Cardiovascular disease in vegetarians and vegans

A major study of cardiovascular disease risk in vegetarians published in the British Medical Journal in September 2019 elicited considerable media interest. Based on data from 48,000 participants in the EPIC-Oxford study, the study compared risks for two common cardiovascular diseases, coronary heart disease (CHD) and stroke, across three diet groups: meat eaters, fish eaters (who ate fish but not meat), and vegetarians (including vegans). The researchers from the Nuffield Department of Population Health (NDPH), Oxford University, found that the fish eaters and the vegetarians had 13% and 22% lower risks of CHD than the meat eaters, respectively, but that the vegetarians had a 20% higher risk of stroke than the meat eaters. Each of these differences in risk was statistically significant, meaning that they were unlikely to have arisen by chance.

Several media outlets, including the BBC, chose to highlight the higher risk of stroke in vegetarians in their headlines, which might have caused some concern among vegetarians and vegans, but the NDPH website presented a more balanced picture of the findings.  Putting the risks into context, the lower risk of CHD in vegetarians corresponds to 10 fewer cases of CHD in vegetarians than in meat eaters per 1000 people consuming these diets over 10 years, whereas the higher risk of stroke in vegetarians equates to three more cases of stroke per 1000 people over 10 years. The graph at the bottom of the NDPH web page neatly illustrates the results, showing that the vegetarians had a lower risk of CHD and stroke combined than the meat eaters, as a consequence of the lower incidence of stroke compared with CHD in the overall population.

The researchers attributed the lower risk of CHD in vegetarians to their having a lower body mass index (a measure of obesity) and lower rates of high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol and diabetes, but were unable to explain the higher risk of stroke, suggesting that lower levels of several nutrients, including vitamin B-12, and, ironically, their lower cholesterol concentrations, might be to blame. In a supplementary analysis, the researchers split the lacto/ovo-vegetarians and vegans into separate groups in order to calculate risks for vegans compared with meat eaters.  However, the relatively small numbers of vegans in the study meant that none of the differences in risk between vegans and meat eaters were statistically significant, although the results were similar to those for vegetarians as a whole.

Paul Appleby

Book review: A Feast for the Eyes

A Feast for the Eyes: Edible Art from Apple to Zucchini by Carolyn Tillie. Reaktion Books, 2019, 184pp, 100 colour photos; hbk, £14-95.

This superb book presents a delicious edible alphabet from A to Z. Every page reveals a fresh surprise, and confirms the idea that food is also art. It is uniquely human to transform avocados, salt, fruit and marzipan into a visual delight that is clever, witty, weird and wonderful. The artistry and outstanding attention to detail is quite remarkable, and my personal favourites include the mosaic Captain Kirk & the Gorn (2013), constructed from a variety of seeds, rice, beans and lentils.  Unsurprisingly, this compendium features some animal foods including caviar (as the head of Frankenstein); honey (a naked woman totally covered in it); and a life-sized cow sculpted from butter (a traditional exhibit at the Iowa State Fair for over a century). However, these are the exception and the vast majority are vegetable based. Feast For The Eyes is highly recommended, and you have to marvel at the skill and imagination required to reshape and stain mass produced semolina noodles into a fabulous version of Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night.

Paul Freestone

Spuds we like … and throw away

Writing in The Selfish Ape (see review below), Nicholas Money describes mashed potatoes as “the most filling food available to humanity”, citing a study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 1995. In the study, the researchers compared the satiety ratings of 38 common foods, each served in portions with identical energy content. Boiled potatoes came out on top, with a satiety index more than three times that of white bread and seven times that of croissants, which were the least filling food studied. Satiety ratings correlated positively with the protein, fibre and water contents of the foods, and negatively with the fat content; the more protein &c that the food contained the more filling it was, whereas the higher the fat content the less satiating it was.

The humble potato may be filling, despite its high water content, but it is low in protein and carbohydrate compared with most other staple foods and is not counted as part of the recommended five daily portions of fruit and vegetables.  Perhaps this is why “potatoes are the most wasted food in the UK home” according to Helen White of the Love Food Hate Waste campaign, with more than 4 million spuds thrown away every day.  To help reduce potato waste the National Trust is using leftover mashed potato as a gluten-free addition to their lemon drizzle cakes. The Trust also has some good news for vegan visitors, with a vegan orange-spiced Christmas cake scheduled for the forthcoming festive season and a veg*n recipe page on its website.

Altogether, UK households discard 7 million tons of food every year, equivalent to one in every five bags of food shopping.  To make matters worse, a study by the government-backed waste reduction body Wrap has found that “more than £1bn of food destined for UK supermarkets is thrown away or fed to animals before it leaves farms every year”.  What a waste!

