Sunday, 30 November 2008

The (Un)Natural Confectionary Company: Schoolyard Logic Strikes Again

When I was at school it was common to reply to an insult by highlighting that I (the insultee) did not share some unpleasant characteristic with the insulter. For example:

Insulter: You've got stupid shoes! Stupid shoes, stupid shoes, stupid shoes.....

Insultee: Yeah, well at least I don't have a girl's haircut.

Victory was typically judged by an ad hoc jury of peers (whoever happened to be standing around) by subjective analysis of the comparative seriousness of the two accusations, and the extent to which each was justified.

Of course it was also about the delivery - the insultee may have had stupid shoes, but did it look like he cared? Did the girlie-haired insulter smart from the riposte? And what was the relative social standing of the verbal duellers? If Silly Shoes was more popular then his shoes could be pretty silly before accusations of feminine coiffure could sway the onlookers.

Where am I going with this? Well, lately I have become increasingly irritated by a marketing tactic employed by food manufacturers that reminds me of this childish logic.

A friend has just sent me a bag of sweets/candy manufactured by The Natural Confectionery Company. On the front of the packet it proudly trumpets no artificial colours and no artificial flavours. To me this employs tha same absurd rationale - replying to an insult with a proclamation about some other flaw one does not have. When you consider the vast array of ways in which a food can be unhealthy and damaging, these statements just look like childish replies to some unspecified rival (who does include those ingredients in their own products) in order to convince the jury (we, the consumers) to buy their product:

Yeah, but at least we don't have artificial colours and flavours

What no one in our playground ever did was to say to a couple of insult-trading kids:

You know what? You do have stupid shoes - but the fact that you do not have a girl's haircut in no way justifies your shoe selection. You need to talk to your parents. Grow a pair and exercise your right to choose shoes you want instead of those your mother thinks look nice. And as for you - ditto with the hair. If you instructed the hairdresser then shame on you - otherwise, you should also grow a pair and make your own decisions. Your non-stupid shoes simply do not mitigate this character flaw.

It certainly would have been refreshing - as you know, I'm a big fan of tough love.

So to get to the point, The Natural Confectionery Company is patently failing to adhere to the spirit of the UK FSA guidelines on what constitutes natural ingredients. Their website conveniently does not list the ingredients but I can tell you from the packet I have in front of me that the top ingredients for 'Jelly Squirms' are sugar, glucose syrup and modified wheat starch. Just the sort of things you find lying around the forest floor every day.

I explained all this to the Eat Natural company in Eat Natural? Not According to the Food Standards Agency. First, that sugar is not natural and second, that their weasel tactics of
avoiding a direct breach of the guidelines by giving their company a name containing the word 'Natural' rather than using it in product names, simply won't wash.

I will contact the Natural Confectionery Company and make them aware of this post. Their contact form is easy to fill out, so feel free to do the same.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I will be putting together a roll call of shame to highlight the increasing number of companies who fail to have the courtesy to respond, including their contact details, so that others can contact them. This will let them know that more people than just one crazy blogger disapprove of what they do.

See Also:

Eat Natural? Not According to the Food Standards Agency
Tough Love - Reasons not to Quit You don't Normally Hear
... Read more

Saturday, 22 November 2008

New Evidence: High-Carb, Grain-Based Diets could be Secret to Longevity

Guest Post by A. Hack

A study published this week in the Journal of Nutritive Science suggests that high-carb diets rich in grains may be the secret to a long life.

Professors Heimlich Manoeuvre and Claus Van Munchausen from the Institute of Nutritionally Nutritious Nutrition followed around 300 cases over 12 months to test their hypothesis that greater consumption of grain-based carbohydrates leads to increased longevity. The study found a strong relationship between age at death and the consumption of grain-based carbohydrates.

To avoid confounding factors that might contradict their hypothesis, the professors excluded people who ate a low carbohydrate diet (fewer than 80% as a proportion of calories.)

"This study is all about understanding the effects of carbohydrate on age" said Professor Munchausen,"so by choosing a sample that includes only people who eat plenty of carbohydrate we ensure a meaningful set of results."

