Thursday, June 26, 2008

Another confirmation of long Australian lifespans

There was a similar finding reported 18 months ago. Pesky that Australians are exceptionally long-lived despite the typical Australian diet being just about everything the food-freaks deplore. There are certainly a lot of nonagenarians about in Australia who grew up on food fried in dripping (animal fat) -- fried steak particularly. Fried steak and eggs was a routine breakfast for many Australian working men up until a few decades ago. And they would only have eaten nuts at Christmas. And to this day, very fatty meat pies (see pic above) and sausage rolls are a great favourite.

Going by the results of double-blind studies (e.g here), however, it is doubtful that type of diet has ANY influence on longevity. The fact that two long-lived populations -- Australians and Japanese -- have radically different diets also supports that conclusion.

The explanations for Australian lifespans given in the news report below are entirely speculative. An equally plausible explanation is that traditional Australian skepticism causes most Australians to ignore food freaks.

The only thing about diet that increases lifespan is restricted calorie intake. Which is probably why the Japanese -- who had very little food for much of the 20th century -- live so long. Restricted calorie intake also stunts growth -- which would also explain why older Japanese are so short. So attributing the high Japanese lifespan to a "healthy" diet is also just a guess that fails to consider other possibilities

Australians are living longer than ever as death rates from the big killers of heart disease and cancer fall and smoking continues to wane in popularity. The Australia's Health 2008 report, released yesterday, shows Australians can now expect to live for 81.4 years - and that we have leap-frogged Sweden and Iceland to claim the No2 spot on the world's life expectancy tables, second only to Japan.

Overall, the latest snapshot of the nation's health paints a mixed picture, showing that while Australians are cutting down on smoking and doing better against cancer and heart disease, we are also fatter, boozier, more likely to catch a sexually transmitted infection, and still likely to end up in hospital for something that could have been avoided.

In 2005-06, more than 9 per cent of hospital admissions were considered potentially preventable. We also too rarely make the diet and lifestyle choices that would ward off diabetes, high blood pressure and other problems, and there are poorer outcomes for people of lower socio-economic status which happens worldwide]. While asthma has receded as a health threat, others such as oesophageal disease, are looming larger.

And the picture for indigenous Australians is also mixed: the gap in death rates between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians appears to be narrowing, but otherwise indigenous adults seem to be slipping even further behind the health of their non-indigenous countrymen. [If you saw the way blacks often live, you would not be surprised. Methanol ("metho") is not a healthy drink]

Launching the report in Canberra yesterday, Health Minister Nicola Roxon said it was a "great achievement" that "highlights both the good and the bad". "We can take heart that an Australian born between 2003 and 2005 can now expect to live 42 per cent longer than those born in 1901-10," Ms Roxon said. "That's an extra 25 years for most people." Once the danger years of youth and middle age are past, men who reach 65 can expect to live to 83, and women to 86 - about six years more than a century ago.

The AIHW said one of the biggest factors in extending life was the drop in smoking rates. About one in six Australians were daily smokers last year, one of the lowest rates in the world. Vaccination also continues to enjoy widespread support, with more than 90 per cent of children fully immunised against the major preventable diseases such as whooping cough, measles and mumps.

As well as asthma affecting an estimated 10.3 per cent of the population in 2004-05 - down from 11.6 per cent in 2001 - other good news is that illicit drug use appears to be falling. The percentage of people aged 14 and over who admitted to using marijuana fell from a high of 17.9 per cent in 1998 to 9.1 per cent last year, while those using methamphetamine or "ice" fell from 3.7 per cent in 1998 to 2.3 per cent last year.

Ecstasy use remained level and only cocaine showed any upward trend, being used by 1.6 per cent of respondents to last year's survey, compared with 1 per cent in 2004.

However, AIHW director Penny Allbon said Australia could do more to tackle the main risk factors for chronic diseases. "In rank order, the greatest improvements can be achieved through reductions in tobacco smoking, high blood pressure, overweight and obesity, physical inactivity, high blood cholesterol and excessive alcohol consumption," Dr Allbon said. "The prevalence of diabetes, which is strongly related to these risk factors, has doubled in the past two decades.

"Excessive alcohol consumption not only brings costs in terms of personal health, but tangible social costs in terms of lost productivity, healthcare costs, road accident costs and crime-related costs that have been estimated at $10.8 billion in 2004-05."

The report shows that alcohol caused 3.8 per cent of the burden of disease for males, and 0.7 per cent for females. Four in five Australians aged 14 and over drank alcohol, and one in 10 did so daily. However, the report said these rates "have been fairly stable since 1993".


Useless Menu Labeling Laws

Restaurants in New York City with 15 or more outlets nationwide now must conspicuously post the nutritional content of each item on their menus. Similar legislation is coming to San Francisco and Seattle, and is under consideration in about a dozen other cities and state legislatures.

At first blush, this seems like a good idea. Why not force restaurants to let their consumers know the nutritional value of what they're about to eat? If we're to believe what the public health world says about our bulging waistlines, perhaps a little more information would be a good thing.

The American Prospect's Ezra Klein made this argument last month, writing, "It's a bit rich to watch libertarians and associated anti-government types oppose a regulation that gives consumers more useful information. This, after all, is how markets are supposed to work best. Consumers have better information, can pursue their preferences in a more coherent manner, and the market can provide, adapt, and innovate in response."

It's a compelling argument. But the menu labeling debate is actually a bit more complicated than that. First, it's expensive to send an entree to the lab for testing. Nutritional labs typically charge $850 to $1,000 for the service, and most restaurants will want to test an item more than once to ensure accuracy. Any "have it your way" customization of an item would also need to be tested, which means a typical sandwich might need to be tested dozens of times to account for the various condiments and accouterments a restaurant may want to offer.

