Trinity Nutritionist Briefs Health Committee on Nutritional Value of Certain Foods

Posted on: 24 October 2011

Nutritionist and Lecturer in Human Nutrition at Trinity College Dublin, Dr Fiona Lithander, recently addressed the Joint Committee on Health and Children as an independent expert to discuss the nutritional composition of certain foods, and in particular cheese.  The Health Committee meeting was the result of a public consultation document launched by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland earlier this year, which proposed that the television advertising of a range of foods and drinks to children in Ireland should be restricted.

The proposed method for assessing the suitability of foods and drinks in the Irish context was based on the UK model of attributing points to foods and drinks based on the amount of desirable and undesirable nutrients in them.  The nutritional composition of dairy products such as cheese was specifically discussed as cheese contains both undesirable nutrients such as saturated fat and salt, and desirable nutrients such as calcium.  Using the proposed model cheese is deemed to be a ‘less healthy’ food because it is high in calories, saturated fat and salt.  Other dairy products such as milk and low-fat yoghurt are classified as ‘healthy’ according to the same model.

During the meeting Dr Lithander informed the Committee that the available scientific evidence suggests that TV advertising can influence children’s food preferences, and in light of the fact that one in four school-age children in Ireland is classified as overweight or obese, this is one of a range of factors that can influence the health of children.  Speaking during the meeting Dr Lithander said: “According to data from national food surveys, children in Ireland are consuming inadequate amounts of calcium.  On the other hand, the same studies suggest that children are consuming too much fat, sugar and salt.  While calcium is an essential nutrient and is especially important to the health and development of bone particularly of children aged nine to 18 years, fat and saturated fat are known to contribute towards the problem of overweight and obesity, and increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease.”

“To help us to answer the question about cheese, we need to look at the public health concerns for children in Ireland today which are related to poor eating habits. Issues of overweight, obesity and cardiovascular disease are more prevalent on the list of public health concerns than are issues due to an inadequate intake of calcium. For this reason, it may be more detrimental to the immediate and longer-term health of children to consume too much fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt than it is to consume inadequate amounts of calcium’. Whilst calcium remains an important nutrient, if the consumption of high-fat dairy products such as cheese is not limited, it is difficult for people to remain within the recommended levels of saturated fat intake. Fortunately, there are low-fat, high-calcium dairy products such as milk and low-fat yoghurt available from which children can meet their calcium requirements.”

The Committee was chaired by Mr Jerry Buttimer, TD and members in attendance included Deputies Catherine Byrne, Peter Fitzpatrick and Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin.