Don’t eat crap. Three times a day.

Actually, the fruit bit isn't so great after all (Getty/Guardian)

Actually, the fruit bit isn’t so great after all (Getty/Guardian)

6 April 2014: Published in the Observer, my piece on the “5 a day” debate got an amazing 900+ comments. Some of them quite well-tempered (must be something in the diet).

 

So now it’s seven a day? Here’s my easy alternative: just stop eating rubbish

Nanny Britain’s fruit and veg regime will never work while the list includes fruitcake and sugar-laden drinks

My children are apple-cheeked and glossy-haired, strong and slender as willow wands. Not a filling in their heads, either. All the same, we had a family council on diet last week. A study by the epidemiologists of University College, London found that the five-a-day diet is inadequate. Seven or even 10 portions of fruit and veg is more like it and might reduce our chances of early death by 42% or more. Odds worth having: so I asked them to audit their intake.

My daughter confessed that while she has a banana most breaks, she didn’t like the school lunch fruit salad. She is probably getting four a day, tops. My son said he easily ate five a day. You don’t count chips, I countered, because they are made from potatoes (he did know that) and a potato, being largely starch, does not make the NHS five-a-day lists. I think his score is perhaps three – as bad as mine.

Suddenly, I saw developmental disorders all around. The failure to learn Mandarin. The trouble with long division. The severe allergic reaction to the word “walk”. Might there be scurvy lurking there too? Rickets? And how the hell were we going to get up to seven a day? That’s 2,555 portions of fruit and veg a year for each of us, and we’d be living longer, too. Should we marry the kids to greengrocers?

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Coffee under threat: how climate and the global market combine to create a crisis

Nelmo-Ramos-coffee-produc-001-thumb-8814Published in the Observer, 30 March 2014: Under the coffee bushes, Rosibel and Benjamín Fijardo are on their knees, scraping carefully through a litter of dead leaves and dried mud. They are scavenging for stray coffee berries, fallen when the harvesters went through the plantation last week. After 20 minutes, Benjamín has a plastic cup half full. The beans look grey and mouldy, but he says they can be dried and sold. He returns to the work: “This is how we will feed our family for the next two months. By pecking like chickens!”

Nicaragua coffee picker

Benjamin Fijardo, coffee picker in Nicaragua (Oxfam)

For two million or more coffee workers and small farmers across Central America, the “hungry season” is beginning. It’s always a thin time before crops ripen, but with this winter’s coffee harvest down 50% or more on normal, for the second year running, hunger, malnutrition and debt are new curses for hundreds of thousands. Candida Rosa Piñeda, who owns this little plantation in the village of Atuna Uno, says she has not earned enough this year to buy a new pair of shoes. And she needs to replace most of her disease-damaged coffee bushes.

The disease that has brought these calamities to the pretty hills of Jinotega, in Nicaragua‘s central highlands, is new to most of the farmers I meet. They call it roya, rust. It is ugly. First, parts of the arabica bush’s glossy green leaves turn a dirty orange. Then dark dead patches appear and become holes. The infection spreads to the ripening berries, turning them from bright red to a zombie-skin grey. Trees can be saved, but they need to be carefully pruned and, just as carefully, treated with chemicals. The chemicals can be toxic to humans, and the trees will take years to come back to their normal production.

Hemileia vastatrix, the coffee rust fungus, is a known hazard of growing arabica, which is 70% of the world’s production and all of a cup of coffee’s taste. It has been a curse of coffee planters ever since it appeared in east Africa 150 years ago. However, the rust cannot survive temperatures below 10C. In this region of Nicaragua it usually occurred only below 1,300 metres. Up in the hills, cold nights and drier weather kept the disease at bay. And so that’s where the coffee farms are.

Most of the people I met said they had never seen it until three years ago: some believed it had been deliberately sprayed from the skies by aircraft. Some thought it had spread from the banana trees that shade the coffee plants and provide crucial food for farmers. But most agree that in recent years the weather has become hotter, wetter and less predictable.

Science is in no doubt that the changing climate is behind the rust and other problems affecting coffee production worldwide – and that things are likely to deteriorate. “In many cases, the area suitable for [coffee] production would decrease considerably with increases of temperature of only 2-2.5C,” said a leaked draft of a new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, officially published on Monday. The panel predicts falling coffee production in a range of countries, largely because of warmer weather. In late February, markets scared by drought in Brazil saw futures prices in coffee rise by 70%. All the coffee-producing countries of Central America have seen drops in production of 30% or more in each of the past two years. Some, such as Guatemala, report rising cases of chronic malnutrition in coffee workers’ children.

