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An Apple a day ... is bad for you?

Posted on 11 Feb 2006

Many apple and pear growers have been rattled by proposed changes to the regulations governing the advertising of fruit. Regulatory changes have been proposed by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) and would make it unlawful to promote producer branding and large apples as “healthy”.

The pip fruit industry has generally been doing a good job in the deregulated environment and increasing levels of health consciousness amongst consumers have helped sales. The ancient adage “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” has been reinforced by a host of evidence from nutritional science that there are considerable health benefits to be gained by increasing one’s intake of fruit and vegetables.  For producers now to be denied the opportunity of advertising their fruit as healthy is plainly unfair.
 
The apple industry can congratulate itself on doing a public good in order to do well commercially. Growers therefore will be dismayed to see that some apples in their raw and unprocessed state will lose their ‘healthy’ status.
 
At issue is the FSANZ proposal to remove the right to call a food healthy if it contains more than 16 grams of sugar in each serve. A “serve” is the amount likely to be eaten in a single sitting - one apple excluding the core.
 
What then have apples done to deserve downgrading? The answer is of course nothing but their natural sugars are to be treated in the same category as added processed sugar. Apples are about 13% sugar depending on their type and the degree of ripeness. The actual amount of sugar depends mostly on the size of the apple - a large apple is more likely to break the 16 gram “limit” than a small one and is to therefore be considered unhealthy.
 
Bananas have joined apples in the dock of endangered fruits as they have 17% sugar and can be large. Cherries are also sweet but the number of cherries deemed to be a serve has yet to be announced. Let me assure you that apples and bananas, along with all fruits, are healthy foods and that no one (to my knowledge at least) has come to grief by eating too many apples or bananas.
In a former life as a physiotherapist I took Cardiac Rehabilitation classes.  Part of the rehabilitation process for those with Heart Disease was dietary advice. A healthy diet should be based on fruit and vegetables with other major food groups added – plenty of cereals and foods containing fibre, lesser amounts of carbohydrates and proteins and only small amounts of fats – polyunsaturates in favour of saturated fats.
 
Although diet was a small component of the Cardiac Rehab sessions it took up a disproportionate amount of discussion time. My conclusion was that when it came to diet everyone is an expert. Each week one of my patients would come along with someone’s expert advice – typically their sister-in-law, neighbour or Mrs Jones down the road had read in some august publication that amazing discoveries had been made about some food that would revolutionise their diet. There are two such theories that many years later are still prominent in my mind. The first – that pumpkin should not be eaten by heart patients because it was a sweet vegetable and could make them fat. And second – chocolate is actually a healthy food because it contains endorphins. The source of both theories was the well known scientific publication – the NZ Women’s Weekly. Yes, everyone is an expert and now the government is involved too by telling us that apples and bananas are not healthy because they contain too much sugar.
 
My purpose is not to lecture on diet, but to say that Government should be very careful about the areas into which it treads. I don’t think for a moment that any cabinet Minister really believes kiwis should be cutting back on fruit but the unintended consequence of its actions is sending this very message in a clumsy attempt to fight obesity.  Science should be left to the scientists.
 
ACT has always maintained that the core role of government is to provide for the safety and security of its citizens, not intruding into the lives of kiwis.  By fiddling with regulations to exclude foods with high sugar content from having a healthy label – in the name of fighting obesity – apples have been maligned.  There is already talk of an ‘apple exemption’ – new rules saying that natural sugars are acceptable. Government should stick to core issues.  They could begin by tackling the hospital waiting lists and helping the 180,000 people waiting to see a specialist or waiting for an operation their doctor has told them they need.  The old adage “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” is OK with me. And if you can manage a banana, and three servings of veg with your dinner tonight there’s your 5+ for the day – that’s the former physio talking, as well as the politician in my capacity as ACT Health Spokesman.
 
This article was published in The Rural News on 7 February 2006.
 
Heather Roy is a Member of Parliament and Health spokesman for ACT New Zealand. Her Email address is heather.roy@parliament.govt.nz