With the awareness that nutrition may play an important role in shaping our social behaviour comes hope in the promising methods of rehabilitation and prevention of anti-social behaviour –
Doctor Bernard Gesch is a remarkable individual: he is a senior research scientist in the department of physiology at the University of Oxford and a director of the charity 'Natural Justice' which he set up to investigate the causes of criminal and anti-social behaviour. Some weeks ago (8 January
), I wrote of the effects of casual violence in our media culture feeding into the mainstream of our lives. It is not the only cause of real violence in our communities and the almost casual acceptance of such. What we eat is another.
Now, as a refugee from the processed food industry, I am well aware of my guilt in helping to convince my fellow citizens to eat such fodder. The industry is, possibly, responsible for more premature deaths than even the tobacco companies can boast of. Little letters were once sent out from the appropriate government departments saying that such-and-such an artificial colouring or flavouring was now banned since it had been proven to be carcinogenic – and the industry had been using that particular item for years.
These days, matters have improved but, still, all food is processed to some degree. Shopping for eggs used to involve a trip to the farm but the hens fluttering around then were at least much better off than their modern counterparts who provide us with 'fresh eggs', 'farm eggs' or 'barn eggs', and other confusing appellations. Even 'free-range' eggs should, more accurately, be termed 'barely free-range eggs'.
Modern food processing begins at the farm where forced growth, the over-use of fertilisers and pesticides, and even drugs, all detract directly from the quality of our eatables. It is not the farmer's fault – often the confused person in the middle – it is we, the people, who demand and need an abundance of cheap food. The scientist, intent on meeting our needs and, sometimes, caught up in his own cleverness, develops ever more elaborate ways of coping. Some 30 million chickens are slaughtered every day to satisfy the UK market (including those killed for consumption by domestic pets) and how can we supply that quantity of protein without resorting to intensive production methods never mind the obscenity of battery farming?
Not that food processing is a modern concept: ancient people found that cooked food tasted better and took considerably less time to eat and digest. And the benefits of salt in both preserving and hiding the taste of bland and even high meat were soon discovered. The disadvantages of excessive salt and a sedentary lifestyle were not then realised. Besides, back then, the salt was natural and contained other ingredients beyond sodium and chloride.
In the 19th century, the development of the steel milling machine permitted the grinding of ever finer flour. This had the two-fold advantage of removing more of the matter that eventually rotted flour and also leaving a whiter flour. A natural white flour (not to be confused with the finely ground version) was then popular with the upper classes and the new, more thoroughly milled flour, also gave a whiter bread. Given this and given that such flour became known as 'refined' − a good word with connotations of elegance and good breeding – white bread became ever more popular and, as its price fell (in relative terms), it became the staple of society.
Perhaps, had the flour been termed 'denaturised' – as it certainly was with most of its fibre and mineral content having been removed – we may not have been so keen on the white bread of the time. The other great weapon in the food processors armoury were, and are, sugar and fat. These weapons (the word is correctly used) need defining since before the food processors use them in their processes, they process them – if you get the drift. What is meant by sugar is, generally, almost pure sucrose – the processed white sugar we regard as commonplace although it rarely occurs as such in nature – and the fat is, usually, hydrogenated palm kernel oil (HPKO).
These four items, sugar, salt, fat and white flour, are in almost all processed food to one degree or another. Interestingly, if you looked at recipes for biscuits as they once were (pre-War) they could contain some 30 or more ingredients, including eggs and all types of flour and spices. Today's recipes for mass-produced biscuits can contain as little as 10 ingredients, the top four being, sugar, fat, flour and salt, along with various flavourings and colourings (the last two being, generally, artificial).
A slight digression: what colour is cucumber? Yes, I used to think it was green also, but that was before I witnessed dark grey, rubbery pieces of the vegetable being barrelled into a pickle factory. It was mixed with a virulent copper solution to colour it green and had sugar and salt added to give it flavouring and make the mix palatable.
Back to the excellent Doctor Gesch; he has pointed out that nutrition is the meeting point of the physical and social worlds – the hardware and software of life where both are required to guide and control social behaviour. Whilst we all know that nutrition plays a vital role in our health, we do not usually appreciate the role it plays in our behaviour, which we assume to be a matter of free will (but think how irritable we can become when really hungry).
Doctor Gesch has tested his theories on prison inmates . These are ideal volunteers because they are going nowhere and their diet can be rigorously controlled and monitored. The results were convincing in that those prisoners who received structured, nutritional diets and supplements proved considerably and markedly less likely to react violently than they had previously. The experiment tended to support the role good and adequate nourishment has in stemming anti-social behaviour: the horrendous inner-city riots of the Thatcher years all happened in areas of higher than average lead pollution − a heavy metal with known deleterious effects on the brain.
In the US now, we are witnessing turbulent times. We know that lead pollution in drinking water is high in the US. We know that the US diet is high in fats, oils, processed flour and sugar. We know that, on average, the US is one of the fattest nations on Earth. We know that average life expectancy in the US has been going down since 1976. We know that some of the strangest political and social happenings have occurred in the US. Ans we know that violence in society is endemic in the US.
The implication is that many people are undermined by the poor dietary choices they make − or, have little option but to make. There are at least two million children living in what is termed 'food poverty' in the United Kingdom. This goes a long way to explaining why inadequately nourished people, sometimes fuelled with alcohol as a 'comfort', can behave as they do. That is not to say that an occasional soft drink or odd pint is wrong, along with a hamburger and chips; but, frequently and often, it can be trouble. Doctor Gesch's team is working internationally on this problem. I am a super-pessimist in this – that is, in ensuring everyone in the world has an adequate diet. But the findings from Doctor Gesch would suggest the attempt is more than worth making.
Bill Paterson is a writer based in Glasgow