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For the good of animals and humans, butchers’ windows should look like this

A high Street butcher in Suffolk has been forced to take down its window display, as shoppers are said to be offended by the sight of bits of dead animals25 Feb 2014. Comment piece published in the Daily Mail (original here): A high Street butcher in Suffolk has been forced to take down its window display, as shoppers are said to be offended by the sight of bits of dead animals. Hanging pigs’ heads, limp rabbits and dead pheasants were upsetting the children.

The story is  ludicrous. But such silliness is indicative of something disturbingly wrong in our nation’s culture.

The senseless twits behind the hate campaign mounted against JBS Family Butchers of Sudbury say they are trying to protect their children from the ugliness of ‘mutilated carcasses’.

This seems implausibly puritanical. Any child with internet access and a stack of video games will have seen far worse.

These sentimental folk are part of an ever-growing collective ignorance about food and farming that is immensely damaging not only to the countryside, to farming and to animals — but also to ourselves.

Our lack of understanding of where food really comes from is helping to create mountains of food waste and a population of fat, unhealthy Britons.

We should not underestimate the scale of that ignorance.

Last year, a survey of 27,500 children by the British Nutrition Foundation found that almost a third of those aged five to 12 thought fish fingers came from chickens or pigs. One secondary pupil in five didn’t know where potatoes came from. Ten per cent thought spuds grow on trees.

If you’re shocked by those figures, consider this: 80 per cent of the secondary school pupils surveyed had been on a ‘farm visit’, presumably arranged to counter lack of understanding of food and its sources.

The senseless twits behind the hate campaign mounted against JBS Family Butchers of Sudbury say they are trying to protect their children from the ugliness of 'mutilated carcasses'

The senseless twits behind the hate campaign mounted against JBS Family Butchers of Sudbury say they are trying to protect their children from the ugliness of ‘mutilated carcasses’

Few of us today spend time thinking about where our food comes from. It arrives on supermarket shelves or over the fast-food counter without any traces of its origin.

There’s no mud on our salad or root vegetables. Most fruits are so perfect, glossy and uniform, they might have been made in a factory.

Butter comes wrapped in foil and a cut of steak or a chicken thigh is sold in a plastic tub covered with plastic film. Is it any wonder that some people, confronted with the visceral reality of  an old-fashioned butcher’s window, take fright? But there is a curious double standard at work. While we recoil at the sight of a pig’s cheeks or a pheasant, we are happy to put meats of much stranger origin in our mouths: ready meals full of chemicals, sugar and preservatives, even cheap ‘beef’ dishes that turn out to have been made from horses.

The consequences of our ignorance about food’s origins are far-reaching.

First, there is the waste. The average UK family loses £60 a month throwing away usable food — nearly a meal’s worth a day. And supermarkets reject huge amounts of food because it doesn’t look right. Retailers say they are only catering for our inability to tolerate anything not recipe-book perfect.

In a refreshing bout of honesty, Tesco admitted recently that nearly half its bread products, more than two-thirds of its bagged salads and 40 per cent of its apples are thrown away. Yet this food is good and healthy.

Neither Tesco nor any other store has admitted what weight of edible parts of animals are chucked out. Yet there is little of a farm animal, other than the hide and bones, that cannot pleasurably be eaten.

Hypocrisy

As the chef Fergus Henderson says: ‘If you’re going to kill an animal, it seems only polite to use the whole thing.’ But British butchers use less of an animal than their European counterparts — half a pig’s weight, whereas an Italian butcher will make meals out of 70 per cent of the carcass.

I’ve watched the Michelin-starred chef Andrew Fairlie preparing one of his most popular dishes — a ‘plate of pork’. It was a spread of delicious, old-fashioned treats: black pudding, smoked pork belly, a terrine made from the pig’s cheeks and tongue, and cuts from the head. ‘Any self-respecting chef should be using as much of the animal as possible,’ he said.

One of the window-display horrors that the good people of Sudbury complained about was a pig’s head. These are usually thrown away now, though for our ancestors they were a treat. Think of the ancient carol The Boar’s Head, which describes a great Christmas feast, and the many pubs named after it.

