Friday, July 18, 2003

Ban misleading food claims

The European Commission is proposing to clamp down on vague and unproven claims made by food manufacturers.

Statements like 'fat-free', 'light', and 'high-fibre' would be subject to stricter scientific checks, and vague claims to improve immunity or concentration would also come under the spotlight. All of which is a bit patronising. Do they really think that people don't take such claims with a pinch of salt already? However, if we really want a crackdown on misleading food claims, we could start at the very top. Here in the UK, the Food Standards Agency has in the last few months produced reports stating that we are at risk from excess salt, saturated fat and cheap squash. Yet the evidence put forward for these statements is dubious. Perhaps these claims, designed to be taken deadly seriously, should be put to the test properly before the authorities start handing out bans on food labels.

Brussels crackdown on food health claims, Guardian, 16 July 2003

Thursday, July 17, 2003

Wanking is good for you

According to research conducted in Australia, men who masturbated five times or more per week, especially in their twenties, were a third less likely to develop aggressive forms of prostate cancer. They speculate that regularly removing potentially carcinogenic chemicals from the body might be the reason, or perhaps that masturbation helps the cells in the prostate to mature more quickly.

Which is all entirely speculative. When a study relies on a questionnaire to determine the independent variable, any results must be taken with a pinch of salt. After all, who actually knows how often they jerk off? Do they keep a diary? Even if they did, wouldn't the pages be stuck together?

Definitely a study to be put in the 'further investigation required' file. Still, it might help me assuage some of my Catholic guilt...

Masturbating may protect against prostate cancer, New Scientist, 16 July 2003

Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Do striplights cause cancer? Or, maybe it's night working...

'Hundreds of thousands of female nightshift workers in the UK could be at greater risk of developing breast cancer, it emerged yesterday,' declares the Herald (Glasgow) newspaper today. However, the researcher behind the report is much more equivocal about any relationship. The paper quotes Professor Anthony Swerdlow, an epidemiologist with the Institute of Cancer Research:

'You have to ask two questions: if more women who work shifts get breast cancer and, if that is the case, is it because of the shift work or something else, such as exercise patterns being different, among these women. There is some evidence breasts cancer and shift work may be linked, but at the moment it is not persuasive enough to be convincing. That is why more detailed research needs to be carried out. There is no doubt exposure to artificial light decreases the level of melatonin. But whether melatonin acts as a guard against breast cancer, and so a reduction increases the risk of the disease, is not so certain. There are other issues at stake regarding shift workers. Having children is known to protect against breast cancer, and shift workers tend to have fewer children because of the nature of the job. The issue is very complex.'

Nightshift working linked to breast cancer, Herald, 16 July 2003

Suntan censorshop

It's bad enough having the government tell us what to do - now local chemists are telling us how deep our suntan should be.

Lloyds Pharmacies have, for the last two months, refused to stock suntan products with a protection factor of less than 15. This is an 'ethical stance' to protect us from excessive UV exposure. 'The trouble is there is a mentality out there among worshippers of the sun that if they use factor 15 they are not going to get a tan. People think it either makes them look more attractive or healthier if they have a tan,' said Sara Hiom of Cancer Research UK, welcoming the initiative.

Getting some sun, once regarded as a pleasurable break from Britain's typically grey skies, has now been twisted into a terrible health problem. Yet there is no evidence that sun-induced skin cancers are killing thousands of people every year. In fact, only 10 percent of melanomas are malignant, usually in areas of the body not normally exposed to the sun, and similar to the rate found in Japan where sunbathing is not a fashionable pastime. But the absence of such evidence clearly hasn't stopped these busybodies from telling us how to live our lives.

It may not be entirely sensible to turn pink and peel at the first sight of sun, but the worst we can expect from the experience is sore skin. Foreigners may laugh that Brits display sunburn like a trophy, but please allow us our little pleasures.

The dangers of 'safe sun', by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick and Br?d Hehir

Chemist trumpets 'ethical ban' on low factor sunscreen, Guardian, 15 July 2003

Does junk food make us junkies?

‘Fast food can be as addictive as hard drugs, claims new research,’ reported the UK Independent on 14 July. According to the research, consuming fat and sugar can have the same biochemical effects in the brain as heroin or cocaine. This suggests that high-profile lawsuits against fast food chains might yet succeed.

Despite the headlines, the research is not based on studying humans, but rats. All that can be concluded from these studies is that pleasurable experiences, like eating food, have a biochemical expression in our brains. It is quite another thing to say that the production of dopamine and other neurochemicals turns us into slobbering wrecks who can’t pass McDonalds or KFC without consuming a calorie-loaded meal with all the trimmings.

