Food Articles

1. Africa Needs GM Crops
2. Cardboard Tomatoes
3. Cooking Made Us Smart
4. Food Blogs Top 50
5. Deep Frying
6. The Potato
7. Organic Is A Tax On Stupid
8. Imported Or Hothouse?
9. AA Gill
10. Chocolate Crispy Bacon Burger
11. The One Ton Pumpkin
12. Food That Looks Fishy
13. Locavores Are Wrong
14. Poverty Food and Malnutrition
15. Caveman Diet
16. Why Your Food Doesn't Look Like The Ads
17. Professional Women Slimming Down
18. Restaurant Codes
19. Gut Bacteria
20. Chocoholics: The Science
21. Lactose Tolerance
22. The Inefficiency of Local Food
23. Enhanced Food
24. Fat
25. Alternative Restaurants
26. Mealworms: The Other-Other-Other White Meat?
27. Secret Menus
28. Exercise
29. Menu Vocab
30. Opposition to GM Food Melts
31. Eating Horse Meat
32. Rainbow Beef
33. Salads Are More Dangerous Than Burgers
34. AA Gill on Processed Pig Meat
35. The Folly of Cooking Pizza at Home
36. More AA Gill
37. Wiki Pearls
38. American State Fairs
39. McD Cheeseburgers - Best Food Ever
40. Greenpeace and Golden Rice
41. Honey: The Only Food That Doesn't Go Bad
42. The Rules of Italian Cooking
43. Tackling Obesity
44. Jeremy Clarkson On Vegetarians
45. Supersize Me - Fast Food Myths
46. Food Waste
47. Butter Is Good
48. Carrier vs Plastic Bags
49. 52 Last Suppers
50. Skeptoid On MSG
51. Skeptoid On Protein Supplements
52. Skeptoid On Milk Myths
53. The Trouble With Gluten
54. Why Spicy Foods make You Feel Good
55. Sensible Eating
56. Make Them Accountable
57. Fat and Fit?
58. Why We Eat: The Science
59. Why Not Eat Swan?
60. Food Myths
61. Intestinal Bacteria
62. The Worst Waiter In The World
63. Prescriptive Planting - Innovation on the Farm
64. Nathan Myhrvold and Ferran Adria
65. Hipster Farmers Markets
66. A Boys' Pissing Contest
67. A Chef On Presentation
68. AA Gill on Last Meals
69. 40 Different Fruits On One Tree
70. Selfie Toast
71. We Don't Know Why People Get Fat
72. Menu Language and Price
73. Texas State Fair Fryups
74. Gluten Sensitivity
75. Moulded Pumpkins
76. Food Critics
77. Food Calorie Labels and Exercise
78. Grow Your Own
79. Reviews As Entertainment
80. Cannabis Cooking
81. The GM Food Myths
82. Warren Buffett Diet
83. Plant Meat
84. Umami
85. Thai Street Ice Cream
86. Food Babe/Science Babe
87. Orthorexia Nervosa
88. GM Foods Meta Study
89. Paris Restaurants and Microwave Meals
90. Genetic Editing
91. The Type of Food You Eat
92. Pot Edibles
93. The Cholesterol Myth
94. Fake Allergy Tests
95. Plenish Cooking Oil
96. Fasting Mimicking Diet
97. GM Edited Pigs
98. Juicing Is Bad
99. Fish Oil From GM Plants
100. Anti-GM Fraud
More food articles
101. Marinating meats for the grill does little
102. Star Trek Food Replicator: The Implications
103. Microwave Cooking
104. Big Harvests Counter The Doom Sayers
105. Online Chef Services
106. ChefCuisine Machine
107. Apples That Don't Go Brown
108. Anti GMO Fear Mongering Slapped Down
109. You're Fat, Not Fit
110. The Sirtfood Diet


To abolish starvation Africa needs GM crops


Cardboard Tomatoes and Genetic Modification

WOULD you rather have tomatoes that look good, or taste good? Most people, no doubt, would swear that they prefer taste to looks when it comes to buying fruit and vegetables. But that is not how they behave. Years of retailing experience have shown that what actually gets bought is what looks good. And, unfortunately, for tomatoes at least, that is not well correlated with taste. A uniformly red skin – the sort preferred by consumers – is associated with a “cardboardy” flavour. But until now, nobody knew why.

The answer is provided by a paper in Science, written by by Ann Powell of the University of California, Davis, and her colleagues. The reason turns out to lie deep in the genetic regulation of photosynthesis. For 70 years, tomato breeders have sought fruit that ripen evenly. For that to happen, they need to start from a state of uniform light-greenness. Older varieties of tomato, by contrast, are dark green over the part of the fruit nearest the stem.

Those decades of selective breeding have done what was required. Traditional genetics identified a gene known as u (for “uniform ripening”). This, in classic Mendelian fashion, came in two forms, a dominant and a recessive. Dominant versions of a gene always trump recessive ones, so the recessive characteristic emerges only when both of a plant’s parents contribute a recessive version of the gene to their offspring. Identifying strains with the relevant recessives, and then cross-fertilising them, is the sort of thing that plant breeder are good at. But what they did not know was exactly what sort of gene u actually is.

To find out, Dr Powell and her colleagues looked in the part of a tomato’s genome that Mendelian genetics shows is where u is found. This has been worked out over years of intensive study of the process by which genes are mixed up during fertilisation. Such mixing shows approximately where on a chromosome a gene is located. When they sequenced the DNA of this region, the team found eight genes, any one of which might, in principle, have been u. But they discovered that in all cases where the version of u in the plant was recessive, there was one gene out of the ten that was broken. An extra genetic letter inserted into its DNA caused the genetic equivalent of a full stop in the message, meaning that the protein produced from the gene was too short, and did not work properly.

The gene in question was for a type of protein known as a transcription factor. Transcription factors are molecules that regulate the expression of other genes and the factor in question is one that is known, in other plants, to regulate chlorophyll distribution, and thus photosynthesis.

Since about 10% of the sugars in an old-fashioned tomato are produced by photosynthesis in the fruit itself, rather than being transported in from elsewhere, and since making those sugars also results in other flavoursome molecules derived from them, Dr Powell thinks she has found the explanation for cardboard tomatoes.

Whether this discovery actually helps is moot. Any tinkering that brought back the flavour by manipulating the transcription factor would probably also bring back the original uneven colouring. But at least you now know that when your grandmother tells you that tomatoes tasted better when she was a girl, science will back her up.


Cooking Made Us Smart

After two tremendous growth spurts - one in size, followed by an even more important one in cognitive ability - the human brain is now a lot like a teenage boy.

It consumes huge amounts of calories, is rather temperamental and, when harnessed just right, exhibits incredible prowess. The brain's roaring metabolism, possibly stimulated by early man's invention of cooking, may be the main factor behind our most critical cognitive leap, new research suggests.

About 2 million years ago, the human brain rapidly increased its mass until it was double the size of other primate brains.

"This happened because we started to eat better food, like eating more meat," said researcher Philipp Khaitovich of the Partner Institute for Computational Biology in Shanghai.

But the increase in size, Khaitovich continued, "did not make humans as smart as they are today."

For a long time, we were pretty dumb. Humans did little but make "the same very boring stone tools for almost 2 million years," he said. Then, only about 150,000 years ago, a different type of spurt happened - our big brains suddenly got smart. We started innovating. We tried different materials, such as bone, and invented many new tools, including needles for beadwork. Responding to, presumably, our first abstract thoughts, we started creating art and maybe even religion.

To understand what caused the cognitive spurt, Khaitovich and colleagues examined chemical brain processes known to have changed in the past 200,000 years. Comparing apes and humans, they found the most robust differences were for processes involved in energy metabolism.

The finding suggests that increased access to calories spurred our cognitive advances, said Khaitovich, carefully adding that definitive claims of causation are premature.

The research is detailed in the August 2008 issue of Genome Biology.

The extra calories may not have come from more food, but rather from the emergence of pre-historic "Iron Chefs;" the first hearths also arose about 200,000 years ago.

In most animals, the gut needs a lot of energy to grind out nourishment from food sources. But cooking, by breaking down fibers and making nutrients more readily available, is a way of processing food outside the body. Eating (mostly) cooked meals would have lessened the energy needs of our digestion systems, Khaitovich explained, thereby freeing up calories for our brains.

Instead of growing even larger (which would have made birth even more problematic), the human brain most likely used the additional calories to grease the wheels of its internal functioning.

Today, humans have relatively small digestive systems and burn 20-25 percent of their calories running their brains. For comparison, other vertebrate brains use as little as 2 percent of the animal's caloric intake.

Does this mean renewing our subscriptions to Bon Appetit will make our brains more efficient? No, but we probably should avoid diving into the raw food movement. Devoted followers end up, said Khaitovich, "with very severe health problems."

Scientists wonder if our cognitive spurt happened too fast. Some of our most common mental health problems, ranging from depression and bipolar disorder to autism and schizophrenia, may be by-products of the metabolic changes that happened in an evolutionary "blink of an eye," Khaitovich said.

While other theories for the brain's cognitive spurt have not been ruled out (one involves the introduction of fish to the human diet), the finding sheds light on what made us, as Khaitovich put it, "so strange compared to other animals."


Food Blogs Top 50

1. Orangette The ultimate food lovers' blog. The seductive powers of food writing are not to be underestimated - Molly Wizenberg's words even won her a husband. I cooked for almost 12 hours straight after discovering this blog - recipes range from the simple to the delectable: tomato sauce, hasselback potatoes, chickpea salad, chocolate granola. Wizenberg redeems the most uninteresting food - her cabbage gratin is one of my culinary hits of the year.

2. Cannelle et Vanille The recipes say it all: salted caramel ice-cream, roasted fig frozen mousse, lemon verbena with chamomile creme brulee. This visually stunning site was started by Spanish pastry chef Aran Goyoaga in January this year to satisfy her career-break cravings. Even a snacky peek explains its overnight success.

3. The Wednesday Chef New York-based Luisa Weiss started this blog as a way of documenting her trawl through clippings of recipes from the New York and LA Times. A mix of recipes and humorous anecdotes - her boyfriend thinks he is pre-hypertensive so she reduces the salt to avoid confronting the issue of male hypochrondria - it's a charming blog packed with information (indeed, a whole 700 words about coleslaw).

4. Delicious Days Authored by Munich-based Nicky Stich, this blog has a huge following, currently at number 84 in Technorati's Top 100 blogs (the highest ranking food blog.) Well-conceived, with an international flavour but healthy dose of German influence and easy to navigate sections including a food news feed. DD features the author's own recipes, as well as adaptations from other cookbooks. An invaluable article offers tips for budding food bloggers.

5. David Lebovitz Another megablog, this witty food reportage by the established cookbook author and ex-pastry chef David Lebovitz has up to 25,000 visitors a day. Now based in Paris, he covers recipes, restaurants and interviews with other foodie heavyweights. Head to his FAQ page for all the culinary secrets on Paris you could wish for.

6. Chez Pim Not much of a foodie secret, blog celebrity and big-hitter Pim quit her Silicon Valley job in 2005 to pursue her foodie calling. And a good move it was too; more than 142,000 regular readers have signed up for daily doses of her recipes, restaurant reviews and authoritative all-round food comment. My favourite recent post? An election recipe; chicken soup for the American soul.

7. Matt Bites When blog photos are taken by a professional photographer, it really shows - see his recent molasses-glazed acorn squash, for example. One of the select number of male food bloggers, Matt is charming and humorous, and has a recent Martha Stewart TV appearance to boot.

8. Serious Eats Practially everything you need to know about food can be found on this multi-contributor food website, started by New York Times journalist Ed Levine. The focus is on American foods such as hot dogs, there are restaurant and gadget reviews, food videos and recipes, including an easy recipe every afternoon to inspire that evening's dinner.

9. 101 Cookbooks One of the most established food blogs, five years old and counting; this is the chronicle of a blogger with an overindulged habit of buying cookbooks. This Californian blog is primarily a conduit for savoury recipes, mostly vegetarian, and using natural foods - the most popular include caramelised tofu, black bean brownies and lemon-scented quinoa salad. It's technologically literate, too, with i-Phone compatible recipes, and there is a convenient index of recipes by ingredient, and by category (ie gluten-free, cookies, drinks etc).

10. Smitten Kitchen A combination of writing/photographer skills add up to culinary excellence in this long-established blog, covering recipes cooked in author Deb Perelman's tiny New York kitchen. A Facebook group, Flickr photo pool, and Twitter following - this is a slick operation.

11. Chubby Hubby Everything you need to know about Asian food can be found on this blog, where Singaporean-based author Aun Koh writes about street food, restaurants and recipes, with charming references to his partner in kitchen crime, his wife S.

12. Chocolate and Zucchini If you haven't heard of multi-lingual Chocolate and Zucchini by now, you've obviously been living in gastronomic purgatory. If reading for recipes doesn't always appeal, Paris-based Clotilde Dusoulier has recently started a series on French food idioms, and her blog is full of Parisian gastronomic delights, with a book to accompany it, appropriately titled Edible Adventures in Paris.

13. Rambling Spoon As Asia correspondent for Gourmet magazine, "Food is everything we are," says travelling journalist Karen Coates. The last few months have covered Thanksgiving in Thailand, a round-up of food-related paintings in The Louvre, Paris, and haggis in Edinburgh.

14. The Pioneer Woman Cooks Home-cooking and home-schooling Ree Drummond is a real-life frontier-living cattle rancher. With Little House on the Prairie warmth and passion for teh hearth to match, Pioneer Woman has garnered a huge following from responsive readers - almost 800 comments on her latest "Thanksgiving, Deconstructed" post. Impressive.

15. Dorie Greenspan With more than 20 years food writing experience, multi-cookbook author Dorie Greenspan has gourmet credentials. Her passions are pastry and Paris, this continental commuter (between New York, Connecticut and Paris) is an authority on all things bake-related.

16. Artisan Sweets Another blog for the sweet-toothed reader where even beautifully-photographed Rice Krispie Treats can have the reader salivating and running to late-night Tesco for a stash of ingredients. Savoury recipes also feature on this blog, as well as useful video demonstrations, such as how to make perfect puff pastry.

17. Eating Asia A bog-standard visit to Chinatown will never suffice after you have started reading this collaboration between seasoned writer Robyn Eckhardt and photographer David Hagerman. This is one of the most colourful blogs and its photos of ageing street vendors and vibrant street markets from all over Asia are inspiring.

18. Nordljus A bilingual food journal, written in both English and Japanese, the primary language of Nordljus is photography, with snapper Keiko capturing delectable images such as truffle honey ice cream with hazelnut dacquoise and Seville orange sponge, as well as sharing recipes and her musings on an English culinary life.

19. The Kitchen Part of the hugely popular interiors blog Apartment Therapy, this satisfies all manner of kitchen cravings; featuring stylish kitchen tours, recipes and answers to such burning questions as "How to clean a toaster" and "What is the difference between non-stick and cast iron pans?"

20. Becks & Posh Named from the Cockney rhyming slang for nosh, English ex-pat Sam Breach is currently taking part in a self-imposed food challenge to "eat local". Evangelical about eating regional and seasona and infused with a healthy dose of English humour, Breach has clearly adopted California as her home, with food tales and recipes that ooze influence from the Sunshine State.

21. Simply Recipes

22. Sticky Rice

23. Souvlaki for the Soul

24. Bitten: New York Times

25. Baking Bites

26. La Tartine Gourmande

27. Gluten Free Girl

28. Steamy Kitchen

29. What's for Lunch Honey

30. Cream Puffs in Venice

31. Egg Beater

32. Homesick Texan

33. The Traveler's Lunchbox

34. Joy the Baker

35. Cook and Eat

36. Lucullian Delights

37. Cafe Fernando

38. The Food Section

39. Use Real Butter

40. Tea and Cookies

41. Amateur Gourmet

42. Wild Yeast

43. Tartelette

44. NYC Nosh

45. Not Eating Out in New York

46. Cooksister

47. Artichoke: Best of British Food

48. Grab Your Fork

49. A Slice of Cherry Pie

50. The Bitten Word


Deep Frying

What I really want for Christmas is a deep fat fryer. A friend lent us his neat, slimline one over the weekend and we had good fun playing with it. After a lot of experiment, my son and I produced proper, twice-cooked French fries that we thought were the match of any bistro chips. Even in Paris.

We did bootlace courgettes in batter (for the sake of our health) and deep-fried banana. But most exciting of all was our makeover of Edinburgh's most famous deep-fried pudding, which we decided to rebrand as Noisettes de Mars Bar en Tempura.

Deep fat cookery is the great vernacular cuisine of modern Scotland, of course. I've been determined to embrace it ever since I heard the chef Anthony Bourdain mock my home town, Edinburgh, as "the world capital of indiscriminate deep-frying".

Next time he is here, he has agreed to come and sample the art at its highest at the Tail End, on Leith Walk, which is without doubt the city's greatest chippie.

Crucially it fries only to order or in small batches: the curse of chippy food is the battered fish sagging in the hot cabinet, two hours out of the oil. It does a whole range of unusual fish, as well as the usual cod or haddock: sea bass, swordfish, herring when in season, plaice, sole and sea trout. Most of these work well, though some deep-fried oily fish, such as herring, are for specialist tastes. Key to the Tail End is its batter: a golden cumulus, crisp and delicate, whose secret nobody will reveal.

It's the batter that has let down my previous attempts to rescue the deep-fried Mars bar from its ignominious role as a butt of jokes for comedians and health fascists. It's true that a whole Mars bar in fish batter is a thing that your GP would not embrace - especially considering the state of the oil in some of Scotland's darker frying establishments.

This time we decided to go minimalist - and produce a fried Mars bar dessert of which nouvelle cuisine and Scotland could be proud. So we chopped the Mars bar into nuggets the size of the tip of a little finger, and did the same with a nice firm banana.

We made a simple tempura, the airy, light batter that the Japanese use for frying everything from vegetables to shrimp. This is made of egg, flour and cold water: it makes a delicate shell to encase a foodstuff and cook it without losing any moisture or flavour. And that should be the prime purpose of frying it in batter - any more is padding. We fried the banana slices and Mars bar nuggets for a couple of minutes at 160C in the deep fryer, and served them with some good vanilla ice cream.

The result? Raptures among the children, as you'd guess. The adults? Dubious, for the most part, though they ate it all up. My mistake was to boast to them in advance about what I was up to: it's a good rule with dinner party surprises to keep mum and let the plate do the talking.


The Potato and GM Food

The foodstuff was once viewed as unnatural and dangerous. Its rise to a global staple may tell us something about today's genetically modified crops.

A tale from history offers us a prediction about the future of food.

The wonder crop is new and unfamiliar, lauded by scientists and politicians as having the potential to end famine and feed the poor. But the public is skeptical, regarding this new food as unnatural and dangerous. The reaction to genetically modified crops today? In fact, this is what happened when potatoes were introduced into Europe from the Americas in the 1500s and 1600s.

Scientists were enamored with this new foodstuff because it had several valuable properties. Potatoes thrive even in years when the wheat crop has failed, noted a committee of the Royal Society, Britain's pioneering scientific association, in the 1660s. Better still, potatoes can be grown in almost any kind of soil and take only three to four months to mature, against 10 for cereal grains. And potatoes produce two to four times as many calories per acre as wheat, rye or oats. The case for widespread adoption of the potato, the scientists argued, was obvious.

The public was much less enthusiastic. Potatoes aroused suspicion because they were unfamiliar. They were not mentioned in the Bible, which suggested that God had not meant people to eat them, said some clergymen. To herbalists who believed that the appearance of a plant was an indication of the diseases it could cause or cure, potatoes resembled a leper's gnarled hands, and the idea that they caused leprosy became widespread. More scientifically inclined botanists identified these first-known edible tubers as members of the poisonous nightshade family, and potatoes came to be associated with witchcraft and devil worship.

But European attitudes toward potatoes shifted during the 1700s as a result of two things: war and famine. Disruptions to the food supply meant that some people had no choice but to eat potatoes, and they soon discovered that their fears about them were unfounded. In Britain, the potato became more widespread after two bad wheat harvests. "From the apprehension of a second year of scarcity, potatoes have been everywhere planted and their produce has been generally great," noted the Times of London approvingly in 1795.

A series of famines earned the potato some friends in high places, so that its adoption became official policy in many countries. Frederick the Great of Prussia urged wider cultivation of potatoes among his subjects after crops failed in 1740. In Russia, Catherine the Great's medical advisors convinced her that the potato could be an antidote to starvation.

