In Praise of Beetroot

One of the odder things I’ve found myself doing in the last few weeks is wandering round a well known supermarket talking about food labels into a microphone.  I was making an item for the BBC Radio 4 programme Word of Mouth.  It was prompted by Bristol’s Organic Food Festival and my role was to help decipher some of the language used by food manufacturers to describe their products. And what language it is. Phrases such as ‘superfood’; ‘high in Omega-3’; ‘low-fat’; ‘low-salt’; ‘high in natural anti-oxidants’; ‘rich in monounsaturates’ and so on.  All of these have some origin in scientific research.  For example, omega-3 essential fatty acids are just that, essential. Eating sufficient omega-3’s may have many health benefits ranging from easing arthritis to improving concentration in children.  Foods such as broccoli, beetroot and tomatoes do contain chemicals that help ward off cancer. Monounsaturated vegetable oils do offer protection against heart disease and stroke.

Add to this all the advice on what to eat from governments and other health agencies, plus all the negatives such as avoiding saturated fats or too much salt, and you end up with a complicated, constantly shifting set of rules about what you should and shouldn’t eat.

Much of the confusion comes from the fact that each bit of research is presented, at least in the media, as startlingly new and exciting.  While every published study does say something original the majority simply tweak current understanding, adding a little more to what is already known. Take beetroot.  It’s the latest superfood being hyped for its anti-cancer properties – so far only proven in laboratory mice – yet its potential was noted at least forty years ago.  The subsequent research has refined our understanding of how and how well it might work, but its not a new discovery.

And of course there is the latest excitement over fruit juice and Alzheimer’s.  Certainly its good news, but if you already eat plenty of fresh fruit and veg its unlikely to make a significant difference to you.  The real message of the research is to reinforce the point that the complex mix of chemicals in plants are important for health.

What, then, is the science telling us? In my view, two things. Firstly, the specifics of how foodstuffs interact with our bodies. Fascinating, intricate details which build knowledge and can have very real benefits for health, particularly for people at risk of disease. But stand back and a second, bigger, picture emerges. Again and again research shows that the chemicals found in fresh fruit and veg fight disease; oily fish, wholegrains and nuts provide essential nutrients, and we should avoid eating too many animal products. It is the diet of our hunter-gather ancestors and relatively straight forward to follow.

With this in mind it suddenly becomes easier to decode the confusing messages about what we should and shouldn’t eat. The vast majority of the reports, including the Alzheimer’s and fruit juice study, tend to confirm what we already know about diet.  The only ones to worry about are those that buck the trend.  If you hear reputable scientists – the emphasis on reputable – saying that green veg is bad for you then you really have to sit up and take notice. But I bet you never will.

written by Toby Murcott, lecturer on CASE’s MSc Communicating Science, and taken with kind permission from his FirstScience.com Blog



5 comments


    Robert

    January 29, 2007

    Oh, there’s lots of reputable studies about how unhealthy green veg are… if they are grown industrially in polluted areas, which, increasingly, means anywhere on planet earth.

    Spinach is supposed to be full of heavy metals, I’ve seen cabbage fields right between airport approach paths and busy motorways, and modern pesticides, while kinder to birds, are more toxic to people…

    So, in conclusion, we should not eat. I recommend complete cessation of food consumption forthwith.

    strangelove

    January 29, 2007

    Silly man

    picard

    January 29, 2007

    There is always “Soylent Green…”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soylent_green

    Maggie

    January 29, 2007

    Yes, I guess that philosophy might encounter the same barrier as the one about the high cost of living – people are still reluctant to give it up.

    Sue Burnett

    January 29, 2007

    I’m half-amused, half-irritated by the cod-scientific names given to useless things by marketing people. “Bifidus Digestivum” – give me strength!

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