Friday, February 25, 2005

Jamie's School Dinners

I've written a new article pointing out the modern food prejudices behind Jamie Oliver's new programme as he campaigns to improve school dinners. Yes, make food more interesting, but the health fears being promoted are just misplaced.

"Improving school dinners would be a good thing. Since the Tories started to cut back on the provision of school dinners in the 1980s, budgets and staffing have fallen, and catering companies have been reduced to providing lowest common denominator meals. They may not be adventurous or particularly nutritious, but at least the kids eat them.

But something else is going on, too: the dumbing down of eating. Rather than force children to try new things on the basis that we adults know what's good for them, kids are left to choose what they want. Inevitably, they go for the salt, sugar and fat every time. Some balance has to be struck between training taste buds - which is why 'eat your greens' is a meal-time mantra for most parents - and getting the little buggers to eat enough to stay healthy and active.

Oliver is entirely sold on the food values of our time. His campaign manifesto states: 'A lunchtime school dinner should give kids a third of their daily nutrition requirements. That's why it should be packed with not only fresh produce, but all the proteins, minerals and vitamins needed for health and growth. Diet also affects kids' behaviour, their physical and mental development, and their ability to learn - another good reason to ban the junk and go fresh and tasty.'

But there is little difference in nutrients between fresh and frozen food. Even the 'junk' food contains plenty of protein, minerals and vitamins. The suggestion that frozen chips don't contain vitamin C, for example, is just plain wrong - a portion of chips cooked from frozen has considerably more vitamin C and fibre than an apple."

Making a meal out of school dinners, spiked, 25 February 2005

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Monbiot's dodgy forecast

With heavy snow affecting the east of the UK in particular, we recall the words of George Monbiot's Guardian column last week, advising us that climate change had fundamentally altered the timing of Britain's seasons:

'It is now mid-February, and already I have sown 11 species of vegetable. I know, though the seed packets tell me otherwise, that they will flourish. Everything in this country - daffodils, primroses, almond trees, bumblebees, nesting birds - is a month ahead of schedule.'

Hope you're not relying on those veggies, George.

Mocking our dreams, Guardian, 15 February 2005

Monday, February 21, 2005

The dangers of dye

The UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) hit the headlines last week by demanding the removal from supermarket shelves of 350 processed foods which may contain traces of the banned dye Sudan-I. The dye appears to have been used to colour chilli powder imported from India, but it is illegal to use it in food sold in the EU. The chilli powder was added to worcester sauce, which in turn was added to processed foods, including canned soups and ready meals. 'At the levels present the risk is likely to be very small but it is sensible to avoid eating any more', said Dr Jon Bell of the FSA.

Sudan-I is not, as frequently stated, a 'known carcinogen' in humans. In large quantities, it does increase the frequency of liver tumours in rats, but not in mice. It is classified as a 'category 3' carcinogen - that is, something for which not enough information in relation to humans is available to make a firm judgement but which has carcinogenic potential.

The old adage 'the dose makes the poison' also suggests there is little risk here. The quantities contained in these ready meals must have been tiny. The chilli powder must only have contained a small fraction of Sudan-I. In turn this was added to the sauce, which therefore only contained a small fraction of the chilli powder. Finally, the finished products will have contained only a small fraction of worcester sauce. The quantities of Sudan-I in the end products must be measured in micrograms.

Nor is Sudan-I peculiarly harmful. When it is consumed, it breaks down into a number of by-products called amines. As the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment notes, 'the carcinogenic action in animal experiments are attributed to the release of amines and their ensuing metabolic activation.' Their report goes on to note that the same amines are found in significant quantities in cabbages and carrots. For example, a day's worth of Sudan-I contaminated chilli powder will, at most, contain the same amount of the amine alinine as 20 grammes of raw carrots. This exposure is in turn thousands of times lower than the levels which produced cancers in rats.

The FSA seems to have self-consciously made a media splash on this issue, in an attempt to reassure the public that it is watching over us. But such tactics tend to have the opposite effect to that intended. These alarms make us more fearful about what we eat, and lend credence to the bogus arguments of those who believe that supermarkets and food processors are reckless about safety in the pursuit of profits. Sudan-I is unnecessary in food preparation, and banning it may be a sensible precaution. But the actions of the FSA in relation to this particular incident have been excessive and counterproductive.

Action taken to remove illegal dye found in wide range of foods on sale in UK,
UK Food Standards Agency, 18 February 2005

Dyes Sudan I to IV in food, Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, 19 November 2003 [pdf format]