The potato's greatest champion, however, was Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, a French scientist. While serving in the army in the 1760s, he spent three years in a Prussian jail, where he subsisted almost entirely on potatoes and became convinced of their merits. On his return to France, he wrote a prize-winning essay touting potatoes as "foodstuffs capable of reducing the calamities of famine," and convinced other scientists and doctors of their benefits.

But the public was unmoved until Parmentier arranged a series of publicity stunts. He organized a potato-heavy birthday banquet for King Louis XVI, for example, and persuaded the king's wife, Marie Antoinette, to wear potato flowers in her hair. She never actually said, "Let them eat cake," but she did endorse the potato.

But Parmentier's greatest trick was to post armed guards around the fields just outside Paris, given to him by the king, where he was growing potatoes. This aroused the interest of the local people, who wondered what valuable crop could possibly require such measures. Once the crop was ready, Parmentier withdrew the guards, and the locals duly rushed in and stole the potatoes. Several potato dishes are named after Parmentier in recognition of the success of his efforts. Today, in an era when French fries are an icon of globalization, it is difficult to imagine that people were once afraid to eat potatoes. Yet many of the concerns they raised are now inspired by genetically modified foodstuffs. As with potatoes, they are seen by their critics as unnatural and possibly dangerous, though they also raise entirely new concerns about the extent to which agriculture has come under the control of large companies. At the same time, the technology is championed by scientists and politicians who regard it as a promising approach to increasing the food supply.

Might the threat of famine and war cause attitudes to shift again? Hardly a month goes by without a new report on the impact of climate change on global agriculture. A recent report from the International Food Policy Research Institute warned of the "dramatic consequences" for agriculture as variations in rainfall patterns cause droughts and floods, and coastal food-producing areas are inundated and yields decline. There have also been warnings of "food wars" triggered by shifts in the distribution of fertile land and water supplies. Meanwhile, the world's population is heading toward 9.2 billion people by 2075, according to U.N. forecasts. For most of the world's population, climate change will manifest itself as a food crisis.

Navigating the coming food-climate-population crunch will require new approaches to food production, both to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture itself (about 15% of the total) and to ensure that there is enough food for everyone. Advocates of genetic modification argue that it could be used to develop new varieties of wheat, corn and other crops that require less fertilizer and water and are more disease-resistant. Such miracle crops have yet to be developed, but a lot of research is underway. That much of it is being done by government researchers in developing countries might help to neutralize the objection that genetic technology is part of a nefarious corporate plot to enslave the world's farmers.

What is clear is that it will be necessary to assemble the largest possible toolbox of agricultural methods for the coming century. That will include making the best use of traditional and modern farming techniques, and creating hybrids of the two. It will also open the door to new approaches, from wider use of techniques developed since the 1970s that minimize the tilling of the soil to reduce erosion and fuel use to the cultivation of food using hydroponic techniques in "vertical farms" inside skyscrapers. And it seems plausible that the prospect of famine and war might also prompt people to put aside their worries about genetically modified crops -- just as they did, more than 200 years ago, in the case of the potato.


Organic is a Tax On The Stupid

There are two reliable ways of telling if you have won an argument. The first is if your disputants switch from discussion of the facts to accusations about motives; the second, more obviously, is if they descend to mere abuse.

Alan Dangour, a nutritionist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, should therefore feel he has had an encouragingly uncomfortable week. He is the author of a peer-reviewed meta-study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that concluded, from 50 years of scientific evidence, that so-called organic food was no healthier than conventionally farmed products. By the end of last week Dangour felt as if he had been covered with the brown stuff the organic lobby holds most sacred. He revealed that he had received hate mail and was taken aback by the abusive language used.

Ben Goldacre, an NHS doctor and author of the acclaimed book Bad Science, has had a similar week. In his newspaper column he had taken apart the Soil Association's criticisms of Dangour's paper - which was funded by Britain's Food Standards Agency - notably its claim that the health benefits of organic food relating to the absence of pesticides could not be measured by the evidence identified in the FSA paper.

As Goldacre pointed out to the Soil Association: Either you are proposing that there are health benefits which cannot ever be measured. In this case you have faith, which is not a matter of evidence. Or you are proposing that there are health benefits which could be measured, but have not been yet. In which case, again, you have faith rather than evidence. Cue an avalanche of organic ordure on the comments section at the foot of the online edition of Goldacre's column.

When I called him, he remarked: In my experience the [comments of the] organic food, antivaccine and homeopathy movements are unusually hateful and generally revolve around bizarre allegations that you covertly represent some financial or corporate interest. I do not; but I do think it reveals something about their own motives that they can only conceive of a person holding a position as a result of financial self-interest.

His linking of the organic movement with homeopathy is telling. They are cults masquerading as science, rather like the creationists of America's Bible Belt - but at least the latter have the self-awareness to acknowledge their opinions are based on faith. The organic movement, philosophically, is based on an inchoate faith in nature, seeing any human interference with nature as in some way bad and destructive of the roots of creation.

As Luc Ferry, the French philosopher, wrote in The New Ecological Order: The hatred of the artifice connected with our civilisation... is also a hatred of humans as such. For man is the antinatural being par excellence... This is how he escapes natural cycles, how he attains the realm of culture, and the sphere of morality, which presupposes living in accordance with laws and not just with nature. Guided by Ferry's insight that this philosophy is based on hatred of humanity - and I accept this is dangerously close to an attack on motives - we should hardly be surprised by the nature of the e-mails directed at Dangour and Goldacre.

Nor, indeed, should anyone have been in the least surprised by Dangour's results. The more rational among the organic movement long ago stopped claiming as scientific fact that their products are better for humans. The Canadian Organic Growers, reacting less hysterically than the Soil Association, responded to Dangour's survey by saying that it didn't make health claims based on the nutrition of organic food. This is the scientifically responsible attitude; but it is also a deadly blow to the marketing of organic foods, which depends on yummy mummies continuing to believe that if Cecilia and Frederick are fed only organic foods, then the little darlings will grow up healthier and stronger. It is in this sense that the organic business - ordinary food at extraordinary prices - is nothing more than a tax on gullibility.

Such gullibility can have dangerous effects on your health, as well as your bank balance. A few years ago my wife decided we should have an entirely organic vegetable garden. To this end she refused all man-made fertilisers and ordered a truckload of pigeon droppings. What could be more natural? Neither was there anything unnatural in the germs I inhaled through the spores of our organic manure, thereby contracting psittacosis. This developed into atypical pneumonia, which was of course resistant to all standard antibiotics. Had a hospital doctor not guessed the cause and put me on a drip with the appropriate drugs - ooh, chemicals! - I could have become a fatal casualty of the organic movement. Obviously my wife might have ordered cow manure rather than pigeon poo; then I could have been felled by E coli instead.

Think about it from the other end: if chemicals and pesticides in foods are as dangerous for humans as the Soil Association claims, we should expect conventional farmers, who handle the stuff in industrial quantities, to be dropping dead before the rest of us with all sorts of chemical-induced cancers.

The most exhaustive analysis of this matter was published in 2004, a peer-reviewed paper by Professor Anthony Trewavas of Edinburgh University, entitled A critical assessment of organic farming-and-food assertions with particular respect to the UK and the potential environmental benefits of no-till agriculture. (Trewavas is an advocate of no-till farming, which avoids damage to the soil caused by ploughing; organic farmers must plough to destroy all the weeds which would otherwise have been killed by pesticides.) His paper revealed that of 12 separate investigations on farmers involving in total about 300,000 people, 11 found that farmers had overall cancer rates very substantially lower than the general public.

Trewavas concludes that the reasons why farming is so healthy are not known, but these data indicate not only a null result for the hypothesis relating pesticide exposure to cancer, but a consistent result for the alternative, that pesticide exposure may protect against cancer. I realise that publicising Professor Trewavas's paper might itself cause medical problems, as Soil Association executives choke with rage, but I think this a risk offset by the benefits to the public as a whole.

The provocative professor also points out that in the period since 1950 - as pesticides and industrial farming took an increasing role in food production - stomach cancer rates have declined by 60% in western countries. This is generally ascribed to the fact that fruit and vegetable consumption has doubled in that period - but why did this change in diet occur? Because modern agriculture, aided by air freight, has been able to get such products to consumers at ever-cheaper prices all year round.

This just demonstrates the common-sense point that diet, rather than whether food is produced organically or not, is the key to healthy eating. It is that which lies behind the Ratner moment of the chief executive of Whole Foods, who confessed last week that he had been selling a bunch of junk. What the organic chain store boss was trying to say, I think, is that a high-fat diet is as bad for you when the food has an organic sticker on it as when it doesn't.

The general public, however, had already begun to call the organic bluff, perhaps one reason Whole Foods' sales have suffered over three consecutive quarters in the United States and Prince Charles's Duchy Originals has seen its profits slump. That noise - half-fart, half-howl - you heard last week was the organic balloon bursting


Imported or Hothouse?

My supermarket sells British and Spanish tomatoes. I'd prefer to buy homegrown but have heard that growing tomatoes uses up a great deal of energy. What should I buy?

Competition in the tomato market is fierce. British growers account for about a quarter of the home market. On average 300,000 tonnes are imported each year - about 70 per cent of them from Spain. Buying homegrown produce would seem to make more environmental sense. After all, transporting, refrigerating and storing tomatoes, creates a big carbon footprint.

But, as you point out, Spanish tomatoes grow in abundant sunshine, while Britain's crop requires large amounts of energy in the form of heat and light. UK growers say that they are at the forefront of energy-saving technology with about 25 per cent of greenhouses equipped with energy-efficient heat and power units.

In contrast, the hundreds of miles of polythene sheeting used to produce tomatoes in Spain can be seen from space.

Tomato plants need tickling to initiate pollination. In recent years British growers have been using bumblebees to do this. As bumblebees don't like pesticides, the use of chemicals has to be kept to an absolute minimum. Yet even this process does not escape controversy. Large agribusinesses breed quantities of bumblebees for pollinating tomatoes. Imported boxes of bees are put in the greenhouse and when pollination is finished, the bees are dumped.Some argue that nature should not be treated this way. Also there are worries about commercially-bred bees threatening native populations.

Perhaps taste is the best way to buy your tomatoes.


AA Gill

Asked whether he got tired of eating out 3 times a week for 14 years, he replied "You wouldn't ask a gigolo that, would you? He'd be just getting into his stride by then. I never ever get bored with eating out."

(When he's recognised in restaurant) .. the first thing that invariably happens is that the service gets worse. Eight people come round and ask if everything's all right; then there's a huge gap between the first and second course. The chef goes "I'm not serving him that, I'm doing it again."

"I rather despise sense of humour. People who are funny are people who haven't got the brains to be serious, although comedians are often very clever people, which is why they so often kill themselves. They despise themselves for this trick of making people laugh. It's a trick - it's like learning to be a juggler or napkin folding."

People come up to him and say "You closed down my restaurant," and I say "I probably didn't; it was probably closed by your ineptness as a restaurateur." Then they start on a rant. I think that's fair enough. I say, "If you want to have a rant, I'll give you five minutes so you can say whatever you have to say to get out of your system, and then I think we're square. If you want to know why I said what I said, I will talk to you for ten minutes, but it's your choice. Most people go for the rant."

As a traveller, Gill is far from satisfied with his journeys so far. "On his deathbed, the writer John Betjeman said he regretted not having more sex. My regret will not be that, but not travelling to enough places. I don't want to sit in a retirement home saying "I wish."

Collectively, the old are a pretty depressing shower. Collapsed question marks, they sit on benches, like memento-mori mimes, kicking and creaking and waiting for their batteries to run out. You say that as a society we've lost respect for old people: we ignore their wisdom and despise their experience. But any nine-year-old from Streatham will tell you that respect starts at home, and the old have patently lost theirs. Their wisdom is only that things were better before the rest of us were born. Their experience is that they're victims. They fail to see almost everything, and, in particular, that they have any obligation to those coming up behind them, other than to moan about manners and foreigners and the queues at the chiropodists. The old need dignity - and that's not something that can be given to you with a bus pass.

This now becomes a cautionary tale, a parable about fluttering hubris and stumbling nemesis. He'd discovered a website called simply, and elegantly, aagillisgod. I was rather taken aback, because it raised some tricky theological and metaphysical questions. Not least, could an all-powerful, all-seeing god be unaware of his own divinity? And there was, I will admit, a small swelling of the ego, a semi-tumescence in the wrinkled vanity. I smirked and harrumphed (How ridiculous. Don't people have better things to do with their time?), simultaneously elbowing him away from the screen, tutting loudly. The first entry read: I love AA Gill because he writes just like Jeremy Clarkson, but about food. How brilliant is that? Thwack! I was slapped in the face by the wet haddock of get-over-yourself. That turned out to be the shortest religious experience since Salman Rushdie converted to Islam.


Chocolate Covered, Crispy Bacon Burger - Otherwise Known As The Brooklynite

OK, what do you do when your hunger is on over-load and you are so famished, you can't figure out which teasingly tempting taste treat you should stick in your mouth first, in order to successfully satiate your craver for flavor as well as your stomach which is now dangerously below empty.

You've definitely gotta have bacon and at this point a burger sounds good, but your sweet tooth for chocolate is screaming out in need to be satisfied! So what do you do first? The good people over at Epic Nomz came up with a solution that sounds most reasonable and definitely enjoyable, to boot!

It's called the Brooklynite, as the chefs that put their culinary creativity together to come up with this burger are located in - well you're probably already well ahead of me on this one, and I'm guessing that you've already assumed - the city of Brooklyn, NY. That is correct! Here's what they have to say for themselves about this appetizing adventure and precisely how this deliciously delectable delight can find its way to a mouth near you - SOON!

Step 1: Bacon Dipped in Chocolate (Rain)

You can cook the bacon like you would for any other dish, according to your preferences. We went for a crispier texture that would really give the chocolate something to hold onto. After letting the bacon dry off a bit, we began dipping the strips into chocolate that was melted in a makeshift double-boiler (read: two shallow pots stacked on top of each other). The key is to fully submerge the bacon into the chocolaty goodness so that it really seeps into the ridges. Once you've got all your bacon smothered, set it on a plate in the freezer for about 20 minutes to let the chocolate solidify.

NB: It was our original plan to drizzle melted white chocolate over the chocolate-coated bacon, but it was fairly uncooperative so we abandoned that ambition fairly quickly. Kudos to those to achieve the white chocolate drizzle effect.

Step 2: Prepping the Patties

With one pound of vegetarian-fed ground beef on hand, we began sculpting the foundation of our meal - the rock on which our Church of Nomz is built. Since the quality and freshness of the meat was so high, we felt it unnecessary to add any spices or additional flavoring to the patties. We did, however, chop up some Armenian string cheese, and carefully fold it into the meat. You can really add in any kind of cheese you want (or omit it completely if you want your burger to be not as epic), but if you haven't tried string cheese of the Armenian variety, you may find yourself surprised by its mild flavor, smooth texture, and well, stringy goodness.

Step 3: Baking Buns, Cooking Cow

We went with a traditional white bread sesame seed bun, applied a layer of pepper-jack cheese, and laid each half open-faced on a baking rack. We advise to let bake for about 5-7 minutes, or until buns reach the proverbial golden-brown hue.

Concurrently, we began cooking the patties on the stovetop in a pan greased in butter (as the bacon grease was busy cooking our fries). For best results, keep the burger-flipping to a minimum. Too much man-handling of the beef makes it tough and dry. You want to be able to see the juices dripping from your burger when you take your first glorious bite. Total cooking time on the two 8 oz. burgers for us was about 15 minutes, and the result was tender, juicy, savory patties of perfection.

You can also wash and prep the lettuce at this point. We used a head of organic lettuce, but let's be honest, leafy greens are not to be emphasized in this dish. As long as you have something to add a little crispy crunch, we think you're covered.

Step 4: Put It Together, Admire Your Edible Artwork, and Nom Epically Now, just look at that beautiful thing that is just sitting in front of you, begging to be devoured. Notice how the chocolate, warmed by the heat emitted from the burger, begins to melt onto the patty. It is truly love at first sight - beef and pork making sweet love on your hot buns.

As you attempt to wrap your mouth around this beastly creation, reflect on the savory aroma, mixed textures, and downright weightiness of the sandwich. If you made the Brooklynite correctly, it will be massive. When you finally take that first bite, the dichotomous flavor dynamic between the chocolate and bacon may be initially strange and confusing, but as your taste buds familiarize themselves with this new combination, you will begin to appreciate this unique, delectable taste.

Feel free to pair with your drink of choice. We accompanied the Brooklynite with Stone Pale Ale.

Step 5: Reflect on What a Badass You Are

As digestion sets in and you find yourself slipping into a divine state of unconsciousness, think about what a great thing you did for yourself and for humanity. Rub that belly - you are a Hero. Hells yeah, that was Epic.


The One Ton Pumpkin

EARLY one morning about a month ago, Don Young peeled the floral bedsheets off the giant pumpkins growing in his backyard. Tiptoeing around the jungly vines, he carefully checked for holes. Then, bending his ear down over the nearest gourd, which was as high as his gut and wider than a truck tire, he gave it a solid smack and listened intently, like a doctor with a stethoscope. "This one's thumping pretty good," he said with a grin.

Mr. Young is one of a number of amateur gardeners whose heart's desire is to raise a pumpkin bigger than anybody else's. These enthusiasts have always been obsessed, but now they are especially so. With the current world record at 1,810 pounds (a Smart car, by comparison, weighs 1,600 pounds), these growers can see the most important milestone of all on the horizon: the one-ton pumpkin. Galvanized by the prospect, they are doubling their efforts and devising a raft of new strategies involving natural growth hormones, double grafting and more, to become the first to reach that goal.

This fall's pumpkin contests have begun, and as many as 14 amateur growers have won regional weigh-offs with entries tipping the scales at more than 1,500 pounds. The contests are far from over - they continue in force over the next two weekends - but already one pumpkin, raised by Dave Stelts of Edinburg, Pa., has come within three pounds of beating the 1,810-pound record set last year. Rumor has it that a record-breaker may emerge in California.

The extreme summer weather this year has somewhat dampened the prospects of many growers in the Midwest, including Mr. Young. Still, he plans to enter a couple of 1,300-pounders in a weigh-off in either Wisconsin or Minnesota this weekend, and true to his hobby's compulsive form, even as he prepares for those contests he is busy mapping his strategies for next year.

A professional tree trimmer by trade, Mr. Young, 47, spends $8,000 a year on his pumpkin hobby, money he admits he does not really have. His modest one-bedroom house is smaller than his backyard. "If you try to make a living growing pumpkins, you better have something to fall back on," he said about his day job. Mr. Young has set state pumpkin records in both Iowa and California - in 2009 Conan O'Brien smashed one of his giant pumpkins on television with a monster truck - and he is a leading figure among those who are fashioning new growing practices. He has invented a grafting technique, for instance, that pushes the food and energy of two pumpkin plants into a single fruit. Other top pumpkin competitors are experimenting with ZeoPro, a synthetic cocktail of supernutrients developed by NASA to grow lettuce and other edible plants in space.

This year, several growers have also tested out a pink powder bacteria that converts a plant's methane output into a natural growth hormone found in seaweed. Called PPFM (or pink-pigmented facultative methylotrophs), the substance is not even on the market, but the lure of the 2,000-pound pumpkin prompted those growers to obtain samples from RTI, the company in Salinas, Calf., testing the bacteria.

"These guys will try absolutely anything to get an edge on their competitors," said Neil Anderson, the president of RTI.

In fact, growers typically feed their pumpkins a compost 'brew' so rich - the water is mixed with worm castings, molasses and liquid kelp - that the fruits can gain as much as 50 pounds a day. "I like to say we're just a big bunch of obsessive-compulsive people," said Mr. Stelts, 52, the president of a group of giant-pumpkin enthusiasts called the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth. "The stuff we do to get pumpkins to this size, it's out of control." Sometimes, Mr. Young said, he will just sit among his pumpkins. "This is going to sound really crazy, but when these are really at their peak growth, they'll make a sound," he said. "You can feel it. It's something surging in the pumpkin. Bup. Bup."

When the season ends, growers like Mr. Young often tow their creations to a fairground or botanical garden for display; with walls a foot thick and low sugar content, the pumpkins are not fit for pie. But this inedibility has not deterred contractors, doctors, midwives and other amateurs from growing them., the Facebook-like forum of the giant-pumpkin world, now gets more than a million unique hits a month. And according to the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth, the number of officially sanctioned weigh-offs has grown from 22 to 92 in seven years, and now includes competitions in Italy, Finland and Australia.

With the right seeds and soil preparations, veterans say, it's fairly easy to grow an impressively large pumpkin. But the hobby's elite, while still amateurs, operate on a different playing field. These growers spend hundreds of dollars on laboratory analyses of soil and plant tissues to help them decide whether to add more nitrogen, say, or calcium. And they speed photosynthesis by spraying their plants' leaves with carbon dioxide.

"We're taking a natural process and we've got complete control over it," said Steve Connolly, 56, a grower in Sharon, Mass., whose pumpkins consistently rank among the world's 10 heaviest.

Taking control begins with pollination, a process that growers have wrested from the bees. In early summer, they cross-pollinate the pumpkins themselves, selecting a male flower from one plant and rubbing the pollen onto a female flower from another. Other budding pumpkins are eliminated so that the main vine supports only one plant. As extra vines sprout, they are likewise removed. The patch is more than tended. It is manicured.

But it is the seeds, a strong indicator of a pumpkin's size, that are the most bankable factor in the quest for giants. Last fall, Chris Stevens, 33, a Wisconsin general contractor who grew the 1,810-pound pumpkin, sold a single seed from it for $1,600, by far the most anyone has ever paid for a pumpkin seed. Its descendants may prove just as valuable.

Seed trading has helped set new world records almost every year since 1997, when a pumpkin first broke the 1,000-pound barrier. The Giant Pumpkin Commonwealth bestows special leather jackets on those who have grown a pumpkin over 1,400 pounds, a club that includes fewer than 50 gardeners. But Mr. Stelts said he was raising the minimum to 1,600 pounds because of the escalating competition.

"We'd like to award everybody," he said. "But you know what? It's not the Boy Scouts. You've got to prove yourself." MR. YOUNG keeps his pumpkin trophies, ribbons and plaques in a corner of his living room. Cash winnings are reinvested in his hobby. But there is no award for what may be his greatest accomplishment: dual grafting.

To explain, he crouched in the dirt, pointing to a double stump that he grafted together in his kitchen last winter. Each stump is the size of a beefy forearm, and the root systems bring in twice the nutrients. "They told me it couldn't be done, they told me that for years," said Mr. Young, who had to sacrifice 300 pumpkin seeds before he discovered the best way to fuse two young pumpkin sprouts. He borrowed a surgical knife from a hog farmer to shave the stems and then clipped them together with hair barrettes. Soon he and his wife, Julie, had to avoid knocking over pots and heat lamps spread around the kitchen counters.

Next year, he plans to grow all his pumpkins with grafted double sprouts. "With good weather, I can really set the world on fire," he said. His competitive spirit is also extending beyond pumpkins; he has started to grow championship long gourds that are as thick as a bull snake. Mrs. Young, 46, supports her husband's hobby and has even won a trophy herself for pumpkin growing. "It's exciting," she said. "He doesn't do anything small. He's all in, like in poker." She added, "People don't realize that there's gardening, then there's extreme gardening."

Extreme gardening involves money and sacrifice. Mr. Young wakes up in the middle of the night to check his pumpkins. He uses 27,000 gallons of water a month - nearly enough to supply a family of four for a year - and he has 80 sprinkler heads. He runs heat lamps all night after planting seeds in the chilly April ground, and cools his gourds with fans in sweltering midsummer heat. He can't remember the last time he took a vacation.

Still, for all the work, heartbreak is inevitable. A gardener can pamper his gourds for months and vigilantly stave off rot, disease and bad weather. But sometimes the giant fruits are so juiced up that they do not know how to stop feeding themselves. Mr. Connolly remembers with particular sadness one morning a few years ago when he left his pumpkins to go to church. He was gone for less than an hour, but he returned to find that his biggest pumpkin had exploded under the force of its own growth spurt. "There was a footlong crack through the rind," he said. "It just blew up."


Food that looks fishy

The traditional British fish supper may soon come with an additional garnish - a DNA guarantee of authenticity.

'Fish fraud', where consumers pay premium prices for cheap species, has become a global problem and scientists in America are in talks with restaurants and seafood suppliers to use DNA tests to assure customers that they are getting the fish they paid for.The British Government is open to adopting the technology too.

In New York two high-school pupils used DNA tests to show that caviar said to be from sturgeon actually came from Mississippi paddlefish. Consumer Reports, a non-profit researcher, found that not one fish sold as 'lemon sole' in the US was genuine. In 2007 several people became seriously ill after eating toxic pufferfish from China that had been labelled 'monkfish' to skirt import restrictions.

This year a report by The Boston Globe found that "if you're at a sushi restaurant and they're serving red snapper, it's almost definitely not red snapper". A report published by the European Commission last month found that one in five 'cod' products in Britain and Ireland was a cheap imposter. Fish that was labelled 'sustainably sourced' Pacific cod was frequently Atlantic cod, stocks of which have collapsed.

Scientists are proposing a system of analysing fish DNA and matching it against a database to authenticate its identity. The technique, championed by the Consortium for the Barcode of Life in Washington, can deliver results in a few hours.

Cheaper scale
- Panga: also known as pangasius, Vietnamese river cobbler, or basa. A catfish similar to cod and haddock, it is farmed in the Mekong River
Coley: also known as saithe or coalfish. A member of the cod and haddock family, common across the Atlantic, it has a meaty, flaky texture
- Pollock: renamed 'colin', the French for hake, by Sainsbury's. Commonly used in fish fingers, it is a member of the cod family but far more populous
- Escolar: sometimes called butterfish and mislabelled 'white tuna'. Similar to salmon, but its large oil content prompted the nickname 'ex-lax'


Locavores Are Wrong Wrong Wrong

Let me state my position baldly: there is no problem to which local food - or at least buying your food within some predetermined distance of home - is a good solution. Despite the claims of some campaigners, local food won't save the planet, it won't make us healthier, it won't restore traditional communities and it doesn't offer greater food security.

The big claim usually made in terms of the environment and local food is that we should be trying to reduce our 'food miles'. It seems to make sense that the shorter the distance between fork and fork - between the one in the soil and the one on our plate - the better. The trouble with that theory is that transport from field to warehouse to shop is just one small part of the total environmental impact of our food.

Insisting on local food could actually increase the environmental impact of what we eat. Frequently, less energy is used when producing a food crop under ideal growing conditions and then transporting it long distances rather than using extra energy to produce it locally. The classic example is New Zealand lamb, which is produced in that country's plentiful pasture and then shipped to the UK. Lamb produced in the UK often needs to be fed with grain when pasture is inaccessible, which adds to the cost and environmental impact. On the other hand, filling a huge container ship with frozen lamb and shipping it round the world means the fuel costs for each unit of lamb are actually small. As a result, New Zealand lamb probably has a lower environmental impact than the UK variety and is cheaper, too. Another example would be tomatoes that are grown in hot countries and then shipped to countries with temperate climates. The energy required to grow tomatoes in the UK is often greater than the energy required to ship them from Spain, for example.

Some locavores respond by giving up food that doesn't grow well in their neck of the woods. Fine, but if you live in a big city like London, for example, you need a pretty broad definition of what 'local' means in order to feed yourself. If you come from a region with great agricultural variety that might not be too bad, but the truth is that any local diet must forgo some kinds of food or simply not be terribly local. I'm not aware that Canada or the UK are big producers of tea, coffee, bananas, spices and a whole variety of other foods.

Would people who really care about food, who revel in the joy of discovering new foods from around the world, really now turn their noses up at food products because those foods come from too far away? That seems mad.

This speaks to a major problem with environmentalism, which approaches environmental problems by simply insisting we stop doing certain things, whatever the advantages. In this case, because food that has been transported a long way is seen as a problem, we should just stop importing it. A far better approach is to find ways of getting the advantages without the side effects. If greenhouse gas emissions really are going to become a major problem in the future - and my feeling is that the problem has been overstated - we need to find ways of transporting goods with fewer emissions or adapting to rising temperatures. Sadly, greens seem more intent on finding problems caused by humanity than in finding solutions.

One more thing on this point: if we don't have specialisation of production, then a return to localised food production would mean using more land to grow food. If we're not growing food in the most ideal conditions, then to get the same amount of food would mean using more land. That's particularly true if we also have a return to organic farming methods and crop rotations, as many environmentalists and local-food advocates call for. Where would that land come from? Bringing uncultivated land into production seems to fly in the face of allowing nature to flourish. What's so 'green' about that? But isn't local food healthier? Some claim that if you buy direct from the farmer, for example, then perhaps the food is fresher and that may have benefits in terms of retaining nutrients. However, the fact is that those of us who live in countries with cold (or coldish) winters cannot eat fresh food all year round if we restrict ourselves to what can be produced locally. Most of the food we eat is harvested and stored in one way or another for at least three months per year when little food production is possible.

As it happens, freshness is the least significant factor in nutrition. Most people in the developed world have no problem getting all the vitamins and minerals they need, even from that 'industrialised' food some people seem to hate. Nutrition is not an issue if people get enough to eat and have some reasonable variety in their diet. It really doesn't matter how far the food travelled or whether it came from the supermarket or the farm shop. The question of whether food is local or not is a side issue when it comes to health.

Of course, it would clearly be difficult to eat a lot of processed foods if you only did your shopping at the farm gate or the farmer's market, so you could cut out a lot of sugary, stodgy food in favour of more fruit and vegetables. But if that was a concern for you, it would still be easier and cheaper to cook from scratch using supermarket food. There's mountains of fruit, vegetables, meat and other ingredients in every store. There's nothing that is inherently healthier about local food.

But what about local food as a way of reviving community? It just sounds so great: you get together with your neighbours to grow food or to develop relationships with food suppliers and producers and in the process gain a sense of belonging. No more would you be dependent on The Man. Working together with other people towards common goals can be a very liberating thing. But do we really need to get together around food, a problem most people would see as solved by a weekly and relatively inexpensive trip to the supermarket? Why would you spend more money or devote more time and energy to something that already works well? Moreover, this reveals a narrow conception of community, which ties it to a particular geographical area rather than around sharing ideas and common interests. While many people would like to feel a stronger connection with other people in society, simply rehashing old forms of community seems like a backward step to me.

A good example of this is The People's Supermarket. This is a store near where I work in London which was set up with great fanfare and a four-part TV series. The idea was to try a different model of shopping. People who live in the local area staff the shop and get discounts in return for their work. It's modelled on the Park Slope Co-op in New York. The trouble is that people can get those low prices and a wider selection of foods at the branches of mainstream supermarket chains like Tesco, Sainsburys and Waitrose that already operate nearby. Where is the material incentive for people to work to get what is, to all intents and purposes, a poorer service?

Despite the fact that The People's Supermarket has received not inconsiderable public subsidy, it is struggling to survive because it can't staff itself from the local community it claims to represent. On the other hand, there are people who hate the supermarkets and Big Food who are prepared to travel from further afield to work there or to support The People's Supermarket in different ways. In other words, they share a common interest in changing the way we buy food that can't be reduced to a particular geographical area. Once again, 'local' is a side issue.

But what about food security? If we can grow all our own food, then why wouldn't we? That would make us secure, no matter what else went on in the world, right? Yet we have far more food security now than we did in the past precisely because we trade with the rest of the world. In recent years in the UK, we've had summers with low rainfall, so crops were parched and harvests reduced. In years with floods, crops have rotted in the fields under water. In those circumstances, it's rather a good thing to be able to buy food from places that had better harvests. It is poverty and a lack of access to markets that really create food insecurity. There's another important question underlying the debate motion: who, exactly, is 'us'? Does 'us' include, for example, the Kenyan farmer producing green beans for export to the UK or a Caribbean banana grower sending fruit to Canada? If those people do count as 'us', then banning imports of their products won't be very good for 'us' at all. In the long run, it is better for farmers in poorer countries to produce valuable food crops for export, and use the money to help develop their own farms and their societies, than to demand that they go back simply to feeding themselves.

To me, locavorism is like survivalism for eco-warriors, though at least you avoid the hassle of learning to use a crossbow or hiding in the woods. Locavorism seems to me to be a backward idea, a way of running away from the world rather than embracing the best aspects of globalisation and trying to solve the teething troubles that arise. Going local certainly won't 'save the planet' and it definitely isn't good for anyone.


Poverty, Food and Malnutrition

IN Eldorado, one of S'o Paulo';s poorest and most misleadingly named favelas, some eight-year-old boys are playing football on a patch of ground once better known for drug gangs and hunger. Although they look the picture of health, they are not. After the match they gather around a sack of bananas beside the pitch.

"At school, the kids get a full meal every day," explains Jonathan Hannay, the secretary-general of Children at Risk Foundation, a local charity. "But in the holidays they come to us without breakfast or lunch so we give them bananas. They are filling, cheap, and they stimulate the brain." Malnutrition used to be pervasive and invisible in Eldorado. Now there is less of it and, equally important, it is no longer hidden. It has become more visible - so people are doing something about it.

If Eldorado's slum children today eat better, it is partly thanks to Jose Graziano da Silva. He ran Brazil's Fome Zero (zero hunger) campaign, a policy that has helped to cut hunger by more than a third in Latin America's largest country. Now Mr Graziano wants to apply the lessons he has learned more widely: he recently took over as head of the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). And he stands a better chance of success than his predecessors. His appointment coincides with a shift in the world's approach to fighting hunger.

Governments around the world are paying increasing attention to nutrition. In 2010 donors, charities and companies drew up a how-to policy guide called SUN (which stands for scale up nutrition). Britain's Department for International Development and other aid agencies are devoting more of their money to nutritional projects. The World Bank has nailed its colours to the mast with a book called Repositioning Nutrition as Central to Development. Save the Children, an international charity, talks about 'galvanising political leadership' behind the effort. Underlying all this is a change in thinking about how best to improve nutrition, with less stress on providing extra calories and food and more on improving nutrition by supplying micro-nutrients such as iron and vitamins.

In the 1960s and 1970s, ending hunger and malnutrition seemed relatively simple: you grew more crops. If the harvest failed, rich countries sent food aid. But the Ethiopian famine of 1984 undermined this approach. Here was a disaster of biblical proportions in a country where food was available. It was a reminder of what an Indian economist, Amartya Sen, had long taught: what really matters with food is not the overall supply, but individual access.

So in the 1990s and early 2000s the emphasis switched to helping people obtain food. This meant reducing poverty and making agricultural markets more efficient. Between 1990 and 2005 the number of people living on less than $1 a day in poor countries (at 2005 purchasing-power parity) fell by a third to 879m, or from 24.9% of the total population to 18.6%.

Yet the food-price spike of 2007-08 showed that this approach also had limitations. Prices of many staple crops doubled in a year; millions went hungry. The world remains bad at fighting hunger. Experts argue about exactly how many people are affected, but the number has probably held flat at just below 1 billion since 1990.

Even where there is enough food, people do not seem healthier. On top of 1 billion without enough calories, another 1 billion are malnourished in the sense that they lack micro-nutrients (this is often called “hidden hunger”). And a further 1 billion are malnourished in the sense that they eat too much and are obese. It is a damning record: out of the world population of 7 billion, 3 billion eat too little, too unhealthily, or too much.

Malnutrition is attracting attention now because the damage it does has only recently begun to sink in. The misery of lacking calories—bloated bellies, wasted limbs, the lethargy of famine—is easy to spot. So are the disastrous effects of obesity. By contrast, the ravages of inadequate nutrition are veiled, but no less dreadful.

More than 160m children in developing countries suffer from a lack of vitamin A; 1m die because they have weak immune systems and 500,000 go blind each year. Iron deficiency causes anaemia, which affects almost half of poor-country children and over 500m women, killing more than 60,000 of them each year in pregnancy. Iodine deficiency—easily cured by adding the stuff to salt—causes 18m babies each year to be born with mental impairments.

Malnutrition is associated with over a third of children's deaths and is the single most important risk factor in many diseases (see chart). A third of all children in the world are underweight or stunted (too short for their age), the classic symptoms of malnourishment.

The damage malnutrition does in the first 1,000 days of life is also irreversible. According to research published in The Lancet, a medical journal, malnourished children are less likely (all things being equal) to go to school, less likely to stay there, and more likely to struggle academically. They earn less than their better-fed peers over their lifetimes, marry poorer spouses and die earlier.

Paradoxically, malnutrition can also cause obesity later in life. In the womb and during the first couple of years, the body adjusts to a poor diet by squirrelling away whatever it can as fat (an energy reserve). It never loses its acquired metabolism. This explains the astronomical obesity rates in countries that have switched from poor to middle-income status. In Mexico, for instance, obesity was almost unknown in 1980. Now 30% of Mexican adults are clinically obese and 70% are overweight. These are among the highest rates in the world, almost as bad as in America. India has an obesity epidemic in cities, as people eat more processed food and adopt more sedentary lifestyles. And with obesity will come new diseases such as diabetes and heart disease—as if India did not have enough diseases to worry about.

Nutrition is also attracting attention because of some puzzling failures. In a few big countries, notably India and Egypt, malnutrition is much higher than either economic growth or improvements in farming would suggest it should be. India's income per head grew more than fourfold between 1990 and 2010; yet the proportion of underweight children fell by only around a quarter. By contrast, Bangladesh is half as rich as India and its income per head rose only threefold during the same period; yet its share of underweight children dropped by a third and is now below India's. Egypt's agricultural value-added per person rose more than 20% in 1990-2007. Yet both malnutrition and obesity rose—an extremely unusual combination.

The good news is that better nutrition can be a stunningly good investment. Fixing micro-nutrient deficiencies is cheap. Vitamin supplements cost next to nothing and bring lifelong benefits. Every dollar spent promoting breastfeeding in hospitals yields returns of between $5-67. And every dollar spent giving pregnant women extra iron generates between $6-14. Nothing else in development policy has such high returns on investment. In 2008, as part of a project called the Copenhagen consensus, eight prize-winning economists listed the projects they thought would do most good (they had an imaginary $75 billion to spend). Half their proposed projects involved nutrition.

If malnutrition does so much damage and the actions against it are cheap and effective, why is the affliction only now being taken seriously? Some countries have successfully tackled it. Brazil cut the number of underweight people by 0.7% a year between 1986 and 1996 and reduced stunting by 1.9% a year. Bangladesh reduced both rates by 2% a year in 1994-2005.

But in many countries the problem of hidden hunger is hidden from victims themselves, so there is no pressure for change. If everyone in a village is undernourished, poor nutrition becomes the norm and everyone accepts it. This may also explain the reluctance of poor, ill-fed people to spend extra money on food, preferring instead to buy such things as televisions or a fancy wedding. When asked about his spending choices, an ill-fed Moroccan farmer told Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo of the Poverty Action Laboratory, a think-tank: "Oh, but television is more important than food."

Education can help change attitudes by persuading people they would benefit from a better (if more expensive) diet. But people in rich countries consume vast quantities of junk food knowing full well that it is bad for them. It is unrealistic to expect consumers in poor countries to behave differently. Hence the idea of doing good by stealth.

Just push all the buttons at once

HarvestPlus, a research group, breeds staple crops with extra nutrients and distributes the bio-fortified seeds. It released a vitamin A-rich cassava in Nigeria in 2011. This year it will bring vitamin A-rich maize (corn) to Zambia and iron-rich beans and pearl millet to Rwanda and India. Companies do something similar with processed foods: Kraft's Biskuat biscuits (sold in Indonesia) have nine vitamins and six minerals added.

But education or fortified foods alone will not overcome the most intractable barrier to better nutrition, which is the sheer complexity of the task. Some problems of development are relatively straightforward. You can improve education by building schools and paying teachers. Nutrition is not like that.

In many countries nutritional standards vary according to the season. Often both the amount and quality of food drop alarmingly in the months before the main harvest. Nutrition varies also within households. Mothers eat less in bad times to leave more for their older children, which harms the suckling child. Culture adds to the problem. In rural Bangladesh an attempt to improve nutrition by educating young mothers backfired, because the family diet turns out to be determined not by mothers, but by mothers-in-law.

And nutrition can also be improved in all sorts of ways, including by better sanitation, which reduces intestinal diseases and enables people to absorb more nutrients; by investing in smallholder farming, to increase dietary variety; by vaccinating children against diseases; by educating women to breastfeed babies for longer, to improve immunity. Marie Ruel, of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, DC, ticks off some of the tasks: focus on the first 1,000 days of life (including pregnancy); scale up maternal-health programmes and the teaching of good feeding practices; concentrate on the poor; measure and monitor the problem.

All this implies that a successful effort to improve nutrition has to push all the buttons at once. Brazil's Fome Zero has 90 separate programmes run by 19 ministries. It embraces everything from a conditional cash-transfer scheme, called Bolsa Familia, to irrigation projects and help for smallholders. Such an effort is hard to organise and cannot work unless politicians support it. "Malnutrition reduction needs powerful champions who know how to get things done across government, avoid gobbledygook and finish the story," says Lawrence Haddad, director of Britain's Institute of Development Studies.

