The pie is a Kiwi icon. We have an annual pie awards – the Bakels Supreme Pie Awards which attracts around 4,000 entries per year. According to legend they were originally a pioneer’s version of the Cornish pastie – the pastry was effectively used by workers as an edible lunch box to transport the stew inside. Pies were immortalised with the video from the NZ TV series Police Ten 7 where a policeman stalled a suspect with some friendly advice on how to eat a pie late at night.
However the pie, and other baked goods, could be far healthier than they are. The only thing holding them back is that manufacturers have no incentive to make healthy pies. This is fundamentally a failure of our food labelling system.
Kiwis munch down about 70 million pies per year, accounting for 4% of our national saturated fat intake. This averages out to about 16 pies each per year, but clearly some eat more than others: over a third of our kids overall, half of Maori kids and two-thirds of Pacific kids eat at least one meat pie per week.[i]
According to the Food Standards Agency of Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ), a meat pie must be a quarter meat. The other three quarters of the pie is up to your imagination, or the imagination of manufacturers. You might think this is pretty loose, but when New Zealand and Aussie developed a joint set of food standards, Aussie pie makers squawked at this ‘high’ standard, and in 2006 random studies showed a quarter of ‘meat’ pies in Aussie hadn’t been beefed up enough to meet this threshold. Struth! They have since upped their game.[ii]
Nonetheless, this definition still gives manufacturers a lot of leeway with what to put in the pie, so unsurprisingly they are hugely variable in terms of nutritional value. A sample of 42 independent and branded mince pies in New Zealand had fat contents varying from 12-46g — a wide range, with most pies were clustered at the high end. The pies at the top end contained two-thirds of the recommended daily intake (RDI) for fat, three quarters of the RDI of salt, and nearly 100% of the RDI for saturated fat. The pies also contained scarily high levels of trans fats (thanks to the margarine used in the pastry). Remember, this was just mince pies! Imagine what the steak & cheese or bacon & egg varieties would have looked like.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Remember the guidelines for school cafetarias, that National abandoned for being too ‘nanny state’? They actually spurred a flurry of activity from pie makers to make their pies healthier, so they could still be sold in schools. They cut the fat and salt in pies through a combination of making smaller pies, reducing the fat content in the pastry, using leaner meat for the filling, reducing the use of MSG and salt and boosting the amount of veges in the pie.
From an average of about 30g of fat per pie, some brands like Metro Pies went down to 13g, a change which meant they could be sold in schools and even earned them the Heart Foundation Tick. Several independent bakeries were able to cut fat levels in their pies by 15% and salt levels by 22%.
Some operators even experimented with crust-less pies, basically a miniature cottage pie (mince covered in potato). Most of the fat in a pie is actually contained in the pastry, where it is needed to provide that characteristic flaky texture. So nutritionally this was a big winner as it cut down the fat content significantly.
In recent years these improvements have been unravelling. Pies have been getting bigger, which cancels out any health benefits from improved formulation. Meanwhile petrol station and supermarket pies have been getting worse nutritionally, packing in more fat and salt.
So why don’t we see more healthy pie alternatives? Basically pie makers have no reason to make them. Without front of pack food labelling, there is no downside to packing a pie full of salt and saturated fat. This stuff is cheap, tasty and preserves the pie for longer. So of course manufacturers do it? A decent front of pack labelling system would tell the consumer at a glance exactly how healthy their pie was. While it probably wouldn’t stop people buying pies, it would push them towards healthier options, and get manufacturers competing for the health conscious dollar.
It is time for decent, compulsory front of pack nutrition labeling . Instead, our Government is developing a limp-wristed voluntary system – otherwise known as paying lip service to the problem by simply saying manufacturers can choose or choose not to help consumers. Until this change is made, the best health advice we can give is to always blow on the pie.
 Meat flesh is ‘the skeletal muscle of any slaughtered animal, and any attached animal rind; fat; connective tissue; nerve; blood; blood vessels; and skin, in the case of poultry.’
This blog is part of a series – “The twelve fake foods of Christmas”
We don’t want to get all bah humbug about your Christmas celebrations, after all this is the one time of year you should be able to let your hair down a bit and not feel guilty about it. But it is a good time to highlight some of the fake foods that can cause some damage if we get into the habit of eating them. We’ve particularly targeted the foods that are marketed to us as “healthy” in an effort to get us to eat them every day, when in fact they are complete junk and should be confined solely to the annual Christmas binge.
12 Fake Foods of Christmas no.1: Cereal Killers
[i] Ministry of Health. 2003. NZ Food, NZ Children. Key Results of the 2002 National Children’s Nutrition Survey. Wellington: Ministry of Health.
[ii] http://www.choice.com.au/reviews-and-tests/food-and-health/food-and-drink/groceries/meat-pies-review-and-compare.aspx [accessed September 6th 2012]