Monday, April 02, 2007

Belgian fries "healthier"?

Pandering to popular panics

It is the answer to many a diner's prayer in Britain and on the Continent: a way to eat chips and maintain a healthy heart. A new blend of cooking oil, which exploits the healthy properties of the grape seed, is being hailed by French scientists as a breakthrough in the quest for the fast-food industry's holy grail. The oil, which blends rape, sunflower and grape seed, is said to slash the level of damaging fat in fried potatoes. It will replace the artery-clogging greasy chip with the promise of a Mediterranean-style diet, says Quick, the Belgian-based hamburger chain that will introduce it this year.

The group appears to have stolen a march on rivals such as McDonald's and Burger King in the race to create a politically correct form of fast food. "There is really a very impressive level of difference," said David Garbous, sales director for Lesieur, the company that developed the product. "It's possible to say we're going to get healthy chips with this." Lesieur, a business controlled by French farming co-operatives, spent two years putting together what it claims to be the ideal mixture. It says that the results were validated by the French Higher National School of Food Industries in Nancy, eastern France.

These found that the new chips contained low levels of the saturated fatty acids linked to heart disease. The Quick group asked researchers to spend a year evaluating three new cooking oils by "pushing them to the limit" in the laboratory. The scientists cooked and studied 50 kilos (110lb) of chips every day over a two-month period in a deep fryer. They assessed the stability and durability of the oils through chemical and electronic analysis, heating them day after day. The nutritional values were checked by the scientists, who also cooked 600 kilos of dips in the oils. The researchers were then asked to determine which chips tasted best and which had the crispiest coating in blind laboratory tests. Students' impressions of the chips and dips were measured and quantified.

Three tonnes of chips were used before the researchers came to the conclusion that the product met the gastronomic, health and economic requirements laid down by Quick. Their results were then verified in another series of blind tests in the group's restaurants. Quick has already tested the oil in some of its restaurants and says that it will introduce the product throughout the chain later this year.


Beef about sperm

Consumers were frightened this week by media reports about a new study claiming to link mothers' consumption of beef with reduced sperm counts in their sons ( "Sperm Count Low if Mom Ate Beef, Study Finds" ). But the study amounts to nothing more than a transparent effort to resurrect an already debunked 1990s-era health scare with appalling science and sensational headlines.

From "Mom's beef puts son's sperm count at stake" (Los Angeles Times) to "Meaty momma's boys lose" (Edmonton Sun, Canada) to "Sunday roasts could have hit male fertility" (Daily Mail, UK), gullible media around the world once again fell for science-by-press-release committed by longtime environmental activist-researchers.

The supposed findings of the study were that "men whose mothers had eaten more than seven beef meals a week had a sperm concentration that was over 24 percent lower than in men whose mothers ate less beef "and that three times more sons of high-beef consumers had a sperm concentration that would be classified as sub-fertile, according to World Health Organization standards, in comparison to men whose mothers ate less beef."

But for anyone who makes the effort to look past the press releases touting these findings and to examine the study that supposedly backs them up, these findings fall apart as easily as slow-cooked pot roast.

First, the researchers approached the question of what caused the reduced sperm counts exactly backwards. Rather than investigating all possible causes and eliminating those for which there are no supporting evidence, the researchers, according to their own admission, set out to link maternal beef consumption with fertility problems while ignoring other possible causes. There are myriad causes of infertility. Focusing on a novel one that might make for good headlines - while overlooking established, but less newsworthy, causes - simply does not constitute bona fide scientific investigation.

Then, of course, none of the men studied seemed to have fertility problems in the first place. In fact, the men had all fathered children. But they were nonetheless targeted by the researchers because "[their] rate of consulting a doctor in the past for possible infertility was significantly higher." Simply consulting a fertility specialist, however, does not necessarily indicate that a man has fertility problems.

The researchers' hypothesis is not that beef itself causes infertility, but rather that the hormone-like medicines and chemicals to which cattle may be exposed are at fault. But even if it were true, for the sake of argument, that hormone-like chemicals were linked with male infertility, the researchers would still be obligated to rule out other potential exposures to these chemicals, such as through other foods or occupational exposures in both the mothers and sons, before blaming beef consumption by mothers.