Let them eat mangoes

Hence the importance of Mr Graziano, the FAO's new boss. Interest in improving nutrition is growing; so is alarm at the failures of fighting malnutrition so far. He will not find it easy to cajole more countries into a large, broad-based effort. Governments are reluctant to change and want clear evidence. And just as the damage from malnutrition builds up over a lifetime, so better nutrition reveals its benefits only over many years, as well-fed mothers pass on good health to well-fed children.

At a recent FAO conference someone was heard to remark that "at the moment nutritionists are in a position similar to environmentalists in the 1990s." That is depressing, because it means progress will be slow; but it is encouraging, because progress will come eventually.


Caveman Diet

As a chef promoting the caveman diet, Thomas Rode Andersen certainly lives the brand. His buff, hard-bodied torso is encased in a T-shirt that reads “Man The F*** Up!”. His strange Five Fingers shoes — a sort of neoprene foot-glove — give him the look of a less evolved primate.

Although we are chatting at the Michelin-starred Kong Hans Kaelder restaurant in Copenhagen, where Andersen is head chef, he started his day at his beach house on the Danish coast. Swimming in the icy water he speared a few fish and ate them raw for breakfast. He would be more authentic only if he spoke in grunts. Instead, Denmark’s own Gordon Ramsay — with his own TV cooking show — talks in rapid, sweary English, about his passion for the foods of our prehistoric forebears that he serves at Palaeo, his new caveman takeaway. This regime, as you might guess, comprises lots of meat, eggs and fish, vegetables, nuts and berries, a little native fruit — apples and pears but no exotica like mangos. A modern caveman does not feast upon sugar, alcohol, processed foods, potato or grains.

I inquire about bread and Andersen makes a gun with his forefingers and shoots himself in the mouth. “Bread is suicide,” he says fiercely. Indeed the caveman hot dog at Palaeo comes in a bun made of egg, whose only disadvantage is that it falls apart if you raise it to your mouth.

Andersen, 44, has not always been a caveman. It was only when he got divorced and met, seven years ago, a hot young cavewoman, that he decided to change his ways. “I was brushing my teeth in front of the mirror and I could see my titties jiggling,” he recalls. “I had met this beautiful girl, who was 14 years younger than me. I realised I had to do something to keep up with her and remain attractive.”

So Andersen, who has two children from his first marriage, took up Crossfit, the aggressive fitness regime that replicates the living patterns of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. This involves intensive two-hour workouts, arduous sprints (as in pursuing prey) and dead-lifting 210kg weights, but also manly outdoor pursuits like sea fishing under the ice in the midst of the Scandinavian winter. (Unlike his Neolithic forebears, he wears a wetsuit.) Andersen transformed his diet, too, into that of primitive Man. “People are frightened of fat,” he says. “But they shouldn’t be: the ideal is 40 per cent fat, 20 per cent protein, 20 per cent carbs, with the rest in vegetables.”

He lost weight, muscled up and claims he is fitter than he was in his twenties. Though he has continued to create classic French cuisine for his ritzy customers, he has discreetly removed potato, cream and sugar to make his cooking healthier.

Meanwhile at Palaeo, his menu is pure “primal gastronomy”: a delicious salmon wrap with radish and spinach or “spag bol” where the “pasta” is actually strands of carrots, celery or cucumber cooked in duck fat. “Meatza” is a base of minced beef topped with baked tomatoes, pickled mushrooms and parsley pesto. This fast-food joint, in Torvehallerne, Copenhagen’s equivalent of Borough Market in London, is frequented by Andersen’s butch Crossfit buddies, including hefty policemen and special-forces soldiers.

While this claims to be the first caveman takeaway, the Palaeo movement has spread across the world. Some adherents fast for up to three days, as our ancestors would go empty-bellied between kills. The most extreme regularly give blood to replicate the injuries sustained by hunting.

“I sometimes can’t resist that Danish pickled herring, rye bread, beer and a glass of schnapps,” Andersen says. “But next thing I’m driving in the dark to jump into the harbour and fish under the ice, while all the flabby guys my age are sitting on the sofa. You need to kick yourself in the ass just to feel alive.”


Why Your Food Doesn't Look Like The Ads

Apparently there’s not much difference between a supermodel and a McDonald’s cheeseburger — both rely on stylists and photographers to look their best.A YouTube video which has racked up more than two million views since it was posted this week takes viewers behind the scenes of a burger print ad for before and after juxtapositions.

It’s part of a McDonald’s initiative called “Our Food, Your Questions” which finds executives responding to direct queries from consumers, such as whether the fast-food giant uses 100 per cent beef and real eggs in its offerings.The enterprise reflects the trend towards transparency and engagement as firms move away from “top down marketing communication,” said McMaster University marketing professor Manish Kacker.“Companies have realized that in this age of social media they no longer control their brand messaging,” he explained.

“Behind the scenes at a McDonald’s photo shoot” was purportedly triggered by an Isabel M. from Toronto who asked “Why does your food look different in the advertising than what’s in the store?”

A camera follows McDonald’s Canada director of marketing Hope Bagozzi as she buys a quarter pounder with cheese and takes it to the company’s creative agency for a side-by-side comparison with a burger made from scratch by a food stylist.

“That (purchased) burger was made in about a minute or so, the process we go through on the average shoot takes several hours,” said Bagozzi of the procedure she refers to as the “finessing of the product.”The stylist uses the same ingredients employed in the restaurants — beef patty, ketchup, mustard, onions, bun, pickles — but assembles them as if primping a catwalk model.After melting the cheese with a blow dryer, he smoothes it with a palette knife and uses a syringe to apply the condiments. After the shoot, an imaging tech enhances the colour and removes blemishes from the bun.

The result is a glossy looking burger that appears almost twice the size of the store bought version.

“The box that our sandwiches come in keep the sandwiches warm, so it creates a bit of a steam effect, and it does make the bun contract a little bit.”

The behind the scenes video is a “somewhat courageous move” designed to dispel “urban myth about the product,” said Ken Wong, marketing professor at Queen’s University.“The best case scenario for McDonald’s is everybody leaves and says ‘Alright, they’re telling it straight up, they’re not hiding the stylist, but the ingredients — and that’s what we care most about because it is food — are authentic and real and none of the mythology is true.’”


Professional women are slimming down

IT IS the phenomenon that is providing experts with plenty of food for thought: while everyone else is piling on the pounds, professional women are slimming down. According to official figures from the National Obesity Observatory (NOO), an organisation established in 2007 to provide authoritative data on the nation’s obesity epidemic, females who have careers in fields such medicine, the law or business are the only social group to lose weight in the past 15 years. In 1997, 15% of professional women were obese. By 2008, the last recorded figures, the figure was 14%. The proportion actually fell to as low as 10% in the early part of the last decade, although NOO says that may have been because of the low number of women questioned during that period.

By contrast, the percentage of professional men classed as obese rose from 15% to more than 20% between 1997 and 2008. NOO, which is carrying out further work on the data, also found that there were larger differences in the prevalence of obesity among females of different social class groups, compared with men.

The trend among professional women has been attributed to women’s desire to outperform male rivals in the workplace or a belief that, despite decades of feminist campaigning for equality, a perception that women will be judged on appearance rather than skill persists.

Andrew Hill, professor of medical psychology at Leeds University, believes that professional women are particularly aware of prejudice against those who are overweight.“Appearance is the most important attribute for women in our society,” he said. “Valuing them only for their appearance is a way for men to subjugate them. There is absolutely no doubt that to be fat in our current society is a disadvantage and particularly if you are female.”

Ann Widdecombe, the former Tory minister who suffered jibes about her appearance before re-inventing herself as a slimmer television personality, agrees that society makes demands on how women should look. “There is possibly more pressure on young women, but I think the pressure on women to be concerned about their appearance has always been there,” she said.

The theory was supported by Sponsor Effect: UK, a report released last week into the lack of British female executives that found women are 39% more likely than men to believe that looks and appearance contribute to success in the workplace. “Women often don’t get promoted because they don’t have executive presence — a huge part of which is being slim and toned,” said Sylvia Hewlett, an economist who leads the New York-based Center for Talent Innovation, which published the report. “No wonder professional women are sticking to those diets.”

Last month a study was published by researchers in Manchester and in Melbourne, Australia, that involved asking student volunteers to assess the leadership potential of six fat and six thin women with identical educational backgrounds, based on their CVs and photographs. The fat candidates scored more poorly.

Helen Jackson, 61, a barrister from Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, who weighs more than 16 stone, believes that while portly male lawyers are tolerated, female ones are not. “I make a point of dressing smartly and giving the impression of being a together person but the pressure on women to look the part has definitely got worse since I was called to the bar in 1975,” she said. “Women now are slaves to their appearance more than they ever were.”

By contrast, some ascribe the trend to a realisation among women that a healthy body creates a healthy mind. Heather Jackson, chief executive of the Women’s Business Forum, which brings together leading businessmen and women to discuss the positive effect of gender-balanced boards and workforces, said: “This data is no surprise to me. You only have to look at the FTSE 100 to see that the best leaders — men or women — are not obese people. You have to be healthy and fit to be effective. “I don’t think professional women are going out to look the part. They have just been the first group to wake up to the damage to health caused by too much weight.”


Restaurant Language

The children were given beta-carotene either in the rice, in pure form in oil, or in spinach. All the beta carotene they received contained isotopes enabling any vitamin A made from it to be distinguished from vitamin A that was already circulating in their blood.

Analyses showed that it took 2.3 grams of beta-carotene derived from rice to make a single gram of vitamin A - only marginally less efficient than making it from oil, which took 2 grams (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, DOI: 10.3945/ajcn.111.030775).

"The conversion rate can't get better than that," says Adrian Dubock, project manager for the Golden Rice Project. He hopes that Golden Rice will eventually become widely available, despite objections. "It's been a long haul, but the new results give us confidence we're on the right track," he says.



It's time to stop demonising fat – what matters is where it's hiding, says body MRI expert

You say it's only in recent decades that fat has been demonised. What do you mean?

For thousands of years, people who would now be considered overweight were admired. To be large was a sign of prosperity, and was associated with fertility. If you look at paintings and drawings over thousands of years, you are always going to see women with a body mass index above 25, and up to 30, who are considered beautiful. It is only in the last 30 years that we have seen a drop in BMI in such portrayals and the concept of health related to lower and lower BMIs.

Have we really got our ideas about fat so wrong?

If you stop people in the street and ask them if they are happy with their amount of fat, they will say no. If you then ask if they want to reduce it, they say yes. Ask by how much and they will say they want to reduce it completely. Getting rid of fat should not be the aim. The aim should be to have a healthy amount, but nobody thinks in those terms. We have demonised it.

Who is to blame for fat's bad press?

There is not a day that goes by without an article in a newspaper or magazine telling you how to reduce fat. Not a single article will say, look, not only is a certain amount of fat good, but it is essential for your well-being.

How should we regard our body fat then?

Not just as a dumping ground for excess energy, which is the way most people see it, but as a beautiful organ that interacts with your environment and helps maintain homeostasis within your body. Fat controls and modulates your fertility, your appetite and your mood. Your immune response will not work properly if you don't have the right amount of fat.

Is this demonising of fat harmful?

We have shown that people who diet strictly can have problems. Supermodels tend to have a lot of liver fat, which is unhealthy, although their BMI can be as low as 15 to 16. The separation between beauty and health has created its own problems. We now consider people to be beautiful if they have a very low BMI but it would be healthier to have a BMI of 24, with the right distribution of fat.

Is all fat good for you?

There is a reason why body fat is there and it is a reflection of your lifestyle. Too much fat, where it is and in what form might be bad. Excess fat in the liver is bad. Subcutaneous fat, particularly around your gluteal area, is protective.

So where excess fat ends up is important?

Absolutely. With new imaging techniques, we have discovered people with "sub-phenotypes" of fat distribution. They have normal levels of fat but with increased risk of certain diseases because of fat deposits in and around internal organs. This is what we call Tofi - thin on the outside, fat inside. This internal fat is believed to be more likely to lead to type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Other people can increase their external fat with very little effect on their internal fat.


Alternative Restaurants

Alternative Restaurants


Mealworms: The Other-Other-Other White Meat?

Looking for the perfect holiday entrée? Something nutritious yet easy on the Earth? Something with a subtle, yet distinctive, je-ne-sais-quoi flavor? Have you considered the humble mealworm? What about the super superworm?

Before you click away in disgust, remember that the creeping, shelled, 10-legged crustacean we now so lovingly dip in butter (ahem, the lobster) was once considered so repulsive as to be inhumane to feed to prisoners. And in many parts of the world, insects are already a popular - and important - menu item.

A new study, published online December 19 in PLoS ONE, makes the case that the mealworm (Tenebrio molitor) and the superworm (Zophobas morio)—consumed as larval forms before they become beetles—are palatable (ecologically speaking) alternatives to traditional livestock products.

Rearing cows, pigs and chickens is an intensive ecological endeavor. Currently, more than two thirds of all agricultural land is used for animal production (whether housing the animals themselves or growing feed crops for them). This whole process—from fertilizing grain to raising (farting) cows to shipping milk—produces some 15 percent of all human-generated greenhouse gasses. Many climate-minded researchers have advocated switching to a more plant-based diet as a way to reduce these harmful emissions. But bugs might be an opportunity to keep animal protein on the menu.

Mealworms might be more familiar to pet owners as reptile, fish or bird food. But these insects are already available freeze-dried, canned or live for human consumption and can be baked into breads and cookies, deep fried with potatoes for more nutritious French fries or simply roasted with some salt for a protein-rich snack.

For the new study, researchers examined the process of raising these two insects - the “cradle-to-farm-gate approach,” as they noted. Dennis Oonincx, of the Department of Plant Sciences, and Imke de Boer, of the Animal Department of Animal Sciences (both at Wageningen University) studied a Dutch mealworm producer called van de Ven Insectenkwekerij in the town of Deurne. The worms were fed a diet of carrots and mixed grains. The insects also required recycled cardboard egg trays, a climate-controlled rearing station (which requires natural gas and electricity), cages, as well as water.

Nevertheless, they appeared to be a more sustainable source of protein than beef, pork, chicken or milk. To produce one kilogram of protein, including feed growing, the mealworms required just one tenth the amount of land required to produce one kilogram of beef—and much less than chicken, pork and milk, too. Producing one kilogram of mealworms generated about 2.7 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent in greenhouse gas (mealworms do not produce earth-warming methane, like gassy ruminants do, although the worms do produce their own tiny manure), which is far less than the standard livestock lineup. The lion’s share (42 percent) of the mealworms’ greenhouse gas contribution came from producing and transporting grain feed (26 percent of the CO2 came from the heating gas; 17 percent came from the electricity; and 14 percent came from the production and transportation of carrots).

The study authors suspect that with additional research, the bugs could become an even more Earth-friendly option. “Over the last two decades productivity of chickens and pigs has increased annually by 2.3 percent, due to the application of science and new technologies,” they wrote in their paper. “Further improvement of the mealworm production system by, for instance, automation, feed optimization or genetic strain selection is expected to increase productivity and decrease environmental impact.”

The mealworms are already quite efficient at turning mealworm food into mealworm-based food for humans. They can convert about 2.2 kilograms of food into a kilogram of total bug weight (which is similar to chickens and a much better rate than pigs and cows). They are also proficient reproducers. The female mealworm T. molitor matures in about 10 weeks and will lay some 160 eggs in her short three-month life; and the impressive female superworm Z. morio reaches maturity in three and a half months and can lay some 1,500 eggs in her year of life.

Perhaps most important, the authors concluded, was the mealworm’s small land demand. Forest clearing for agricultural use is a major global contributor of greenhouse gas emissions. “Since the population of our planet keeps growing, and the amount of land on this earth is limited, a more efficient, and more sustainable system of food production is needed,” Oonincx said in a prepared statement. “Now, for the first time, it has been shown that mealworms, and possibly other edible insects, can aid in achieving such a system.”

So perhaps insects will someday graduate from novelty candy and double-dare tequila shots to a meal’s main attraction. Even if they aren’t yet replacing many holiday hams.


"Secret" Menus

The workman at the table next to me in McDonald’s is staring. Unable to recognise the hefty burger sitting in front of me, he leans over to ask what I am chowing down on. “A Land, Sea and Air Burger,” I say. Consisting of a beef patty, a fillet of fish and a slice of fried chicken all stacked in a single bun and topped with cheese, this burger, I explain, is a special from the “secret menu”.

The perplexed workman glances upwards and consults the familiar, highly stylised pictures of yellow foodstuffs. He soon realises that this is not a menu advertised by the restaurant. Rather, this secret menu is one that has been devised by some of the chain’s more adventurous aficionados.

The craze started online — of course — and now most fast-food chains have secret menus in circulation among their devotees. From its American origins, the desire to customise the most standard of culinary offerings has quickly spread to Britain.

On the McDonald’s secret menu along with the Land, Sea and Air Burger is a Big McChicken — a Big Mac where the burger buns are replaced with fried chicken patties (apparently perfect for those looking to avoid white bread). There is also an MC 10:35 — an item that can be ordered only during the crossover from the breakfast menu to the standard menu (at about 10.30am) — a union between a hamburger and an Egg McMuffin; and the Neapolitan milkshake: a special mix of chocolate, strawberry and vanilla flavours.

This is strictly grassroots stuff. McDonald’s has yet to endorse these options officially but other fast-food joints in America have been more receptive to the suggestions of their enterprising fans.

At In-N-Out, a cultish West Coast burger chain, secret menu items were being ordered so regularly — with terms such as “animal style” and “flying Dutchman” being universally recognised by staff and customers — that the company now includes a “not-so-secret menu” on its website and has incorporated the pricings for these items into its till options.

In Britain the Subway, Starbucks, KFC and Burger King chains all have secret menu items as recommended by their respective fans. Asking for “frings” at Burger King will reward you with a container half full of onion rings and half full of french fries. Ordering a “suicide burger” will get you one containing four beef patties, four slices of cheese, bacon and special sauce.

Unfortunately, not every staff member at these chains is in the know. There was no cheeky wink or surreptitious smile from the cashier at the London Bridge branch of McDonald’s when I whispered my request for a Land, Sea and Air Burger. But having explained what I was after there was no problem in carrying out my request. These chains, as the press officer at Burger King informs me, operate a “have it your way” philosophy.

Next I try Starbucks, whose secret menu in America has a cultish following akin to that of In-N-Out’s. Even in Britain there are rumours that a smaller and cheaper cup is available, although its size and price are never published on the menu.

Splashed all over the internet and including details of this elusive “short” coffee size, the chain’s secret menu is uncannily official looking. Detailing, in the Starbucks house style and fonts, how one can tailor drinks to “create exquisite new blends”, the decadent combinations that baristas and customers have come up with and that have made it on to the list include a Dirty Chai — a chai latte with a shot of espresso; a Raspberry Cheesecake — a white chocolate mocha with a few pumps of raspberry; and a Biscotti Frappuccino — a regular frappuccino with tiny cookie chunks blended in.

I ask for a short cappuccino and a tall Zebra Mocha — a half white chocolate, half dark chocolate mocha. “Sure,” comes the response from the barista, who simply calls out my request and punches my order into the till. This time round I’m the one left looking surprised.

“We have loads of people coming in and ordering ‘shorts’ these days,” he explains. “They haven’t all heard about the secret menu but they have probably seen others ordering a short dry vanilla cappuccino or something and decided they like the sound of it. Basically you can order whatever you want here and, as long as we have the ingredients, we will make it up.”

The official line is that it is not possible to get adult drinks in “short” cups — these, according to the Starbucks press officer, are “only for children”, but the mantra that the customer is always right and can have what they like is one that members of the public have alighted on and is the soul of the secret menu.

Indeed, while ordering off-menu was once the preserve of foodies in smart establishments, it is now the ordinary diner who is often in search of customised food.

Fed by internet chatter and the proliferation of reality food programmes such as Man v Food — an American television show that follows a hungry host, Adam Richman, around the country as he takes on a range of extreme eating challenges — these days everyone is becoming something of a gastronomic insider with their own demands.



Every January, many people start working out, hoping to lose weight. But as studies attest, exercise often produces little or no weight loss — and even weight gain — and resolutions are soon abandoned. But new science suggests that if you stick with the right kind of exercise, you may change how your body interacts with food. It’s more than a matter of burning calories; exercise also affects hormones.

