Heart of the Matter

'Food chains' by Joanna Blythman

Guardian Weekend, 29th March 97

The apparent good health of the fat-consuming, dairy-loving French has for many years been attributed to the protective qualities of the wine they drink. Indeed, several studies have supported the idea that moderate consumption of alcohol with food diminishes the livelihood of heart disease. Now, scientists at the Universitv of Illinois have shed new light on the intriguing concept of the so-called "french paradox" by identifying a substance called resveratrol which is found naturally in grapes as a cancer-preventing agent. Resveratrol is present in number of plant foods such as mulberries and peanuts but it is found in relatively high concentrations in grape skins. Its presence remains significant after the red-wine making process? and is still "appreciable?' in whites and roses. The researchers found that resveratrol inhibits the development of cancer at three progressive stages of its development.

But the French are not alone, for a kindred "British paradox" lies waiting to be exploited. It goes without saying that the British equivalent is nowhere near as glamorous as the french counterpart? since our own elixir is found in the good old Brussels sprout that staple of Christmas dinner and a million sulphurous school meals. The Institute of Food Research in Norwich recently confirmed that sprouts contain an agent which makes pre-cancerous cells - ie those which would otherswise turn into full-blown tumours "commit suicide?". The miracle component is called sinigrin and it's this that is also responsible for that characteristic smell and taste so many of us love to hate.

But, according to the SAFE Alliance (the Sustainable Agriculture, Food and Environment Alliance), supermarkets are busy encouraging growers to plant sprout varieties which are low in sinigrin because the more sprouts contain this substance, the more bitter their flavour. "Supermarkets don't like that," says SAFE's Alexis Vaughan. "The milder, sweeter and nuttier the sprout, the better. That means there's a risk of reducing health benefits. We think large retailers should be requesting varieties of sprouts and broccoli that have high levels of anticancer compounds especially in broccoli, which has no bitter taste and so oblige growers to switch to healthy cultivars."

But while there's a growing consensus over the protective qualities of many plant foods, the same cannot be said for the nutritional qualities of a Big Mac, which was just one of the bones of contention over the two-and-a-half-year lifespan of the now infamous McLibel trial.

Back in 1994, the corporate might of Ronald McDonald was expected to take only a few short weeks to wipe the floor with the two unemployed London anarchists who had dared to circulate leaflets criticising the chain on grounds of diet and ill-health, animal welfare, environmental damage, and its exploitaiion of children through advertising and of employees through low pay.

Now the world awaits the judge's verdict and the chain has failed to halt the spread of seditious anti-Ronald propaganda.

To judge for yourself how culpable dear Ronald might be, key into http://www.McSpotlight.org on the worldwide web and peruse all the up-to-date information about the McDonald Corporation, the trial and the issues surrounding it.

And for unplugged food lovers, there's a new book to look out for too - written by Guardian journalist John Vidal - McLibel: Burger Culture On Trial (Macmillan 15.99).

Both sources provide amusing insights into McDonald's corporate philosophy.

One of the best McGems of wisdom comes from the corporation's senior Vice-president of marketing, David Green, who stated that the chain's food was

"part of a health balanced diet".

He admitted that this could apply to a paxket of sweets and agrred that Coca-Cola could be seen as nutritious too, because it is

"providing water, and I think that is part of a balanced diet".

I think I'll stick to stinky sprouts and red wine.

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