There is, however, another way to gauge the nutritional content of menu items that's a bit less expensive. That is to break every item down to its most basic ingredients and their quantities, then to run those ingredients through a nutritional database, which adds the ingredients up, then spits out totals. This too has it's problems, in that it requires restaurants to (a) turn over proprietary recipes for analysis, and (b) abide by those recipes every time, without fail.

The main problem with all of this is that it requires restaurants to slavishly adhere to the recipes of the dishes they originally sent away for testing. Let's say a particular batch of tomatoes delivered to a restaurant were particularly bland, for whatever reason. Don't even think about adding an extra dash of salt to your dish to compensate. If the original dish had only a dash of salt, you've just doubled the sodium content. You can also forget about substitutes, seasonal variety or allowing customers to customize dishes in ways that haven't been sent to the lab.

Forget about "going local," too. Buying from local growers is less predictable than buying from a national network of food suppliers, where shortages or disappointing harvests from one area of the country can be accounted for by purchasing more from other areas.

Menu labeling laws mean every restaurant in a given chain has to make every dish exactly the same way, every time. Most menu labeling laws allow for a 20 percent variance in nutritional labeling. This is the same variance allowed for the nutritional information on manufactured food products, where you have assembly-line machines cutting exact portions and abiding by standardized recipes instead of real live people making dishes from what's available in the kitchen.

Of course, the labeling of manufactured foods is another argument in favor of the futility of these menu labeling laws. We've been labeling packaged foods for decades now - the foods that make up the vast majority of our meals and snacks. And we're still getting fatter.

Supporters of menu labeling laws know that complying with these laws will be expensive and onerous. That's why they've only applied them to chain restaurants - restaurants they say can afford to send dishes off for nutritional testing. Perhaps, but knowing that adding a new dish to the menu could cost several thousand dollars and will almost certainly result in one of two consequences: Either restaurants will dramatically cut down on variety and serve only meticulously portioned cookie-cutter dishes or they'll merely pass the costs of testing each dish on to consumers.

Certainly, the chains that barely make the cut of 10-15 franchises (depending on which law you're talking about) will think twice before offering a perk like daily specials, where each new daily dish could add thousands of dollars to the company's bottom line.

But even large chains are going to be more hesitant about regional variety. And chefs at high-end spots like steakhouse chains are going to be extremely unlikely to create customized meals, or prepare dishes for people with specialized diets.

The other response to the "we're only requiring this of the restaurants who can afford it" argument is that if that's the case, what's the point of having the law in the first place? The New York City law will only affect about 10 percent of the city's eateries. If the goal is to combat obesity, you're missing 90 percent of the places where people are eating.

What's more, according to the National Restaurant Association, we buy just six of our 21 weekly meals from restaurants. Put another way, menu labeling laws mean nutritional information will be slapped in front of the average American for about three of every 100 meals. We aren't getting fatter because there aren't fat-count stickers on our Big Mac wrappers - as if most of us didn't already know a Big Mac isn't the most nutritious meal anyway.

Of course, most of the really large chains already make nutritional information available - either online or in pamphlets you can find at the restaurant. Calorie counters and people watching their sodium or sugar intake can find this information relatively easily if they need it. And they can choose not to patronize the few restaurants that don't make it available.

The menu-labeling crowd wants that information posted in big letters on menu boards or slapped on the packaging of the foodstuffs themselves. The goal of menu labeling legislation, then, is much more paternalistic than merely to "make more information available." It's to force nutritional information on people who aren't necessarily looking for it.

Then there are the lawsuits. When McDonalds voluntarily agreed to post its nutritional information on the Web several years, it wasn't long at all before the nutrition fanatics at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) attacked the company because a couple of McDonalds employees served covert CSPI reps overly large ice cream cones.

Earlier this month, a Seattle firm filed a class action suit against the Applebee's chain because of what the firm says were errors in its nutritional menu labeling. Days later, the same firm filed a similar suit in Texas, this time aimed at the Brinker chain, which owns brands such as Chili's and Macaroni Grill. Of course, if these restaurants deliberately mislabeled nutritional information or didn't bother to accurately test food labeled as "healthy," they should be held accountable.

But it's also impossible to make the same dish the exact same way every time. Such is the reason why large chains test the same dish multiple times to arrive at an average. But if you're looking for a reason to sue, you're only going to include in your claim the chains that served dishes that came out over the posted data, not under.

This is the main reason why restaurants have been reluctant to provide nutritional information in the first place. An extra pat of butter, an extra dash of salt, a substitution here or there, or even a generous chef who - God forbid - decides to give a customer a generous portion, can now mean multimillion-dollar class action lawsuits.

These menu-labeling bills have put restaurants in a no-win predicament. Their best bet is to mechanize their kitchens and to take all variety and spontaneity out of their menus - which isn't exactly a good outcome for consumers. And you can bet that when the latest round of menu-labeling bills fails to make us any skinnier, the nutrition activists will start taking aim at the smaller chains and independent restaurants too.



Anonymous said...

the best bet for most of those restaurants would to cease operations anywhere such regulations are implemented.
Of course that's only practical if such regulations are not implemented nationwide, unless companies decide to shut down completely in response to an operational environment where regular business can no longer be performed profitably.

Maybe, just maybe, the loss of tax revenue and increase in unemployment (as well as the lack of certain food items to the city planners) may make them reconsider.

John A said...

Re Oz report "In 2005-06, more than 9 per cent of hospital admissions were considered potentially preventable."

Would that percentage be "accidents", such as a seven-year-old falling off the first two-wheeler or a roofer being shot with a nail-gun by his mate?