Paul Appleby

Land Use and Climate Change

The media were quick to pick up on a report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in August 2019 that examined land use in relation to climate change .  Both the BBC and Channel 4 News emphasized calls to switch to a plant-based diet, the latter featuring a ‘debate’ between the Guardian columnist and vegan George Monbiot and an unrepentant beef farmer who refused to accept that his methane-belching cattle could possibly pose a threat to the environment.

In fact, the report was more wide-ranging, as its full title (Climate Change and Land: an IPCC special report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems) makes clear, and the accompanying press release offered only this piece of dietary advice from Debra Roberts, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group II: “Balanced diets featuring plant-based foods, such as coarse grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, and animal-sourced food produced sustainably in low greenhouse gas emission systems, present major opportunities for adaptation to and limiting climate change” (she did not spell out what those ‘sustainably-produced’ animal-sourced foods might be).  No wonder that George Monbiot described the report as “mealy-mouthed”.  Indeed, after recognising that “the global food system (accounts for) 21-37% of total net anthropogenic GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions”, the report’s ‘highlights’ document offered only vague advice on possible solutions: “Actions can be taken in the near-term, based on existing knowledge, to address desertification, land degradation and food security while supporting longer-term responses that enable adaptation and mitigation to climate change.” Fortunately, Damian Carrington, environment editor of The Guardian, was more forthcoming, sifting through the report to identify several ‘actions’ that need to be taken, including halting the destruction of forest, peatlands and wetlands, restoring forests, drastically reducing food waste (25-30% of all food produced is never eaten), helping smallholder farmers to sustainably increase their yields, recognising the special role of indigenous people in protecting tropical forests, and, yes, “cutting the amount of meat and dairy products eaten in rich nations” (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/aug/08/how-climates-impact-on-land-threatens-civilisation-and-how-to-fix-it).

Paul Appleby

Last Supper in Pompeii

Pompeii was destroyed by a volcanic eruption in AD79. Paradoxically, Vesuvius wiped out the entire city and simultaneously preserved it (along with most of the unfortunate citizens). A fascinating exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford (until 12 January 2020) highlights “the ancient’s city’s love affair with food and wine”, but this is almost an understatement. The Romans were obviously obsessed with fine dining, washed down with copious amounts of very fine wine. Vesuvius was covered in abundant vineyards as the fertile soil was supercharged with volcanic ash.

One of the most revealing aspects of Last Supper in Pompeii is that some things never change. The rich flaunted their wealth and liked to have extravagant dinner parties, but they reclined at table (instead of sitting). There were plenty of servants, and some of these had to perform their duties naked. As today, food in Pompeii was a clear indicator of social class and your level of wealth (or lack of it). Back then the quality and quantity consumed was critical. However, even the most up-market homes had only small, dark and dirty kitchens (the latrine was usually in there too). Also, the artwork of Pompeii reflected the infatuation with all things culinary. An exquisitely detailed mosaic features all the local seafood (lobster, eel, octopus, etc) and was probably located in an opulent villa, but it could easily be the display panel behind a fishmonger’s slab. Another mosaic (pictured below) represents a more primitive style with a basic message. It shows a toothy skeleton holding two jugs of wine, and only requires the missing health education advice: “All that booze is going to kill you.”

The final exhibit is poignant and rather disturbing. Known as ‘the resin lady of Oplontis’ this Pompeiian has been preserved in her agonised death throes. It felt slightly ghoulish to gawp at her; she had no choice about her extraordinary and very public immortality. Ancient Romans would have perceived the destruction of Pompeii as tangible proof of the Gods, and their awesome power to dish out fiery justice that spared no one. Perhaps these mythical Gods disapproved of all that gluttony, excessive drinking and poor kitchen hygiene?

Paul Freestone

Pompeii_exhibition_skeleton_PF

Mad humans never learn

The BBC-2 documentary Mad Cow Disease: The Great British Beef Scandal (11/7/2019) was a timely reminder of how this appalling tale of deceit, greed and outrageous dishonesty unfolded. The compilation of old news footage and interviews was intercut with new material, including contributions from some of the scientists and politicians featured in the original archive recordings. This was all spliced together in a compelling sequence, revealing the stunning duplicity of several key figures. Chief among these was John Selwyn Gummer, Agriculture Minister from 1989 to 1993, who infamously stuffed a beef burger into the mouth of his four-year-old daughter. This publicity stunt in May 1990 was a shameless attempt to demonstrate that beef was safe to eat, and to some extent it worked. There were many who believed in the mythical ‘species barrier’; that made it impossible for people to develop a bovine disease even if you ate meat from an infected animal. Others believed that “they wouldn’t let us eat it if it wasn’t safe.” Finally, in 1995 the government had to admit that humans could develop variant CJD (vCJD; the human version of BSE) from eating tainted beef.

