UK Food Standards Agency continues to mislead the public on the ‘value’ of starchy foods

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Recently, in an effort to clarify what healthy eating is all about, the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) have launched its ‘eatwell plate’, which the FSA describes as ‘ a visual tool that illustrates the types and proportions of foods that make up a balanced diet’. You can see the eatwell plate here.

When I heard of the launch of the ‘eatwell plate’ I thought, rather naively, that the FSA had incorporated new knowledge and understanding in nutrition to rectify some of the woefully inadequate nutritional advice dished out to the masses over the last few decades. But, no, actually the eatwell plate is nothing but a re-hash of the same old advice. Though the FSA have really pushed the boat out with regard to design, which the FSA tells us: ‘has been made more contemporary..’ Oh, and: ‘photography of real foods that reflect current eating patterns have been included’.

Take a look at the plate and, as usual, we have the same emphasis on starchy carbs in the diet. In fact, the FSA advises that: ‘Starchy foods should make up about a third of the food we eat. Most people should be eating more starchy foods.’

What it neglects to say, however, is that these are the very same foods that tend to have high glycaemic index and load, which in short means the have considerable capacity to induce surges of insulin which can lead to obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. And it’s also known that such foods tend not to satisfy the appetite well, which is perhaps just one reason why some individuals can find themselves overeating such fare.

So, what is behind the FSA’s appetite for starch? Well, apparently, starchy foods are a good source of energy and the main source of a range of nutrients in our diet. As well as starch, these foods contain fibre, calcium, iron and B vitamins.

Well, if we’re going to recommend starch on the basis of their nutritional content, let’s perhaps look a bit more closely at this. For a start, most starchy carbs are actually really quite un-nutritious [1] when compared to other foodstuffs such as fruit and veg. While the starchy carbs advocated by the FSA are called food, they are actually better described as fodder.

If we’re going to recommend foods on the basis of nutrients such as iron and B-vitamins, then why not advocate meat, which contains these nutrients in abundance? And is it not possible to get our fibre from fruit of veg? (Of course it is).

But remember, it’s not just the lack of nutritional value of many starch carbs that gets my goat, but also their apparent capacity to cause chronic disease and probably shorten life. And yet the FSA continues to promote these foods as ‘healthy’!

And now for the finale…

The FSA recently polled 2000 plus people on their understanding of and attitudes to food. Apparently, of those polled, only 11% said we should eat a lot of starchy foods. According to the FSA, this demonstrates: ‘…that people don’t always realise the benefit of eating bread, rice, potatoes and pasta.’ Could the reality be that the public knows something that the FSA doesn’t (or just chooses to ignore) about the appropriateness of starchy foods in the diet?


1. Drewnowski A. Concept of a nutritious food: toward a nutrient density score. Am J Clin Nutr 2005 82:721-732

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