Thursday, July 25, 2013

Restaurant menu calorie counts don't work - and may even make diners consume MORE, study finds

This is by now a common finding but the people who "just know" what the truth is don't care about evidence

Calorie counts on food menus do not motivate people to make healthier choices, according to new findings.

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania analyzed the purchasing behaviors of 1,121 adults at two McDonald’s restaurants in New York City.

They found that even when they provided information on 'ideal' dietary intakes for each day or per meal, diners did not change their orders.

Commenting on the results, lead researcher Dr Julie Downs said: 'Putting calorie labels on menus really has little or no effect on people’s ordering behaviors at all.'

She and her team found that the majority of participants actually ended up consuming more calories than recommended per meal - 650 for women; 800 for men.

Calorie counts have become a hot topic of debate over recent years, especially in light of America's worsening obesity epidemic.

Nutrition advocates say if people knew how simple it is to cut their caloric intake, they would make better decisions.

As a result, several states and municipalities across the country including New York, Philadelphia and California, have already introduced mandatory menu labeling.

And soon nationwide regulations will go into effect as part of the Affordable Care Act, although a precise date has not been set.

However, Dr Downs argues the 'well-intentioned' policy is unrealistic and 'not going to help curb' the obesity trend.

'The people who set these policies aren’t very representative,' she explained.

The results suggest that consumers, especially at fast-food venues, tend choose taste, value, and convenience over nutrient content.

According to the American Heart Association, among Americans age 20 and older, 154.7million are overweight or obese.

The recent study was published in the American Journal of Public Health.


Sweeteners are not bad for you: Take the scare stories about diet drinks and sweets with a pinch of salt, experts say

Aspartame, xylitol and Stevia might sound like Doctor Who villains, but in fact they are sugar substitutes, or sweeteners.

Most of us have been consuming them in some form since the first of them, saccharin – dubbed ‘the poor man’s sugar’ – was formulated by German chemists more than 100 years  ago.

And fears about their potentially toxic effects date back almost as far.

Diabetes, cancer, strokes, seizures, hypertension, vomiting, dizziness – all have been cited as risks from sweetener consumption.

Yet none of these claims has stuck, and today sweeteners are a global industry worth hundreds of millions of pounds.

They are found in more than 6,000 products from drinks and desserts  to cakes, chewing gum and  ready meals.

Last week a new study emerged, with Purdue University in Indiana claiming that diet drinks containing the artificial sweetener aspartame (such as Coke Zero) are no healthier than their full-sugar counterparts and could contribute to weight gain, diabetes and heart disease.

The report author, Professor Susan Swithers, suggested this could be because the chemical fails to trigger the ‘full’ feeling in our brain, so we over-indulge elsewhere.

She also proposed  a link between aspartame and metabolic syndrome, a much-disputed term denoting a combination of symptoms that increases the risk of heart disease and diabetes.

Catherine Collins, principal dietician at St George’s Hospital, London, strongly disputes the findings of the Purdue University research.

‘There are many, many factors involved in us feeling full or satisfied, and indeed experiments have shown that chocolate cravings are noticeably reduced the moment you eat the first piece, before the sugar even hits your bloodstream, so this study proves nothing,’ she says.

It is sugar (sucrose), with its high calorific content and need for insulin to break it down, that poses the real risk for obesity and type 2 diabetes, Collins argues.

‘Sweeteners have either zero calories or are very low in calories that aren’t absorbed anyway, so are effectively zero calorie,’ she adds.

‘So the suggestion that these products are no better at preventing weight gain or diabetes, or that they in fact cause them, is unfounded, as the accepted scientific evidence demonstrates.’


The spectre of sweeteners as carcinogens first surfaced in the 1970s when saccharin (found in Sweet’N Low) was discovered in one study  to raise the risk of bladder cancer  in rats.

A wealth of later research in humans found no link. Equally, aspartame, the most commonly used sweetener, was blamed in 1996 as the cause  of the spike in brain tumours in Americans between 1975 and 1992.

Subsequent studies again found no relationship.

The sweetener sodium cyclamate was banned in the US in 1969 after a study found that rats fed the equivalent of 250 cans of diet drinks  a day developed bladder tumours.

Further studies failed to replicate these findings, but the ban remains. Sodium cyclamate is deemed safe in Europe and 50 countries worldwide – but is not routinely found in UK products.

Dr Paul Mulholland, an oncologist at University College London who specialises in brain tumours, says: ‘I am not aware of any risk factors for brain cancer apart from radiation.’


Collins says: ‘The problem with many of these studies looking at links between cancers, seizures, hypertension and sweeteners – and the way they are reported – is that  too often people confuse correlation with causation.

'For example, an analysis of Mail on Sunday readers would probably find that they have higher levels of bowel cancer than people in Africa, but that’s because this group lives in a Western country with a particular diet, not because reading a newspaper causes cancer.’

The concerns about sugar substitutes are, she argues, based on a misunderstanding of the wider data.

One such misunderstanding is that aspartame is harmful because the body breaks it down into toxic substances – methanol and formaldehyde. But they’re not absorbed and the amounts are negligible: a can of Diet Coke produces 20mg of methanol, half the amount produced by the same quantity of fruit juice .

‘The fact is, sweeteners are safe,’ adds Collins. ‘Both the American Food and Drug Administration and the European Food Safety Authority approve them. Those who cast doubt about their safety can often have a vested interest in doing so.’

A major review was conducted in 2006 by the EFSA, which concluded: ‘Extensive scientific research ...... together with a history of more than 20 years of safe use, support the conclusion that aspartame is safe.’

Doctors and dieticians warn that there can be unfortunate side effects to some sweeteners. ‘Sugar alcohols in particular – the xylitols and sorbitols – are not absorbed by the gut and will in larger doses, and especially in people who already have irritable bowel syndrome, cause bloating and diarrhoea,’ says consultant gastroenterologist Neil Ikin, from London’s Homerton hospital.

Collins, however, recommends such sugar alcohols, which are often found in chewing gums, as they have consistently been shown to help fight plaque and tooth decay  by preventing bacteria in the  mouth from forming the acids that attack teeth.

The message, it seems, is clear: sweeteners won’t cause any ill effects. Just as long as you don’t have IBS.


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