May 102013

In my book The Consumer’s Good Chemical Guide, published in 1994, I wrote about what I called the Boring Diet and this was based on 1000 calories a day. It was boring because you ate the same meals every day for 14 days, at the end of which time you would be guaranteed to have lost 14 pounds if you were a  man and 10 pounds if you were a women.

The diet was balanced in terms of carbohydrates, protein, fats, vitamins, minerals and fibre, but it is boring. Indeed this was an essential part of the diet because you would always be aware that you were cheating if you varied it in any way,  beyond a simple choice of ham, chicken or beef in you mid-day sandwich.

And it worked! I had letters from people who tried it, including one man in Belgium who stuck to it for 20 days and lost 20 pounds. What I didn’t know was that the husband of one of the judges of the Science Book Prize panel also tried the diet and he too lost weight accordingly. The following year the book won the Science Book Prize, although I cannot think that was a deciding factor!

The Boring Diet is easy to remember because all the meals contain foods that begin with B. The is All-Bran for breakfast pus an orange or apple, corned beef sandwich for lunch, and baked beans for tea. The diet also includes four small slices of bread and low fat spread, artificial sweeteners for hot drinks, 400 mls of skimmed milk, and as much lettuce and tomato as you like as side salad, but no dressings other than vinegar and salt.

When you diet you cannot defeat the laws of chemistry and if you don’t take in enough calories (actually kilocalories) to meet the body’s needs then it has to draw upon your stocks of stored energy, first in the form of glycogen, which is in every cell,  and when that has been used up it has to start using fat.  The store of glycogen lasts about 3 days and weight loss may be rapid at first but then slow down as you start using fat. Fat is a much more economical way of storing energy. A gram of glycogen provides 4 calories but fat provides 9 calories.

If people tell you that they have tried a 1000 calorie diet and didn’t lose much weight then you can be sure that they were cheating, but don’t say you don’t believe them. There’s no point in being confrontational. Just try such a diet yourself and then you can boast how it worked for you.

May 062013

Planned obsolescence

In the 1960s, Vance Packard wrote The Hidden Persuaders, which surprised and shocked people because it revealed that in the US, companies were deliberately producing products with a short lifespan. It was called planned obsolescence and it was designed to keep the wheels of industry turning so that the mass unemployment in the Great Depression of the 1930s would never occur again. This theme was taken up by Giles Slade in his book of 2006 called Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America. However, by this date it wasn’t done to keep people at work but to ensure that the US won the Cold War, which it did in 1990. That little known story is told in Chapter 8 of Slade’s book.

In the 1970s and 1980s the USSR needed microchips and computers in order to exploit its vast reserves of oil and gas to earn the foreign currency it badly needed. A US embargo was denying them the necessary technology, but then Gus Weiss came up with an ingenious idea: allow the Soviet agents to succeed in obtaining what they needed but make sure they bought specially doctored microchips. These looked like the real thing but had inbuilt obsolescence. (Weiss was a White a White House policy adviser on technology, intelligence and economic affair and worked on national security.)

And so they were produced and the USSR was allowed to get them. The chips had inbuilt obsolescence of a kind that included sudden catastrophic malfunctioning, such as instructing a pump suddenly to work at a pressure far higher than a pipeline could withstand. The result was a series of spectacular explosions, some so large that they were observed by satellites. One failure burst an oil pipeline, creating a lake more than 10 kilometres long and 2 metres deep before it was brought under control. This industrial sabotage ensured the USSR lost the Cold War says Slade. Maybe it did.

Made to Break is both entertaining and thought provoking, but somewhat unsatisfying in that it doesn’t say whether planned obsolescence is still part of everyday life. I suspect it’s no longer needed, unless of course it’s why we always seem to be endlessly replacing equipment, not because it doesn’t function, but because newer and better alternatives are always being launched.


May 012013

A condition known as Chinese restaurant syndrome (CRS) appeared in the USA in 1968 and its first victim was a Dr Robert Ho Man Kwok who described its symptoms in a leading medical journal, The New England Journal of Medicine. He said it had afflicted him soon after he’d eaten a meal in a Chinese restaurant when he became aware of his mouth had become numb, he felt a tingling sensation in his neck, and he had a headache, all of which lasted about 24 hours. The newspapers seized upon this report and, of course, sensationalised it.

Soon CRS was afflicting many other people, and the agent responsible was said to be mono sodium glutamate (MSG) which was a cooking agent widely used in oriental dishes. This is a flavour-enhancer rather like salt, except that it enhances the umami or savoury flavour of dishes to which it is added. Soy sauce relies on MSG. Today the media scare rumbles on and you can still see labels on some supermarket products that assure the buyer that it contains no MSG.

In fact, while there might be a condition with the symptoms of CRS and caused by the food we eat, it is certainly not due to MSG, as later tests proved. People who said they were affected by CRS were given MSG without their knowledge and suffered  no ill effects, while others who said they were allergic to it were given food which they were told contained MSG, but which in fact had not been added, and they then suffered the symptoms to CRS.

In the book ‘Was it something you ate?’ which I wrote with a medical doctor, Peter Fell, we devoted a whole chapter to MSG. Of course you can eat a meal to which had been added too much of this, and then suffer an upset stomach and headache while your body deals with it. In the same way as your body reacts to an excess of other natural chemicals, like alcohol, caffeine, etc.

It is not possible to be allergic to MSG because it is a natural component of a living cell and is a molecule which the human body itself produces. MSG occurs naturally in many foods and is especially high in cheese, peas and tomatoes. It has the food code number E621 which indicates it is regarded as safe to use in EU countries.

MSG has been a part of oriental cooking for centuries, and is generally added in the form of soy sauce. It is possible to eat a meal with a high MSG content, and you might well encounter such a meal in a Chinese restaurant if you were to eat wonton soup, prawns, duck, mushrooms, and soy sauce. If you finish such as meal with something like camembert or brie cheese you might well exceed the 3 grams of MSG that the body can cope with at any one time. Then you might feel uncomfortable for a while afterwards as the body deals with the excess MSG.