Tuesday, 29 December 2015

A Meaty Problem

On Sunday I listened to the repeat of the Radio 4 documentary 'A Meaty Problem'. In it Henry Dimbleby said he was guilty about not being able to give up meat altogether. I think he was being a bit hard on himself though because he said he mostly eats meatless meals and has meat once a week or so.

Henry was talking to Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City University London's Centre for Food Policy. Henry said that he'd been talking to an intensive chicken farmer who had said to him that "to farm free range chicken is actually immoral" because intensively-reared chicken uses fewer resources.

That's wrong, for three reasons.

Firstly, although intensively-reared chicken is more efficient in terms of converting animal feed to meat than free-range chicken (or intensively-reared pork or beef), it will always be most efficient for people to eat the grain and pulses that go into animal feed. So, using the logic of this chicken farmer, if it's immoral to buy free-range chicken then it must be immoral to buy any kind of meat. The moral thing to do is to eat bread, pasta, cous cous, polenta, beans, peas and lentils.

Secondly, even intensively-reared chicken is not the most efficient animal protein. Fresh water fish (I'm not sure about farmed salmon) such as carp is better. So are crayfish. Because they are cold-blooded creatures they don't waste calories on keeping warm the way chickens or pigs do. Some have suggested growing and eating insects, but they're not necessary and it would be difficult to persuade people to eat them.

Thirdly, nobody is saying we can't have luxuries sometimes. We're not going to grub up the vineyards of France and Italy and plant potatoes. That might provide more food, but luxuries sometimes are good. We should regard meat as a luxury. Eat something that tastes nice, but not every day. Obviously we can't ever have 23 billion chickens raised free-range. That's just impossible. But if there were let's say 10 billion chickens instead of 23 billion then we could raise them much less intensively than now.

If I eat one free-range chicken per week, am I being less moral than someone who eats meat every day? Especially when that meat is more often pork or beef, which are less efficient converters of grain and soya? Why didn't this chicken farmer say that it is immoral to eat free-range chicken and any kind or pork or beef?

Morality has to be more than just feed conversion rates; chickens are clean animals that enjoy dust baths, if you keep them in a shed without ever cleaning the shed during their lifetimes (as happens with intensive rearing) they breath ammonia, they walk on their own faeces and their skin is burned with the acidity of what they have to lie in.

In the brutally unnatural surroundings of a factory farm, “broiler” chickens live the entire 45 days of their lives on urine- and manure-soaked wood shavings, unchanged through several flocks of 30,000 or more birds in a single shed. Excessive ammonia levels in the litter and air cause severe skin burns, ulcers, and painful respiratory problems, as well as pulmonary congestion, swelling, and hemorrhage. A Washington Post writer who visited a chicken shed wrote, “Dust, feathers and ammonia choke the air in the chicken house and fans turn it into airborne sandpaper, rubbing skin raw.” Excretory ammonia fumes often become so strong that chickens develop a blinding eye disease called ammonia burn, so painful that the birds try to rub their eyes with their wings, and cry out helplessly.
from this site.

Dr Annie Gray food historian said on the programme about chicken "today we regard it as really cheap protein". It isn't. Animal protein will always be more expensive than plant protein. Chicken and rice is a boring food. It looks bad, it smells bad and it tastes bad. Dal and rice however is wonderful. Dal (also spelled daal or dahl or dhal) is usually made with lentils but can be made with yellow split peas (which is the cheapest of the high-protein foods). If you like Indian food you'll like dal.

Cheap chicken is neither one thing nor another. It is neither cheap protein nor a luxury. I think people should get most of their protein from plants and have meat and cheese sometimes. Have something that you enjoy the taste of, even if it's a bit more expensive. That might sound a bit like Marie Antoinette saying 'let them eat cake' but in fact it's just the opposite. Neither is it being self-denying, just the opposite: people will enjoy their food more.

