Saturday, April 09, 2005

A more balanced view of the MRSA risk

Of the very large numbers of people dealt with by hospitals, 5,000 people die each who are infected by MRSA. But MRSA is only the direct cause of death in one fifth of those cases. Moreover, the much-vaunted improvements in staff hygiene practices will probably only prevent about 15 per cent of cases.

BBC NEWS | Health | How big a threat is MRSA really?

Friday, April 08, 2005

Eat like a Greek and live... a bit longer

From BBC News today:
Scientists have produced powerful evidence that a Mediterranean diet rich in vegetables and fruit and low in saturated fats can help us live longer.

It has long been thought that the diet can help to improve general health.

But a major pan-Europe study of 74,607 men and women aged over 60 has shown closely following the diet can actually extend life by up to one year.

One year?! And that's if the study is accurate and you go the whole hog - not just adding a bit of olive oil and red wine here and there. And that's so that you can live that year longer - for example, dying at 79 instead of 80.

Let's face it: diet has limited impact on health outcomes, if any.

Healthy Med diet can extend life, BBC News, 8 April 2005

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Food and the modern snob

I liked this piece I just found from a couple of years ago, written by Ben Dutton in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Eating's important. Without food we die (supermodels are the one exception to this rule). But fine food - you know, that big white plate with the little sea scallop in the middle and parsley-infused olive oil drizzled zigzaggedly - used to be served only to the upper classes. The toiling masses made do with potato mash, gristly meat and overcooked carrots, sans parsley oil. To them, foie gras was some kind of edible grain, apple confit a type of cider and searing the result of some farmhand misspelling words.

Today, however, you can watch celebrity chefs make souffles on the American Food Network 24 hours a day. Every major TV station has a cooking or lifestyle show, and newspapers have entire sections devoted to the culinary arts. You're told where to buy blood oranges, Global knives and how to julienne a carrot. Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson and Donna Hay are better known than your average politician or businessman (the fact that the former lot actually help feed us as opposed to taking from us probably has a lot to do with it).

Efficient production methods and distribution have pushed the prices of previously expensive food down to affordable levels. Opened borders have seen a flood of exotic flavours and intriguing produce available in the local supermarket for all to gawk at - and eat.

Good food has, therefore, lost its exclusivity. It no longer gives pleasure only to the elite in our society. Suddenly everyone knows how to bone a fish blindfolded, and coriander isn't just some garden weed.

In short, food has finally been democratised, and to the food snob this is a serious problem.

But luckily for them, food snobs have found a new weapon in the arsenal of gastronomic snobbery - organic food.

There are two reasons for the flight to organic as an alternative to what everyone else is eating. First is price. Organic food is simply too expensive for ordinary folk to afford on a regular basis. Second is taste. The food snob says that a chicken raised naturally tastes better than the chook pumped full of hormones at the local factory farm. The food snob says tomatoes grown without pesticides have a fuller flavour than the common, run-of-the-mill variety.

Restaurants and chefs wanting to make a name for themselves in an oversaturated market quickly caught on to the trend. Incorporate the word "organic" in any meal description and the wow factor rises immensely.

Say that you're serving "organic spatchcock with truffle infused polenta" and you'll see diners swoon in delight.

Whether or not organic food tastes better than ordinary food is subjective, so the food snob loses that argument. But by using the price of organic food to fend off the rest of us who think we know anything about cooking, the food snobs are able to contrive a point of difference between them and us, thus maintaining their privileged position.

And just who are the beneficiaries of this food snobbery? The washed-out old hippies running boutique farms certainly are laughing all the way to the bank, as are the produce distributors and shop owners.

Considering the fact that we're living longer and more healthily in the Western world than ever before, it's pure hokum to suggest that our food is slowly killing us. Those who use only organic food and suggest we're being poisoned by "normal" food are using that argument as a smokescreen for their real pretension.

My bet is that organic's current snob factor is not going to last. The beauty of capitalism is ensuring that prices are already falling for organic food as more producers get into the game. But food snobs have some more tricks up their sleeves. Keep a look out for the current raw food "revolution" sweeping America and sure to pop up on our shores soon. Perhaps the most ridiculous trend yet: raw foodies' idea of a good Sunday roast leaves out the meat and the roasting. Talk about killjoys.

So, next time you see food prefixed with the term "organic" have a chuckle to yourself and take pleasure in buying the non-organic version. After all, you're not a food snob ... are you?

Modern food fads are becoming a little hard to swallow -

If you could teach the world just one thing...

Spiked's amazing survey of 250 scientists, asking them simply what single scientific idea that would like the wider world to get their heads around, provides many interesting and imaginative answers - from very specific equations, to discuss of the very notion of science itself.

The Guardian have provided a taster today.

