Even "junk" food can provide your daily dose of vitamins
The mountain of food surrounding me would send shivers up the spine of any right-thinking foodie. On my kitchen table sits an awesome pile of junk: frozen pizzas, long-life naan breads, industrial cheese, instant mashed potato, chocolate, peanuts and burgers, all of it amounting to four times my usual daily calories.
A diet made up solely of this stuff could, in the long-term, endanger your health by sheer volume of fat, salt and sugar. But it also has something very important going for it: this mountain of junk contains your entire Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of the 18 vitamins and minerals your body needs.
We’ve all seen RDAs on cereal packets and vitamin-supplement bottles, listing substances such as iron, niacin and pantothenic acid. If you’re anything like me, you’ve felt a warm glow of smugness when you’ve read on the side of your Cheerios that ‘one 30g serving provides 25 per cent of your RDA of riboflavin’. How lovely, we think — until it dawns on us that we have no idea a) what riboflavin is, b) what it’s for and c) what other food we’d find it in.
So, many of us throw money at the problem in the form of expensive multivitamin pills in a desperate attempt to hit our RDAs, which is why the supplement industry in the UK is worth £396 million a year.
But do we really need RDAs? I set out to investigate what they mean, and whether it’s really possible to hit these nutritional targets with daily diet.
It turns out that RDAs are of questionable use, and have largely ended up as a way for food manufacturers to boost sales. And incredibly, you can get all your RDAs from junk food — as illustrated by the U.S. study, out this week, that found dark chocolate contained more antioxidants and healthy plant compounds than fruit juice.
RDAs were first cooked up in the darkest days of World War II by U.S. doctors who wanted to know the minimum rations their servicemen could live on while based in England, preparing for D-Day. Food was shipped over in convoys braving the U-boat infested Atlantic, so it was imperative sailors’ lives were not risked unnecessarily.
At the end of the Forties, British doctors went a step further, concocting an average required intake of vitamins to maintain daily health based on post-war rationing.
Since then, the guidelines have been reviewed several times. They were formalised by the European Commission in 1991, but in the same year the Department of Health replaced them with a much more comprehensive but slightly baffling system that uses DRVs (Dietary Reference Values), which give recommendations based on age, sex and health.
But it’s RDAs that are still used on the side of your cereal packet — even though all those percentages and milligrams are outdated and, for many people, completely misleading. For instance, a healthy male adult needs eight times more iron than a three-month-old baby (and an iron overdose can kill).
I asked Nestle, who make my Cheerios why they still include RDAs on their packaging, but they failed to respond before going to press. But, I hear you cry, RDAs are on food labels because they’re legally required, so surely they must be right?
When I contacted the Food and Drink Federation about this, they said it’s only if food manufacturers state the amount of vitamins and minerals on the packaging that they’re legally required to provide them as a percentage of the RDAs. RDAs are actually compulsory only for a limited range of products such as supplements and infant formula, says Peter Berry Ottaway, a leading British consultant in food sciences for more than 30 years. ‘Major supermarket groups have been forcing suppliers to put labelling on everything, as they believe that it improves sales,’ he adds.
So how much notice should we take of RDAs?
After I had chased various different agencies, the Department of Health finally responded to my questions. Basically, RDAs do exist, but officially we don’t really use them any more.
It’s all very confusing — there’s no easy-to-access information that the public can find. Official dietary advice tells us that we should be able to get all our vitamins and minerals from a healthy diet and shouldn’t need supplements.
I wanted to find out if it’s really possible to eat my full wallop of RDAs — not just from the oyster and guava fantasy diets dreamt up by advertising executives, but from the food real people like you and me eat when we’re busy, tired at the end of a long day, or desperate for a snack. Which is why I find myself heading for Morrisons in North London to buy my RDA.
One of the first things I discover is that many of these vitamins and minerals can be pretty tricky to get from a normal, healthy diet. For example, I’d have to eat 14 large portions of peas to get my daily intake of magnesium — or 300g of dark chocolate. Hmm, I know which one I think I can manage.
You can get your full dose of vitamin C from two-and-a-half portions of chips — or one-and-a-quarter bags of watercress. In fact, the junk food often has a gratifying amount of good stuff.