It saddens me that poor people munch their way through quite large quantities of cheap chicken, cheap pork sausages and cheap cheddar. They are wasting their money, usually quite large amounts of money. I'm sure this chicken farmer wants people to believe that he is providing cheap protein for poor people. Retailers and food manufacturers want us to believe that too. Governments want to support the British meat industry. But British people eat far more protein than they need, don't understand that you can get substantial amounts of protein even from low-protein foods (pasta is 11% protein), and as I've said before ANIMAL PROTEIN IS ALWAYS MORE EXPENSIVE THAN PLANT PROTEIN. So if you want cheap protein buy yellow (or green) split peas.

Friday, 2 October 2015

belvita soft bakes

I saw the adverts for Belvita soft bakes recently so I thought I would try them. At the top of the pack it says 'slow release carbohydrates' with an asterisk and '4h' which I guess stands for '4 hours'. The asterisk refers to the statement 'belVita Soft Bakes with proven slow release carbohydrate ...'.

On the other side of the pack it states 'Energy for the whole morning' with two asterisks. They refer to the statement 'belVita Soft Bakes have a high content of slowly digestible starch, which is a slow release carbohydrate. Consumption of foods high is slowly digestible starch raises blood glucose concentration less after a meal compared to foods low in slowly digestible starch.'

If you look at Nutritional Information there are three asterisks that refer to the statement 'Contains minimum 15 g Slowly Digestible Starch per 100 g.' You would think that all this would mean that this product has a low glycemic index (GI). However, if you look at the list of ingredients on the base of the pack it contains sugar, glucose syrup, dextrose and  isomaltulose (a source of glucose and fructose).

From a list of ingredients it's difficult to know how much of these sugars go into the product. If we go back to Nutritional Information however, each 100 g of the product contains 21 g of sugars (for the Choc Chips version). Compare that to 0.8 g of sugars per 100 g of Sainsbury's rough oatcakes, which have no added sugars at all.

There's something seriously wrong here. Just because a product contains some ingredients which will be low GI, it doesn't mean that the product itself is low GI. The addition of these sugars means that it's not going to be low GI. No mention is made of GI on the box, so I expect they would say that they are not making the claim that they are low GI. But that is what they seem to want people to believe. Also, the 'traffic light' label isn't colour coded as with other products so you can't tell at a glance if it's high in sugars.

Oatcakes are much cheaper than soft bakes and seem to be a genuinely low GI product. Oatcakes would raise blood glucose concentrations less after consuming them, but that cannot be true of soft bakes. This will increase someone's risk of developing diabetes. It can also increase risk of obesity because people will feel hungrier sooner and more likely to want to snack. People are being misled in matters concerning their health and I think that's wrong.

We know from the recent Volkswagen scandal that big companies are happy to mislead the public. This shouldn't be happening. It's like Marks and Spencer who had a range of ready meals that they called 'Fuller Longer'. I have copied-and-pasted from here.

"In 2010, Marks & Spencer launched their ‘Fuller Longer’ range of products, where each dish is designed to contain the right balance of proteins and carbohydrates to increase satiety and therefore reduce the desire to snack in-between meals. Consumers certainly bought into the concept, with it being a big seller for Marks & Spencer.
However, it has now emerged that Marks & Spencer have been asked to change the title of their range, in light of Trading Standards discovering that they are in breach of EU law on health claims.
Health and nutrition claims are perhaps a point of confusion for many brand marketers. They know that health statements sell products but they are perhaps unaware of the legal red tape that surrounds their use. Under EU law, a health claim must be authorised by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and included in the list of authorised health claims in the EU Register before they can be used. Nutrition claims on the other hand, can only be used if they are listed in the Annex of the EU Regulation and meet the specific conditions stipulated."
What Marks and Spencer could have done is to remove all the added sugars from this range. They were all savoury dishes but they all contained added sugar. The could have taken out the high GI starches and replaced them with low GI starches. Long-grain rice could have replaced short-grain rice. New potatoes could have replaced ordinary potatoes. But they didn't want to do that.

Instead they left the ingredients the same as before but just rebranded the range 'Balanced for You'. Which doesn't mean anything nutritionally. Having a more meaningless name gets them off the legal hook. This has decreased my respect for M&S. They just want to cash in on a premium range of foods by confusing people about their health.

Friday, 27 March 2015

a world without chickens?