A 2012 study from the University of Wyoming looked at a group of women who either ran or walked and, on alternate days, sat quietly for an hour. After the running, walking or sitting, researchers drew blood to test for the levels of certain hormones and then directed the women to a room with a buffet. Human appetite is complicated, driven by signals from the brain, gut, fat cells, glands, genes and psyche. But certain appetite-related hormones, in particular ghrelin, which stimulates hunger, are known to be instrumental in determining how much we consume.

Studies have shown that exercise typically increases the production of ghrelin. Workouts make you hungry. In the Wyoming study, when the women ran, their ghrelin levels spiked, which should have meant they would attack the buffet with gusto. But they didn’t. In fact, after running they consumed several hundred fewer calories than they burned.

Their restraint, the researchers said, was due to a concomitant increase in other hormones that initiate satiety. These hormones, only recently discovered and still not well understood, tell the body that it has taken in enough fuel; it can stop eating. The augmented levels of the satiety hormones, the authors write, “muted” the message from ghrelin. Sitting and, notably, walking did not change the blood levels of the women’s satiety hormones, and the walkers overate, consuming more calories at the buffet than they had burned.

A related study published in December looked at the effects of moderate exercise, the equivalent of brisk jogging. It found that after 12 weeks, formerly sedentary, overweight men and women began recognizing, without consciously knowing it, that they should not overeat.

Researchers gave volunteers doctored milkshakes. Some contained maltodextrin, a flavorless sweetener that packed 600 calories into the drinks. The others, without maltodextrin, had 246 calories. Before beginning the exercise program, the volunteers ate more at a buffet lunch and throughout the rest of the day after drinking the high-calorie shake than when they were given the lower-calorie version. Their appetite regulation was out of whack.

But after three months of exercise, the volunteers consumed fewer calories throughout the day when they had the high-calorie shake than the lower-calorie one. Exercise “improves the body’s ability to judge the amount of calories consumed and to adjust for that afterward,” says Catia Martins, a professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, who led the study.

But not all exercise. Running, it would seem, better hones the body’s satiety mechanisms than walking. And longevity counts. You need to stick with the program for several months, Martins says, to truly fine-tune appetite control.


Menu Vocab

MEMO TO overzealous chefs: a dessert cannot be wicked. Even given the most generous jurisprudential parameters it is a stretch to allege a combination of sugar, flour and vanilla essence can embody evil. By the same token, a dessert cannot be decadent. Perhaps it depends on the circles in which you move, but the ordering of a brownie generally does not indicate moral decline. It is simply a brownie.

Therein lies the rub. Food writers presumably love language as much as they love food - or at least enough to do weekly battle against the quagmire of ostensibly food-applicable yet unseemly words such as moist and succulent, not to mention the self-evident wrongness of ''wafting aromas''. Yet menus have defied the invention of copywriters and spellcheck to remain one of the great bastions of crime against English. It's no accident the title of Lynne Truss' polemic Eats, Shoots and Leaves is a joke relating to diet - the panda's, specifically - but the ''beetroot, ricotta ravioli'' I recently ordered would certainly have made more sense without the comma.

The misplaced comma, apostrophe and Random Capitalisation are merely the shallow end of my thesis. Deftly sidestepping shadows of Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind, reading menus for a living reveals a hidden code. A menu will quickly tell you what a restaurant is about, where it's aiming, if you're likely to enjoy it and, without having to look at the dollar signs, how much it's going to cost you.

Perhaps it's the brain-addling effects of reading a dozen enigmatically edited restaurant screeds each week, but they conform quite nicely to literary trends. From the descriptively ebullient high Victorian to the rudely truncated telegraphic form, recent encounters include the haiku, the romantics, the dirty realists (the dude food movement, naturally) and the Fifty Shades of Grey set, who oversell dishes like culinary Viagra.

Thomas Keller? Dishes such as his classic oysters and pearls would put him with the poet set, although the overuse of inverted commas indicates he's also a postmodern wildcard (''caponata'' translates as ''nothing like a caponata you've ever seen, you pleb''). Gordon Ramsay's unfashionably information-heavy listings (''pressed foie gras, smoked and confit duck with peaches, walnuts and pickled girolles'') indicate a personality on friendlier terms with tradition than his TV persona would let on. Chez Panisse - ''hand-cut pasta with Monterey Bay squid stewed in its ink'' - confirms Alice Waters as the consummate food nerd name-dropper. As for Jamie Oliver, the spiritual leader of the conversational idiomatic crew, little needs to be said beyond noting the following examples from the menu at Jamie's Italian in Sydney: ''our famous polenta chips'', ''posh chips'', ''lamb chop lollipops'' and ''crispy squid''.

Not to second guess the conversation between the jubbly one and his audience, which is dominated by people with a glancing interest in food from the telly and for whom eating out is a treat rather than the norm, this brand of diner will presumably be delighted by the exuberance of Oliver's ''funky chips'' and will appreciate being told his panna cotta is ''creamy'', his chilli and mint salad is ''zingy'', and his rocket pesto ''peppery''.

His enduring love for the lowly adjective is a clear mark of separation from the local highbrow crew, which has cultivated a menu aesthetic that left boring old minimalism in its wake to arrive at deliberately enigmatic.

Call it telegraphic modernism, if you will, where everything but nouns is banished and punctuation is minimal, often in tandem with the abolition of upper case.

What purpose does it serve? Beats me, although maybe it's thought respect for the chef's artistry will spike when diners are faced with a list of ingredients with no indication of what precisely is going to happen to the ''hapuka, corn, sea urchin'' or the ''pigeon, artichoke, mushroom, hay''. This leads to being held hostage to waiters who intone monologues about the inspiration, ingredients and technique behind the ''fish. chips''.

This is why it's so handy that many waiters are unemployed actors.

Menu crimes: my eight favourite ingredients


Menu-ese would have it that chocolate caused the decline and fall of the Roman empire. The hand-wringing guilt suggested by words such as ''decadent'' and ''indulgent'' is grossly conspiratorial; as for the genius who invented ''death by chocolate'' - well, no, unfortunately you can't. I've tried.

The preamble about organic-seasonal-local

No longer worth boasting about, it's a new minimum standard - and it doesn't take a cynic to suspect half of it's greenwashing anyway. As for the ''respecting the whole beast'' spiel, it's nice to know the animal about to be eaten gave permission for its trip to the slaughterhouse. Really, it is.


That's not a cheese-and-ham toastie, it's Andrew's Choice ham with Maffra cheddar and Tatura butter on Zeally Bay sourdough. Got it?


A redundancy that's come to mean the opposite of what it promises. It's time to pack it away when mass-produced potato crisps come in ''gourmet'' flavours of sea salt and balsamic vinegar. See also: organic, artisan.

Kitchen tautologies and technical guff

Oven roasted. Hand-cut anything. On the other hand, pan-fried is a term worth defending, in so far as it differentiates from deep-fried.


For example, ''Our famous fish pie''. If you have to say it, it isn't.


Given the temperament of many chefs, the gnocchi are hardly likely to have been made ''lovingly''; chances are they were made angrily, furiously or homicidally. Declaring your own food ''delicious'' is just begging to be shot down.

The just plain wrong

From recent menus of Melbourne: seasonal medley of vegetables. Chef's journey. ''Lashings of'' anything. Pounded rabbit. Ballistic baked cheesecake.


GM Food Opposition Melts

Once I feared GM crops. Now I see that they are a vital part of modern agriculture.

Franken-food: lurid cornflakes, lime-green carrots, fluorescent salmon, unbruisable apples, all microwavable for added carcinogens. That’s what I thought once about genetically modified food. It was an uncontrollable monster, a grotesque distortion of nature.

We didn’t want to be overrun by unnatural super-fruit and vegetables, insinuating themselves into the food chain and smothering native varieties. Those evil scientists in Monsanto’s laboratories pretended that this was progress but if we let GM wheat or tomatoes on to our shores they would destroy our environment, contaminate our livestock and do untold harm to our intestines. You get the picture.

I did my bit, planting 12 varieties of British apple trees, with names such as Egremont Russet and Gascoyne’s Scarlet, eating organic lamb and lettuce, and keeping chickens reared on organic leftovers. But slowly my views changed. It started when I was covering the foot-and-mouth outbreak in 2001 and spent several weeks in Devon with farmers and slaughtermen in local abattoirs. One told me that he didn’t eat organic meat because he spent too much time splicing open disease-riddled livers from organically bred pigs. “There is a point to antibiotics,” he said, “Used in moderation, they help in the same way as they do for humans. We don’t want to go back to the Middle Ages, so why should pigs?”

So I decided to eat good, fresh food, rather than strictly organic — the kind that had been grown locally, where the milk comes from a cow with a name and the fish is sustainable. When I had children, I cracked and added in fishfingers, Percy Pigs and cheese strings, but never knowingly anything GM. Anyway, we had made such a fuss about Frankenstein food in Britain that it was impossible to buy.

Then recently I started talking to scientists about the ash dieback disease that could wipe out one of our most venerable trees. They explained that the only answer to this wind-born fungal disease is to develop a resistant GM strain to replace infected trees. That is happening with American oranges. Citrus trees in Florida have been blighted by an insect-born bacterial disease and the only hope is a genetically modified version — it’s GM juice or no orange juice for breakfast.

I started talking to British farmers struggling with increasingly bizarre weather. They fear that they are being left behind in this new agricultural revolution. “We led the way 200 years ago with Jethro Tull and selective breeding, now we can’t embrace the best innovations,” one said.

In 2011 16 million farmers in 29 countries grew GM products on 160 million hectares — more than 11 per cent of the world’s arable land. The results are interesting. First, GM is actually green. Pest-resistant cotton, and maize need fewer insecticides, herbicides and fertilisers so farmers use tractors less. Second, although three trillion GM meals have been eaten, no one has yet fallen ill from the food.

Last month the environmentalist Mark Lynas stood up at the Oxford Farming Conference and said that he was a convert. Here was a man who had smashed up GM trials and thrown pies at scientists. “The real Frankenstein’s monster was not GM technology, but our reaction against it,” he said. In his book The God Species, he concludes that the world will have to feed 9.5 billion people by 2050 with limited water and land. GM crops producing high, nutritious yields, he now believes, are the greenest answer and the best way to protect rainforests and natural habitats from the plough. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has also swung behind GM food, giving £10 million to the John Innes Centre to integrate nitrogen-fixing capabilities into food crops to combat nitrogen pollution.

The UK Government, too, is quietly changing its position. Owen Paterson, the Environment Secretary, calls GM the Green Revolution and is concerned that Britain is becoming an agricultural museum. Ministers also worry increasingly that British scientists are no longer helping British farmers to face the challenges of the next few decades, but are being forced abroad to work for multinationals. It costs tens of millions of pounds to get a better crop strain through US regulatory systems in America, so only the biggest biotech companies do it.

In the EU more than 20 crops have been waiting a decade for approval, blocked by France and Austria. We need to make a fuss and start a pro-GM food campaign. In the end we’ll need a bit of everything, the bio-diversity that organic farming encourages, medieval crop rotation and targeted GM technology — with drought-resistant and infection-resistant plants and trees that can feed and shade the world.


Eating Horse

Do you care if there is a horse in your bun? Really? Honestly? When you say “I could eat a horse”, do you mind if you already have?

Obviously you can’t tell. You have no idea what’s in a burger, you just assume.

When they discovered that 30% was horse, my first thought wasn’t: “Oh my God, we’re eating My Lidl Pony.” It was: “What’s the other 70%?” What else don’t they know they’re selling?

We’ll put more things in our mouths with blind trust than we would ever take to bed. Even if someone you fancy with an oscillating, ululating frenzy is standing right in front of you and says “Trust me”, you’d still say: “Yes, but wear a condom.” If some supermarket that you wouldn’t trust to look after your jack russell says, “This is organic, free-range, fair-trade, local, artisanal, heritage goodness,” you just think: “Lovely, I’ll pop it in the kids’ mouths and pay an extra couple of quid for the pleasure.”

We assume food regulation is fool-proof and strict, unlike the regulation for everything else, that it is all taken care of. Well, it’s not. And if you think about it for a moment, you know that it’s not. What laboratory do you imagine is inspecting every tin and packet? What legion of grub police do you think is diligently tracing the origin of all your ingredients around the globe? And who’s paying for them? Food safety is like a one-legged traffic warden at a grand prix.

If you want a simple rule to measure the honesty and goodness of your food, look at the label and count the number of ingredients. Forget the boasts about being organic and free-range and sun- kissed and hand-reared and line-caught. It’s all just advertising. The longer the list, the more dubious the thing is. And add to that the approximate number of processes needed to get them from living into the thing in the packet.

So, for instance, a frozen pizza has been handled about 100 times to make all its bits come together in the box. The best guide to food health and goodness is the wedding measure. The best dishes have two main ingredients and are married by a third — with perhaps a couple of bridesmaids. If you’re cooking at home, these are called “orgy” recipes. You shouldn’t have more on your plate than you’d want in your bed. Four or five is passable, but when you’re into double figures, it’s not fun or food, it’s the foodie porn X Factor.

So why don’t we eat horses? That is a rhetorical question, please don’t write. There are 600,000 horses in this country. If they all got together, they would make a city the size of Glasgow and a pile of manure the size of — and indistinguish­able from — Stow-on-the-Wold. About half a dozen pull ploughs, a few hundred run around in circles for four-legged roulette, another couple of hundred are used for the Household Cavalry and police, and the rest are fantasy toys and sex aides for neoruralists, and hang around in fields, like dusty, well-hung mannequins.

If they cost on average, say, £2,000 to keep for a year, which is a conservative underestimate, that’s more than a billion quid just getting bored and twitching like a live fly-tip.

What do you think happens to these 600,000 quadrupeds that live for about 20 years? Some of them get fed to fox hounds, some get boiled down to make glue, lip salve and breast implants, and the rest get shipped to the Continent and made into food, some of which comes back to us as burgers. Why don’t we just eat all of them? Horse meat is incredibly good — it’s healthy and, because it can be slaughtered older than cattle, it has a sweeter flavour. It is not illegal to sell dead horse.


Rainbow Beef

People are like moths to the flames that are rainbows. The next time there's a rainbow outside, notice how many people drop everything, even important things, to Instagram it. It would be a perfect time for aliens to take over Earth. Rainbows where rainbows shouldn't be, however, cause alarm. Take beef, for example.

How many times have you (if you eat beef) foregone a package of sliced roast beef for a different package because said beef was slightly iridescent? If you don't eat beef, perhaps you've seen a package of said rainbow meat and it reminded you why you no longer eat it. The Internets are clogged with threads like, "Why does deli roast beef look like a rainbow?," and the ever gravid concern, "Subway shiny roast beef?" And while everyone should be spared's definition of what a "Beef Rainbow" is, the truth of the matter is, there's nothing inherently wrong with rainbow meat.

In a way, it's sad that meat rainbows are given a bad rap, especially since diffraction gratings in nature are relatively rare.

Beef rainbows aren't a sign of spoiled, tainted, or (sorry) magical beef. There's enough speculation over the integrity of rainbow beef that the USDA's website has a section on "Iridescent Color of Roast Beef" near similar topics like "What does 'natural?' mean" and "what is beef?" According to the USDA, "When light hits a slice of meat, it splits into colors like a rainbow." This is something called a "diffraction grating," essentially what happens when light waves bend or spread around a surface and create a pattern. It's the same thing that happens to make rainbows on the surface of a DVD. It's understandable that folks mistake diffracted light as a sign of spoilage, especially since the main color created by meat diffraction gratings is green. There is a reason why in Dr. Seuss's Green Eggs and Ham, the central conflict of the protagonist is his strong apprehension against eating green meat.

Speaking of ham, beef is not the only meat known to have rainbows. However, when cooked beef is sharply sliced against the grain of the muscle fiber, this, coupled with the moisture in the beef, creates an excellent surface for producing rainbows. "In my opinion," Dr. Thomas Powell, Executive Director of the American Meat Science Association, told me, "The reason it shows up in roast beef is because the cuts of meat that are used in most roast beef are more prone to iridescence, particularly in the round," hence the reason why the USDA singles out roast beef as being especially colorful.

In a way, it's sad that meat rainbows are given a bad rap, especially since diffraction gratings in nature are relatively rare -- and I say this as someone who doesn't eat red meat. Sure, one can see the the vibrant iridescence of peacock feathers or the milky rainbows of an abalone shell and marvel at the rich tapestry that is nature. But it is under the flourescent light of our grocer's deli section where we can look at a rainbow on a slice of beef and know the natural diffraction grating responsible for it is shared with very few things, including the antennae of seed shrimp, and the shells of animals that haven't lived for hundreds of millions of years.




Salads More Dangerous Than Burgers

Certain types of bacteria found in the pre-cut salad bags can be almost impossible to kill, Professor Hugh Pennington said, unless the leaves are irradiated – a process the public would oppose.

His claim follows a Health Protection Agency investigation into an outbreak of salad-linked Cryptosporidium infections that affected around 300 people in England and Scotland in May.

In the analysis of the exposure to different salad vegetables a significant statistical association was found between infection and the consumption of pre-cut spinach.

When specific retailers were included in the analysis, the strongest association with infection was found to be with consumption of ready to eat pre-cut mixed salad leaves from a major supermarket chain.

"Together these findings suggest that one or more types of salad vegetables could have been contaminated," said the HPA.

Professor Pennington said the case also followed on from several in the USA where they are "very worried" about "washed and ready-to-eat" bagged salad.

Last year produce giant Dole issued a recall on its American Blend bagged salad in 10 states in those two regions, after the Tennessee Department of Health found listeria bacteria in one sample.

Demand for salad has boomed because of healthily eating campaigns. But salad is considered one of the products most likely to cause food-related illness – largely because greens are grown directly in the soil, and some pathogens can only be killed by heat or strong detergents, not just water.

Professor Pennington said: "It is generally safer to eat a burger than the salad that goes with it.

"Despite the recent horsemeat and other scandals, the meat can be traced and through a rigorous process that checks for its quality etc.

"That does not exist to the same rigour for salad. You can only make vegetables safe by cooking and you can`t obviously do that with salad.

"You could irradiate it – but that would be a `no, no` with the public. You just can`t be absolutely sure that the bagged salad you are buying – which has been put through a chemical wash to kill the bugs, is actually free of them.

"These bugs are very good at clinging on to salad and the risk from cryptosporidium, salmonella and listeria is very real. "I would advise people to thoroughly wash salad even when it says it has been washed and is ready to eat."

Bagged salad on sale in supermarkets is often sourced from the same suppliers for most leaf types, often with common production lines packing product for several retailers at the same time.

Professor Pennington also pointed out that a bean sprout farm in northern Germany was identified as the most likely source of many of the infections in the E. coli outbreak that left 22 people dead in 2011. The farm, located in Uelzen, south of Hamburg, was the epicentre of the outbreak that has also made more than 2,000 people ill.

Professor Pennington, emeritus professor of bacteriology at the University of Aberdeen, said the biggest E.coli outbreak happened in Japan in 1996 and involved radish sprouts.

"The farm in Germany was an organic one and there are more risks with organic food. For example organic chicken has more bugs than non-organic because they spend longer in the field and have wild bird droppings on them etc. "Vegetables are fine and safe if they are cooked in the traditional British way of boiling them to death. The only danger comes when you eat them raw."Sometimes the spouts are contaminated to start with and they can get contaminated when spouting in the steaming process.

"At the end of the day the responsibility falls on the people who produce food. But much of our vegetables are now grown in countries who do not necessarily have the same hygiene standards.

"At the end of the day there has to be trust who is in supplying you with your food. The consumer has no way of knowing how the food has been produced. The consumer is not in a position to know all that has gone on."

Professor Pennington headed the investigation into the E.coli outbreak in Wishaw which claimed the lives of 20 elderly people in 1996.




AA Gill on Processed Pig Meat

I’ve just been listening to a puckle of men on the radio talking chipolatas. This month’s food spook is the new-found horror of processed meat, which always sounds like a euphemism for onanism: “Are you processing the meat in there? Hurry up, some of us need to get to work.” Eating too much processed meat will, according to a survey, shorten your life by 3ft 6, or alternatively lengthen your chances of contracting sump blockage, distended finials, furred wimbrals, or inoperable dissertations.

It’s bacon and sausage that’s to blame — something to bear in mind when you’re recreationally foraging in phoney farmers’ markets next weekend.

One of the expert chaps said the problem with us, and I think by us he meant “you and me”, was we have no food culture in this country. We needed a food culture to teach us to eat a plant-based diet with occasional meaty bits, or perhaps only eat animals for festivals, and bacon only in amounts that would make you feel as sad as a doll’s house picnic.

