Introducing the Absolute Scale of Food Healthfulness

A ban of junk-food advertising relies on a new measure of nutrition.

By Brittany Grayson|Friday, January 25, 2008

Tony the Tiger is under attack. So are the Rice Krispies elves, the Nesquik rabbit, and some mysterious entity called the Sugar Puffs Honey Monster. Since July of last year, these mascots—and others peddling food high in fat, salt, or sugar—are slowly disappearing from British television. The purge represents the U.K.'s most recent strategy to fight childhood obesity. On January 1, the British government put limits on junk-food advertising during shows aimed at children under the age of 16, and by 2009, they will become stricter. Junk-cereal cartoons will soon become an NC-17 novelty.

Even those opposed to the so-called meddling of so-called food police may concede that protecting our kiddies from junk food is commendable. But what exactly is the junk food that should be kept away from our precious youth? Most parents have a general sense of what's healthy: Oranges make the cut; Oreos don’t. Harder to judge is a nebulous middle ground of foods like cheese, sunflower seeds, and guacamole, all of which may seem wholesome but are also high in fat and calories.

Gauging a food’s health value is even harder for children. Flashy TV ads promoting sugary cereals are as much a staple of childhood as the Saturday-morning cartoons they interrupt (and underwrite). And junk-foodmarketing seems to work. A study released last fall, which found that kids think that food wrapped in the iconic McDonald’s packaging tastes better than the same fare in plain wrappers—even foods that McDonald's doesn't sell, like carrots.

To help separate the whole wheat from the crap, the Office of Communications (Ofcom)—roughly the British equivalent of the FCC—commissioned a team to develop a scientific, objective method for analyzing and evaluating food. The foundation's system purports to categorize a food with space-age precision and assign to it a single numerical value that denotes its ultimate healthfulness.The model may not be the perfect tool the nutrition community dreams of, but now that the U.K.is pushing ahead with its plan, this purportedly definitive health index is now affecting the messages about food—and, presumably, the food itself—that kids consume.

The food-measuring formula, WXYfm (which only sounds like a Sesame Street radio station), took 18 months and more than 50 tries to generate. The team of nutritionists, statisticians, and public-health experts started by studying models generated by food companies, but most were “haphazard” and “nontransparent,” according to Peter Scarborough, a mathematician in the group. “Essentially, they would come up with a line that every food can fit into a healthy diet,” Scarborough says.

The final model is based on the British daily recommended intake, similar to the FDA’s recommendations for Americans. It adds points for “bad” stuff—calories, sodium, sugar, and saturated fats—and subtracts points for the "good" stuff—protein, fiber, and fruit, vegetable, and nut content. The resulting number is the food’s score, which ranges from a virtuous negative-nine (dried and split red lentils boiled without even the mercy of a pinch of salt) to a decadent 28 (restaurant cheesecake). Ofcom considers any food with a score of four or above unhealthy and therefore barred from kids' TV.

Scarborough says the formula accurately rates healthfulness, largely because its sliding-scale nature is more sophisticated and sensitive than previous systems. Earlier methods measured foods independently along different criteria rather than funneling all the data together in one master health rating. The old systems tended to lump together foods that were somewhat unhealthy along with the real junk, Scarborough says. “You can be very close to the number of nutrients [in those models] and not make the cutoff. You’re either in or you’re out.”

The other strength of this system, according to Scarborough, is that it only considers basic nutrition science, like the approximate amount of sugar or fat people should eat in a day. This makes it immune to the seemingly endless flow of media reports that alternately hail and bash foodslike eggs, coffee, and alcohol.

Of course, ideas about basic nutrition science vary widely—even among scientists—and there are still those who think the system is flawed or even harmful. As might be expected, big food companies are voicing the most opposition. Paul Fitzsimmons, director of corporate communications for Kellogg Europe, says one problem with the system is that it considers all food in 100g portions rather than in the serving sizes people actually eat. This means that foods served in larger portions, like lasagna and Big Macs, may inaccurately get scored as healthy, while foods served in much smaller portions, like mayonnaise, get classified as unhealthy. “No one eats 100 grams of mayonnaise," Fitzsimmons says. "And people don’t just eat a quarter of a [400-gram] single-person serving of frozen lasagna.”

Alarm bells also go off for one of the less objectionable (health-wiseand cuisine-wise) staples of English cuisine: cheese. “Some yogurts and virtually all cheese other than cottage cheese fall outside the range of the healthy section,” says Judith Bryans, director of the United Kingdom’s Dairy Council. “People do not consume huge quantities of cheese, but because this model scoreson 100 grams, it’s [judged as] unhealthy.”

Ofcom is introducing the model gradually—it’s been in effect since July 1—slowly decreasing the number of commercials advertising unhealthy foods to children under 10. The more stringent rules, regulating advertising to impressionable minds younger than 16, kicked in on January 1, 2008. All junk-food commercials will be off kids' TV by 2009.

Researchers predict that rules like this one will cut children’s exposure to junk-food advertising by 40 percent, and they hope that this decrease will improve children's health overall. Ofcom began reviewing the system last month, says Peter Bourton, a senior policy executive at the agency, though he says they may never know how well the system works. “Realistically, you can’t expect to see an effect in the space of one or two years,” he says. “There are many, many other factors [in children’s health], and it’s not going to be possible to disentangle them.” So far, though, Ofcom seems happy with its regulation. “Advertisers didn’t want to have advertising regulated in this way,” Bourton says.“Broadcasters were worried about losing advertising. But we had the power to regulate. We took a balanced decision and they don’t like it, but they can lumpit.”

Limits on advertising may well be followed by bolder steps. Some scientists, including Mike Rayner, the lead scientist on the team that generated the model, advocate a so-called fat tax that would make junk food harder to come by and subsidize healthy food in an effort to allow lower-income families to eat more healthfully. It’s an idea that met a wall of opposition when Kelly Brownell, cofounder and director of Yale University’s Rudd Centerfor Food Policy and Obesity, suggested it in an op-ed in The New York Times. Now it seems a few bricks may be falling out of that wall, though the U.S.government hasn't taken any steps yet. “People recognize how serious the obesity problem is, particularly in children. People are more aware of the marketing practices of the industry and how destructive they are and are willing to consider broad social actions,” Brownell says.

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