A little of what you fancy can prove confusing

A CALIFORNIAN wine grower has upset consumer agencies and alcohol dependency groups in America by introducing a new label for 100,000 bottles of his finest rouge. It states: 'Moderate drinking of red wine reduces the risk of heart disease.'

He has the approval of US authorities plus scientific backing for the claim, and other vintners are expected to follow his lead.

For those who aim to be nutritionally correct, these are trying times. The healthy-eating debate has been a roller-coaster of foods that are 'in' or 'out' - and it is picking up speed.

Wine, long perceived as a dietary no-no because of its alcohol content, joins bread, potatoes, milk, eggs, butter, meat, salt, and even sugar, as foods that are undergoing rehabilitation in the psyche of thousands of people who have been conditioned to say 'no' to them on health grounds.

The most recent addition to the list of the newly-virtuous is coffee, variously linked to high cholesterol levels, pancreatic cancer, benign breast disease and infertility over the years. A study of 10,000 Scottish men and women, published last week, found that people who drank more than five cups of instant coffee a day had fewer heart problems overall than those who restricted intake.

The publication last year of the preliminary results of a Medical Research Council study left the impression that Welshmen who ate lots of butter and milk had a lower risk of heart disease than those who had avoided dairy produce for years.

Then there the man of 88, described in the New England Journal of Medicine, who ate up to 30 soft-boiled eggs a day for 30 years but enjoyed very low cholesterol levels.

Potatoes and bread, reviled since the Fifties as starch-ridden foods, are now recommended to dieters as important constituents of a calorie-controlled diet. And there is the much-publicised paradoxe francais; the ability of the inhabitants of Normandy to live on a diet of pate de foie gras and rich creamy sauces while having one of the lowest rates of heart disease in the world.

The impression is one of widespread confusion among scientists, but in reality the basics of healthy eating have been consistent for over 20 years. A review of 100 studies from 36 countries, published last year by the Consumers' Association, showed remarkable international consensus.

A healthy diet is one in which half the food intake comes from complex carbohydrates such as pasta, potatoes and bread. Eating more fruit and vegetables and cutting down on fat, particularly saturated, is advisable. Alcohol intake should follow national guidelines, and reducing salt and sugar may be useful but their role in disease is not proven.

But thousands remain bewildered. A recent Mori survey of 2,000 people for the National Dairy Council found that 70 per cent were confused because 'experts never seemed to agree on which foods were healthy'.

Janette Marshall, author and secretary of the Guild of Food Writers, blames the media's obsession with 'dietary trivia' about individual foods, and a tendency to report scientific results out of context. 'These are the stories which have grabbed headlines, and have detracted from the important information,' she said. People were left with simplistic messages they wanted to believe.

Donald Naismith, professor of nutrition and dietetics at King's College, London, points the finger at health educators making definitive announcements about eating. 'I never make positive statements about anything. If someone asks me about animal fats I would tell them that at the moment, a high intake is linked with heart disease but there are very many other factors involved. I know that in a year's time another paper may appear contradicting this.'