In this week's New Scientist magazine (21/03/15) is an interesting article called 'A world without chickens'. There are 22 billion chickens in the world, three for every person. I have engaged in a thought experiment where I imagined what would happen if the 1 billion pigs in the world were to be killed by a virus. This article does the same thought experiment with chickens.

The scientist Olivier Hanotte says we would face "a starving world". He also says 'Pandemics and riots could ensue, unleashing a crisis of enormous importance'. The article mentioned street protests in Mexico, Egypt and Iran when eggs or chicken meat was in short supply.

Chickens eat vast quantitites of grain and soya. Animal feed consists of maize and soya, together with wheat and barley, and fish especially anchovy. They convert plant and fish protein into eggs and chicken meat which we can then eat. But they do it inefficiently, although they are more efficient than pigs and cattle.

If all the chickens died there would be vast quantities of maize and soya available for people to eat. Far from going hungry, there would be more food than we know what to do with. We could grow crops less intensively and stop overfishing. Maize and soya in the form of polenta and tofu, tempeh and miso will give us enough calories and protein. There are other grains and other pulses we could grow more of. There's an interesting chart in the article 'Henhouse to greenhouse' which shows that tofu and beans don't generate as much greenhouse gas as chicken or the meaty alternatives.

People don't need to eat as much protein as they think, and animal protein is always more expensive than plant protein. Plant protein from soya, yellow split peas or other pulses give people all the lysine and other amino acids that they require. We don't need alternative forms of animal protein, but carp or crayfish would seem the best alternatives. No need to consider insects.

Monday, 9 February 2015

chicken breasts: cheap protein?

On Woman's Hour today (BBC Radio 4) presenter Jane Garvey and contributors Laura Gardiner and Emma Hogan were talking about the cost of living. Jane said this:-

So if you’re on the average (or in fact well below average) income (as one of the women there illustrated) you actually have to make this work. You have to be able to feed your family with a couple of cheap defrosting chicken breasts, don’t you, that’s as good as it’s going to get.
To which Laura replied:-

That’s absolutely right. Emma’s mentioned wages have been stagnant for far longer than we thought and it’s not just energy prices that have been rising faster than inflation. We know that other essentials such as food and transport have gone faster than the average inflation rate and these are the things that low income families particularly those with children tend to spend more of their incomes on.
So it seems that people think that chicken breasts are cheap food. First of all, chicken thighs are cheaper than chicken breasts and have more flavour. Secondly, meat is an expensive form of protein. Pulses, and especially yellow split peas, are much cheaper in terms of cost of protein than meat or cheese. Thirdly, people overestimate how much protein they need. They are wasting their money buying chicken breasts.

Linda Geddes in the New Scientist magazine last month (24/01/15) wrote about meat 'The Raw Facts'. She started the article with this:-

Meat is a one-stop shop for essential amino acids - the ones the body needs to build proteins but can't make on its own. It is also a rich source of vitamin B12, iron and protein, all of which are often lacking in plant-based foods.
She is implying that there are some essential amino acids missing from plant based foods. That's not true. In plants the amounts of each of the amino acids aren't ideal. Grains, for example, don't have as much lysine as we would like. Pulses, however, are rich in lysine. So vegetarians don't normally have a problem, especially because if we have more protein than we need then we'll be getting enough lysine even just from grains. Most people eat far more protein than they need.

On page 33 it compares different sources of protein. Salmon has the most B12, about double that of meat. Eggs have it too, more than meat. Kidney beans have the most iron. So it isn't true that iron and protein are 'often lacking in plant-based foods'. If you eat marmite you can get both B12 and protein.

Another misleading thing she writes is:-

As well as vitamins and the like, meat contains a lot of protein for its calorie content, so although other foods give us protein too, meat is the most efficient source. Avoiding it could make it harder to get a healthy, balanced diet.
The word 'calorie' has a negative connotation because if we have too many calories we tend to put on weight. However, we need to get at least a couple of thousand calories per day. She implies that if we try to get all the protein we need from plant sources then that will tend to take us over the couple of thousand calories we need. That is not true at all, just the opposite. It's very easy to get enough protein.

