Bean Bar Bollocks

I hope that was the espresso machine

2013-03-02    »   food, rant

Beans are pretty healthy by almost anyone’s measure. Unless you’re trying to shift fat, salt, and wheat in the dubious guise of a healthy snack.

How to sell a bar of beans

Go have a quick look at the SPC Big Bean Product Page if you’re inclined. Ignore the grinning idiot on the left, and focus on the nutritional breakdown on the right.

You don’t really need to, as I’ve reproduced it here for no good reason.

(Though one possible reason is that they haven’t listed the ingredients anywhere online – AFAICT you need an actual product specimen in your hands. Hopefully, the data shown here will change over time.)

![Big Bean Bollocks][img-nutrition-breakdown]

 

Kudos for putting kJ ahead of calories. We’ve been metric in Straya for some decades now, but calories seems to be the last bastion of imperial thinking for many people.

But … there are a few other problems.

First, the two stock photos used by almost all news agencies (strongly hinting they were sent out with the media pack) show two people biting into a roll and pocket product where the only part of the food that’s visible is the pastry.

I’m sure they have their reasons.

How to hide your nutritional information in the nutritional information

Then there’s the nutrition.

Clearly being flogged as a healthy alternative to a sausage roll or meat pie, it’s hard to not think back a few decades to when the yanks started their bold new mission to become the fattest nation on earth via healthy alternatives that included much less fat (motivated by actions that are at best dubious, at worst criminal) and a veritable fuckload of carbohydrates – most of those in the form of sugars, in turn this was mostly motivated by trying to solve the industrial farming industry’s problem of having a massive surplus of corn.

But I digress.

The SPC marketing waffle includes heady claims:

“And guys, if your goal is to one day sport a six pack; put down that fat-laden sausage roll and grab an SPC BIG™ Bean Bar – it has 64% less fat, 62% less saturated fat and 34% less calories than a similar sized sausage roll. It also has the goodness of legumes and ½ serve of vegetables.”

Ignore the confusion exhibited regarding the proper use of semicolons. This stuff may be written by arts graduates, but they’re in marketing now.

You’ll note these are all relative, rather than absolute values – and as all critical thinkers (and readers) appreciate, this is something that makes your I’m Being Misled sense tingle.

They’ve also quite rudely double-counted the value of the (as we’ll see, relatively modest) bean content:

goodness of legumes and a ½ serve of vegetables.

Now, they made two caveats in their “And guys …” waffle:

Let’s look at these separately.

The Four 'N Twenty Jumbo Sausage Roll Distraction

I can’t find an easy comparative reference online for different brands of sausage rolls, and I’m way too lazy to try to collate one, but Choice published a review of meat pies in 2010 that looks at almost the exact same set of manufacturers that also make sausage rolls.

The Four 'N Twenty Traditional Meat Pie, apart from containing a hopefully/dubiously non-traditional 31% meat, wasn’t the absolute worst pie from the 20 pies they looked at, but with nearly worst figures on Total Fat (13.2gm / 100gm), Saturated Fat (7.4gm / 100gm), and Sodium (509mg / 100gm) it’s not something that’s about to win awards.

At least, not the good type of awards.

If you proceed to the third page of that Choice review, you’ll note that their panel of taste testers did consider Four 'N Twenty pies to be tasty, but I suspect that’s because Four 'N Twenty (or rather, Patties Foods) is ahead of the competition in finding the optimum satiety points for fat, salt and sugar for the domestic market.

The point is that Four 'N Twenty don’t appear to be burdened with a reputation for selling healthy pies, so they probably make one of the less healthy sausage rolls, and consequently SPC may be guilty of cherry-picking their comparison data here.

Either way, in this unhealthy part of the food market the best you can hope for is to be the tallest dwarf.

Numbers don’t lie … very often

Consider this comparison table - numbers shown are per 100gm of product.

Four 'N Twenty
sausage roll
SPC
Big Bean Bar
Fresh
Haricot Beans
Tinned
Haricot Beans
Total Fat 13gm 4.4gm 1.5gm 0.5gm
– saturated 6.2gm 2.2gm
Carbohydrates 26gm 23gm 60gm 15gm
– sugars 1.8gm 4.6gm 3.88
Protein 7.8gm 3.8gm 22.33gm 6.6gm
Fibre ? 1.3gm 24.4gm
Sodium 720mg 551mg 6mg

(Sources: Sausage Roll information from calorieking.com.au (so much for us thinking metric every inch of the way chaps!) as both fourntwenty’s official site, and Patties Foods (their parent) site offer no nutritional information whatsoever about their products. Actually, fourntwenty.com.au surely can’t be their official page - it’s a feeble JS ugliness with a misspelled “aussie pie’s” tagline). Anyway. Big Bean Bar (above, from product page). Wikipedia for raw Haricot figures. Biona Organic Tinned Haricot Beans from their Ocado page.)

