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Debunking popular food myths

According to research people who eat more portions of fruits and vegetables containing carotenoids a day are rated as more attractive by volunteers.

We all know that a diet rich in fruit and vegetables is far better for us than one filled with crisps and chocolate. But the latest study to make headlines about the benefits of vegetables touts a rather different effect.

According to research carried out at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, people who ate more portions of fruits and vegetables containing carotenoids a day were rated as more attractive by volunteers. The carotenoids, which are responsible for the colour of vegetables such as carrots and tomatoes, reportedly give skin a healthy glow similar to that of a suntan.

It's perhaps best to bide your time and wait for further scientific evidence to back up these claims though, because the food world is rife with ideas based on loose facts. Carrots don't make you see in the dark, but they were one of the few vegetables in plentiful supply in the UK during the Second World War. The British government was quick to capitalise on this, suggesting that the reason for the RAF's success in shooting down enemy bombers was due to their pilots increased night vision, a direct result of their carrot consumption. In fact, it was thanks to the use of a new radar device. The general public took to eating this vegetable with gusto, in the hope that it would help them to see during blacked-out nights.

This idea, along with a good few others, has formed part of many a parent's arsenal in encouraging children to eat healthily. Other tall tales include the idea that swallowing apple/cherry/watermelon seeds (delete as appropriate) could result in a fruit tree growing in the stomach, that sandwich crusts are guaranteed to make your hair curl and that if swallowed, chewing gum will cling to the stomach lining and remain in the body - the length of time dependent on how dramatic the perpetrator of the fantasy felt like being.

Despite the familiar image of a bulked-up Popeye the sailor, adults and children alike might be surprised to learn that spinach isn't actually responsible for making muscles grow. This is a long-held myth and one that is thought to have originated due to a mistake. In 1870, the German scientist Dr E von Wolf published a report claiming that spinach had 10 times the iron content of other green vegetables. It wasn't until the late 1930s that these calculations were rechecked and it become clear that von Wolf had misplaced a decimal point. By this time, the comic strip hero's affinity with the leafy green vegetable was well established (the cartoon first appeared in 1929) and so the legend continued. While it might not provide mega muscles, spinach is low in calories, high in vitamins and minerals and a good source of fibre, calcium and protein.

Throughout history, many different types of food have been prescribed to cure ailments or improve physical appearance. Some have more truth in them than others. Chicken soup might not really have any healing properties, but a warming broth filled with fresh vegetables is certainly a good choice when you've got a cold. Spreading butter on a burn to ease the pain is firmly in the old-wives'-tale camp, though. There's no medical evidence to support this claim and doing so traps the heat and is likely to cause infection. And how about getting rid of a wart by rubbing raw meat on it? Legend (but not medical opinion) suggests doing this, before burying the steak in the garden, in the belief that as soon as it decays, the wart will disappear. If that seems too extravagant, then you could always try dousing the area in radish juice or dandelion sap - just don't expect immediate results.

In the kitchen, meanwhile there are plenty of myths that are worth debunking. Howard McGee and Nicholas Clee do this remarkably well in McGee On Food and Cooking and Don't Sweat the Aubergine respectively. Both books challenge old-fashioned culinary traditions that have come to be regarded as steadfast rules. How many of you knew that crossing the bottom of Brussels sprouts is actually unnecessary, that putting an avocado stone in with a bowl of guacamole will not stop it from going brown and that searing meat at a high temperature doesn't actually seal in the juices?

What all of this proves is how susceptible we are to believing things about what we eat that seem like they should be true, even if they aren't. Perhaps it would be best to take any new food facts with a large pinch of salt, for now at least.

 

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