Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Back to nature please

The British Science Festival heard recently that, for most people, vitamin pills are a waste of money – and in some cases may be harmful.

Professor Brian Ratcliff, of Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, says that because of the way our bodies process them, most vitamin supplements end up being literally flushed down the lavatory.

A vitamin C pill may be theoretically equivalent to 20 oranges, but your vigilant kidneys will immediately remove 75 per cent of this alien influx from your bloodstream.

You might as well have simply eaten an orange, thereby getting the pleasure as well as the benefit.

This, indeed, is Professor Ratcliff's point: except in specific cases, such as taking folic acid when pregnant, there is nothing vitamin pills can do that a balanced diet couldn't do better.

Sound advice – although one does rather balk at hearing it from a nutritionist

For Professor Ratcliff's profession, together with the wily marketeers of the food and pharmaceutical industries, is largely responsible for rendering the Western world incapable of eating sensibly

It is nutritionists who have spent the past half-century breaking food down into its constituent parts and then serving the parts back up to an awed and uncomprehending public.

The point of eating is no longer food itself, but the mysterious, life-giving "nutrients" within: the vitamins, the flavonoids, the fatty acids and antioxidants.

Once a super-nutrient has been identified, it seems a shame just to leave it languishing inside a head of broccoli or a fish's liver.

There are billions of pounds to be made from extracting, condensing, repackaging and selling it in an entirely new form.

It doesn't have to be a pill: you can buy vitamin-enriched biscuits, calcium-enriched water, breakfast cereals "fortified" with iron, or eggs, milk and bread pumped full of Omega-3 fatty acids.

The reverse is also true.

Over the years, nutritionists have identified (often wrongly) a range of dietary bogeymen, which food manufacturers have promptly turned to their advantage.

Butter was deadly – so we were sold margarine, a cheaply produced chemical concoction so far removed from any natural foodstuff that, until it was coloured yellow, the public refused to go near it.

Next, nutritionists waged war on fat, and the manufacturers cooked up a cornucopia of low-fat products which sounded (and were) too good to be true.

Stuffed full of calorific sugar and starch to give it the missing gloopiness, a low-fat yoghurt is a swizz – a confidence trick on a consumer by now too bamboozled by science to recognise real food.

Granted, there have always been a few far-sighted nutritionists pleading for sanity.

They point out that we really don't understand how nutrients work out of context: that, for example, the beta-carotene might be useless without everything else that's in a carrot.

The only sensible way to eat, they say, is the way your grandparents did: fresh, unprocessed, home-made and seasonal.

But the very existence of nutritionists undermines our instinctive relationship with food.

It sends a message: this stuff is too scientific and complicated for you peasants to understand.

And perhaps it is – but only because the experts have made it so.

Jemina Lewis

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