The second consequence of our ignorance concerns animal welfare. Those animal-lovers who object to seeing carcasses of birds and occasional pig parts in butchers’ windows are guilty of a grim sort of hypocrisy. Anyone who truly cared about animals would support any butcher who used whole animals.

Our squeamishness is a  driving factor in two evils: cruelty to animals and damage to the environment.

Choosy consumers who will eat only the lean meat from animals at the bargain prices we demand have driven livestock farming into a crisis. It is not possible for modern farming to keep animals in a traditional and kind way while supplying a narrow range of cheap cuts.

Ninety-five per cent of the chickens and almost all  the pigs we eat are raised in factory farms, where conditions would appal anyone with any feeling for animals.

The image of Daisy the Dairy Cow, happy in a green meadow, is becoming a myth. The new milk-factory super-farms, common in the U.S., and arriving here, house cows that never see daylight and die after just four years of production. All so we can have a cheap pint of milk.  A third of British pig farms have gone out of business in the past ten years and we now import 60 per cent of our pork from Europe, where pig welfare standards are  much lower.

The third point is that eating like this is bad for us. Rather than cooking from scratch with cuts of meat from a local, trusted butcher, we buy cheap meat from unknown sources, sold to us with added salt, preservatives, flavourings, colourings and fatty, sugary sauces. This does none of us any good at all and has helped to fuel our obesity crisis.

What’s the solution?

Sign: JBS Family Butchers has reluctantly had to remove the display after it become the target of a campaign including anonymous hate mail and people hurling abuse in the shop

Sign: JBS Family Butchers has reluctantly had to remove the display after it become the target of a campaign including anonymous hate mail and people hurling abuse in the shop

As we know, British children are toured around farms on school outings but many remain uncertain of the link between an egg and a chicken. More needs to be done.

A few years ago, concerned that our own urban children were growing up just as ignorant, my wife and I decided to keep a ‘remote pig’. So with the help of a friendly farmer just outside Edinburgh, where we live, we adopted a piglet.

We visited him fortnightly, often bringing chocolate. It was a bit like having a child at boarding school – in slightly more friendly conditions.

Fond as we were of the pig, there was no sentimentality. The kids called him Crispy Bacon. And a year later the family assembled in the butchering shed as we turned the grown-up piglet into a freezer-full of delicious roasts — and sausages and bacon.

We had worried about the emotional effect this might have on the children. But on the trip home, my five-year-old saw a field full of ewes and their young. ‘Can we get a lamb?’ she asked. ‘We could eat him!’

We were pleased — and so was the farm. It now has a wider adoption programme to help other city families be remote meat-producers. It’s fun, the meat is a bargain and we have learnt a new respect for farmers and animals.

Getting back in touch with the land and the origins of our food is good for us, for the economy and for Britain. Ignorance, of the sort shown by the silly shoppers of Sudbury, is causing untold damage to our farming traditions and the animals those shoppers purport to love.

Alex Renton is author of Planet Carnivore: Why Cheap Meat Costs The Earth (Kindle and iBook, £1.99).

Original here, with 100+ comments : http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2567186/Why-sake-animals-humans-I-wish-butchers-windows-looked-like-this.html#ixzz2uKneIDHE

Whisky Galore

Originally posted on :

dewarsThe exploits of the Buckfast Triangle has been in the news recently. But here, Alex Renton explores the other end of corporate booze culture. 
The Scotch Whisky Association is back in court again this week pursuing the bizarre notion that a state should not be able to impose taxation in order to tackle a threat to health. It is an ongoing act of vandalism committed, shamefully, by our greatest export industry. If it loses this appeal in the Court of Sesssion, as it probably will, the SWA and its friends -the booze giant Diageo and some of Europe’s wine conglomerates – plan to pursue the matter onwards, to the London Supreme Court and then in the European arenas.
This will take years – till 2017 at least, by the industry’s own admission. It is an historic obstruction of democracy. Scotland’s government passed the law bringing in a minimum alcohol price…

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Boycott the bullying whisky barons

3 Feb 2014: Back in court this week, Scottish whisky manufacturers now hope to postpone Scotland’s minimum alcohol price law, passed in 2012, to 2017 at the earliest. That’s an obstruction of democracy – and the measure wouldn’t even affect whisky. Just the cheap super-strength cider, strong beer and grain spirits that are killing young people and the poor.

