La Società Italiana di Nutrizione Umana (SINU) opened its 36th national congress with the workshop "Foods and diet: innovating tradition", a meeting without precedence that saw top nutrition experts from Australia, China, India, the United States and Italy discuss the respective guidelines and the adopted methodology to develop them scientifically.

Periodic announcements in the media scrutinizing the health effects of individual foodstuffs can lead to confusion among members of the public. Food items such as red meat and salami, sugar, milk, gluten and now also hot drinks such as coffee have all been implicated in causing harm. "Besides the robustness of the scientific data, it is an incorrect approach anyway; especially from a communicative and educational perspective, because it focuses on a single nutrient or food, without considering the diet in its entirety," clarifies Furio Brighenti, President of SINU. "We should be skeptical of this 'reductionism', and instead adopt an educational approach to a balanced diet, which considers all the foods we consume, as well as our lifestyles."

"In the absence of specific medical contraindications, it is probably counterproductive to categorise a single food as a "bad" food and establish rigid bans on a specific food, because the first reaction would be to violate the ban, particularly among certain age groups like adolescents," adds Robert Gibson from the Department of Functional Food Science and the University of Adelaide, Australia.

Even Laura Rossi, nutritionist at Crea-Nut, a research entity that develops Italian guidelines maintains, "There is no such thing as an ingredient that is good or bad in itself. We don't agree with making comparisons such as good vegetables with bad animals, palm oil or sugar with whatever. The component is not necessarily healthy in itself; it is about creating a diet that is."

According to Joanne Slavin, teacher in nutrition at the University of Minnesota, "It is incorrect to have a rigid approach to single foods, particularly as our nutrition requirements vary throughout different stages of life, and it is difficult to establish limits on nutrients such as fats, sugar or salt that are important at every age." According to Slavin, it is fundamental to ensure nutritional recommendations are based on the most solid scientific evidence.

In the recent revision of the guidelines on sugars, the World Health Organization recommended limiting its consumption to less than 10% of total daily calorie intake, however it wished to reduce it even further to 5% (in other words 25 grams/6 teaspoons). "The recommendation of 5% isn't based on quality science," states Brighenti, "but is a clear example of risk management, in other words a political decision that has nothing to do with what research tells us. The same experts at the WHO have even admitted to using consolidated scientific data for the recommendation of 10%, and poor quality data for the 5% one."

During the international workshop, it emerged that the guidelines of the countries representing 50% of the global population are orientated at 10% for sugar and not at the 5% proposed by the WHO. In China the introduction of added sugars is equal or less than 5% (Euromonitor), despite growing obesity.