Aside — during my research I thought I’d found a source asserting the figures (above) for the Four N Twenty Sausage Roll, including an 8gm fibre content. Embarrassingly I’ve since been unable to relocate that source, hence the ? there now. It’s possible there’s zero fibre in the sausage roll, but given the grain content in the pastry, and the likely cereal-based filler in the so-called meat component, this would surprise me.

Haricot, or white beans, are the usual suspect in baked bean. As I can’t find specific information on the ingredient I’m assuming this is what SPC are using in this particular product. Please ignore for the moment the disparities between tinned and fresh beans (it confuses me, too). Dried compared to tinned nutritional information labels are a fairly consistent 3-4x variation across all fields, so I’m relatively confident about the Tinned Haricot Bean information there – this also hints at a 3-4x water content in hydrated beans.

Looking at that table, the most astounding thing for me is that the Big Bean Bar has such trivial quantities of protein and fibre – two of the big reasons that people choose to eat beans in preference to fruit and vegetables.

If the calculations I described above are accurate, and they really do have that slightly misleading half serve (ie. 35gm) of beans in the 125gm product, then we would expect to see 28gm of beans per 100gm.

Consequently we’d expect to see at least 24.4% of that 28gm figure – in other words 7 grams – of fibre per 100gm. And that’s assuming no other ingredients contribute any fibre of their own.

Instead we’re seeing just 1.3gm.

Somehow, and somewhy, they’ve managed to strip more than ⅘ of the fibre from these beans during processing. Which makes you wonder what else they’ve removed.

We like beans not just because they have a wonderfully low GI and GL, partly as a result of their high fibre content, and are a rich source of cheap and ecologically sustainable protein, but also the myriad other goodies in them – flavonoid anti-oxidants, omega 3-fatty acids, useful trace quantities of elements such as Ca, Fe, Mg, Mn, Mo, and P, as well as a range of vitamins and at least one essential amino acid.

I’d also expect the beans they’re using to be relatively low quality, certainly not certified organic, almost definitely full of insecticide and herbicide residue, and very possibly from GM stock (I can’t find the provenance of the beans used in this snack).

Of course that table also shows other concerns.

Using the same 28% bean composition assumption, we can see that 82% of the fat and 99.7% of the sodium in the product comes from somewhere other than the beans.

And there’s an awful lot of sodium in there – 689mg (per serving) is somewhere between 15% and 60%, depending who you ask, of an adult’s daily recommended intake.

If you were to ask SPC they’ll tell you that 689mg is 30% of your RDI (see their nutrition graphic shown at the top of this page). As they’re promoting this as a snack, then they are tacitly, and somewhat rudely, implying that you’ll ensure each of your three main meals will contain less salt than this thing. It’s even worse (well done chaps!) if you look at SPC’s bean-based pastie-replacement product, which by SPC’s own measurements gives you close to 50% of your salt RDI.

Anyway, it seems to be generally accepted that adult humans only require about 200-500mg of sodium a day, and there’s some correlations (though I know the jury is still very much out on the whole salt thing) with various nasty conditions once salt intake ramps up above 2gm.

Casual gloating digression: when I make my own homemade sausage rolls they contain, as far as I can tell, no salt whatsoever – and I have to concede they taste divine. On the other hand, I am not attempting to surreptitiously feed visitors loads of salt to make them thirsty so they will want to buy some softdrinks, juice, or flavoured sugar water from my petrol station or corner store.

I’m from the government - I’m here to help

The other qualifier given by SPC, referencing the fifteen year old Australian Guide to Healthy Eating (PDF), deserves a few moments consideration.

The Australian government agencies involved in coming up with this kind of advice are doubtless heavily influenced by the same forces that shape the various North American agencies (read: heavy lobbying by people with a product to sell that is not sufficiently good that it sells itself, a healthy budget with which to undertake said lobbying).

Plus, probably, peer pressure from our friends in the other colony.

The 27-page Guide to Healthy Eating document is heavy on cheery colourful graphics and fluffy prose (“Food and eating are part of the way people live their lives”) but regrettably light on explanations, rationales, citations or references.

It’s perhaps reassuring that the long-time-coming 2013 update is a more hefty 226 pages, and is supported by 10 other summary, brochure and poster documents. Eat For Health’s Guidelines Page has the full set of documents available, or you can just download the 2013 Australian Dietary Guidelines document (PDF) itself.