In addition, the professors sampled only people who were eating fewer than 500 calories per day and engaged in vigorous exercise for 2 hours or more per day.

"With so many people exercising and dieting these days it was important to study the effects of carbohydrate in a context that reflects society's current trends," said Professor Munchausen.

One controversial aspect to the study is the high number of deaths in the sample, primarily from malnutrition, dehydration and exhaustion. Critics have accused the authors of 'ambulance-chasing' and 'prowling eating disorder web sites like vultures' - but the professors remain defiant.

"These people fail to understand the difficulty in designing a study of this nature," said Professor Munchausen, "and in any case the subjects were quite willing participants once we had offered them money."

Further criticism has come from those claiming conflicts of interest lie at the heart of this study. Asked about his membership of the American Grain Association and European Grain Farmers Committee, Professor Manoeuvre was dismissive.

"I am perfectly capable of separating my commercial and academic roles," he said, from his 15-bedroom, 10 million-dollar, sea-front property. "These accusations are motivated by jealousy and a desire to see others fail."

Meanwhile, Professor Van Munchausen, whose wife chairs the Bread Users and Manufacturers Society, insisted there was no way his research could have been influenced by external factors. "I do not get involved with BUMS," he was keen to stress. "I leave that up to my wife."

In spite of question marks over the methodology, many are proclaiming the death of low-carb diets and sales of bread have increased by 10% overnight.
... Read more

Monday, 17 November 2008

One Year Later: Hunter Gathering and Body Composition

It's 12 months since I radically changed my diet and exercise to mimic our hunter gatherer ancestors. I hesitate to give my lifestyle a label after this recent clarification from Mark Sissons made me remember that there are, so to speak, a number of tribes. Paleo, Primal, Evo-Fitness - I am influenced by them all but for the sake of neutrality will stick to Hunter Gatherer.

Either way, I have Natural Messiah to thank for the introduction and to commemorate the anniversary I thought I would share the data I have been recording on body composition since 2005. Scroll the graph to the right to move forward in time. If you are less interested in the physical aspect, I explain here how it transformed my formerly routine-bound life.

I recorded the data by weighing myself each night before bed using a set of Tanita scales. They have metal pads that use a combination of height, weight, electrical resistance and standard formulae to estimate body fat percentage. There's no doubt that this is a rather blunt tool to measure body composition and I treat with a pinch of salt the readings it gives me each night. Nevertheless, it has become something of a ritual - one routine I was evidently unable to give up.

Notice the telltale rises and falls between November 2005 to November 2007 as I vainly followed the bulk-and-cut dogma espoused by bodybuilding magazines. In fact at the time I was doing a lot of running too, which no doubt made matters worse. You can see that each time I went through the bulking phase I gained muscle but also fat - then when I cut the calories to lose the fat, off came the muscle as well.

You can see that from November 2007 to the present day I have lost over a stone in weight. For the most part, my fat has continued to fall while muscle, bone etc has remained static. In the last couple of months there has been some loss of muscle, bone etc. One thing this may be attributable to is hydration. Around two months ago I decided I was over-hydrated and stopped drinking so much water. This was partly because I could find no research proving it was of benefit beyond a certain point and partly to see whether it would help me sleep better (it did.)

Other things to consider are that the composition of my muscles may well have changed now that I am not following routines design to bloat the muscles or consuming a high carbohydrate diet.

The real test, of course, is how you look. My own sense, and the considered opinion of Mrs M (whose honestly about such matters frequently borders on the undiplomatic) is that even though I now weigh only 11 stone, I look a lot better than I did in 2006 when I was 11.5 stone.

I will periodically update the graph so you can see how things pan out.

Don't worry, I don't plan to publish photos of myself with no shirt on. Ever.
... Read more

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Marks and Spencer Chicken - the Final Word

Why is there Sugar in my Chicken?
Sugar in my Chicken Part 2: Marks and Spencer Respond
Marks and Spencer Chicken - They Respond Once More (Part 3)
Marks and Spencer Chicken - the Final Word (Part 4)

Marks and Spencer have responded swiftly to my most recent post. Amazingly, they have addressed my central question - why will they not sell cooked chicken that I can season myself instead of adding salt for me? This is what they said:

Thank you for contacting me again.

