ON the eve of updated national dietary guidelines being released last week, the peak body representing the food industry launched its own website, Together Counts, which it described as ''a nationwide program to inspire active and healthy living''. The new National Health and Medical Research Council guidelines contain clear messages: limit added sugar. Avoid saturated fats. Energy drinks and vitamin waters are not healthy.
But the Together Counts program - sponsored by the likes of Sugar Australia and PepsiCo - uses terms like ''energy balance'' in its campaign, with words such as fat and sugar not rating a mention.
With so many messages from different sources being targeted at consumers, the nutritionist Rosemary Stanton says the new government guidelines risked being ignored or lost in the mass of advice, despite being based on the latest scientific research.
''Most people are unaware we even have national dietary guidelines,'' Dr Stanton says. ''The main reason for that is there is so much confusing information around about what to eat that people have no idea what is true. We also now have lots of misinformation from people writing books and blogs, who are often trying to get publicity for themselves or sell a product.''
Listings of the daily intake percentage of food components, such as fat or sugar, were also confusing, she says. The daily intake [DI] percentages listed on food labels are created and implemented by the food industry, as opposed to the recommended daily intake [RDI] of nutrients outlined by the national guidelines.
''People assume that the intake percentage on foods is a government regulation when, in fact, it is a food industry initiative based on their own guidelines,'' Dr Stanton says.
Portion sizes are also leading people astray. The updated dietary guidelines state there is now ''strong evidence of a positive relationship between portion size and body weight''. Consumers can find meals in what appear to be convenient single-serving sizes. But when they read the fine print on the back of the package, they may find it is actually intended for multiple servings, with one portion considered a quarter of the packet.
A 2011 report from the George Institute for Choice compared the daily intake and portion sizes of Australian foods and found serving sizes were vastly different between products, even from the same manufacturers.
''Consumers will find it difficult to identify healthier choices for food products using the daily intake scheme,'' the report concluded.
The Institute found a single packet of Thins Original Thin and Crispy Potato Chips weighing 45 grams was labelled as one serving. But the same product and brand in a multipack had a labelled serving size of 19 grams.
Jalna Premium Vanilla Yoghurt had a 200 gram serving size in a single tub, compared with their one kilogram tub, with one serving size labelled at 100 grams.
Serving sizes also differed greatly from brand to brand, the report found. The frozen meals category was particularly wide, ranging between 225 and 440 grams per serve.
A professor from the school of sport science, exercise and health at the University of Western Australia, Simone Pettigrew, led a study that looked at how well consumers understand the energy content of foods. Respondents to a survey vastly overestimated the energy content of fast foods such as hot chips and soft drink, the research, published in the latest edition of the journal, Nutrition and Dietetics found.
It suggests that consumers know fast foods are unhealthy, but are confused by the concept of food energy and how much certain foods contribute to their overall intake.
That is perhaps understandable, Pettigrew says, given food companies prominently feature healthier components of their products on labels, like calcium and protein, without emphasising the high sugar and therefore, calorie content.
''We know consumers are confused by the numbers, they see the energy content and it's not a tangible figure to them that they can put into context,'' she said.
''People also don't know if they should be measuring in calories or kilojoules.''
For this reason, the updated guidelines placed an emphasis on consuming whole foods like fruit, vegetables and lean meats, she said, which are less likely to come in packaging.
''But the other issue is that despite understanding the importance of fruit and vegetables, we all like foods that are bad for us,'' Pettigrew said.
So how can people hoping to follow a sensible diet follow the national guidelines with ease, given such confusion around what is in food - on top of the fact that for many, junk food just tastes plain good?
A leading Australian public health expert, Professor Mike Daube, says additional steps are needed in conjunction with the guidelines to ensure they will have the much-needed affect of reducing overweight and disease.
''Guidelines are only as good as number of people that read and see them,'' Daube, who is the director of the Public Health Advocacy Institute in WA, says.
''What we now need is a strong public education program, and serious constraints on the food industry's promotion of junk food. It's hard to go past logic that says if the National Health and Medical Research Council are so concerned about sugar to include restriction of it in their guidelines, then the government should do something about curbing its promotion.''
The guidelines were meticulous, commonsense and based on science, but were not a public health strategy, he says.
''It is now up to the government to implement that strategy.
''You need hard-hitting education to get through to consumers, not soft stuff about energy balance that doesn't even tell you to keep away sugar, which is the approach of the Food and Grocery Council.''