There is a civilised rule that states people who use the word “culture” to mean health and safety have none of it, they’re soullessly uncultured. The poo-sniffers, the dieticians, doctors of mung lunch, and the supermarket professors all talk of culture, and don’t mean the books on your shelves, the poetry in your head. They don’t mean the music in your fingers or the landscape, the bunting, the warp and weft on your mind’s eye. They mean the mould in a petri dish. They think culture is an experiment, a series of statistics, social engineering — their culture can be nipped and tucked, edited and realigned. This culture is essentially a quango, a committee decision, when in truth culture is a riddle: you can create culture but you can’t design it; it’s yours but you don’t own it. It isn’t democratic but it belongs to everyone, it’s elitist and populist, and what and how we eat is the table on which all the rest of culture is set.

Your food doesn’t just make you, it makes the people you eat with — and not just the living: generations of ghosts sit with you, those who have passed to you the breakfast on your plate and the appetite to eat it. A lot of that was processed meat: hams and pies, flitches and head cheese, smoked hocks and salted slippers, this is the food that was handed down to you from a culture that had one harvest a year and a long fallow winter that needed to preserve meat, and found taste, togetherness, community, amusement and comfort in the ingenuity borne of necessity.

The preservation of our food is what made this corner of the north habitable, profitable and glorious. The preserving is as vital and important and emotional as football terraces or Turner sunsets, Kinks’ riffs and Capability Brown parks. The process that makes a Melton Mowbray pie is the stuff of our history; it is our shared identity. York hams come from the large white Yorkshire pig, bred with long legs to walk out of the dales to market. Pigs don’t like walking, they came to York where they were smoked on the oak chip from the great beams of York Minster, which itself took more than 300 years to build. Now, you could give up ham to lengthen your weary span by another x-factor, or you could be part of the process, part of the great sizzling sausage link of our history. Food is not there to make you live longer, it’s there to make you live better and live now.




The Folly of Cooking Pizza at Home

I love pizza and I love Kenji Alt's writing at Serious Eats, but his ongoing efforts to devise a perfect cook-pizza-at-home scheme puzzle me. The ideal way to make pizza at home is to ... not make pizza at home. Yes, you can get a kettle grill and then add the KettlePizza attachment and use it in combination with a pizza steel for what's apparently the best at-home pizza solution yet. But why bother? Pizza is just a great instance of a complicated modern economy in action, and the best way to enjoy pizza is to purchase it from a specialized pizza fabrication facility.

The issue is that while great pizza is fairly simple to make, cooking it properly requires an expensive piece of capital equipment. Your oven can't get nearly hot enough to cook a pizza correctly. To do it, you need a pizza oven. To install a good pizza oven in your house would be a waste of both money and space. It just doesn't make sense to construct one unless it's going to cook a lot of pizza. And while pizza is delicious, for the sake of your health you should probably try to avoid subsisting on an all-pizza diet. The superior strategy is to let someone else install a pizza oven in his commercial establishment. Then you show up occasionally, and in exchange for money he'll give you pizza. Then with all the money that his pizza oven helps him collect, he and the members of his staff can purchase adequate nonpizza sustenance to stay alive and well. It's a triumph of the division of labor and good old fashioned commerce. For the roughly $200 that Alt wants you to spend on equipment to turn your grill into an ersatz pizza oven, you could just buy 16 margherita pizzas at my favorite D.C. pizza establishment. And, again, for reasonable adults the financial cost of purchasing excellent pizza at a restaurant is not the operative factor in limiting pizza consumption. In the scheme of things, pizza is pretty cheap.

Now of course, to each his own. If what you want is some home-cooked pizza, I'm sure this is a great way to do it. But it's a bit nuts. And excessive focus on the issue obscures one of the great economic triumphs of our time—the enormous increase in the availability of quality pizza all around America.

My paternal grandfather was an old-time New York pizza snob, and he'd be amazed by the quality of the pizza you can buy these days in a California airport. There used to be a lot of myths stalking the land about the intimate connection between great pizza and New York water. But it turns out that to make great pizza all you really need are relatively inexpensive ingredients, a piece of capital equipment, and some eminently teachable skills. The key thing holding pizza back was really the customer base. Why invest in the capital equipment and the worker training if the customers won't appreciate it? But once appreciation for good pizza started spreading beyond the confines of the Philly-to-Providence Pizza Belt, it started feeding on itself. The more good pizza that's out there, the more people there are who know what good pizza tastes like and want it. So the volume of pizza-relevant human and physical capital grows, and we increasingly find ourselves living in a land of pizza abundance. Why turn our back on all this to wrangle with home-cooked pizza?




More AA Gill

Good and Evil food, food as medicine. Doctors rarely write recipes. If you’re overweight, they tell you to eat less; if you have diabetes, they tell you to leave off the sugar; if you have rickets they recommend vitamin D; if you turn up with scurvy, they suggest you suck a lime. Plenty of illnesses — from kuru to gout — are caused by diet. Kuru is the cannibal’s version of mad cow disease, contracted by eating infected human brains (so it could be mad neighbours’ disease). But a lot of people want doctors to recommend or prescribe ingredients or prophylactics or cures for serious illnesses. When I say people, I mean mostly nutritionists.

Nutritionists are to science what boy bands are to opera. Essentially, they are chalet girls and aerobics teachers, but not that fit in either sense, and they’ve been joined recently by Sheila Dillon, the producer of the Food Programme on Radio 4, who’s had cancer.

The truth, that there is no empirical evidence any particular food or style of eating prevents or reduces disease, only infuriates them and confirms the belief that medical men won’t see what they don’t know. It’s difficult to do double-blind experiments, to prove a diet rich in Tunnock’s teacakes will lower the risk of strokes. The absence of evidence is put down to the fault of doctors and big pharma, because there will be no drugs at the end of it to justify the expense, and they may have a point. The anger of those who want the medical establishment to approve turmeric pills and green teas to fight cancer is a desire to take back some control over things that seem unfair and rampant.

Doctors will usually tell patients that what makes them feel good does them good; the placebo effect is still an effect. I mind food becoming a choice of fear and pharmacy, taken out of the dining room into the sanatorium, because it’s not what food does best. 

Food should be about the universal, cultural and social pleasure of family and friendship. Fear takes food’s civilising quality and reduces it to cough medicine and laxatives, and makes illness the patient’s fault. However you live and whatever you die of, someone will tell your bereaved family that you would still be with them if only you’d eaten more broccoli. The known unknown is where witchcraft and superstition work, where quacks and snake-oil salesmen ply their trade, and where hope and despair are exploited. Imagine your cat did know there was an internet. How could it change anything in its feline life? Your cancer doesn’t know about the internet, or that you want to go on holiday or take up painting or start a family. If it did, it wouldn’t make any difference. It would still be cancer, and it would still be yours.





In a little shop near the Louvre museum in Paris, a very strange type of ice cream is being sold. At the counter customers don’t order cups, cones or shakes; here they ask for WikiPearls, little donut hole-sized balls of ice cream that are covered in a flavored, protective skin. “People come in and say, ‘What’s this all about?’” says David Edwards, the mastermind behind WikiPearl and the newly opened WikiBar. It’s a very good question, actually. Much like Dippin’ Dots, the pearl-like ice cream that blew kids’ minds in the ‘90s, WikiPearls is angling to change the way we eat ice cream. But it’s not just frozen snacks that Edwards is looking to revolutionize—the Harvard bioengineering professor has bigger plans than that.

Back in 2009 Edwards and French designer Francois Azambourg began developing a new technology to eliminate packaging from foods. Called WikiCells, the edible soft skins are made from natural food particles that are bound together by nutritive ions. The goal was to reduce plastic waste while improving human health through portion control and vitamin-supplemented skins. WikiPearl is the first commercialized product born from the technology, mainly because ice cream is delicious, and it’s the least weird form his WikiCells could possibly take. “Some products are a more radical departure from what people are used to than others,” he says. “But ice cream and frozen yogurt in the WikiPearl form is really easily understood. It’s sort of very intuitive.” Three 50-calorie balls roughly equals a cup of Häagen-Dazs ice cream, and so far they come in three flavors: mango with a coconut skin, chocolate with a hazelnut skin and vanilla with a peanut skin. An added bonus: they melt a helluva lot slower than regular ice cream. Put a few balls inside a specially-designed cooler that’s sold at WikiBar and Edwards says they can last up to eight hours (good news for those of us who’ve been trying to bring ice cream for lunch).

The WikiBar, a modern-day Willy Wonka space designed by Mathieu Lehanneur, is more or less an experimental laboratory disguised as a retail ice cream shop where Edwards can test his theories about how we might eat in the future. “We view what happens in the WikiBar very much as collaboration with the public where we’re sort of trying new things out,” he explains. This follows the form of Edwards’ other venture Le Laboratoire, a community innovation lab where he gets feedback on the technology he and his partners develop. “It’s hard to be inventing for 2025 and not have any dialogue with the public,” he says. Edwards views the brick and mortar WikiBar as a way to not only introduce the WikiPearl concept to the public, but also to ready the product for its commercial launch this fall in the United States and prepare for another WikiBar opening in Cambridge, Mass., next year.

But WikiPearls is really just the beginning for Edwards. He estimates that by 2014 wiki vending machines where customers can make their own combinations of filling and skins, should be available to use at the WikiBars. “You could say I want an orange soda with a french fry skin, or whatever it is,” he explains, “And then it’s made there in the machine.” Long-term, he envisions wiki technology in the home where parents could customize the fillings and skins to make their children a package-free lunch. “It’s completely, completely doable,” he says. “And something that we’re working on.”

Of course, technology is nothing without adoption. And the fact is, when you’re used to drinking a soda from a can or eating yogurt from a plastic cup, it’s weird to pop a little food ball in your mouth and call it a meal. Edwards acknowledges that the adoption curve is going to take some time, but he figures starting with ice cream, yogurt and cheese should lessen the strangeness of wiki-eating. “The reality is we’ve been eating the same way with the same instincts for a very long time, and changing that is not easy,” Edwards concedes. “Even if it makes sense on paper, really changing your habits is a big deal.” Still, he’s optimistic that the wiki revolutionary is going to happen–mainly because it has to happen. “Just think all those little ketchup things or the little mustard or mayonnaise things that are plastic, plastic, plastic. Those should be edible, right?” he says. “There’s so many things to do here.”




American State Fairs

Move over, Ferris wheels and arcade games. Step aside, pageants and prized hogs. These days, the most talked-about attraction at a state fair is likely to be alligator nuggets or bacon-flavored cotton candy.

County and state fairs have increasingly become festivals for a fearless sort of foodie - folks who will line up to try hybrid delicacies that involve at least two of the fairs’ four main food groups: bacon, chocolate, cheese, and boiling peanut oil. The tradition has some legitimate roots: corn dogs first found fame as cuisine at the Texas and Minnesota state fairs, while one of the first recorded American hamburgers was sold at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.

In recent years, fair organizers in Iowa and Nebraska even hold annual contests among food vendors to create the most outrageous culinary concoctions. To sample the hottest new entries, put these six summer and fall state fairs on your family calendar:

Iowa State Fair: Aug. 8-18, 2013

At this classic fair in Des Moines, vendors contending for the most unusual new food include the Rib Shack Cowboy, where you can order a spiced barbecue cone filled with brisket or pork, beans, cole slaw and topped with BBQ sauce. The Po-Boy Stand, meanwhile, offers the Shrimp Corndog, comprised of three fresh shrimp dipped in corndog batter, fried and then topped with a sweet jalapeno glaze.

Minnesota State Fair: Aug. 22 – Sept. 2, 2013

This St. Paul-based fair has a lineup so deep that you spend an entire day eating your way through the options. Consider kicking off your day with breakfast at Hansen’s, which offers a breakfast-sausage corndog. For lunch, make your way to Axel’s for the Cocoa Cheese Bites, which are nuggets of cheddar breaded with cocoa puffs and then fried and served with a chocolate sauce. And for dinner, head to Minnesota Wine Country for the wine-glazed, deep-fried meatloaf. For a space-age midday snack, check out the Comet Corn at Blue Moon Dine-In Theater, billed as a “futuristic caramel corn made with liquid nitrogen,” which gives you the ability (and who wouldn’t want it?) to breathe tingly “comet dust” out through your nose.

Nebraska State Fair: Aug. 23 – Sept. 2, 2013

Can’t decide between a dog and a burger? Head to Pig in a Bag and order the Moink Balls (think “moo” plus “oink”), which are bacon-wrapped meatballs in a barbeque glaze and served on a stick. Seemingly tame by today’s fair standards, vendors are also serving up fried alligator (Grand Slam Concessions), burgers with pancakes as buns (JAK Concessions), and deep-fried chocolate cupcakes (The Banana Man). Nebraska’s fair is held in Grand Island, about 93 miles west of Lincoln.

Kansas State Fair: Sept. 6-15, 2013

For yet another Midwestern shindig, head to Hutchinson, Kansas, about an hour northwest of Wichita. To celebrate the fair’s 100th anniversary, pop over to the Carousel Cafe for deep-fried birthday cake, as well as deep-fried jalape no Twinkies or fried macaroni-and-cheese-and-bacon-ball kabobs. At Silver's, you can try the maple-bacon snicker doodles, grilled-lemon-slice lemonade, or a refreshingly low-tech treat of frozen watermelon wedges on sticks.

Texas State Fair: Sept. 27 – Oct. 20, 2013

Having brought the world such culinary show stoppers as fried butter, the Lone Star State’s f ête in Dallas has a well-earned reputation for being on the vanguard of unusual fair fare. For now, organizers are keeping this year’s cutting-edge food items close to the vest (or just under the hat of giant mascot Big Tex); nominees for the Big Tex Choice Awards won’t be announced until the week before Labor Day. But stay tuned: past winners have included the Fried Bacon Cinnamon Roll, Fried Bubble Gum, and even Fried Beer.

Arizona State Fair: Oct. 11 – Nov. 3, 2013

Arizona’s state fair won’t take place in Phoenix until temperatures cool down this fall. In recent years, this Southwestern fair has staked its claim within weird concessions with caramel apples rolled in mealworms. This year, Wayne’s Concessions is the nerve center for challenging fare: you can start with either a kangaroo burger or alligator bites, and top it all off with chocolate-covered scorpions, crickets, and mealworms.




McDonald's Cheeseburger Good For People

The McDouble, a double cheeseburger at McDonald’s, has been called many things but “the cheapest, most nutritious, and bountiful food that has ever existed in human history” is probably one of the rarer terms.

Stephen Dubner, the co-author of best-selling book Freakonomics, argues that the label is not quite as ridiculous as it first appears.

He has hosted a debate on his blog, after receiving an e-mail from a reader, who suggested that the much-maligned McDouble actually provided far more nutritional bang for its buck than had conventionally been thought.

The burger — basically a double Cheeseburger but with one less slice of cheese — provides 390 calories, 23 grams of protein, 7 per cent of the daily value of fibre, 20 per cent of daily calcium and 19 grams of fat for between $1 and $2 (65p-£1.30).

Mr Dubner said: “The more I thought about the question, whether the McDouble is the cheapest, most bountiful, and nutritious food ever, the more I realised how you answer that question says a lot about how you see the world, not only our food system and the economics of it, but even social justice.”

During the debate, it was argued that the McDonalds burger should gain more credit for feeding so many people, so cheaply. Blake Hurst, a corn and soy farmer, and president of the Missouri Farm Bureau, said: “The biggest unreported story in the past three quarters of a century [is] this increase in availability of food for the common person.”

Critics say that the low price does not factor in the external costs that it takes to mass produce fast food, and that healthier food, such as pulses and grains, can fill stomachs just as cheaply, to much greater health benefit.

Tom Philpott, a campaigning organic farmer from North Carolina, said: “In order to present to us all that burger, you’re talking about a vast army of working poor people.” There are far more nutritious ways to feed many people, cheaply, he said. “You can get a pound of organic brown rice and a pound of red lentils for about £1.30 each.

“A serving of each of those things would be around 48 pence.”

Mr Hurst replied: “I rest my case. I’m sorry, there’s no amount of marketing that’s going to make me prefer brown rice and lentils over a Mcdonald’s cheeseburger.”

Kyle Smith, a columnist from the New York Post also joined the online debate. “Facts are facts — where else but McDonald’s can poor people obtain so many calories per dollar?” he said.




Greenpeace and Golden Rice

‘Golden rice’ prevents the vitamin A deficiency that kills millions every year. Yet Greenpeace is blocking it.

It was over harlequin ducks that we bonded. Ten years ago, at a meeting in Monterey, California, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the structure of DNA, I bumped into the German biologist Ingo Potrykus watching harlequin ducks in the harbour before breakfast. Shared enthusiasm for bird watching broke the ice.

I knew of him, of course. He had been on the cover of Time magazine for potentially solving one of the world’s great humanitarian challenges. Four years before, with his colleague Peter Beyer, he had added three genes to the 30,000 in rice to help to prevent vitamin A deficiency, one of the most preventable causes of morbidity and mortality in poor countries with rice-dominated diets. They had done it for nothing, persuading companies to waive their patents, so that they could give the rice seeds away free. It was a purely humanitarian impulse.

Had Ingo or I known that ten years later this rice would still not be available to the poor, that a systematic campaign of denigration against it by the behemoths of the environmental movement, especially Greenpeace, would be consuming lawyers’ fees while perhaps 20 million children had died in the meantime through vitamin A deficiency, he and I would have felt sick with horror that morning.

In the debate over genetically modified food that has bubbled since Owen Paterson (yes, he’s my brother-in-law, get over it) became the first European Agriculture Minister enthusiastically to endorse GM crops a few weeks ago, not a single British journalist or blogger to my knowledge has bothered to research the facts about golden rice, which featured so prominently in his speech. Surely, I thought, some newshound would get out to the Philippines and China and Switzerland and find out what’s actually going on. But no. Just as with fracking, it’s easier to report the controversy.

Well, I will pick up the story myself. The agri-business Syngenta improved Professor Potrykus’s “golden rice” by adding two genes instead of three (one from maize, one from a common soil bacterium) until it produced good yields while providing 60 per cent of a child’s vitamin A daily requirements from only 50 grams of rice. So for all those poor people who couldn’t afford, and would never be offered, supplements, who had nowhere to grow spinach, but who lived largely on rice, simply substituting golden rice for normal rice would save lives.

Again and again, remedying nutrient deficiency comes top when humanitarian priorities are ranked according to cost benefit analyses. The World Health Organisation estimates that 170 million to 230 million children and 20 million pregnant women are vitamin-A deficient and, as it weakens the immune system, that 1.9 million to 2.7 milllion die of it each year, more than from Aids, TB and malaria. We hear a lot about risk assessments; well, here’s a benefit assessment.

Then came the backlash. Greenpeace and its pals lobbied governments to slow down the project and drive up its costs. Their objections have been, variously, that golden rice was a corporate plot (untrue), did not produce enough vitamin A (not true), might cause health problems (a vitamin enriched bowl of rice?), might upset ecosystems (unlikely for a domesticated crop) and that capsules of vitamin A were a better bet (after 20 years at nearly $1 billion a year, vitamin A capsules still reach too few people).

Despite Professor Potrykus, or Adrian Dubock, who now runs the Golden Rice Project, meeting every objection, the greens were implacable. One incoming head of Greenpeace briefly said he would look at it again, whereupon he was slapped down. The two researchers at Syngenta who had improved golden rice lost their jobs when the company pulled out of Britain thanks to the Frankenfoods hysteria.

“Do you think I should show pictures of blind babies in my slide shows?” Professor Potrykus once asked me. In 2010 he could take it no more. “I therefore hold the regulation of genetic engineering responsible for the death and blindness of thousands of children and young mothers,” he wrote in Nature magazine.

Recently three groups of 24 Chinese children were fed golden rice, spinach or beta-carotene capsules in a scientific test. The organiser, in agreement with the ethical review boards involved and US government guidance, but in hindsight foolishly, did not tell their parents that GM food was involved. All hell broke loose; the scientists were arrested, then fired. Greenpeace had just what it wanted: a scandal about golden rice. No matter that no harm had been done, or could possibly have been done — perception is all.

Pressing home its advantage, Greenpeace brought a court case in the Philippines against insect-resistant aubergines. As a result, genetic modification may have to cease in the Philippines, where golden rice is being field-tested. The greens are frantic to stop golden rice because it undermines all their criticisms of GM crops. It is non-profit, free, nutrition-enhancing, and of more value to the poor than the rich: only farmers earning less than $10,000 a year will be allowed to sell the seed on. The truth is, GM crops have already proved a friend of the poor: they have enabled people in India and Burkina Faso to grow cotton almost without insecticides, for example. The crop has boosted yields, cut pesticide use and brought back farmland wildlife.

