Food Science

My father warned me last week that my recent blogs may get me in trouble. Trainers and bookmakers are not people you want to get on the wrong side of, apparently. I reminded him that it is highly likely that nobody beyond my immediate family is reading my blogs any more. Even The Wife has given up because she is too busy buying expensive teacups from Anthropologie.

This week ATRIED courts more controversy, if less chance of violence, with a look at the very un-horsey (hopefully) topic of food. News reached us last week that coffee is now good for you. I read this on the Daily Mail website so it must be true. A review in the British Medical Journal found a lower risk of liver disease, stroke and some cancers in coffee drinkers.

The article also linked back to previous similar threads, as these clever websites tend to do nowadays, one of which was from just a year earlier. That one was entitled “Cancer risk from coffee downgraded”. So, in other words, in the space of a little over a year we have gone from coffee being possibly carcinogenic to the complete opposite.

This of course mirrors the about turn on so many matters in the world of food science over the years. Fat is bad….no hold on, fat is good and sugar is bad. You should eat little and often….no hold on, this snacking between meals just increases calorie intake and fasting has many health benefits. Avocados are good for you….no hold on, they are the devil’s eggs, produced by freak chickens fed only soap.

Okay, I made the last one up, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we were soon told that water is bad for you and bread is the best thing since….sliced bread.

I applaud our scientists in trying to make sense of the hugely complex modern world in which we flounder around and make ourselves ill. Health really is everything, and if you haven’t discovered that yet I’m afraid that you will at some point.

The trouble is that there is so much data it is like looking for a needle in a haystack, and then trying to work backwards to find out where that needle came from. The coffee researchers, for example, were quick to point out that they couldn’t say that drinking coffee causes your risk of liver cancer to decrease, just that moderate consumption of coffee is associated with a lower incidence of liver cancer.

These two scenarios are subtley different and often misunderstood. Statisticians would sum it up with the old adage “correlation does not prove causation”. The number of firefighters in each county is strongly correlated with the number of fires – this doesn’t mean that they are causing the fires. Perhaps, and I’m making this up on the spot, coffee drinkers have more energy and therefore exercise more?

Sure, there are some givens. Smoking causes lung cancer and tap dancing in socks on top of a moving combine harvester may cause harm. But for a lot of medicine the interactions of millions of molecules when exposed to our diverse environments and varied intakes are not fully understood.

As my father would say, and wise old man he is even though nobody ever bloody listens to him, take confidence from things that have stood the test of time. Like him, just about, although he is now on a starvation diet enforced by those that are responsible for his care (my mother and sister).

Apples have been around a lot longer than apple juice, and there is reason to suspect that the two may have a different effect on your body. Eating steak and eating processed meat are not identical. Many additives to our food have not been studied long term and could have untold consequences.

It’s a dangerous world out there, and it is not surprising that both the food industry and the diet industry are mega-bucks. The diabetic tsunami that is smashing through our NHS, and is predicted to get much worse, is truly terrifying in its scale and effect. So I am not being flippant about the whole thing, just stating that it is extremely difficult to tackle. The Samoans, for example, are the most obese nation on earth and yet do not have high levels of diabetes.

There is now evidence that the effectiveness of different diets is dependent upon a person’s DNA. I have long argued that my body shape is governed by my father and his many brothers, all of whom looked as though they were auditioning for the role of Father Christmas even though it wasn’t always Christmas time, rather than my penchant for double carbs and beer.

Perhaps one day we shall have full understanding and everyone shall have a personalised food plan with which to maximise their health, and that would be a wonderful thing, but whether we choose to follow it is another matter entirely. Even the might of science cannot legislate against human whim.

Anyway, time for a coffee.