A NEW REPUTATION : The newly published Dietary Guidelines for Chinese Residents has corrected people's misconceptions about eating potatoes
"After living all these years, now I find that I do not know what is the right food to eat," lamented Ye Feilang, a 61-year-old retiree living in Beijing. Ye said he had so many misconceptions about food in the past.
Ye's sudden enlightenment came after he thumbed through a dietary guide, in which nutrition experts give suggestions on how to maintain a healthy diet.
Thousands of years ago, there was a saying in China, "Food is the most valuable thing under heaven." China has a rich and colorful culinary art. Chinese people often greet each other by asking, "Have you eaten?" Now, many people are living a reasonably prosperous life, and meals are no longer their top concern. As to how food can affect one's health and longevity, many still are not clear about what to eat, how to eat and how much to eat.
Research by the Chinese Nutrition Society suggests that with the rapid growth of China's economy, dietary related chronic diseases are increasingly threatening people's health. The book that Ye read was Dietary Guidelines for Chinese Residents (2007). The guidelines, compiled by a panel of food and nutrition experts, were commissioned by the Ministry of Health. The guidelines were published in early 2008. Unlike other books on the subject, the guidelines are a "national dietary standard." The Ministry of Health recommended the guidelines to Chinese residents in its first circular released in 2008.
"The guidelines are more authoritative than ordinary nutrition books on the market," said Zhang Yuping, the book's eidtor. The book is the product of meticulous research. The government and other organizations have invested financial and human resources in this research project. Thousands of data used in the book were obtained in experiments.
Many readers feel that the book is like a dictionary. Ge Keyou, President of Chinese Nutrition Society, explained that people could refer to the guidelines in choosing what to eat. Ge pointed out that the health effect of a balanced diet could not be felt overnight. "If you stick to a healthy diet, your health will improve," he said.
"The Ministry of Health will promote the book to residents all over the country. Experts will also offer their help," Ge said. He believes that the government's advice will be effective because the public thinks it is credible.
Governments in more than 20 countries have published food-based dietary guidelines. The earliest such official dietary guidelines were published by Sweden in 1968, and had a positive health impact. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations recommend other countries follow the example of Sweden.
International experience shows that when per-capita GDP comes between $1,000 and $3,000, residents tend to change their diet drastically, and it is the time when the government should step in. China is currently in this phase. Data from the National Bureau of Statistics demonstrate that China's per-capita GDP in 2000 was 7,078 yuan ($856 in 2000). If the goal of quadrupling GDP is realized in 2020, then the per-capita GDP in China will approximate $3,500.
"Every year, China suffers from an economic loss of billions of yuan due to the health impact of an unreasonable diet," noted Hans Troedsson, Representative of the WHO in China. A population with good health is important to maintain sustained rapid economic growth. A reasonable diet and exercise are the most low cost and effective ways to good health. Troedsson congratulated China on the publication of the guidelines on behalf of the WHO. "It is important for the future of each individual in China and for the future of China," he said.
The Chinese Nutrition Society published its first Dietary Guidelines for Chinese Residents in 1989, and revised it in 1997. "The views in the 1997 version are basically correct," Ge said. "In the past decade, the dietary composition of Chinese residents has changed, so the guidelines needed to be updated. The guidelines have expanded from a book with 16,000 Chinese characters to one with 240,000 characters."
The new guidelines present a "balanced diet pagoda," sorting foods into five levels. The placement and area of each level of the pagoda reflects the importance and proportion of each group of foods in the daily diet.
Previously, beans and bean products were placed on the fourth level. In the new pagoda, soybean stays on the fourth level, while other beans have been driven to the first level. Soybean gets special treatment because of its higher nutrition and health value. The guidelines also advise residents to cook soybeans in porridge or drink fresh soybean milk daily.
On the first level of the old pagoda, cereal dominated. In the new pagoda, two newcomers have moved onto the first level-sweet potatoes and legumes. This has happened because a WHO study over more than three years listed sweet potatoes at the top of the list of 13 most nutritious vegetables.