This contribution seems particularly topical on the subject of school meals:

Stanley Feldman
Emeritus professor of anaesthesiology at Charing Cross and Westminster Medical School

I would like it to be universally known that whatever we eat, it is broken down into basic building blocks of food in the gut, before it can be absorbed into the blood.

The cholesterol in the food you eat is not the same cholesterol as that in your blood. Whatever meat you eat whether it be prime organic Angus, or chopped-up scrag end from an old cow it ends up as the same amino acids in your blood. No matter what the source of the fat, it is essentially the same fatty acids that enter the bloodstream. We are not what we eat.

Guardian Unlimited | Life | Life lessons

The full survey will appear on Spiked before the end of April.

The E=mc2 centenary survey

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Programmed to bully

New research claims that 'Four-year-old children who watch more television than average are more likely to become bullies'. Researchers in Seattle found that children who went on to bully between the ages of six and 11 watched five hours of TV per day, almost two hours more than those who did not. Writing in the journal Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, the team led by Dr Frederick Zimmerman said: 'Our results have some important implications. We have provided some empirical support to theories that suggest that bullying might arise out of cognitive deficits as well as emotional ones. We have added bullying to the list of potential negative consequences of excessive television viewing along with obesity, inattention and other types of aggression.'

What the news reports have failed to mention, in their rush to blame TV for yet another social problem, is that the effect found was so small as to be barely significant. The journal abstract notes: 'Each hour of television viewed per day at age 4 years was associated with a significant odds ratio of 1.06 for subsequent bullying.' In other words, children who watched TV for one hour a day more had a six per cent increased risk of being 'a bully'.

But there are plenty of other problems with this research. All the reporting is done by mothers, so what one mother considers to be bullying behaviour might be another mother's friendly horseplay. In fact, it must be extremely difficult to define what 'a bully' is for such a report. Does it mean violent behaviour? Would organising classmates to exclude a particular individual constitute bullying? Would someone who exhibits this behaviour at the age of six, but not at the age of eleven, fall into the category of a 'bully' for the purposes of this research?

Moreover, if there is a real correlation here, it has little to do with television as such. For example, watching television is a very passive activity. While not harmful in itself, it's a poor substitute for the social and intellectual engagement involved in play. Opportunities for free play are becoming increasingly restricted by parental fears. If some children then take longer to learn what is appropriate behaviour and what is not, that is hardly the fault of television but of the wider environment in which they grow up today.

That said, this particular paper also suggests a complete lack of historical perspective. Children have been picking on other children since time immemorial - and certainly a long time before the gogglebox was invented. Whether the amount of bullying going on is on the increase is surely impossible to know. However, we live in an age where the feeling of being a lonely, picked-upon individual is the very zeitgeist. No wonder there's money to research bullying. Nor is television alone in being blamed - the finger has been pointed at everything from mouthy footballers to food additives.

Television may be the source of innumberable bad programmes, but the evidence that it is responsible for society's ills is thin. Maybe it's time to pull the plug on this kind of research.

Early Cognitive Stimulation, Emotional Support, and Television Watching as Predictors of Subsequent Bullying Among Grade-School Children, Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, April 2005

TV 'could create child bullies', BBC News, 4 April 2005

First published on spiked's Don't panic page

Sunday, April 03, 2005

A work of genius

I haven't seen this advert for Turkey Twizzlers before, but you just couldn't have made it up! It's from the Bernard Matthews German website.


Bernard Matthews Oldenburg

Essentials of the human diet

If you were living in conditions of scarcity, what would you have to be sure of consuming?

1. Water
2. Salt
3. Fat
4. Protein
5. Carbohydrate (not essential if you have fat and protein, but useful)

After that, you need vitamins A, B1, B2, niacin, folate, C, D (but you get that from sunlight), E, K plus some minerals like calcium, potassium, zinc etc.

A good source of the protein, fat and many of the vitamins is meat (as long as it is not too lean). Beef is ideal. You need some kind of vegetable that contains good quantities of vitamin C, folate and maybe carbohydrate if possible. Potatoes would be good for this. Fry the potatoes in vegetable oil for extra vitamin E and K. A good source of B vitamins is wheat - so bread would be ideal. Perhaps a bit of dairy-derived food for the calcium and extra vitamins would be the icing on the cake.

So, that ideal meal to consume in circumstances of scarcity? Step forward cheeseburger and chips!

Junk food improves exam results?

You have to laugh: after all that nonsense about better school food improving behaviour, asthma, and concentration, along comes this research which suggests that piling on junk food to school menus just before vital exams improves results. I suspect the only thing we can conclude from this is that eating something substantial helps you concentrate. If kids are more likely to eat 'junk', then so be it.

I'm a materialist, but I don't think human beings are just the product of their biochemistry - we have a remarkable capacity to thrive on poor diets. How else did we survive all those thousands of years in all sorts of places around the globe?

Telegraph | News | Junk food 'helps pupils pass exams'