Something to Chew On

Something good to chew on – challenging food controversies

In his new book, “Something to Chew On”, author Prof Mike Gibney, director of the Institute of Food and Health at University College Dublin, aims to ‘challenge food controversies’, sprinkling a large pinch of salt over the claims of food fearmongers. Here’s a review…

In his new book, “Something to Chew On”, author Mike Gibney, Director of the Institute of Food and Health at University College Dublin, aims to ‘challenge food controversies’, sprinkling a large pinch of salt over the claims of food fearmongers. Here’s a review…

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.

He usefully offers some historical perspective on the idea that there was some ‘golden age’ of food in the past and that everything has gone to hell in a handcart since. He contrasts ‘today’s highly regulated food supply to bygone eras of food shortage, more erratic food security, widespread food adulteration, utterly unregulated food control and a diet that was based on a narrow range of foods so that nutritional deficiencies were very common, contributing to poor post-natal survival and poor growth’.

He points to two major changes that have benefited humanity over the past century or so. One was a major investment in agricultural research and production, such that food is now produced far more efficiently than ever before. The other was in nutrition research, so that we have a better – if still imperfect – understanding of what we should eat.

“Organic foods don’t taste better, offer no nutritional advantage, and are wasteful of land”

Yet there has been a reaction against these important progressive trends. There is fear that the new science applied to agriculture and nutrition is unnatural. Gibney offers a factual rebuttal of some of these fears.

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.

Equally irrational is the squeamishness about genetically modified crops. After all, as Gibney reminds us, many of the older crop varieties touted by greens and organic-food promoters are themselves the product of a fairly sledgehammer approach to creating mutations in seeds: irradiation. A wide variety of foods, including numerous types of rice, barley, cotton, pulses and grapefruit, are the result of ‘genomes blown to bits’ by large doses of radiation. By contrast, modern transgenic methods are much more subtle, changing specific genes. All these things are tools for plant scientists to apply to produce new, better crops and they all deserve to be embraced.

A particularly useful chapter looks at the problems 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….. Read the full review