Irish influencers and bloggers warned to stop promoting fake health foods
Health food stores also accused of selling sugar-loaded treats
IRISH models, influencers and bloggers should take responsibility for the food they promote to people under the guise of healthy eating, the HSE's National Dietetic Adviser has warned.
Margaret O'Neill, the dietary expert for the HSE, said it was "disheartening" to see such products promoted at a time when people were trying harder than ever to be healthy and to watch their waistlines. She also said that health food stores sold sugar-loaded treats that appeared to be healthy.
Ms O'Neill called on people to watch out for hidden sugars in foods, particularly those sold under the pretence of being health food.
Yoghurts, flavoured water, protein bars, chocolate-covered nuts, 'healthy' cereals, granola, snack packs and sauces are all commonly found to be high in sugar and contain highly processed ingredients, which make them a poor substitute to unprocessed foods such as fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, natural yoghurt, cheese and unsalted and unsweetened nuts and seeds.
Speaking to the Sunday Independent Ms O'Neill said: "There has to be a greater responsibility taken by models, influencers and bloggers in terms of the products they are promoting. Especially by those who are promoting themselves as health food advocates.
"Maybe they are unaware about what is actually in the product but they are misleading people and it is very unfair because we know that people are really trying to be healthy now and make an effort to change their behaviour and it's disheartening to see people who have this much influence do this. They have a huge reach," she said.
Ms O'Neill also highlighted health food shops, over which there was "very little regulation and control in terms of what shops sell".
"There can be nuts covered in yoghurt or supposed health food bars, chocolate, biscuits and drinks loaded with calories but sold under a healthy product label," she said.
"What we would tell people is, if it looks too good to be true, it usually is."
Ms O'Neill said people should check the ingredients on the back of the packaging rather than going by what was said on the front of the product.
"Look out for the traffic light labelling which highlights high fat, salt and sugar in products - and can make it easier to see what is in the food you are choosing. Go for Healthy Ireland green.
"Unfortunately, the image of health is now based on how you look rather than how you feel. A good diet shouldn't be about image, it should be about health and wellness."
She said a general desire to become health and weight conscious had been seized on by companies keen to hook people on their products.
"Unfortunately food manufacturers have seen this as just another market they can profit on. As a result, food we would have considered traditionally healthy - yoghurt, breakfast cereals, even water - are being packed with sugar to sell to customers.
"Just look around you in shops and see how these products have expanded. These days it is very difficult to distinguish between what is a yoghurt and what is a dessert. They come in the same shape and colour as traditionally healthy yoghurts. They have also upped the portion size so that traditionally we would have seen a yoghurt as 125gm serving, now it's 150-170gm."
She said "another bugbear" was the phenomenal growth in protein bars.
"People perceive that they should take more protein than they actually need and they are getting it from the wrong source. These bars are often very heavily processed and high in sugar and also very expensive."
Ms O'Neill pointed to a study published on the energy availability from food consumed by athletes, saying: "41pc of female athletes were on a gluten-free diet according to a recent study carried out by Danielle Logue in UCD. We know that, in Ireland, 1 in 100 people are diagnosed with coeliac disease which is the only indication that you should be on a gluten-free diet. That just goes to show the power that marketing has, even among our best trained and most health conscious athletes."