wheel of Health (also called the traffic light system) very breifly, and suggests rather patronisingly that we should “Try to go for more greens and ambers, and fewer reds”. Yes. Well. Should we, though?
It has been true for years that people could do with eating less fat and doing more exercise. Various gimmicky inventions have been marketed to help with this. My favourite is the caffeine tights. Though, in the words of Stephen Fry, they are “not going to dissolve a fat arse”. Do these colourful labellings help with that? Of course not. The trouble is that this system presents the ‘healthiest’ foods as being the ones that contain the least of anything: five green wedges means no energy, fat, sugars or salt. This makes about the healthiest thing in the supermarket a 250 mL bottle of soda water. What a load of tosh! Soda water is great but if it were to disappear it would not be a great loss to humanity. A loss to the drinks cabinet perhaps, but we would survive pretty well. What it would not be would be a loss of the healthiest food in the cupboard. 

An opposing argument might be that people probably do not take much notice of these diagrams. I have not done any research on that—much as I would love to stand in a supermarket with a clipboard and a nauseating market-research-type-jolly manner, obviously—but a lassez faire attitude, or simply not having the time for them is believable. And obviously someone on a diet or who is geeky (myself included) will probably ignore such parts of the label and repair immediately to the full nutrition information list. In which case it begs the question of why it is there at all. This is redoubled if we factor in seeing a nice-looking lemon tart that has been reduced in price and we buy it irrespective of the fact of having gone in to the supermarket only to buy the ‘healthiest’ thing in the shop in our jodhpurs. Or is that just me?
Either way, these systems are long over-due for a re-think. The list of nutrition information is a great idea, and even things that make this information accessible to consumers is also good. But it is only good if it has a point. This does not.