Even if you take a relatively low protein food such as pasta, if you eat enough of it to get enough calories then you will be getting enough protein. You need about two thirds of a kilo of pasta to get the number of calories an average person needs. Pasta is 11% protein so that means more than 70g of protein. We only need 50g of protein per day, so - even allowing for less than the ideal amount of lysine - you will be getting enough protein. So it doesn't make any sense to say 'meat is the most efficient source'.

If you buy cheap pork sausages, you might suppose that they would be cheap protein. However, they can be just 12% protein, which is only just above pasta. Also, according to the information on the back of the back, that's after grilling. I would expect them to lose water during the grilling process, so they could be lower in protein than pasta. Neither cheap sausages nor cheap chicken breasts offer as good value in terms or grams of protein per penny as pasta or (if you want a high protein source) yellow split peas. The same with calories per penny.

Also last month, The Times published an interesting article (28/01/15) and editorial 'Save the world? Give beef the chop, travel less and eat more vegetables'. A report from the Department of Energy and Climate Change suggests eating less beef. Beef requires a lot of resources to produce, 28.5 square metres of land to produce one kilo of beef per year. The article doesn't make it clear if they are talking about cattle grazing outdoors or cattle eating maize and soya.

It doesn't require as much land to produce chicken, pork or grains. The article seems to be suggesting that chicken and pork production should be increased, which I don't think is such a good thing. I would prefer it if people eat a lot less beef, but also less chicken and pork.

Another thing I don't agree with in the article is that beef production should be more intensive. If you have an area of land where you can't grow crops but there is grass then you can have cattle or sheep on it. So a hillside in Wales, for example. Also where you have fields left fallow for a year. There shouldn't be any cattle kept indoors and fed on grains and soya. Some chickens for their meat and eggs perhaps, but we should be eating more grains and pulses and feeding much less of them to farm animals.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

The Road to Wigan Pier: Orwell on food and poverty

George Orwell is often quoted by people who say that poor people can't afford to eat healthy food.

George Orwell The Road to Wigan Pier Chapter 6

"Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread or if they even, like the writer of the letter to the New Statesman, saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn't. Here the tendency of which I spoke at the end of the last chapter comes into play. When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don't want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit 'tasty'. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you."
  1. Orwell was talking about unemployed miners' families before the war, so what he says is hardly applicaple to today's unemployed. Benefits were low and families were big.
  2. He seems to be confusing healthy food with health food. Where I live now, Liverpool, there is a healthy cheap food called scouse. Scouse has some meat in it, quite a bit of potato, and loads of different vegetables. It's a healthy cheap food, but it's not 'health food'. It's not dull either. Other regions have similar foods, in Scotland they have Scotch Broth where barley is the cheap starch instead of potato.
  3. I can remember when brown bread was regarded as a health food and quite expensive. Today in supermarkets it's the same price as white. Brown (or wholegrain) bread has sustained populations in Europe and the Middle East for thousands of years; it's only in the past 100 years or so that white bread became cheap.
  4. There are about 800 million people in the world who are starving. Do you think that if you offered any one of them a loaf of brown bread they would say 'No thanks, I would rather starve'? We know what people are prepared to eat when they are starving because of accounts of life in concentration camps. So it's nonsense to say 'The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots'.
  5. Who gave Orwell the right to put words into the mouths of unemployed miners and their families in the 1930s? I don't believe that they would say that they would prefer to starve than eat brown bread.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

potassium salts and osteoporosis

Last week on Woman's Hour (19/01/15) Dr Helen Lambert came on the show to tell us about her research into osteoporosis. As Helen explained, osteoporosis causes 1 in 2 women and 1 in 5 men to get a fracture due to poor bone health over the age of 50. She says studies show us that we can significantly reduce osteoporosis by having more potassium salts (potassium bicarbonate and potassium citrate) in our diet. These are found in fruit and vegetables.