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Some Diageo labels – it owns 24 Scottish whisky brands

Evidence from Canada is that a minimum price could save more than 300 Scottish lives a year. It would also help with the huge social damage that cheap alcohol – 44% more affordable than it was 30 years ago – does in Scotland.

A petition to Diageo and the Scotch Whisky Association here, asking them to call off their court challenge to minimum alcohol pricing.

Join the boycott: a list of Diageo brands  here. Scotch Whisky Association brands here.

“Cheap alcohol causes poverty” My piece for Bella Caledonia  here.

My opinion piece in the Independent, 2 Feb 2014:

Talisker and Knockando, Cragganmore and Lagavulin – the lovely names please the tongue as the malts do the palate. But for me and many Scottish friends these joys are off the table from next week. We’re protesting against their proprietor, the giant boozemaker Diageo – owner of 24 whisky brands and, in their name, guilty of cynical obstruction of democracy and callous disregard for the toll of cheap alcohol in Scotland.

I live in Leith, a mile or so from where the Scotch Whisky Association, Diageo’s lobbying proxy, has it headquarters on Edinburgh’s calm and elegant Atholl Crescent. Things are rather different at our end of town: it’s one of Scotland’s poorest postcodes, and the damage done by alcohol is visible on prematurely aged faces, in the crime rates and on the streets. On Friday and Saturday nights Leith is loud with drunks, most of whom are young, and then with ambulances picking up the comatose. Some of them will be among the 20 people who die every week in Scotland of alcohol abuse.

The kids are not drinking malt whisky, of course. They are “pre-loading” at home on cheap schnapps and super-strength cider bought in supermarkets, before going on to pubs and clubs that advertise cocktails at £1 each.

In the Iceland supermarket on Easter Road, Leith, people queue for bargain frozen food and bargain booze. This is where Diageo and its friends make their real profits. There’s all the cheapo brands – Fosters, Skol, San Miguel, strong Carlsberg Export (which Diageo makes in Ireland) all at pocket-money prices. There’s also a “schnapps”, V-Kat, which is 22 per cent alcohol, more than half the strength of vodka, at just £7.50 a litre and Frosty Jack’s cider, 7.5 per cent alcohol at an amazing £3.50 for a 3-litre bottle.

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Professor Macdonald and the sugar corps

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21 January: “Top scientists for sale!” My comment piece in the Daily Mail on the sugar lobby, bought science and corporate capture of government advisors.

In this I mention some academic research on scientists in these fields with apparent conflicts of interest. It shows they tend to produce biased research – but you may judge this simplistic. Here are the two papers:

1.   Bes-Rastrollo M, Schulze MB, Ruiz-Canela M, Martinez-Gonzalez MA (2013) Financial Conflicts of Interest and Reporting Bias Regarding the Association between Sugar-Sweetened Beverages and Weight Gain: A Systematic Review of Systematic Reviews. PLoS Med 10(12): e1001578. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001578. Read it here.

2.      Lesser LI, Ebbeling CB, Goozner M, Wypij D, Ludwig DS (2007) Relationship between funding source and conclusion among nutrition-related scientific articles. PLoS Med 4(1): e5. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0040005.  Read it here

Sugar watchdog works for Coca-Cola and Mars
Published 19 January 2014, copyright Sunday Times, UK . Original here

ONE of the country’s leading nutritional experts, tasked by the government with proposing new limits for the nation’s sugar consumption, is working as a paid adviser to Coca-Cola and Mars.

Professor Ian Macdonald chairs a government panel examining the health impact of sugar consumption, amid growing concern that excessive amounts in food are fuelling the obesity epidemic.

It will recommend to the government later this year what level of sugar in our diet is healthy, helping to frame the national guidance.

However, the Nottingham University scientist confirmed last week that he provided monthly advice to Mars “at board level” and also advised Coca-Cola on diet, obesity and exercise. He said the annual payment of £6,100 from Coca-Cola went into his personal income — it “goes into [my] tax return” — while the larger payment from Mars helped to fund his university research.

The disclosure of his links to the companies, in an investigation by Channel 4 Dispatches to be shown tomorrow, prompted demands this weekend that Macdonald should resign from the chairmanship of the panel because of the “unacceptable” conflict of interests.

