Issue 5 / 2 August 2010

The Australian recently published an article in which CSIRO, the Heart Foundation and the Australian Food and Grocery Council criticised the fact that the National Health and Medical Research Council included environmental sustainability in their considerations for forthcoming dietary guidelines.

In fact, the document released for public consultation was a food modelling system designed to arrange foods into a series of possible diets to meet recommended dietary intakes (RDIs) for the smallest and least active people, based on age, gender and life stage.

The modelling exercise was only one of many considerations that will inform the final guidelines.

As you would expect, the NHMRC modelling exercise specified foods that would promote health and wellbeing as well as factors such as cultural acceptability, socially equity, flexibility in food choice and the current Australian food supply.

But, like countries including Sweden and the United States, the modelling also took account of environmental sustainability and it is this fact that has angered sections of the food industry and their supporters.

There is obviously a strong scientific basis for nutrition and the RDIs set for many nutrients. Contrary to the opinions expressed in The Australian, there is also strong scientific evidence for issues such as climate science, food security and sustainability.

The NHMRC had input from some of the world’s top scientific experts in these areas. Had they neglected sustainability, they would have been rightly criticised by public health and scientific experts.

According to The Australian, the angst from CSIRO and the Heart Foundation centres on red meat being limited to 455 g a week, and fish to one weekly serving.

The outburst is odd considering that the current (accepted) Australian Guide to Healthy Eating recommends either 65–100 g of red meat three to four times a week or high iron replacement foods.

For seafood, the NHMRC modelling actually included a weekly intake of 100–280 g of fish and seafood, well above the current average consumption of 70 g/week.

The computer program used for the NHMRC modelling exercise requires some constraints. Without set limits, it will recommend huge (and impractical) quantities of a small number of nutrient-dense foods such as rolled oats and vegetables.

In setting appropriate limits, NHMRC considered health and nutritional aspects, the way foods could be translated into culturally acceptable meals, and also the considerable science behind sustainability issues.

Criticisms that some nutrients were low need to be put into context. When the modelling was translated into actual foods, one of the few but significant problems with the suggested foundation diets was ensuring pregnant women received sufficient iron because the RDI is particularly high.

Before getting too uptight about all this, it’s worth noting that the NHMRC modelling document is not a guideline and did not make any recommendations. That will come later when many factors are considered in formulating Australia’s new dietary guidelines and their recommendations.

Dr Rosemary Stanton OAM is a leading nutritionist with a science degree majoring in biochemistry and pharmaceutical chemistry, and post-graduate qualifications in Nutrition and Dietetics. In 2000, the University of Wollongong awarded her an honorary doctorate on the basis of her many publications. She is currently a Visiting Fellow in the School of Medicine at UNSW and a member of the NHMRC working group on the new dietary guidelines. She writes here as an individual and not a spokesperson for the NHMRC.

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