Food fraud fills stomachs but empties wallets

Sensationalised ‘superfoods’ for whatever ails you – biscuits to increase breastmilk supply, fermented drinks to give good gut bacteria, mood-changing protein balls – are expensive but no better than the tried and true five core food groups, says QUT dietitian Dr Helen Vidgen.

Dr Vidgen said many packaged ‘designer’ foods made nutritional promises to help sell the product but some go a step further and promise to change you or your children for the better, and often at an exorbitant price.

“These promises are often based on weak studies, experiments on a rat, or flimsy evidence of a vitamin’s ability to affect your emotions or behaviour,” Dr Vidgen said.

“Many of these products promise to benefit health but when you go back to the research they say supports them, it’s pretty weak and unfounded or the findings have been extrapolated in a way that’s not very relevant.

“New ‘super foods’ come and go and often confuse the public on what healthy eating is.

“To prepare our nutrition students to answer their clients’ questions about new and future ‘super foods’ we teach them to critique the research behind the promises; to think about how much they would need to eat to get the touted benefit; how it would fit into their lives, and come up with a recommendation.”

Dr Vidgen’s nutrition students investigated the marketing promises behind breastfeeding biscuits, kombucha, green powder, toddler milk, and protein balls.

Breastfeeding biscuits

Recipes for these biscuits are everywhere on the net and can be bought readymade online.

Promise: The biscuits’ ingredients, oats, flaxseeds, brewer’s yeast, fenugreek and/or coconut oil all act as galactologues or precursors to the production of prolactin a hormone that promotes lactation.

Finding: No scientific evidence to support the promise that these ingredients enhance milk supply. Studies are usually small and show varied, inconclusive results.

For example, one study where 30 women drank fenugreek tea, a purported galactologue, and the control group did not, a difference in milk supply on day three was found but none on days eight to 15. Researchers put the day-three result down to a placebo effect as the number of people in the study was so small and factors such as the number of times the baby was fed, were not controlled for in the study.

Oats are said to be useful because they contain beta-glucans, another galactologue, however, the study that is most often quoted to support this is a lab study on rat cells and almost 30 years old.  There have been no studies on humans to support the promises.

Recommendation: Breastfeeding works on supply and demand.  The best way to increase milk supply is to feed more often.


Promise: The fermented drink benefits gut health by increasing the diversity of gastrointestinal flora which, in turn, improves overall wellbeing.

Finding: All documented effects of kombucha on wellbeing are from animal studies, for example, decreased blood sugar levels in mice, and regulated cholesterol in ducks. These results have not been replicated in humans.

Evidence to show that kombucha increases the diversity of human gastrointestinal flora is also weak.  The effects seem to be highly individualised and highly influenced by the overall long-term food intake and other environmental stressors.

Recommendation: The best way to improve your gut health is to eat a wide variety of plant foods such as different kinds of legumes, wholegrains, vegetables, fruit and nuts.

Protein balls

Promise: Billed as nutritious, guilt-free snacks for people on the go, especially after exercise. Some promise mood boosting properties and a boost in productivity.

Findings: In a 40g protein ball, protein is the least predominant macronutrient with a range of 5.6g to 6.2g of protein in two shop bought varieties; with 8.7g and 9.5 g of fat and 12.4g to 14.5g of sugars. Both bought protein balls contain double the fat and sugar recommended by the National Health and Medical Research Council.

Although ingredients like cashew nuts contain a compound that increases secretion of serotonin, it is not in large enough quantities to have any effect. No studies have looked at the relationship between cashews and their effect on anxiety, mood or stress. Furthermore, the protein balls have a very small amount of cashews. The nuts containing nutrients are such a small component of the ball that no effect is likely on mood.

Recommendation: The product would fall into the occasional food category, as it is high in saturated fat, sugar and calories, and could lead to weight gain.  Just eat the cashew nuts instead.

Toddler milk

Promise: Toddler milk formula can be a quick fix when children’s diet may be inadequate is an appeal to parent of “fussy eaters” concerned their children aren’t eating enough or getting the right nutrients.

Findings: Some studies have found the emergence of toddler formula is used as a marketing strategy for brand awareness of infant formula products in response to the prohibition on advertising infant formula.

Recommendation: Children over one year of age do not need any special foods.  It’s important at this age that children start to eat what the rest of the family eats and the focus is on the core foods.  Studies have shown children exposed to a wide range of food, including a variety of fruit and vegetables (F&V) before they are two are more likely to eat a greater variety of food at school age.

A wide variety of the five food groups, including regular cow’s milk, are the best way to supply the nutrients required for children growth and development. Different food textures are also important especially at this stage to promote speech and jaw development

Green powder for children

Promise: Easy way for parents to provide toddlers with enough F&V during mealtimes, without the stress of children rejecting food or refusing to eat because it can be hidden in other foods. The marketers of the product also promise a single serve provides the antioxidant equivalent of six serves of F&V.

Findings: No evidence to support promises of nutritional equivalence between powdered product and whole F&V.

Dehydrated vegetable powder is a poor source of nutrients found in F&V, especially fibre. The temperatures required for dehydration reduce the levels of the antioxidant vitamins A, C and E.

The processing means potassium is lost and the magnesium is less available than it is in fresh food.  The introduction of supplements not only leads to poorer nutrition for the child but also is likely to lead to a diet low in F&V, high in energy-dense, low-nutrient food which is associated with long-term health impacts, including obesity.

Recommendation: Whole foods contain higher levels of these nutrients and dietary fibre.

The cost of these products could be better spent on extra F&V. Regular and consistent exposure to whole foods naturally increases their consumption in children.

Given the abundance of food and the variety of food types in Australia, the use of supplements for young children growing up in Australia is not necessary, nor is it recommended.

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