Simon Capewell, a Liverpool University professor and founding member of the Action on Sugar campaign, said Macdonald’s role was untenable. “I am shocked,” he said. “This is a scandal for public health. It’s like putting Dracula in charge of a blood bank. It’s clearly an outrageous conflict of interest.

“If Ian Macdonald doesn’t step down [from the panel], there will be real concerns that their recommendations will be prejudiced by commercial factors rather than scientific public health priorities.”

It will be the second time that Macdonald’s interests have drawn him into controversy. Macdonald stood down from a paid advisory role with Coca-Cola and Mars in 2009 after concerns were raised with health officials about his potential conflict of interest.

Dispatches has, however, established that he started working for the two companies again in 2012 after successfully seeking approval from officials.

Macdonald said: “I do understand people saying, ‘You are so close to those companies you should not have anything to do with gathering the evidence for UK policy to be decided’. I just disagree.”

MacDonald, who sits on the Coca-Cola European Scientific Advisory Council and the Mars Scientific Advisory Council, said he believed it was important to have a dialogue with industry. He said he never discussed any aspect of his government work on sugar with Coca-Cola and Mars.

The details of Macdonald’s close links to the food industry have emerged after a campaign was launched this month by Action on Sugar which claimed sugar was the “new tobacco”.

Macdonald is known to be sceptical of some of the claims made by the anti-sugar lobby. He says the evidence does not support the claim that fructose has a specific and adverse impact on health.

His work for the food industry and the work of his panel is now likely to come under close scrutiny. Macdonald is chairman of the carbohydrate working group, which is part of the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN). It was requested nearly six years ago to “provide clarification of the relationship between dietary carbohydrate and health and make public health recommendations”.

Under current government recommendations, added sugars should comprise no more than 11% of total energy consumption. Some experts, however, believe this upper limit should be reduced significantly.

Five members of Macdonald’s eight-strong panel disclosed links to the food industry in the most recent register of interests published in the 2012 annual report.

The recommendations of Macdonald’s panel need to be approved by the SACN and will then be published for consultation. The Department of Health will then review the recommendations and decide on any changes in policy.

A spokesman for Public Health England said: “Professor Ian Macdonald has fully declared his interests in accordance with the code of practice for scientific advisory committees guidance.”

The spokesman said that throughout the deliberation on carbohydrates and health there had been processes in place to ensure “the transparency and integrity” of the review. The work was overseen by independent experts and government officials.

Are “superfruits” a scam? A potato might do the same job at a tenth the price…

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Pomegranate – lots of fibre, if you can eat all those seeds.

30 December 2013: fruit sold on health promises, my story published in the UK’s Daily Mail.

Believe the hype and they’ll solve all your health issues.  They are the natural solution for everything from cancer, heart disease and dementia through to ageing skin, poor eyesight and interrupted sleep. No wonder “superfruits” now pop up everywhere: in cereal, desserts, snack bars, breakfast juice, desserts, face cream – even designer gin.

But though goji berries, acai juice, pomegranates and cranberries often claim their healing properties are rooted in ancient medicine, the explosion in their use is a very modern phenomenon.

Marketing gurus in the United States invented the word less than a decade ago, to profit from the boom in so-called “functional foods” – the industry’s term for staples – like yoghourt or snack bars –  that can be sold at a premium by pushing health benefits.

The labelling tactic worked. Superfruit products worth hundreds of millions of pounds are now sold in Britain every year. The global market in superfruit juices alone will be worth over £6bn by 2017, according to food market analysts Euromonitor .

As you’d expect, the fruit and health foods industries have gone bananas (rich in potassium and fibre, these might be a superfruit if they weren’t so old-fashioned). Since there’s no regulation or even definition of the term, anything you like can be a superfruit – and millions can be made if you get the marketing right.

In Britain, two out of three new juice products launched last year claimed to contain superfruit, and new ones are being announced every week. A big launch in 2011 was Cherrygood, a fruit juice made in part from an imported American cherry supposedly very high in antioxidants. One glass will give “the equivalent health benefits of around 20 portions of fruit and vegetables”. Though the company offers no proof of that extraordinary boast, Cherrygood has been a hit, according to the food analyst agencies, and by 2013 all the supermarkets and health stores were stocking it.

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