Imagine instead an agricultural system that often exhausts the soil, uses extra land, occasionally kills people through contaminated food, uses scrambled and unseen genetic changes caused by gamma rays and licences old-fashioned and toxic sprays. We’d ban it, wouldn’t we?

Well, that’s organic farming. Because it refuses inorganic fertiliser, it exhausts soil fertility unless a farmer is wealthy enough to have the luxury of dung from elsewhere. Because its yields are lower, it uses about twice as much land as inorganic farming to produce the same quantity of food. Because it uses manure, it risks outbreaks of fatal food poisoning such as the one in which organic German bean sprouts killed 53 people in 2011. Because it happily uses varieties of crops like “golden promise” barley whose genes were deliberately scrambled by gamma rays in a nuclear facility, it has no scruples about random genetic changes, only precise ones. And because it allows prewar pesticides, it is happy to licence copper-based fungicide chemicals.

Meanwhile at least half a million, perhaps two million, children die each year from preventable vitamin A deficiency. On your conscience, Greenpeace.




Honey: The Only Food That Doesn't Go Bad

Honey is magic. Besides its delicious taste, it's pretty much the only food that does not spoil while in an edible state. But why, exactly, doesn't honey go bad?

Honey has a lot of pretty incredible properties. It's been used and investigated for medicinal properties for a long time, especially as a treatment for open wounds. Herodotus reported that the Babylonians buried their dead in honey, and Alexander the Great may have been embalmed in a coffin full of honey.

The oldest honey ever found was unearthed in Georgia, and dates back over 5,000 years. So, if you found yourself in possession of some 5,000 year-old honey, could you eat it? Well. . .

Chemical Properties of Honey

Honey is a sugar. You may have heard all sorts of things about the health benefits of substituting honey for sugar, which may or may not be true. While honey isn't the same as regular, granulated, white sugar, it's still a sugar. And sugars are hygroscopic – they don't contain much water in their natural state. And very few bacteria and microorganisms can live in the resulting low-moisture environment.

Amina Harris, executive director of the Honey and Pollination Center at the Robert Mondavi Institute at Univeristy of California, Davis says, “Honey in its natural form is very low moisture. Very few bacteria or microorganisms can survive in an environment like that, they just die. They’re smothered by it, essentially.” The fact that organisms can't survive long in honey means they don't get the chance to spoil it.

Another thing that sets honey apart from other sugars is its acidity. Honey's pH is between 3 and 4.5 (or, more precisely, 3.26-4.48), which also kills off anything trying to make a home in honey.

And there are a few factors behind honey's low moisture content, including:

Why honey is the only food that doesn't go bad


First, bees contribute to the low water content of honey by flapping their wings to dry out nectar. Second, the way bees get nectar into honey combs is by vomiting it there. This sounds really gross, but the chemical makeup of bees' stomachs also contributes to honey's long shelf-life. Bees' stomachs have the enzyme glucose oxidase, which is added to the honey when the nectar is regurgitated. The enzyme and nectar break mix to create gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide. The hydrogen peroxide is also a hostile force for anything trying to grow in honey. (Although, maybe not that effective in your cuts.)


This is important. The fact that honey is hydroscopic means that it has little water in its natural state but can easily suck in water if its exposed to it. If it does that, it could spoil. So the final key to honey remaining unspoiled is making sure it's well sealed and stored in a dry place.


Related to storage is the problem of crystallized honey. NOTE: Honey that's crystallized is not necessarily spoiled. Americans apparently see crystallized honey as "wrong," so large packers filter honey to remove any particles which may lead to crystallization. Raw honey and organic honey doesn't go through the process, but that doesn't mean it's going to spoil. Also, different honey has different rates of crystallization. So it may just be that the honey you have is more prone to crystallization.

So crystallization doesn't mean there's anything "wrong" with your honey — but if you don't like it, the big tip is to not put your honey in the refrigerator. Below 52 °F, crystallization slows down, so feel free to freeze your honey. And at temperatures above 77 °F, honey resists crystallization best. But honey crystallizes most quickly at temperatures of between 50 and 59 °F. So, if you want to avoid having to heat your honey to remove crystals (apparently slow, indirect heat is best for that, by the way), avoid the refrigerator.

Caveat: Infants

So, yes, honey mostly doesn't spoil. However, honey can contain spores of Clostridium botulinum. This isn't harmful to adults and children over one year old, whose gastrointestinal tract is developed enough to deal with the spores. But children under one are at risk for infant botulism, so honey is not for your infant.

So could you eat 5,000 year old honey? Well, if it's spent that time sealed and stored against moisture, sure. If it's crystallized, it's not spoiled, just heat it up and put it in your food of choice. Unless you're under one year old. Then you'd have to wait.




The Rules of Italian Cooking

Italian cooking has conquered the Western world so comprehensively that it is hard to imagine most British families going for more than a week without eating pizza or pasta in some form or other.

According to the experts, however, people still make the sort of mistakes that would make the average Italian recoil in shock.

To put them back on the path to Italian culinary righteousness, a respected food institute has issued a list of 10 cooking commandments which they hope will “teach foreigners how to avoid culinary horrors”.

The Parma-based Academia Barilla, which aims to “defend and safeguard Italian food products made by reputable artisans and certified denominations from poor-quality imitations”, says that one of the most common mistakes made by foreigners is to sip cappuccino during a meal. The coffee at the end of a meal is espresso: cappuccino is for breakfast. “You can ask for a cappuccino at the end of a meal, just know that most Italians don’t.”

Pasta and risotto are not meant to accompany other dishes, except in rare cases, such as Ossobuco alla Milanese — veal shanks braised with vegetables, white wine and broth — which is served with risotto. “The presentation of pasta as a side dish is widespread in several countries, but in Italy is seen almost as a sacrilege.”

Other pasta crimes include adding oil to the cooking water (it should be added only after the pasta has been drained), and adding ketchup to pasta. “This is one of the combinations that most shocks Italians,” says the Academia. “Keep ketchup for your french fries or hot dogs, please!”

Another popular misconception is that there are recipes for pasta with chicken. “It’s always embarrassing to point out that in Italy there are no hot dishes featuring pasta and chicken.”

Although spaghetti Bolognese is the world’s most popular Italian recipe, says the Academia, there are no restaurants in Bologna that serve it: the original recipe is for tagliatelle, not spaghetti. “Although this may seem a minor detail, in real Italian cuisine the pairing of the right kind of pasta with the right sauce is considered almost sacred.”

Other supposedly Italian dishes which are better known abroad are Caesar salad (invented by Caesar Cardini, but “almost unknown” in Italy), and Fettuccine Alfredo, or noodles served with butter and Parmesan cheese, which, despite being invented by a Rome restaurateur, is “the least known dish in Italy”.

The final commandment is to respect tradition, and what “Italian mamma” says. “She knows from her mamma, who knew from her mamma, who knew from her mamma, and so on. It’s been tried and tested. We must share Italian food with your loved ones. It is what life, love and family are all about.”




Tackling Obesity

All of Derbyshire’s ambulances are to be equipped to carry patients weighing up to 50 stone. They can currently accommodate a mere 28 stone, which is no longer enough.

The service used to have one ambulance per county for obese patients but is now adapting its entire fleet, which will be ready by 2016. The cost of this, £100,000 per ambulance, will be about £27m. Of course once these patients — often suffering from weight-related ailments — are in hospital, it is reasonable to suppose that the necessary equipment, from trolleys to beds to operating tables, will also need adapting.

I’m not meanly singling out Derbyshire: Britain is the fattest nation in western Europe and a third of our children are overweight or obese. Nobody seems to know what to do about this and the problem is getting worse. At the other end of the spectrum, hospital admissions for eating disorders were up by 16% from 2011 to 2012; of these, one in every 10 admissions was a 15-year-old girl.

It is estimated that about 1.6m people in Britain have an eating disorder. The vast majority are female and some are very young; a private eating disorders clinic in London takes children from the age of six. Nobody seems to know what to do about this, either.

Weight is an indicator of social class, and what an ugly, messed-up portrait it paints. Obese children tend to come from poorer families, who eat a diet of cheap filling rubbish that makes them fat and ill. The classic profile of an eating-disordered child is a) high-achieving and b) middle-class, although obviously there is overlap in both directions.

Oddly, anorexia and bulimia are considered to be psychiatric illnesses but obesity is not — obesity is apparently a thing that has nothing to do with what is going on in your head. I’m not at all sure that this is true.

Last week an “obesity expert” called Alan Jackson waded in. Writing under the provocative headline “Why it’s a parent’s duty to tell their child they’re fat”, he pointed out, not unreasonably, that healthy eating habits start in babyhood and that there is not much to be gained by pandering to a fussy eater. He also wrote about the absolute taboo that surrounds bluntly calling a child “fat”, either to its face or to its parents. Less reasonably, he suggested that we should do more of this: “People complain that calling a child ‘fat’ or ‘obese’ stigmatises them, but this is nonsense. It’s not the labelling that stigmatises the child, it’s being overweight that sets them apart.”

It is both, actually. Calling a child “fat” to his or her face is a recipe for disaster and not to be hazarded unless you fancy five years of family therapy. Aside from anything else, it presupposes that all children are the same, a breed rather than individuals. It’s perfectly possible that calling one child “fat” will be a wake-up call, just as it is perfectly possible that it will send another child into a spiral of decline lasting several years. Best not to experiment with children’s mental health, I always think.

The key to all this is stealth, not bluntness. Most children rely on their parents to feed them, and most children, provided they feel full, are unlikely to go on strike over marginally tweaked meals — more green veg, more protein, fewer great big cakes and crisps and fizzy drinks. Equally, they may moan about going for a brisk walk after Sunday lunch but they are unlikely to refuse point blank. A child can eat only what’s in the fridge.

Equally — and I never tire of saying this — if you are the mother of young girls and you feel the need to go on a diet, then for God’s sake keep quiet about it. One day people will wake up to the damage done by growing up in a house where one or both parents constantly moan about their own weight, or fetishise certain foods by calling them good or bad or fattening or slimming or healthy or rich or sinful. People who do this unthinkingly give everyone around them a complex that easily translates into eating issues.

Nobody is either obese or eating-disordered because they are deliriously happy. Much though I’m against telling people that they’re fat, I’m wholly in favour of not beating about the bush when it comes to asking them why they need the grief-bacon, or why they shun any kind of bacon entirely. Because it’s not just that we are a nation of fat people — it’s also, crucially, that we are a nation of unhappy people. Eating issues never vanish entirely, as anyone who has had one will tell you. They can be managed and physical decline can be halted — if the underlying emotional issue is addressed.

It seems to me that all we are doing with overweight children is telling them to eat more veg and run around more, and that’s fine — it’s a start. But none of it is going to amount to much if we don’t also address the question of unhappiness that surrounds the issue.



Jeremy Clarkson On Vegetarians

Four young chaps from Oxford Brookes University were hauled through the newspapers last week for posting “vile” pictures of themselves on the internet, plucking some partridges they’d shot in “broad daylight” and then hanging them in full view of passers-by.

So let’s just get this straight. Instead of sitting around playing mind-numbing video games all day and then ordering an Indian takeaway, they had been into the countryside, shot some birds and then prepared them for the oven. Presumably they’d chosen to do this in broad daylight because in the dead of night it can be much more tricky.

Plainly the story was written by someone who believes chickens are born with no heads, ready-wrapped in clear plastic. Certainly it was written by someone who has never had much mud on their shoes. First of all we were told there was blood at the scene, which is fairly normal when something has been shot. And then the reporter added: “A group of four hunters can expect to shoot up to 50 birds.” Which is true, but only if they have their eyes closed.

This story, then, was yet another eye-rolling, shoulder-sagging example of the modern-day assumption that all animals are delightful and wise and everything they do is heartwarming and cute. But it was nothing compared with the reaction of the university’s spokeswoman, who said it was important to respect the culture, background and beliefs of other students, and that, clearly, storing and preparing game was “not appropriate”.

This made me so angry my teeth started to itch. Because she was obviously not talking about Muslims or Jews, who prepare their meat by slicing the animal’s throat and sitting about while it bleeds to death. Or Japanese people, who eat stuff before it’s dead. Or the French, who put a cork in a goose’s bottom to make it tastier. And then eat a horse while they’re waiting.

In fact it’s hard to think of a single belief or culture that would find the plucking and hanging of a free-range bird offensive in any way. Except one: vegetarianism.

Which brings us to a shuddering halt outside the Leeds branch of Harvey Nichols, where recently a handful of protesters — the pictures show six — turned up with placards to complain about how the store sells clothes trimmed with rabbit fur.

Now I can sort of understand people getting angry if an animal is killed solely because an orange woman in a wealthy Leeds suburb wants a new coat. Certainly I’d be very upset if someone peeled my dog for this reason. But the thing about a rabbit is that you can eat its soft, chewy centre and then use its fur to keep warm on a chilly night. So it doesn’t die for a reason. It dies for two.

If I’d been running Harvey Nichols I’d have ignored the protesters, or I’d have gone outside and asked why they weren’t jumping up and down outside the butcher’s shop as well. But I wasn’t running Harvey Nichols. A man called Joseph Wan was. And he arranged a meeting with the animal rights group Peta, shortly after which the shop’s fashion director, Paula Reed, tended her resignation.

Once again the Daily Mail was on hand to provide us with all that we needed to know about the high street’s rabbit- murdering Cruella de Vil. She’s married to a wealthy architect and lives in a £4m west London town house. The implication is clear: she murdered Bright Eyes, so she deserved to lose her job. And we mustn’t feel sorry for her because she lives in a £4m town house.

But I do feel sorry for her. Because she is yet another victim of the vegetarian plague. Just like those young lads at Oxford Brookes. And the sheep that are killed by foxy-woxy. And me.

Over the years I have upset many people, but it wasn’t until I riled the nation’s vegetablists that Special Branch arrived on my doorstep. They said that because I’d made a joke about a fox on Have I Got News for You I’d gone on an animal rights internet hit list, and that as a result my car’s numberplate would have to be removed from the computer at Swansea and closed-circuit television would have to be installed throughout what the Daily Mail would undoubtedly call my “sprawling country estate”.

We’re in a chicken-and-egg situation here. I don’t know whether lunatics are drawn to vegetarianism or whether not eating meat causes a person to go mad, but, either way, people who live on nuts are nuts. And the hardliners are more dangerous than a mentally ill religious zealot with a wardrobe full of automatic weapons.

A few years ago an academic in East Anglia said BBC wildlife documentaries breached animals’ right to privacy, and that they should be allowed to have sex without David Attenborough sticking his nose into the moment.

In America the emergency services are prevented from dropping flame-retardant chemicals into the path of a forest fire by veg-heads who say the practice harms animals. Not as much as the fire, you might think, but there you go.

Then you have those who think badgers must be allowed to vandalise walls, murder hedgehogs and kill cows, and that foxes have a God-given right to eat people’s babies. And, of course, we regularly hear about research scientists having to go to their labs under armed guard to prevent them from being blown up by a load of people with angry faces and hair from the 1970s.

There’s nothing wrong with having a belief. But there is something dreadfully wrong when you believe that everyone else in the world must share it. “I don’t eat meat and you can’t either.” But I can and I will, and then afterwards I shall tend to my pigs and my dogs and my tortoises and my birds and my donkeys.

Because I live on a balanced diet, I have a balanced mind, and as a result I know that animals are like people. Some are for looking at. Some are for loving. Some are for riding. And some need to be shot because they’re a bloody nuisance.



fast Food

The questionable nutritional value of fast food, and of McDonald's in particular, came under its closest scrutiny when documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock released Super Size Me in 2004. The movie documented his own experience living exclusively on McDonald's food for 30 days. He averaged 5,000 calories a day, and when you consider that a Big Mac contains only 510 calories, you know that he was really packing it in. He super-sized every meal that was offered. Most dramatic was Spurlock's reported health problems. Not only did he gain 13% of his body weight, he also developed liver problems, depression and other psychological effects, and sexual dysfunction. Super Size Me also contained a large amount of editorial content about how McDonald's deliberately forces cheap, unhealthy food onto an unsuspecting public for profit.

Super Size Me was the most popular documentary of the year, and was nominated for an academy award. Its claims were generally accepted without critique by nearly everyone who watched it or even just heard about it. But this result was virtually guaranteed by Spurlock's choice of subject matter. McDonald's is probably the world's easiest target. It's always popular to be anticorporate; it's always popular to bash fast foods, and audiences are generally well predisposed to welcome any information that supports these concepts.

Spurlock's results were only presented in his movie. No actual data was published or subjected to any scrutiny or peer review. We have only his verbal statements to go on, plus the lines delivered onscreen by the doctor and nutritionist who performed in his movie. This is a Hollywood entertainment, it's not valid scientific data. However, for the sake of argument, my inclination is to give Spurlock the benefit of the doubt and accept his claims as valid, and accept the movie dialog as actual opinions of unbiased health professionals. From the perspective of responsible empiricism, that's a stretch, but I'm willing to do it. The problem is that Spurlock's results are highly deviant from other research on the same subject.

You see, Morgan Spurlock is not the only person to have ever tested fast-food-only diets, or even McDonald's-only diets. After his movie came out, many people repeated his experiment themselves, including a number of scientific institutions that applied controls and conducted the research in a scientific manner. At least three other documentary movies were made, Bowling for Morgan, Portion Size Me, and Me and Mickey D, in which the filmmakers lived exclusively on McDonald's food for 30 days but (unlike Spurlock) did not force themselves to overeat when they were not hungry. All filmmakers lost weight during the period and suffered no ill effects; and the subjects in Portion Size Me, which was scientifically controlled, also had improved cholesterol.

Most famously, Swedish scientist Fredrik Nyström conducted an experiment with eighteen students; only he upped the ante — considerably. Rather than Spurlock's 5,000 calories per day, Nyström's subjects were required to consume a measured 6,000 calories per day. The food was controlled to ensure that most of the calories were from saturated fats. The subjects were not allowed to exercise during the 30 days, also unlike Spurlock, who made sure that he walked a normal distance every day. Considering these differences, Nyström's subjects should have been considerably worse off than Spurlock was, but they weren't. They did all gain 5-15% extra body weight, and complained of feeling tired; but none suffered any other negative effects. There were no mysterious psychological problems, no strange conditions that baffled the doctors. Nyström and his medical staff noted no dangerous changes at all. After his experiment, Nyström was asked his opinion of Spurlock's extreme reaction, especially his liver problems. Having never examined Spurlock, Nyström could only guess, but among two of his perfectly reasonable hypotheses were that Spurlock may have had pre-existing undiagnosed liver problems; or that his normally vegetarian diet may have rendered his liver poorly prepared to suddenly deal with a diet high in carbohydrates and saturated fat, a problem that anyone eating a normal diet would not experience. Any cynic can also easily propose a third possibility, that Spurlock was simply trying to make as dramatic, engaging, and commercial a movie as he could, which is the goal of every filmmaker.

Public relations required McDonald's to respond to Super Size Me, and their response was fairly low key. They basically just agreed that it's best to eat a balanced diet, and stated that any actual ill effects experienced by Spurlock were more the result of force-feeding himself 5,000 calories a day for a month, than they were indicative of anything bad about McDonald's food. Way too much of any food is going to be bad for you.

That response suggests the next thing to look at. Is McDonald's food, and other fast food in general, actually bad for you? Dr. Dean Edell once took a call on his radio show from a woman whose teenage daughter ate a fast food hamburger every day. The woman was worried that her daughter would develop malnutrition. Quite the contrary, said Dr. Edell: She might gain weight if she ate a lot of them, but malnutrition is that last thing she should worry about. A hamburger is actually quite a balanced meal, rich with just about every nutrient. Add a slice of cheese and it even contains all four food groups. Fast food hamburgers are excellent sources of protein, calcium, and iron.

McDonald's hamburgers are not even as grossly calorific as most people probably think. Their biggest burger, the Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese, contains 740 calories. Three of those a day, which is more than anyone reasonably eats, still amounts to a good, healthy, slim 2,200 calorie diet for an adult. The real offenders on fast food menus are not the hamburgers at all, but the drinks; especially the milkshakes. Where Spurlock gained his weight was from the milkshakes. McDonald's 32-ounce Chocolate Triple Thick Shake packs 1,160 calories. Personally, I can't even imagine drinking a 32-ounce shake! A more common size, the 16-ounce, is 580 calories, or slightly more than a Big Mac. McDonald's biggest breakfast will also get you: The large Deluxe Breakfast delivers 1,140 calories. This may sound like a lot, but in fact it's not really much more than any average balanced breakfast.