Whilst I do agree that supplying a chicken without any salt would solve some concerns about the level of salt being consumed by the public, ultimately we need to offer products on our shelves that are going to sell in order to remain open for business.

Research with our tasting panels has shown that this is not what the public on the whole is looking for and that they do want our chicken to have a small amount of salt added to enhance its flavour.

Whilst reducing salt in the diet is an important factor for many people, I feel it prudent to point out that a small amount of salt is actually recommended in the government's guidelines on nutrition. Our Technologists do bear these guidelines in mind at all times when considering seasoning our products.

I also feel it appropriate to point out that the majority of our customers shop with us for the simplicity and ease with which they can cook our food. Most customers don't mind paying slightly higher prices for products they can take home and conveniently cook without having to go to lengths to add flavour to the product.

Turning to our Technologist's research into this matter, you have my assurance that she isn't simply waiting for mail to arrive before taking action. The tasting panels themselves form part of the research they conduct and these have shown time and again that customers do want their products to be pre-seasoned to enhance the flavour.

Whilst I can't discuss the ins and outs of our Technologists job profile, I can assure you that they are continually researching whether our products need improving and if so how this can be done. We are well known for our innovation in the food market and I am confident that this reputation is well deserved given the excellent range of products we have on offer at this time.

As mentioned previously, we don't have any plans to offer a 'season to taste' chicken as we don't believe there is sufficient demand to make this commercially viable. However, we will continue to conduct our internal research into such matters and will continue to listen to the feedback of the public through our regular tasting sessions and independent customer feedback such as yours. Should we ever feel there is a market for such a product, we will of course act accordingly.

I believe that the above, in addition to my previous emails, has answered all of the points you have raised and do now hope you will feel able to bring this matter to a close.

So finally they have spelled out what we all knew to be the case from the start - that this is all about commercial viability and customer demand - in other words, money. They are a business, they have shareholders and as such are required to make money for those shareholders.

There are many nuanced arguments we could explore around whether supply drives demand or demand drives supply when it comes to the taste of food - and the extent to which a supposed commitment to the health of customers should mean that more effort is made to
drive demand with some risk to short term profit. However, for now I intend to cut Marks and Spencer some slack. If I were feeling pedantic I would pick them up on their latest idea that they should put salt the chicken because the government says so, but I'm not, so I won't.

They deserve a great deal of credit of one thing: their willingness to engage. Throughout this correspondence I have taken a determinedly devil's-advocate stance, sometimes taking literally their points, often choosing to feign ignorance of the commercial pressures that apply (which is of course necessary or we'd make no progress at all.) Their Customer Services department and then the Chairman's Office did try to palm me off with the standard flannel about helping customers be healthier - but they spent significant time corresponding on this matter and ultimately made absolutely clear their position and motives.

In these financially tight times I would far rather a company like Marks and Spencer stayed in business than some of the slippery vendors who have entirely failed to respond in recent months. So for the time being I will let Marks and Spencer devote their time to making money and hope that this exchange and your comments have given them ideas that lead to healthier foods in the long term and helped them to see the value a more honest dialogue with their customers.

As for the slippery vendors, I think it will soon be time to publish a roll-call of shame. Sun Ridge Farms, for example, whose sugar-riddled pseudo trail mix ("All Natural Golden Gate Bridge Mix") is marketed as a healthy snack...

The Series:
Why is there Sugar in my Chicken?
Sugar in my Chicken Part 2: Marks and Spencer Respond
Marks and Spencer Chicken - They Respond Once More (Part 3)
Marks and Spencer Chicken - the Final Word (Part 4)

See Also:
HFCS, the Little Man and Big Business Part 2 - Making a Difference
San Francisco Part 1: Stretching the Definitions of Natural and Healthy
... Read more

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Doctors and Nutrition Part 1: My Yellow Skin Mystery

A few years back, Mrs M's mother decided that I looked yellow. At the time I was eating what I considered to be the ultimate in healthy diets and was as fit as I'd ever been, so you can imagine the scepticism with which I greeted this suggestion. I mentioned it to a few friends but was surprised to receive responses along the lines of Yeah, I suppose you do.