Another addition to the new pagoda is water. The guidelines recommend residents to drink more than 1,200 milliliters of water each day. Water should be drunk many times and each time only a little. "One needs to drink water proactively, not only when you feel thirsty," the guidelines say.
The top level of the old pagoda included only oil and fat, while the new pagoda has added 6 grams of salt. The latest survey on the nutrition and health condition of Chinese residents conducted in 2002 illustrates that the average daily salt intake was 12 grams, 2.4 times the salt intake recommended by the WHO. Chronic disease associated with high salt intake has increased rapidly in China.
More and more people have realized that physical activity increases appetite and facilitates food digestion and nutrition absorption. A healthy diet complemented with exercise helps a person to keep fit.
Full without fat
The new guidelines have also dispelled people's misconceptions about certain foods. A typical case is misconception about potatoes. Potatoes used to be regarded as a fattening food rich in starch.
"A potato only contains 0.1 percent of fat. It can make people feel full without burdening them with too much fat," said Fan Zhihong, a Professor at the College of Food Science and Nutritional Engineering, China Agricultural University.
Professor Zhao Faji, Honorary President of Shanghai Nutrition Society and a member of the panel of experts that devised the new guidelines, said that people should take a new look at potatoes which are rich in soft edible fiber that makes us feel full. "Eating potatoes helps to control weight, and prevents constipation and bowl cancer."
The new guidelines advise citizens to increase consumption of potatoes. The recommended intake is a 50 to 100-gram portion, five times a week. The guidelines also note that compared with apple, potato is richer in protein and other minerals such as calcium, phosphate, magnesium and potassium. Potassium contained in food can be used to lower blood pressure. Potato could be used as vegetable or staple food, said Zhao.
"Potato is a major ingredient in the diet of athletes," said Cao Jianmin, Director of the Sport Biology Research Center of Beijing Sport University, who is working on several sport nutrition projects sponsored by the General Administration of Sport of China. Carbohydrates are the major fuel for muscles. Currently, many countries recommend athletes consume at least two types of carbohydrates per meal. "We are familiar with carbohydrates such as cereals or grains. In addition to those, I would like to recommend potato to you," Cao said.
The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization made 2008 "the year of the potato," and nicknamed potatoes the "buried treasure." The UN has only ever bestowed that honor on one other food-rice-in 2003.
China has also participated in international cooperation related to potatoes. Recently, China and the United States Potato Board jointly hosted the "2008 Potato Nutrition Seminar" in Guangzhou of Guangdong Province. The theme of the seminar was, "Read the New Guidelines, and Understand Nutrition." Nowadays, Chinese residents can get enough calories from cereals, and they often forget potatoes. Statistics show that in the past two decades, although potato output has been growing, its consumption has dropped. This phenomenon has worried some experts.
A Healthy Law
The National People's Congress (NPC) published China's new draft Food Safety Law on April 20 for public discussion. The draft law covers food safety evaluation, monitoring, and recall and information release.
In recent years, food related incidents such as poisoning or deaths have caused public concern over food quality and safety, and sometimes gave rise to international disputes.
According to the draft, producers of substandard food products face fines, the confiscation of their incomes and revocation of production certificates. In serious cases, they could face prison terms ranging from three years to life.
The draft law was placed on website of the NPC (www.npc.gov.cn) and will also be published by major news media in China. This is the first draft law made public by the 11th NPC since it held its first annual session in March. The public is welcome to provide their comments before May 20. Feedbacks to the draft law will be submitted to the NPC Standing Committee for further studies.
Largest Potato Producer
China has an annual output of 75 million tons of potatoes, making it the largest potato producer in the world.
According to the China National Food Industry Association, in the past decade the plantation area of potatoes has increased 30 percent, reaching 5.3 million hectares, which accounts for a quarter of all potato farming land in the world.
Potato is the fourth most important crop in China, after wheat, rice and corn.
Inner Mongolia, Gansu, Yunnan and Guizhou are the largest potato producing regions in China, with a combined output accounting for 45 percent of the country's total.