Once home, I begin my challenge with lunch, cracking open my pint of Guinness (for my full RDA of vitamin B12).
Next, I start work on two portions of breaded haddock (for my phosphorus RDA) and two-thirds of a pizza (the dough gives me my full dose of calcium). I also have my first of the day’s Burger King Whoppers (iron) and a large portion of spinach (folic acid).
Still feeling full, I sit down to tea. Two-and-a-half slices of Victoria sponge (vitamin D), a pint of milk (riboflavin) and a thick sarnie of salmon paste (iodine) later, I’m feeling listless and slovenly.
At supper, I plod through four naan breads (vitamin E) and four scoops of instant mash (fortified with vitamin C) as my two young daughters watch in awe. This turns to irritation as I refuse to let them help me with three bars of dark chocolate (magnesium).
I put three tablespoons of cream cheese (vitamin A) into the remaining one-and-a-half Whoppers. A slice of liver gives me a tasty whack of zinc, and I wash it all down with a nice cup of Bovril (thiamin). I snack on six bananas for my vitamin B6 (one vitamin it’s hard to find in junk food) as I watch a movie, and by 11pm I think I’ve made it — an hour early.
But then I spot a large pack of roasted peanuts I’d forgotten. I’m tempted to skip them until I realise I have to eat them for the biotin, pantothenic acid and niacin. A shade before midnight, I raise my arms in a silent cheer: I’ve done it!
The next morning, as I sat down to write up the whole sorry episode, I felt pain, shame, lethargy and a fair amount of flatulence. But on the positive side, I have been enlightened. The extraordinary thing about my day’s diet was not just that I had managed to eat my entire RDA of all 18 vitamins and minerals, but that those nutrients came from unlikely sources.
Nutritionists may dismiss convenience food and naughty snacks as rubbish food with ‘empty calories’, but that’s often not the case. As it turns out, loads of foods have lurking goodness, even though they also have high concentrations of fat, salt or sugar.
So should we ignore RDAs? Yes. If looking at the side of your cereal packet makes you feel happy, that’s great, but, weirdly, a good chunk of our minerals and vitamins can be in ‘junk food’ — so a bag of chips can be part of a well-balanced diet.
As for supplements, it may be useful to take notice of RDAs if you’re pregnant, sick or elderly, but unless your doctor says you need them, don’t throw your money away. Spend it on better food, instead.
Now, I don’t want people to eat more burgers and chips than they already do, considering obesity levels. But I’m also wary of the nutritional Nazis who try to spread fear and guilt, while flogging expensive nuts, snake oil and supplements.
A good diet is one that covers a broad range of food groups, doesn’t make you overweight, and makes you happy. So eat well and broadly and certainly don’t take too much notice of RDAs — they’re all going to change again in November.
The immunisation program that protects girls against the virus linked to cervical cancer should immediately be extended to boys to prevent other cancers, a leading epidemiologist says.
Vaccinating boys against the human papillomavirus (HPV) would help stem a drastic rise in some cancers, particularly among homosexual men, said Andrew Grulich, the head of the epidemiology and prevention program at the National Centre in HIV Epidemiology and Clinical Research at the University of NSW.
The Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee will consider next month an application to provide the Gardasil vaccine free to boys.
About 90 per cent of all anal squamous cell carcinomas are caused by infection with HPV. But an unwillingness to discuss the disease had led to a lack of awareness and research, said Professor Grulich, the senior investigator on the project.
Anal cancer had increased by about 3.4 per cent annually in men and 1.9 per cent in women since 1982, according to the study published in the journal Vaccine.
Unpublished research by Professor Grulich and his team indicated that in some inner-city suburbs the rate of anal cancer was up to 30 times higher than in the general population.
He said the federal government should immediately include boys in its free HPV vaccination program. "But we do have to recognise that even if we do that, just as it is for women, it could be 20 to 40 years before the maximum benefit is obtained," he said.
He was developing a screening program to detect the early signs of problems caused by HPV.
Anal cancer linked to HPV infection occurred most commonly among women, many of whom said they did not have anal sex, Professor Grulich said.