Made quite indignant by this apparent conspiracy, I wanted to know why no one had mentioned it before. I examined photos and disputed opinion, but eventually could see that the only way to put this one to bed would be to get medical opinion. I would go to the doctor, who would proclaim me to be entirely well.

At the doctor's I answered all the questions I had expected, was prodded in the traditional places and yielded fluids of various kinds. Since I knew I had no other symptoms, it was no surprise that this initial examination yielded nothing.
Low Fat Diet
Keen to impress with my diet and lifestyle but acknowledging I may not have it entirely right, I did some quizzing of my own. Could eating a very low fat diet cause it? What about my punishing running and weights regime? I described my diet in detail - the steamed white fish, the six pieces of fruit per day, the daily litre of freshly juiced fruit and vegetables, the eggs, muesli and the oatmeal.

This was when it started to dawn on me that doctors (I saw a number during this period) might not exactly be experts in the field of nutrition. When I explored with them the more nuanced aspects of my diet, a faint glaze would develop in their eyes, their polished bedside manner unable totally to conceal the lack of interest; and when I solicited opinion, there were so many hedges and caveats that I frequently departed with more questions than answers.
Yet one useful thing doctors can do is run tests - which is exactly what they did; and the good news was that they were now able rule out all kinds of obvious problems. No, it was not jaundice. My liver was fine. My vitamin profile was excellent. I had slightly elevated levels of creatinine, which might have been due to the exercise, but a subsequent retest proved this not to be a problem. Kidney function was also normal.

However, there was something that was not right. My blood counts. The red and whites were at the very low end of normal. So I wanted to know - could this make me yellow? No, not really, was the answer.

This is where the whole business changed. I was referred to a haematology specialist, who asked me many more probing questions and prodded in new places. She was no more interested in my diet, of course, and frankly even less interested in the yellowness. She was, however, very interested in my blood counts, and a regular schedule of tests quickly took shape. Soon, the yellowness had become a historical footnote and the blood test roller coaster was under way. With the blood I parted with over the following two years you could have fed an army of vampires.
Mystery Solved
For now I want to wind the clock forward. Two years later, roughly six months ago, there was an equally abrupt pronouncement about my skin colour, this time from Mrs M herself. You aren't yellow anymore, she had decided. Once again I canvassed wider opinion and this was confirmed. It was official - I was no longer yellow. Yet my blood counts remained the same.

By now my Googling skills and nutritional knowledge were more advanced, so I set about looking into it. Before long I had identified a harmless condition called carotenoderma, the primary symptom of which is yellow skin and the cause of which can be "...excessive dietary intake of carotenoids..."

Wikipedia lists many fruits and vegetables with which the condition has been associated and it looks startlingly like the diet I was eating at the peak of my yellowness. The 8 apples, 5 large carrots, 100g of spinach and whole cucumber that went into my juicer each day might alone be responsible, but on top of that were the fruit and vegetables I was eating in whole form.
Nutritional Wisdom
For me that was all the evidence I needed - because it had been almost exactly 6 months ago I had decided to ditch the juicing altogether on the basis that it was not in keeping with my Paleo lifestyle (I'm fairly sure hunter gatherers did not have access to Champion juicers.) So I had figured out in 10 minutes on the Internet what the collective nutritional wisdom of 3 doctors and a specialist had failed to diagnose in 2 years of consultations.

The low blood counts question does remain a mystery of its own and we will explore the possible dietary explanations for that in part 2.

See Also:
Doctors and Nutrition Part 2: My Wheat Experiment
My Wheat Experiment Blood Test Update
Doctors and their Good Intentions: the Blood Test Fiasco Continues
[Blood Test Update in Post on Weight Loss]... Read more

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Marks and Spencer Chicken - They Respond Once More

Why is there Sugar in my Chicken (Part 1)
Sugar in my Chicken Part 2: Marks and Spencer Respond
Marks and Spencer Chicken - They Respond Once More
Marks and Spencer Chicken - the Final Word (Part 4)

UK retailer Marks and Spencer have replied to my most recent questions about their sugar and salt-adulterated roast chicken.

