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The Rat and the White Loaf

by Lisa Saffron(more info)

listed in environmental, originally published in issue 19 - April 1997

Many years ago, I had a housemate who, given a free choice, inevitably made the non-nutritious one. The only bread he would eat was junk white. I argued in vain that such bread was the ultimate in refined processed food, completely devoid of nutritional value. When an unopened loaf mysteriously disappeared without trace, he accused me of hiding it. Then several weeks later, we found the loaf behind a kitchen cupboard. It had been reconstructed into a cosy nest with not a bite taken from it. The next time the cat flap banged, we discovered a large, healthy brown rat heading for its junk white nest, having returned from a nutritious meal of unrefined whole plants and seeds outside. Clearly the rat made the wisest use of the bread.

Sixty years ago, Sir Robert McCarrison found out just what would have happened to the rat if it had been forced to eat the loaf instead of nest in it. He fed 1000 rats on one or the other of two radically different diets for the equivalent of 50 human years. One diet was the typical 1930s diet of the poorest people in Britain -- white bread, margarine, jam, boiled cabbage, potato, sweet tea with a small amount of milk, and cheap tinned meat. The other was the typical diet of the poorest people of northern India -- milk products, legumes, fruit and vegetables, chapattis made from fresh unrefined whole wheat flour, and occasionally eggs and meat.

Not surprisingly, the rats fed the Indian diet lived their full lifespan in the prime of health, rarely dying prematurely, none suffering from illness and producing no dead offspring. The rats fed on the British diet lived a miserable existence -- they didn't grow properly, their coats were dull, they were nervous and had a tendency to bite the hands that fed them. By the third month of life, they were killing and cannibalising each other. Extrapolation from rats to people is always tricky and no one is suggesting that poverty stricken Britons turned to cannibalism in the 1930s. But like the rats, they didn't grow properly and did suffer from poor health.

McCarrison's rats suffered from the poverty of the overall diet rather than from any one ingredient in that diet. A diet without variety, made up of highly refined food, with few vegetables and no fruit is clearly unable to provide the nutrients necessary for a healthy life.

The diet of the poor people of northern India is closer to the recommended healthy diet -- a wide variety of relatively unprocessed foods from cereal, fruit, vegetable and protein sources and a minimum of fats, sugars and salt.

But is it possible for us now to get the full nutritional value of food when it is produced by an industrialised system of agriculture? Even if a person's total diet is a healthy one, the whole is the sum of its parts. Haven't the parts, the individual foods making up the diet, become devitalised and lost some of their nutritional value as a result of the widespread practice of applying mineral fertilisers and pesticides to crops? Wouldn't a healthy diet be healthier if it were made up of organic food?

The nutritional value of food is its ability to promote health, support growth, maintain and repair the body, allow reproduction and prevent disease. This is usually expressed in terms of the levels of vitamins and minerals and other nutrients in food. Despite more than 300 studies comparing the nutritional value of organic with conventional food, it is impossible to state unequivocally that organically grown food is nutritionally superior to conventionally grown food. The results of these studies are so inconsistent that it is not possible to draw a firm conclusion. Either no major differences are found between organic and conventional food or the nutrient content is higher in the organic food or it is higher in the conventional food.

Most of the studies are comparisons of nutrient levels in foods. But these are indirect measures. The most direct evidence of the health benefits of organic food would be from studies of human health. However, since so many other factors influence health, it is not realistic to even think about designing such a study. The next best are animal feeding experiments.

There are at least 35 animal studies, covering a range of animals from rabbits, cattle, mice and rats to turkeys, chickens and pigeons.

Whether or not it is fair to use animals to benefit humans, these studies are also important in terms of what they find out about the care and nutrition of farm animals and pets. Two examples: Velimirov's organically fed rats were better able to compensate for weight loss during and after breastfeeding and fewer of their offspring died around the time of birth. There was no difference in the pregnancy rate or the average litter weight of the two groups.

Staiger fed two groups of rabbits on chemically identical feeds that had the same vitamin and mineral content. But one group was fed biodynamically grown feed (a form of organic cultivation) and the other conventionally grown feed. The rabbits fed on the biodynamic feed for several generations had higher pregnancy rates, more embryos, larger litters and improved health.

The results of these 35 studies are interesting and promising but unfortunately not much more consistent than the vitamin and mineral studies. We need a few more properly designed, carefully conducted, well controlled studies to confirm whether organic food is nutritionally better. In the meantime, I'll follow the rat.

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About Lisa Saffron

Lisa Saffron is a health researcher and writer with a particular interest in the effect of environmental pollution on health. She has a Masters in Environmental Technology and a first degree in microbiology. She is committed to providing accurate and accessible information. Lisa also wrote a regular column in Positive Health magazine.

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