But the study gets worse. Although the researchers tout a study size of 387 subjects, only 51 of the sons had mothers who allegedly ate beef more than seven times per week when they were pregnant. So the researchers drew an awfully sweeping conclusion from a minuscule study population. Moreover, the data on mothers' beef consumption during 1949 to 1983 were collected by surveying the mothers during 1999 to 2005, as long as 50 years after they were pregnant. Such self-reported dietary data were not verified by the researchers and are subject to phenomena known in scientific circles as "recall bias" (memory-impaired responses) or "response bias" (intentionally incorrect responses to, say, avoid embarrassing answers). No one really knows what or how much these women actually ate.

It's also not necessarily true that more frequent beef consumption is greater beef consumption. Someone who consumes four 8-ounce portions of meat per week consumes 14 percent more beef than someone who consumes a 4-ounce portion every day -- yet, in this study, the everyday-meat eater is assumed to be the greater consumer of beef.

Although the researchers say in their media release, "We don't have enough information yet to make any recommendations, and this is not what this study was designed to do," they then proceed to make dietary recommendations including eating only organic beef and generally reducing beef consumption. This study is about causing alarm, not about sound scientific research.

So just who are these researchers and what's their real beef? The University of Rochester's Shanna Swan and Danish researcher Niels Skakkebaek are well-known to followers of the now-defunct 1990s controversy over hormone-like chemicals in the environment, so-called "endocrine disrupters" or "environmental estrogens." Swan, Skakkebaek and others have been trying to scare people that man-made chemicals in the environment and food are reducing fertility, particularly sperm counts. Swan has published 15 related studies since 1997 and Skakkebaek has more than 80 related citations in the scientific literature dating back to 1992.

Despite tremendous media attention, the science of Swan and Skakkebaek has never been particularly persuasive. A National Academy of Sciences committee concluded in 1999 that, "Given the evidence to date, increases in the incidence of male reproductive disorders in humans . cannot be linked to exposures to [hormonally-active agents] found in the environment." And since there do not appear to be any sort of worldwide fertility problems that cannot be explained by other causes, it's no wonder that the endocrine disrupter scare never gained traction.

In addition to the news media's predilection for scary health stories, who, after all, could pass up a story about hamburgers as intergenerational contraceptives? It unfortunately suffers from an abysmal institutional memory, particularly when it comes to science. So Swan and Skakkebaek can always count on gullible reporters parroting their "findings" as if they were novel, credible and important, rather than what they really are: stale, unbelievable and meaningless.



Just some problems with the "Obesity" war:

1). It tries to impose behavior change on everybody -- when most of those targeted are not obese and hence have no reason to change their behaviour. It is a form of punishing the innocent and the guilty alike. (It is also typical of Leftist thinking: Scorning the individual and capable of dealing with large groups only).

2). The longevity research all leads to the conclusion that it is people of MIDDLING weight who live longest -- not slim people. So the "epidemic" of obesity is in fact largely an "epidemic" of living longer.

3). It is total calorie intake that makes you fat -- not where you get your calories. Policies that attack only the source of the calories (e.g. "junk food") without addressing total calorie intake are hence pissing into the wind. People involuntarily deprived of their preferred calorie intake from one source are highly likely to seek and find their calories elsewhere.

4). So-called junk food is perfectly nutritious. A big Mac meal comprises meat, bread, salad and potatoes -- which is a mainstream Western diet. If that is bad then we are all in big trouble.

5). Food warriors demonize salt and fat. But we need a daily salt intake to counter salt-loss through perspiration and the research shows that people on salt-restricted diets die SOONER. And Eskimos eat huge amounts of fat with no apparent ill-effects. And the average home-cooked roast dinner has LOTS of fat. Will we ban roast dinners?

6). The foods restricted are often no more calorific than those permitted -- such as milk and fruit-juice drinks.

7). Tendency to weight is mostly genetic and is therefore not readily susceptible to voluntary behaviour change.

8). And when are we going to ban cheese? Cheese is a concentrated calorie bomb and has lots of that wicked animal fat in it too. Wouldn't we all be better off without it? And what about butter and margarine? They are just about pure fat. Surely they should be treated as contraband in kids' lunchboxes! [/sarcasm].

Trans fats:

For one summary of the weak science behind the "trans-fat" hysteria, see here. Trans fats have only a temporary effect on blood chemistry and the evidence of lasting harm from them is dubious. By taking extreme groups in trans fats intake, some weak association with coronary heart disease has at times been shown in some sub-populations but extreme group studies are inherently at risk of confounding with other factors and are intrinsically of little interest to the average person.