Rob Lyons reviews a new book by Mike Gibney that attempts to bring some common sense back to counteract the epidemic of fear-mongering about food:
Given much of the popular discussion about food, it would be easy to despair that we face a future where half the world’s people starve to death while the other half drown in their own fat. The words ‘new food research’ in a news report are often just the lead into another sorry tale about how some aspect of what we eat is going to kill us or how some specific food will provide ‘miracle’ protection against the chronic illnesses of our age.
Professor Mike Gibney’s new book, Something to Chew On, is a welcome step back from all this noise, offering an expert take on many of these claims. Gibney is director of the Institute of Food and Health at University College Dublin and has served on many national and international advisory committees.
[. . .]
Take pesticides, for example. Many people are prepared to pay through the nose to buy organic food which is free of artificial pesticides. But as Gibney points out, those people are actually consuming a far greater weight in natural, plant-produced pesticides that are potentially every bit as cancer-inducing as modern chemicals. ‘Nature abounds with chemicals which, while beautifully natural, are nevertheless risk-laden’, he says, from the deadly poison ricin, found in castor beans, to substances in fava beans that induce a lethal form of anaemia in some susceptible people. The key is in the dose: for both natural compounds and their highly regulated artificial counterparts, the amounts that we actually eat are too small to represent any threat to health.
Indeed, Gibney goes on to make mincemeat of all of the claims made for organic foods: they don’t taste better than conventional crops, they offer no nutritional advantage, and, by being less productive, they are actually wasteful of land. That’s hardly environmentally friendly.
Part of the reason we get such overblown nutritional and health “advice” from the media is the difficulty of conducting nutrition research:
While trying to figure out the effect of eating, or not eating, a particular kind of food on cancer or heart disease, for example, there are numerous confounding factors that get in the way of drawing robust conclusions. People lie about what they eat or simply don’t record it accurately; factors that look like cause and effect can turn out to be mere associations. Even finding enough subjects to look at the effect of diet on a relatively unusual disease, like ovarian cancer, can be very difficult.
[. . .]
The truth is that every study’s results need to be treated with caution and there needs to be open-mindedness about other possible explanations. While it is relatively easy to see the effects of vitamin deficiency, for example, for the most part nutrition research moves forward on the basis of a lot of evidence that is unsatisfactory in one way or another. The endless stream of claims that red meat, sugar, eggs and myriad other foodstuffs cause harm should be treated with an almighty pinch of salt (as do claims about salt, for that matter).
Along the way, Gibney offers his thoughts on personalised nutrition — the possibility of creating diets specifically suited to our own DNA — and epigenetics — the idea that different elements of our DNA can be switched on or off by environmental factors in the womb or the first years of life. He also offers a Jacques Cousteau-like tour of the human gut. Did you know there are 10 times more bacteria living in our guts — 100 trillion — than there are cells in the human body? Did you know those bacteria can sometimes switch on or off changes in our bodies to suit their own needs? Gibney describes our relationship to this mass of bugs as a permanent state of ‘armed peace’, with mutual benefits to both parties: body and bacteria.