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Masterchef did more for health education than science papers, claims food scientist

The chief scientist at a health food company has claimed Masterchef has done more to help change children’s eating habits for the better than most of the scientific papers about it.

The Panel (l-r): Pia Winberg, Venus Shell Systems Pty Ltd; Rosemary Stanton, UNSW; Michael Mosley, BBC.

Speaking at the BBC Future World-Changing Ideas Summit, Pia Winberg, CEO and chief scientist at Venus Shell Systems, praised the Channel Ten show for its role in helping people understand diet.

“It’s not about the academia preaching ‘this is how thou shall do it’; it is about getting in amongst the crowd,” Winberg said.

“In a way Masterchef did more for kids’ education and nutrition than scientific papers because it was cool, it got people out there and cooking in the kitchen and I think that’s what we have to do.”

Winberg was joined on ‘The Future of Food’ panel, led by BBC’s Michael Mosley, by respected nutritionist Rosemary Stanton, who told the room she wants to see junk food ads banned from TV before she retires.

Stanton: “Thirty-five per cent of our calories are from junk food in this country”

“I’ve always said I have three criteria before I retire. One of them is (to champion for brands to stop) advertising junk food when children are watching television. That is important.” Stanton said.

Referring to the call for a sugar tax by some health bodies, a move which would see heavy levies placed on companies such as Coca-Cola and confectioners, both Stanton and Winberg agreed it would benefit Australians.

Stanton claimed: “Thirty-five per cent of our calories are from junk food in this country. In children that’s about 40%, and that is the huge elephant in the room.”

She added: “I’m absolutely in favour of it but I don’t think it’s going to solve the problem on its own.

“In Australia 52% of the sugar we consume comes from sugar sweeteners. I need no further proof that it would work, than the opposition that comes from the people selling the drinks. They know it will reduce sales.”

“Whenever the processed food industry opposes something, I’ve got a pretty good idea it will work,” she said.

While she admitted Australians do have a problem with sugar, Stanton attributed part of the problem to junk food brands that appeal to customers by putting vitamins in their products which make them appear healthy.

Winberg said marketers also need to think about “changing the game” by coming up with new ideas about where to market health food products. The scientist gave the example of seaweed protein bars sold to a young sports team in Tasmania after the brand was advertised in Men’s Health magazine.

Stanton said many cheap junk food products meet a health requirement by adding a few vitamins to sell the product to market, but the vitamins added have no benefit to the consumer.

“You already see with all those heavily sweetened breakfast cereals. People pour out a bowl of breakfast cereal that has 35-40% sugar,” she said.

Stanton said in her 50 years of experience in Australian nutrition, the vitamins cereal brands put in their products, are not vitamins Australians are deprived of.

“I am yet to see an Australian deficient in any of the nutrients that are put into the cereals. And that’s not because they’re in the cereals, its because they’re vitamins we aren’t deprived of anyway.”

Stanton later said brands marketing gluten-free products were doing a similar thing.

“If you read food marketing magazines, you see big marketing articles about how you can increase your profits for whatever you’re producing in the way of snack foods and biscuits and various starchy foods, by bringing out the ‘gluten free’ version,” she said.

“This is  a big marketing exercise. We have a huge range of gluten free junk food on the market which people mistakenly think is healthy.”

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