By now you're saying "OK fine, McDonald's food may not be as high in calories as people think, but the real reason it's bad is that it's chock-full of trans-fats, sodium, saturated fats, and cholesterol." That would be bad indeed. The United States and Canada both use a system called the Dietary Reference Intake to establish ideal levels of nutrients. These four compounds listed have an ideal level of "as low as possible", except sodium. Ideally you should take 1500mg of sodium each day, and you should not take in more than 2300mg. McDonald's poster child of evil, the Big Mac, delivers 1040mg of sodium, about 2/3 of your daily ideal. Not a problem by itself, but don't eat three of them.

The Big Mac delivers 10g of saturated fat, which is 10g more than you want; but realistically it's virtually impossible to get zero. The Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization recommend that you keep your saturated fat intake under 7% of your daily caloric intake, and the Big Mac fulfills half of that. So, in short, two Big Macs a day maxes out your recommended safe levels of saturated fat.

The Big Mac's 75mg of cholesterol represents 1/4 of the CDC and World Health Organization's daily recommended maximum. I'm not going to eat four of them a day, so that's not a problem.

Finally, the scariest mugshot on the CDC's Ten Most Wanted poster: trans-fats. Beginning in 2003 with some high-profile class action lawsuits filed against major food producers, the fast food restaurant chains have all pledged to switch to cooking oils free of trans-fats. Some have completed this, others, including McDonald's, are still completing the switch. But although it's possible to eliminate the addition of trans-fats to fried foods, some foods, like meat and some vegetables, contain naturally occurring trans-fat. 2-5% of the fat in livestock is trans-fat. Whether you order a Big Mac or barbecue your own organic filet mignon, you're getting trans-fat. McDonald's doesn't add it, and your neighborhood butcher has no way of reducing it. A big Mac (or any comparable meat of the same quantity) contains 1.5g of trans-fat, which is more than you want, but only about 8% of the daily amount the World Health Organization says you really, really need to keep it under. Eight percent — the Big Mac is hardly the monster it's made out to be.

So eat up, and I'll see you at the drive-thru.

From Skeptoid



Food Waste

More than two thirds of all salad sold in bags by Tesco ends up being wasted between the grower and the customer, according to figures from the supermarket chain.

Almost half of all the items in its bakeries are similarly thrown away, as are 40 per cent of apples, a quarter of grapes and a fifth of the bananas.

Tesco is publishing its total food waste figures today for the first time after gathering information from its suppliers, distribution centres, stores and its customers.

In the first six months of this year, 28,500 tonnes of food was wasted by the supermarket. Tesco will say that this is a small proportion of the 14.8 million tonnes of food wasted in the UK annually at all stages from the farm to the dinner table.

Tesco will also announce that it will end “multibuy deals”, such as two for the price of one, on large bags of salad. Campaigners against food waste have been lobbying Tesco for years to end such deals on perishable items because they encourage people to buy more than they can eat before the use-by date.

The average family throws away £680-worth of food a year, according to Wrap, the government-funded waste advisory body. Wrap found that 52 per cent of bagged salad is thrown away after being purchased by supermarket customers. Tesco added this figure to the amount that is wasted before it is sold, including during production, and found that 68 per cent of the salad produced to be sold in bags is discarded.

Tesco acknowledged its announcement on ending multibuy deals for large bags of salad would apply to only 15 per cent of its bagged salad. The remainder is sold in smaller bags, which will be sold in “mix-and-match promotions ... to help customers reduce the amount they are wasting at home”.

Matt Simister, Tesco’s food director, said: “Ending multibuy promotions on large packs of bagged salads is one way we can help, but this is just the start and we’ll be reviewing what else we can do. We’re working with our suppliers to try to cut waste at all stages of the journey from farm to fork.” Tesco is reducing the amount of bread on display in bakeries in larger stores to try to cut waste.

The supermarket is also testing new varieties of grapes with a longer life, and training staff in “how to handle bananas with care”.

Tesco said a scheme under which it attempted to reduce food waste by giving customers a voucher to get a second item free later when they needed it, had been “discontinued based on customer feedback”. The scheme, called “buy one get one free — later”, was launched with a fanfare in 2009 at a conference on sustainable consumption, attended by David Cameron.

A spokesman for Friends of the Earth said: “Tesco is the largest food retailer in the UK and needs to go much further than these baby steps to tackle the huge waste it causes in its operations, such as by over-ordering and demanding cosmetic perfection.

“They should stop multibuy deals and other marketing tools which lead to customers wasting fresh food.” Asda said it no longer offered two-for-one deals, giving a discount on the second item instead. The supermarket said it was important to charge something for the second item, even if it was a heavily discounted price, because that made people think whether they really needed to buy the product.



Butter Is Good

Butter should replace low-cholesterol spreads in our sandwiches, one of the country’s leading cardiologists warns today. Aseem Malhotra claims that dairy products and fat from “real food” may actually protect the heart. Sugar and refined carbohydrates, such as white bread, are the real driver of obesity and heart disease, he argues in the British Medical Journal.

“If you have a choice between butter and margarine, have the butter every time,” Dr Malhotra, of Croydon University Hospital, says.

A Mediterranean diet of olive oil, fish, meat, fruit and vegetables is the best way to protect your heart he argues, taking a swipe at the mass prescription of statins.

Other experts protested that high cholesterol was still a risk, saying that a balanced diet and active life was probably the safest bet.

“The mantra that saturated fat must be removed to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease has dominated dietary advice and guidelines for almost four decades,” Dr Malhotra writes. “Yet scientific evidence shows that this advice has, paradoxically, increased our cardiovascular risks.”

Recent studies have not shown a strong link between saturated fat and heart disease. Dr Malhotra argues that advice has failed to change because of the “the stubbornness of doctors who don’t like to admit that they’re wrong”. There is also “a huge industry [built on low-fat advice]”, he says.

“In the past 30 years in the United States the proportion of energy from consumed fat has fallen from 40 per cent to 30 per cent (although absolute fat consumption has remained the same), yet obesity has rocketed. One reason: when you take the fat out, the food tastes worse. The food industry compensated by replacing saturated fat with added sugar.”

Dairy products are a good source of vitamins A and D, as well as other helpful nutrients, he says. Steak and other “normal” cuts of meat do not appear to be harmful, but he adds: “Saturated fat from processed meat like sausages and burgers has been shown to be detrimental and that’s probably because of the preservatives.”

Dr Malhotra attacks “the Government’s obsession with levels of total cholesterol, which has led to the overmedication of millions of people with statins”, saying that it has distracted attention from more serious risks.

“Sugar is driving the obesity epidemic” and fizzy drinks can no more be part of a healthy diet than “a packet of cigarettes is part of a healthy lifestyle”.

While inactivity is bad for the heart, high levels of exercise make little difference to weight, Dr Malhotra argues. “Even a brisk 20-minute walk every day is good, but when it comes to losing weight, exercise is negligible. The obesity epidemic is all about what we’ve been consuming and we’re not going to solve it by doing more exercise.”

Professor David Haslam, chairman of the National Obesity Forum, said: “It’s extremely naive of the public and the medical profession to imagine that a calorie of bread, a calorie of meat and a calorie of alcohol are all dealt with in the same way by the amazingly complex systems of the body.

“The assumption has been made that increased fat in the bloodstream is caused by increased saturated fat in the diet, whereas modern scientific evidence is proving that refined carbohydrates and sugar in particular are actually the culprits.”

Professor Peter Weissberg, of the British Heart Foundation, said: “Studies on the link between diet and disease frequently produce conflicting results because, unlike drug trials, it’s very difficult to undertake a properly controlled, randomised study.

“However, people with the highest cholesterol levels are at highest risk of a heart attack and it’s also clear that lowering cholesterol, by whatever means, lowers risk.”


In more than 20 years I have never bought a tub of margarine, says a practising doctor, and I feel all the better.

We all know butter is the most delicious of fats, whether spread on toast, swirled in your mashed potato or melted over your veggies. However, we are also only too aware of butter’s rich stash of saturated fat. Most of us treat butter as a guilty pleasure because we are warned that it raises our risk of heart disease via an elevating effect on cholesterol. Butter has inevitably been damned to nutritional hell by official health bodies, so we often have less tasty lower-fat and cholesterol-reducing spreads instead.

This week, however, an article in the British Medical Journal went against this view. Dr Aseem Malhotra, the cardiology registrar at Croydon University Hospital, London, said that the “mantra that saturated fat must be removed to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease has dominated dietary advice and guidelines for almost four decades”. He argued that evidence shows that butter and unprocessed fats may actually be good for you, lowering your blood pressure and protecting your heart. It’s time, he said, to “bust the myth of the role of saturated fat in heart disease”.

So, are our beliefs about the “heart-healthy” properties of low-fat spreads built on solid scientific foundations, or just the result of slick marketing and misinformation? It’s time we got our fats straight.


While the saturated fat that makes up the bulk of butter might boost cholesterol levels in our blood, studies have shown that this effect is, in fact, irrelevant. It’s the impact it has on health that counts. All the most recent, major scientific reviews of the evidence fail to find any link between intakes of saturated fat and the risk of heart disease. Malhotra pointed to a recent study that indicated that 75 per cent of acute heart attack patients had normal cholesterol concentrations.

These “epidemiological” studies fail to impugn saturated fat, but cannot be used to determine causality (whether or not saturated fat causes heart disease). It is more useful to look at studies in which the health outcomes of people who cut back on saturated fat or replace it with supposedly healthier fats are compared with those who do not make these changes.

A comprehensive review of the literature encompassing almost 50 such studies was published by researchers from the respected Cochrane Collaboration in 2012. Reducing or modifying fat in the diet did not reduce the risk of heart disease (or stroke, or any other chronic disease) at all. Life expectancy was not extended by a single day either. The evidence as a whole strongly suggests that our belief that saturated fat causes heart disease and has broadly harmful effects is a myth.

The next most plentiful fat in butter is monounsaturated in nature. This type of fat is found in foods such as olives, olive oil, nuts, seeds and avocado, and is associated with improved heart health.

Butter also contains small amounts of what are known as trans fats, which can be formed during the processing of fats and are strongly implicated in heart disease. However, the trans fats found in butter and those found in industrially produced fats (such as those found in some margarines) have a different chemical nature. Crucially, there is evidence that while industrially produced trans fats do indeed have links with heart disease, those that occur naturally in the diet do not.

Spreads, margarine and low-fat butters

Margarine, olive-oil spreads and low-fat butters are often considered the healthy option. Margarine’s principal ingredient comes in the form of “vegetable” oils such as sunflower, corn or safflower oil. These oils are rich in so-called omega-6 fats, one of the two main forms of “polyunsaturated” fats. Omega-6 fats are vigorously promoted as “healthy”, but have been found to promote inflammation and blood clotting — two things that would be expected to raise heart disease risk. In recent years, many researchers have raised concerns about the predominance of this type of fat in the diet, including from processed foods.

Some margarines also contain omega-3 fats that have generally beneficial anti-inflammatory and anti-clotting properties. However, this will generally be in small amounts and in a form (alpha-linolenic acid) that may not confer the health benefits ascribed to the omega-3 fats found in oily fish, Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

Vegetable or olive oil-based spreads may sound healthier, but it’s important to consider what happens to natural liquids that turns them into spreads. Vegetable oils are liquid at room temperature, and need to be solidified to make them suitable for spreading. This can be done through chemical processing such as “hydrogenation” or “interesterification”. The end result will be at least some fats that are unknown in nature — a quality that is likely to bring with it some none-too-healthy properties. For me, adding processed fats to butter to make it “lite” or spreadable risks adulterating it from both a nutritional and taste perspective.

Certain spreads have supposed added value for health by being based on monounsaturated fat-rich olive oil. However, olive oil requires processing to make it solid, and this is likely to detract from any healthy properties it may have. As with other margarines, olive oil-based spreads will generally have other processes inflicted on them, including bleaching, deodorising, colouring and flavouring. An olive oil spread is a very far cry indeed from the extra virgin olive oil we may use for roasting vegetables or as the basis for a salad dressing.

Whatever the base ingredients in margarine, the end product is always a highly processed and chemical-laden foodstuff — in stark contrast to the relatively natural character of butter (made by the churning of milk or cream).

Bearing in mind the fact that spreads are so often assumed to be the healthier option, you might expect there to be plenty of evidence for their benefit s. Actually, the evidence in the area is scant. There are, for instance, two epidemiological studies in which the relationship between butter and margarine consumption and risk of cardiovascular disease was assessed. In neither study was butter consumption found to be associated with increased risk. However, it was a different story for margarine: both studies linked its consumption with worsened health.

This sort of evidence cannot prove causality, but there were some worrying findings in what has become known as the Sydney Diet Heart Study (published in 1978). Here, men were split into two groups. In one, men ate their normal diet, while in the other the men were instructed to eat a diet rich in safflower oil, including safflower oil-based margarine. The men on this “heart-healthy’”diet actually ended up being 74 per cent more likely to die of heart disease.

Cholesterol-reducing margarines and spreads

Recently several so-called cholesterol-reducing spreads have appeared on our supermarket shelves. It’s often assumed that cholesterol reduction is beneficial to heart health. However, several cholesterol-modifying drugs have not been found to deliver on their promise, and some have been found to harm heart health. Plus, overall, taking dietary steps to reduce cholesterol has not been found to have broad benefits for health.

Again, the effect that a foodstuff has on cholesterol levels should not be our focus, but the impact it has on health. What evidence do we have that cholesterol-reducing margarines reduce the risk of heart disease, heart attack or overall risk of death? Not one single study of this nature exists in the scientific literature.

Some cholesterol-reducing margarines contain “plant sterols” that partially block absorption of cholesterol from the gut. However, sterols may make their way into the bloodstream too, and evidence links higher levels of sterols in the blood with increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Perhaps worse still, there are several studies that show sterols have the ability to damage tissue and induce worse health outcomes in animals.

While the British Heart Foundation and many doctors support the use of sterols, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) explicitly advises against their routine use.

I find it impossible to reconcile margarine’s heart-healthy image with the facts. Years of fat-phobia driven advice that has forced many to switch from butter to spreads has never had any meaningful scientific support. The idea that butter is less healthy, and the associated arguments about cholesterol and saturated fats, is a huge retrograde step in terms of our health.

I am a practising doctor and the author of several books on nutrition, and in more than 20 years I have not bought a single tub of margarine. Nor have I consciously limited butter in my diet. There’s little doubt in my mind that butter is better, and not just in terms of how it tastes. To my mind, it need not be a guilty pleasure at all, but just a pleasure.



Carrier vs Plastic Bags

So, the trusty bag for life turns out, all along, to have been the toxic old bag of death. There we were, smugly handing over 10p for a planet-saving carrier bag decorated with tulips, when actually we were taking home a many-fanged potential killer. A professor of bacteriology warns that reused carrier bags can be heavily infested with germs and that a 5p levy on all plastic bags could lead to a surge in food poisoning. Bags that have carried raw meat should never be used again, he says. On the upside, a plastic bag for life does make an excellent receptacle in to which to vomit. Trust me: I’ve done it. Hardly any leakage.

It is always disappointing when something conceived with the best of eco-intentions turns round and bites us on the bottom. When water companies urged us to take showers instead of baths it transpired that women (it’s always our fault) then squandered 50 billion litres of water a year by not turning their shower off while shaving their legs. When Anya Hindmarch launched a £5 limited-edition, non-profit-making, eco-friendly bag bearing the slogan “I’m not a plastic bag” to encourage lifestyle change, not everyone took it in quite the spirit intended. Some people snapped them up and immediately stuck them on eBay for up to £400. I heard of one person who bragged that she was booking a flight to Ibiza with the profit she’d made. Not exactly a win for the planet, then.

Remember in the early days of recycling when shopkeepers would pay 5p for the return of an empty fizzy-drink bottle? Bless their naive hearts. Round our way kids would steal the bottles from neighbours' porches and buy sweets with the proceeds. The more hardfaced ones would nick bottles of Tizer and dandelion and burdock direct from shop shelves, empty the contents, then return them to the same outlet to collect cash and a pat on the back from the clueless owner.

Nick Clegg wants England to follow Wales by charging 5p for carrier bags, but others warn that this too could have an unfortunate side-effect. When Ireland introduced a 15c charge on plastic bags there was indeed a huge decline in their use - but a consequent 400 per cent upsurge in sales of thick, glossy refuse sacks and bin liners.

I’m sure the scientists are right and that bags for life are seething with bacteria. Some of the manky specimens whipped out at our local supermarket look like they haven’t been carrying potatoes but buried in a rotting field of them. But this shouldn't be a reason not to charge for carrier bags, a change that is long overdue.

Warnings about raw meat could easily be printed on the sides. People can wise up. Besides, how come old ladies who use the same tartan bag on wheels for decades, tipping everything together into its dark crevices, seem to survive to a ripe old age? By this measure Roy Cropper, who has carried the same tatty shopper for 15 years in Coronation Street, should be six feet under. If carrier bags harbour germs, then so must the newspapers that used to be stacked on greasy chip-shop floors then used to wrap fish and chips that were eaten straight from the paper.

Live dangerously, people, and hang on to your bags for life. I have a hunch you’ll survive.



52 Last Suppers

The Christian faith holds several acts of "super-sizing" to be miracles accomplished by Jesus Christ -- a handful of fish and loaves of bread expanded to feed thousands; a wedding feast running low on wine suddenly awash in the stuff. Now a new study of portion expansion puts Jesus once more at the center.

In a bid to uncover the roots of super-sized American fare, a pair of sibling scholars has turned to an unusual source: 52 artists' renderings of the New Testament's Last Supper.

Their findings, published online Tuesday in the International Journal of Obesity, indicate that serving sizes have been marching heavenward for 1,000 years.

"I think people assume that increased serving sizes, or 'portion distortion,' is a recent phenomenon," said Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab and author of "Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think." "But this research indicates that it's a general trend for at least the last millennium."

To reach their conclusion, Wansink and his brother Craig, a biblical scholar at Virginia Wesleyan College, analyzed 52 depictions of the meal the Wansinks call "history's most famous dinner party" painted between the year 1000 and the year 2000.

Using the size of the diners' heads as a basis for comparison, the Wansinks used computers to compare the sizes of the plates in front of the apostles, the food servings on those plates and the bread on the table. Assuming that heads did not increase in size during the second millennium after the birth of Christ, the researchers used this method to gauge how much serving sizes increased.

And increase they did.

Over the course of the millennium, the Wansinks found that the entrees depicted on the plates laid before Jesus' followers grew by about 70%, and the bread by 23%.

As entree portions rose, so too did the size of the plates -- by 65.6%.

The apostles depicted during the Middle Ages appear to be the ascetics they are said to have been. But by 1498, when Leonardo da Vinci completed his masterpiece, the party was more lavishly fed. Almost a century later, the Mannerist painter Jacobo Tintoretto piled the food on the apostles' plates still higher.

New York University nutrition researcher Lisa R. Young called the Wansink study fun. But as the author of "The Portion Teller," a history of portion size through the 20th century, she also pointed to the three decades that ended the millennium as a "tipping point" for humankind.

There is scant evidence that the body mass index of people in developed societies soared into unhealthy ranges for most of the 1,000 years studied, Young said. But there is little doubt, she added, that that changed in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s -- coincidentally, when portion sizes began a dramatic run-up.

The Wansinks, however, suggest that portion growth may have a provenance far older than industrial farming and the economics of takeout food.

Instead, they suggest, it's a natural consequence of "dramatic socio-historic increases in the production, availability, safety, abundance and affordability of food" over the millennium that started in the year 1000 A.D.



Skeptoid on MSG

MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is a flavoring agent originally developed from seaweed. As with so many other compounds, mountainous anecdotal evidence exists that certain people are sensitive to it or develop some reaction to food with MSG added. But there's a problem. MSG is a glutamic (gloo-TAM-ick) acid (as its name suggests), and glutamic acids are widespread in many foods, including virtually everything that contains protein. The supposed condition, called Chinese Restaurant Syndrome or MSG Symptom Complex, exists only from self-diagnosis reports and has never been medically described. Reported symptoms vary, but often include numbness or a jittery feeling.

But just because it's common, and just about everyone gets some in just about every meal, doesn't mean that a big dose of it (like a big spoonful mixed into your teriyaki sauce) won't cause a reaction in people who are susceptible. This has been tested, a number of times, in large, well-controlled, randomized trials. The result? Even people who self-identify as MSG sensitive no longer have consistent reactions when given food that they don't know whether or not it contains MSG; and numerous studies have conclusively found that MSG produces no long-term effects in anybody.

This is one of those conclusions that's hard to swallow because so many of us take MSG syndrome as a given, but the science shows that it simply doesn't exist.







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