For some reason they also had GP Clare Gerada on the show. She was quite dismissive of the importance of Dr Lambert's work. She seems to have accepted the ideas of Gyorgy Scrinis and Michael Pollan. They believe that there is something they call 'nutritionism', which they oppose. Nutritionism is when individual nutrients such as vitamins and minerals are examined in isolation from other nutrients in normal food and said to be healthy or unhealthy. This is what Clare Gerada said.

"So I think the important thing for all of us is to demedicalize all of this, in other words take doctors out of the equation, take the health professionals out of the equation and start to look at inviduals in society and why we're not doing things that our grandmothers knew we should be doing, eat and apple a day, walk a little bit, get exposed to sunshine and I think (and Helen's research sounds fantastic) but I think we've got (in a way) to start giving some simple messages not from doctors not from nurses ..."

In saying "we've got to start giving some simple messages not from doctors" Clare Gerada is saying that no one should pay any attention to this research. This shows the danger of talk about nutritionism. People can use the research to reduce the amount of discomfort in their lives. Not live in pain like 'our grandmothers' did. Dr Lambert suggests we eat more fruit and vegetables, but even that suggestion is dismissed by Dr Gerada. She said something like 'Do I want to eat 10 bananas a day?'.

The research is another reason why we should eat more fruit and vegetables. Potassium salts found in fruit and vegetables make our bodies slightly more alkaline. That has an effect on bone health but it probably has an effect on other aspects of health too. It's not just potassium salts that do this though, calcium, magnesium and sodium salts do too. I take calcium citrate and magnesium citrate in a tablet. I know Clare Gerada and Michael Pollan wouldn't approve of this, but I think I am being sensible in doing it.

Last year Michael Pollan gave a lecture on BBC Radio 4's Analysis (03/09/14). As well as his ideas about fat and carbohydrate (he seems to believe that all fats are good and all carbohydrates are bad) and his ideas about poverty (poor people are unhealthy because they have to eat cheap unhealthy processed foods) he talked about individual nutrients in general and beta-carotene in particular.

He said that someone had done some research where smokers were given beta-carotene to see what effect it had on their health. Beta-carotene is used by the body to make vitamin A which is an antioxidant. People expected it to decrease the incidence of cancer. The test was suspended when the beta-carotene group started developing cancer at higher rates than the control group. Pollan's analysis of this is that any individual nutrient by itself will act differently from when it occurs in nature and in food.

This is at best a generalization. It could be true of some nutrients. We don't know why smokers who took beta-carotene got higher levels of cancer. Part of the reason could be the large amount taken. Another reason could be that the body can use oxidants to tackle cancerous cells, and so anybody who has an increased risk of cancer shouldn't have high levels of antioxidants (whether they come from tablets or from a diet high fruit and vegetables). This is the antioxidant paradox, but it only applies to people who have a higher than usual risk of cancer, and it can't be used to suggest that single nutrients are of no value.

I also take a vitamin D tablet each day, because there is now a lot of research to show that vitamin D in significantly higher levels than can be achieved through diet or exposure to sunlight has an important role in human health. I don't take a mega dose of vitamin D or anything else. Pollan wouldn't agree with this, just as he wouldn't agree with me getting most of my calories from long-grain rice and pasta (cheaper than any processed food, cheaper than sugar in terms of cost of calories). But the evidence is that my bone health will be better than his in old age. He might want to end up like his grandmother but I don't.

I also have a healthy diet with lots of fruit and vegetables, and little fat, sugar or salt. One of the messages of people like Pollan and Gerada is that people get confused over health messages. However, the simple message for a long time has been eat less fat, sugar and salt, and more fruit and vegetables. I don't eat as much protein as most British people, because I know people overestimate the amount of protein they need but also protein is one of the foods that tends to make the body slightly more acidic.

If you believe Michael Pollan you will believe
  1. if you're poor, don't even bother to try and eat healthy food because you won't be able to
  2. you can eat at any amount of any type of fat that you want
  3. you should avoid carbohydrate, don't distinguish between sugars and starches, or low GI starches and high GI ones
  4. don't take a multivitamin and multimineral tablet each day, and don't take vitamin D or calcium citrate because they can't do you any good and may do you harm
I think he's wrong about all of these things, and that will have an effect on the future health of anyone who pays attention to him.