The first confirmed case of BSE in the UK was reported in 1986, and it was clear from the outset that this was an unprecedented food scandal. The documentary included the original news broadcast with a cow staggering uncontrollably at a farm in Wiltshire. The UK government persisted with the ‘Beef is safe’ message for nearly 10 years, and during this time it was revealed that the most likely cause of BSE was the practice of feeding cows meat and bone meal (MBM). This was derived from infected cattle or scrapie-infected sheep, and included mechanically recovered meat (MRM). This disgusting sludge included the brains, spinal cord and guts of contaminated cows, which represented the highest risk of transmission to humans. Beef sales did slump, and just about every country in the world banned imports of British beef.

The documentary highlighted the human tragedy of mad cow disease, and included heartrending interviews with the parents of children that contracted vCJD and who suffered a slow, debilitating demise. The official figure of human deaths since 1995 is 177, while the slaughter of 4.4 million cows to prevent the spread of BSE was treated as little more than a footnote. Well they were all going to be killed anyway, so what’s the difference? And all those devastated beef farmers were losing their valuable livestock, and would have to be compensated. I wonder if any of those parents have stopped eating meat, or ever considered the lives of those innocent animals that were dumped onto huge funeral pyres or incinerated in furnaces that still failed to kill the infectious agent. The sorry saga of BSE represents all the worst aspects of human behaviour; arrogance and ignorance driven by the insatiable demand for cheap meat at any cost.

After the admission that BSE was infecting people greater precautions were taken. These included a ban on feeding cattle MBM, and the removal and disposal of ‘specified risk materials’ (brains, spinal cord, eyes, &c). With huge amounts of taxpayer’s money the British beef industry survived a monumental crisis for which it was entirely responsible but has never been held accountable. Nobody has ever been fined, charged or prosecuted. Nobody has ever apologised, or admitted that unforgivable mistakes were made. As for John Gummer, who appeared in The Great British Beef Scandal to give his version of events, he now resides in the upper chamber of Parliament as Lord Deben, and is Chairman of the UK’s independent Committee on Climate Change. Does that mean he understands that beef production is a major cause of environmental damage through greenhouse gas emissions? I suspect that he might have heard the rumours, but doesn’t believe them. He probably enjoys a roast beef dinner every Sunday, and has no qualms about his role in the affair. But mad cow disease is like one of those horror movie villains that cannot be killed: it will always return from the dead for the inevitable sequel and every attempt to vanquish it ends in dismal failure. Mounting evidence indicates that a second wave of vCJD deaths may be imminent. An unknown number of people are infected with vCJD because they ate BSE-tainted meat between 1985 and 1990, insidiously harbouring an incurable disease that has an incubation period of up to 50 years.

Perhaps the worst aspect of BSE is that, in typically human fashion, virtually nothing has been learned. It seems obvious that feeding an herbivorous species bits of ground up animals is a really bad idea. However, if BSE were happening for the first time today the response of the meat industry and the government would be exactly the same.

Paul Freestone

The Oxford Group

Recent correspondence has provided a timely reminder of the significance of the Oxford Group in the growth and development of the animal rights and veg*n movements. The Oxford Group was a group of intellectuals associated with the University of Oxford “who met and corresponded to discuss the emerging concept of animal rights” in the late 1960s and early 1970s (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oxford_Group_(animal_rights)).  Together they produced the book Animals, Men and Morals (1971), a collection of essays edited by the postgraduate philosophy students Stanley and Roslind Godlovitch and John Harris. Other significant figures associated with the group were Richard Ryder, who first coined the term speciesism to describe humanity’s discriminatory attitude towards animals; Andrew Linzey, theologian and founder of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics; and Peter Singer, whose hugely influential book Animal Liberation (1975) is considered by many to be the cornerstone of the animal rights movement.  In 1982 Singer wrote a fascinating personal account of the group which he dubbed the Oxford Vegetarians, coincidentally a previous name for OxVeg.

Robert Garner, professor of political theory at the University of Leicester and a founding member of the Centre for Animals and Social Justice, and his Research Associate Dr Yewande Okuleye are currently researching and writing an account of the Oxford Group for publication by Oxford University Press next year. If you have any recollections of the Oxford Group you are welcome to contact Professor Garner at rwg2{at}leicester.ac.uk.

Paul Appleby

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