But that isn’t the document that SPC referred to – in fairness it didn’t exist when they started marketing this manufactured snack.

So we return to the comforting brevity of the 1998 Guide To Healthy Eating.

This document is very much in the tradition of (the USA’s) FDA dictums – a highly prescriptive, Food Is Too Complicated To Explain To The Peasants, Just Trust Us style document.

Curiously I see that Legumes appear in two of the five food groups described. It’s not a mistake, as it’s repeated in the ABC’s summary diagram of the new 2013 guidelines. Legumes appear in both the Vegetables and Legumes and the Meat, Fish, Poultry, Eggs, Nut, Legumes categories.

Anyway, on page 6 we see (I think) where SPC’s citation originates:

Q. What is a sample serve? A. A sample serve of Vegetables, Legumes is: o 75gm or ½ cup cooked vegetables, o 75gm or ½ cup cooked dried beans, peas or lentils, o 1 cup salad vegetables, o 1 potato.

It’s an undeniably confusingly worded recommendation.

Do they really mean 75gm of dried beans? And if so, what does 75gm of dried beans turn into when you rehydrate them.

Opinions and estimates vary wildly - from 2x to 6x. Which isn’t dreadfully helpful. So let’s assume a conservative 3x factor.

SPC’s claim is that each 125gm product (a Bean Bar) provides a ½ serve of vegetables.

If SPC assumes the above recommendation refers to dehydrated values, then that means their product is 89% beans. This is unlikely.

If SPC interprets the above recommendation to meaning hydrated beans (despite the word dry there) then their product need only be 30% beans, which is more feasible. A tad depressing, but predictable, and, as I say, feasible.

Of course, in SPC’s nutritional blurb the precise wording they use is:

1 serve of vegetables = 75gm

It’s more than a tad suspicious that the Healthy Eating Guide clearly distinguishes between dry legumes and cooked vegetables, this product is made from legumes, and SPC has chosen to measure in cooked vegetable units.

Reading a little further in the Healthy Eating Guide, we find on page 14:

Some foods do not fit into the five food groups. They are not essential to provide the nutrients the body needs and some contain too much added fat, salt and sugars. These foods are likely to contribute large amounts of energy. However, they can add to the enjoyment of eating a healthy diet.

Examples include biscuits, cakes, desserts, pastries, soft drinks; high fat snack items such as crisps, pies, pasties, sausage rolls and other takeaways; lollies and chocolate. Choose these foods sometimes or in small amounts.

Oh well.

Elsewhere the authors of this Strine-government-approved Healthy Eating Guide boldly assert:

Saturated fats are a type of fat that can increase your risk of heart disease and so are not recommended.

Which I believe is a myth that we can trace back to the USA – a direct result of bad marketing, bad science and bad maths, and as far as I know this belief is now understood to be bunkus by world+dog.

Which brings me to the bigger point – you really shouldn’t trust a government to advise you on what to eat.

There’s absolutely no empirical or historical evidence to suggest that they have good insight or advice to offer, or that they are not swayed in obvious and unhealthy ways by agriculture and food industry lobbyists.

In fact, simply because government advice is seen to regularly invert every decade or so, that’s some pretty compelling evidence right there that their advice has been, or is now, inherently bad. And there’s the rub - you can never be sure whether we’re in the good, or the bad, part of the cycle for a given healthy eating according to the government recommendation.

I think Michael Pollan’s observation is the most succinct, most useful, and most versatile advice I’ve heard on the matter: “If your grandmother wouldn’t recognise it as food, you probably shouldn’t eat it.” Though I suspect it’s nearly time to dial that back a generation and change it to great-grandmother.

And so, in summary …

This product may not be as regrettable as I may have implied it to be.

Who knows? Not me.

I’ll probably try one next time I’m in Straya, but I suspect it’s just another example of trying to dress up the usual suspects of unhealthy, but abundant, cheap and long-storage-life ingredients with some frilly healthy-sounding foodstuffs du jour, and charge a premium to assist the consumer in jumping to the mistaken conclusion that it’s healthy.

But I’d still recommend you don’t trust anything that someone trying to flog their pseudo-food, or someone from the government, tells you about food, nutrition, or health – there are plenty of reliable sources for this kind of information.


Disclaimer: I eat a fair amount of beans, and intend to grow them again one day soon – maybe even in saleable quantities (think weekend organic market, not industrial broadhectare scale). I really enjoy a good sausage roll. I haven’t yet tried one of these Big Bean Rolls. I love the idea of removing the generally low-quality meats often found in commercial sausage rolls, either by replacing them with healthier and more ecologically sound substitutes (such as organically grown beans) or simply better quality meat from better treated, happy animals.