Thursday, 19 February 2009

It's all a matter of G.I.G.O!

D'you know the old saying, "garbage in, garbage out"? In-putting garbage is precisely what has created this garbage that's flooding onto our television screens and newspapers.

Because of the relentless rubbish being spouted at me by so-called 'experts', I‘ve been reading a lot of research published online, and found some of it contradictory and confusing. I’m neither a scientist nor a statistician, but I decided – just for my own interest – to go back to some basic data and look at it my way. I wouldn't dream of making any claims for the accuracy of my conclusions, but I though it might be an interesting exercise.

I started by downloading the data from the most recent (ha!) UK survey on the diet and nutrition of adults between the ages of 19 and 64.* Unfortunately, the raw data is not available, and what is available has been “weighted to compensate for the differential probabilities of selection and non-response”!

As I rather naively believed the nutritionists of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food or the Office of National Statistics would be careful and meticulous scientists, I was in for a very rude awakening!

For a start this survey was carried out in the year between July 2000 and June 2001 – getting on for a decade ago – with only 1724 participants, yet it seems important decisions regarding what we should (and should not) eat are still being based on it. One of these is the LIPGENE European-wide study that appears to have led to the recent Food Standards Agency onslaught on saturated fats.

The previous MAFF survey, of 2,197 adults, was undertaken between October 1986 and August 1987, and I intended to compare those results to show the changes in our diet over the years.

An annoying omission – for me at least – is that no soy-based oils or foods are detailed in the surveys; they have been subsumed into ‘other milks’, ‘yoghurt’, and ‘other vegetables’ categories, for goodness sakes! All soups are lumped together with a total disregard for ingredients or cooking methods.

Then there’s meat! To those of us who eat a low-carb diet, meat means meat. Perversely, the surveys use the following groupings:

Beef, veal and dishes – includes lasagne and cottage pie.
Lamb and dishes – includes Irish stew and lamb curries
Pork and dishes – includes sweet and sour pork and spare ribs
Chicken and turkey dishes – includes chow mein, tandoori, in sauce and spread
Burgers and kebabs – includes cheeseburgers, (with or without roll), doner/shish/kofte kebabs (with or without pitta bread

and ... wait for it ...

Cream - includes imitation cream, dream (sic) topping, Tip Top, and creme fraiche
All this, of course, begs the question of how these data can possibly be utilised to reach any sensible, informed conclusion. So what do they do with this unusable data? They publish it under the title "The Truth about the Nation's Diet " then preach their poison to the four corners of Britain.

We will never have a healthy diet, or a healthier populations, until nutritionists learn to distinguish between real dairy cream that comes from cows, and Dream Topping!

It would be so easy to underestimate the wide-reaching influence that these flawed surveys have on our everyday lives. The trail I'm currently following seems to be leading me in a very worrying direction, and I will write a sequel, updating the information as soon as possible.

I wanted to look at consumption in three specific groups of food:- grains; animal products; and low-fat products including polyunsaturates, then compare the findings with UK mortality rates, but it seems that may not be possible from the data available.

Back to the drawing board ...
* The National Diet & Nutrition Survey: adults aged 19 to 64 years
Funded by:
Medical Research Council Human Nutrition Research (see my next blog entry HERE for details)
Food Standards Agency (creators of the misleading and scare-mongering adverts)
Department of Health
Office for National Statistics


  1. Interesting Megan, thanks. It does seem ridiculous to base everything on such a small survey group done so long ago. The food groups are quite ridiculous too.
    Sue x


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