In the original post, Why is there Sugar in my Chicken, I published my correspondence with M&S customer services, in which I tried to establish why both salt and sugar had been added to the roast chicken I bought from their chiller cabinet. Their clumsy, copy-and-paste style responses did not address my central questions, which were a) Why can't you let me add my own salt and b) Why do you have to add sugar?

When I published the post I included a new, public letter, in which I spelled out these questions once again. I also emailed Sir Stuart Rose, chairman and CEO of Marks and Spencer, to let him know about my concerns.

As if by magic, I received an email from 'The Chairman's Office' which I posted in Sugar in my Chicken Part 2: Marks and Spencer Respond.

Now, at least, the sugar mystery was solved. Apparently amounts too small to affect the taste are used so that during cooking it caramelises. Customers have told M&S they want to see chicken with the ' typical golden colouring'. Typical, one might ask, of what? Of roast chicken, they might reply. So if it's typical of roast chicken, why does the chicken you are roasting not take on the typical roast chicken appearance on its own? I must have been stunned into inaction by the absurd circularity of this rationale, because I decided to let this one drop.

I focused instead on the reasons why I was being given no choice about whether to have salt on my chicken. The Chairman's Office, like Customer Services before them, had failed to address the salt-choice question, instead pointing out their efforts to reduce salt levels and the fact that independent panels of tasters had established the levels of salt they added.

So at the end of that post, I published a second open letter, asking, once again - why can't I just add my own salt? I also outlined some commercial benefits this might have. You can see the letter here.

So now, after a considerably longer wait, I have received this response from the chairman's office:

Our Food Technologist for this area has advised me that yours is the first question of this nature raised with her or her colleagues in the poultry department. It would therefore appear that at present there isn’t sufficient demand for a self seasoned chicken.

As mentioned in my previous email, sugar is functional to colour and salt (at low levels) adds flavour. Therefore, at this time, we don’t have any plans to change this set up and will continue to season the products in this manner.

However, we do understand that as times change and more focus is placed on additives and seasonings, demand may change and the Technologist will therefore be keeping a close eye on this for similar reports and feedback and any changes to the market.

I hope that the above detail will help to clarify this matter for you and to bring a sense of resolution to this issue for you.

I do wonder about the term 'self-seasoned chicken'. Would it be overly literal of me to picture the chicken feverishly shaking a salt cellar above it's head on the way into the oven?

Joking aside, I am perplexed by the casual way in which M&S have concluded that there is no demand for self-seasoned chicken. After trumpeting in their first letter that the levels of salt are determined by independent taste panels, the Chairman's Office now tells us that when it comes to determining whether there is demand for a version of the chicken with no salt at all, they rely on an assessment of the Poultry Department mailbag. Considering their stated commitment to lowering salt and making it easier for customers to lead healthier lives, this is an oddly loose approach to what would appear to be a no-brainer for achieving those goals.

I do like that last sentence though. Either Mr Rogers is extremely earnest and genuinely wants to see me achieve closure or he's slyly injecting sarcasm into his closing remarks to imply that I may be a little unhinged and in need of help for my 'issues'.

Here is my response:

Dear Mr Rogers,

Many thanks for your latest response. I do feel as though I am nearing closure, but there is one outstanding issue I must raise.

You have highlighted the commitment of M&S to reducing salt levels and helping customers to lead healthier lives. Yet offering a version of the chicken with no salt at all would be a no-brainer if these objectives were genuinely top-of-mind. The fact that M&S appear to be waiting for the poultry department to get wind of any such demand rather than actively seeking customer opinion about it calls into question this commitment. Clearly you are not strangers to rigour, given your use of independent taste panels, so I am especially confused.

My question is simply this: how will your technologist be keeping an eye on the market? Do you have any plans to proactively research customer demand for self-seasoned chicken as part of your commitment to helping customers lead healthier lives, or should I conduct the research myself and ask those in favour to contact the poultry department?

Yours Sincerely,

See Also:
Why is there Sugar in my Chicken (Part 1)
Sugar in my Chicken Part 2: Marks and Spencer Respond

Marks and Spencer Chicken - the Final Word (Part 4)... Read more