Nor is there anything wrong with fast food in particular. Food rich in fat and sugar is just as likely to be found on the menus of the finest restaurants. Yet no-one has described the problem of addiction at three-star Michelin restaurants. Or are we to believe that the well-to-do are now shunning the dessert tray and the cheese board?

In fact, the notion of addiction is, in principle, wrong. It suggests that behaviour that was once considered a matter of personal choice, like eating, drinking and smoking, is in fact determined by inanimate objects. Something in the things that we consume, or the activities we undertake, interacts with our brains in a way that by-passes any conscious intervention.

Such an understanding is extremely useful to those who want to avoid responsibility for their actions – and their legal representatives. It’s not easy being fat, especially when you have to face criticism for your lack of self-discipline. How much easier if you can blame the food, and the people that make it? However, people do cut down on food, stop drinking and smoking – yes, even quit hard drugs – everyday.

Eating too much can be a problem in extreme cases. But pleading addiction won’t help a bit.

Fast food can be as addictive as hard drugs, claims new research, Independent, 14 July 2003

Tuesday, July 15, 2003

Trans fat labelling

The US Food and Drug Administration has announced plans to make manufacturers of packaged food state how much trans fat is included in their products. According to this story from Associated Press in Washington, published on, 'the FDA has estimated merely revealing trans fat content on labels would save between 2,000 and 5,600 lives a year, as people either chose healthier foods or manufacturers change their recipes to leave out the damaging ingredient.'

That's a confident and impressive estimate without a lot of scientific evidence. Trans fat may boost cholesterol levels - but the links between cholesterol and heart disease appear to be much more subtle than first thought. Studies where diet has been changed to reduce cholesterol levels have shown relatively little change in cholesterol levels, even where diet has changed drastically. There is a correlation between cholesterol and heart disease, but whether the relationship is cause-and-effect is not clear.

U.S. government plans fat labelling measure on foods

Blight-resistant potatoes

Scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have found a gene in a Mexican variety of potato that makes the plant resistant to late blight, and believe they have successfully modified commercial varieties to include this gene, removing the need for fungicides.

Which only shows that GM does not have to involve putting fish genes in tomatoes, an example I'm getting rather bored of hearing from environmentalists. Bet they still find a reason for objecting to it, though...

GM potato is 'blight resistant', BBC News, 15 July 2003

Monday, July 14, 2003

Health screening: a waste of time?

The Independent health editor, Jeremy Laurance, reports on renewed discussion of the value of health screening. Hazel Thornton and Michael Baum, writing in the British Medical Journal, argue that screening tends to create more worry, anxiety and unnecessary treatment than can be justified by the number of lives saved. Meanwhile, private clinics offering whole body scans and other forms of screening, are doing an ever-increasing business.

Any rational analysis of screening would lead to it being scrapped. However, women's health has been an important area of activity for feminists and it would be politically difficult to be seen to ignore breast and cervical cancer, no matter how useless the testing. Moreover, the general trend of government health policy has been to intervene more frequently in people's lives - and screening is part-and-parcel of that trend.

A friend of mine illustrated this for me by telling me her experience of trying to get the Pill from her GP. Her GP insisted on a cervical smear. My friend had no great objection to the test, slightly unpleasant and embarrassing though it may be, but objected strongly to being dictated to. So, she went to her family planning clinic for it instead. So much for empowering women...

Health warning: screening can seriously damage patients, Independent, 14 July 2003

Sunday, July 13, 2003

28 Days Later...

I've just watched this film on video, and thought it was an entertaining way to spend 90 minutes or so. The premise is that a super-infectious virus which makes its victims highly aggressive, is released accidentally by animal rights activists. 28 days later, there are very few uninfected people left in Britain, and a small group of people who have found each other attempt to survive against the marauding killer zombies.

It's a cut above your average zombie film, but the pretensions of the makers go far beyond finding a plausible hook for another horror movie. They really think they're saying something important about how a pandemic could affect the country. This is illustrated in Pure Rage: The Making of 28 Days Later... in which the producer, director and various experts assure us that another 'Big One' is just round the corner.

Well, no it isn't. As SARS showed, new infections will crop up from time to time, particularly where humans interact closely with animals in one way or another. But, even without a known cure, proper public health measures can bring such infections under control. It is claimed that 25 percent of world deaths are caused by infectious disease - but many of those diseases are effectively diseases of poverty, like gastroenteritis, that should kill only rarely.

The movie was entertaining, the promo video was utterly galling.

Pure Rage: The Making of 28 Days Later (Real Player format)

(There is also an interesting point about the nature of the threat in 28 Days Later which Brendan O'Neill makes in his review of the film.)