The life and death of Homaro Cantu, the genius chef who wanted to change the world

The long read: How a homeless child grew up to become the most inventive chef in history

Between 2004 and 2016, the most inventive food on the planet, possibly in history, came out of a small restaurant in downtown Chicago. At Moto, your first course was your menu itself, which was typically printed in edible ink on a giant tortilla chip. When you finished your menu, you would be handed what looked like a Polaroid of a maki roll. The photograph was made of rice paper and coated in a dust of nori seaweed and soy sauce. It tasted the only way it could: like sesame, avocado, cucumber and crab sticks.

Next to emerge would be a tumbler containing butter-poached lobster tail resting on a spoon, with creme fraiche, trout roe and carbonated grapes that would fizz in your mouth like soda. After that, a plate apparently splattered with roadkill would arrive. If you balked at the sight of the gore and guts, that was just what the chefs wanted. The dish was designed to look repulsive but taste delicious. The gristle was made from confit duck and the blood from juniper berry sauce. Thank God for that.

You were being pushed and pulled about. Your ice-cream would be piping hot; your caramel apple would be made from pork belly; your table candle would be poured all over your clam bake. You were eating the food of chef Homaro Cantu and normal rules no longer applied.

Cantu wanted to change what it meant to go to a restaurant to reimagine how you were served, how you interacted with food, what could and could not be eaten. I want to make food float, Cantu told the New York Times in 2005. I want to make it disappear, I want to make it reappear, I want to make the utensils edible, I want to make the plates, the table, the chairs, edible. A large photograph of Salvador Dal hung over the stairwell leading down to Motos basement kitchen. Printed on it was a quote: The only difference between a madman and me is that I am not mad.

Since its birth in the late 19th century, haute cuisine has had little impact on what most of the planet eats. The greatest advances in cooking and taste barely trickle out from the 40-seat dining rooms of the worlds top restaurants, let alone make an impact upon the human relationship with food. Ferran Adris El Bulli, one of the most acclaimed restaurants ever, once boasted 2m reservation requests a year, with a waiting list of 3,000 people per seat. But the cacophony of powders, foams and tinctures that issued from his Catalan kitchen were enjoyed by no more than 100,000 people before the restaurant closed in 2011.

By contrast, Cantus project was about more than elevating haute cuisine to ever-higher levels or garnering Michelin stars (though he did win one, in 2012). His ambitions extended far beyond the walls of his restaurant: he wanted to eradicate hunger, eliminate diseases such as type 2 diabetes and save the planet. He was a compulsive inventor, dreaming up new technologies as well as new dishes. One of his big ideas was to eliminate cardboard and plastic packaging for juice drinks by blasting fruit with an ultrasonic wave generator. By bursting a fruits cells while keeping its skin intact, he hoped it might be possible for people to drink an orange, say, like a coconut. Another of his creations was a transparent polymer oven (US patent no 11118955) that could cook with minimal power by trapping heat. Cantu believed this oven had the potential to reduce energy consumption and enable people to cook in areas with restricted power supplies.

He just disgorges inventions, Cantus patent lawyer, Chuck Valauskas, once said. By 2016, Cantu and his companies had at least four concept patents, with scores more in the works, tucked away somewhere in his garage or kitchen lab. Part of what made these inventions so remarkable was that Cantu was a self-taught high-school dropout. He learned much of what he knew by tinkering tirelessly in the kitchen and reading voraciously when off-duty, sleeping only three or four hours a night (something he put down to lack of oversight as a child).

Many of Cantus ideas were quixotic at best, or beset by problems that meant they eventually ended up discarded. But others were potentially transformative. Nobody understood how influential, or how radical, or how far out there the stuff we were doing was, one of Motos former chefs de cuisine, Richie Farina, told me. Since Moto closed, several of Cantus biggest ideas, and much of his experimental ethos, have moved to Silicon Valley, where Farina and six of Cantus former staff, backed by the strength of California capital, are developing vegetarian replications of meat and eggs, so that animals can be removed from the human diet.

Cantu himself is not around to lead the projects he inspired. In April 2015, six months after submitting the first draft of Moto: the Cookbook, he killed himself. He was just 38. The book he left behind is perhaps the fullest expression of his philosophy. Characteristically, Cantu wanted to create something new a cookbook that would include 100 stop-motion recipe videos. Each of these recipes would have a code you could scan with your phone: once you scanned it, a stop-motion video would appear, showing the dish being assembled. A restaurant cookbook, typically, is just a faded memory of something that once was, the books editor, Michael Szczerban, told me. It kills the butterfly and mounts it. He wanted a book that wasnt fossilised, and still lived.

Although Cantu is gone, the revolution he began endures. Since his death, his ideas have become increasingly influential and if his proteges in Silicon Valley succeed, then Cantu might one day be known as the chef who helped change the way we all eat.

Cantu, known to his friends as Omar,often said that his desire to do something radical with food came from growing up poor. Born in 1976 and raised mostly in Portland, Oregon, he was a quiet child who floated between apartments and homeless shelters with his sister and mother,who was often absent. I dont know if she was working or doing drugs. I was too young and naive to tell, Cantu wrote many years later in a Facebook post describing the beatings and abuse he received as a young boy. Our neighborhood was filled with gangs, drugs and violence, he wrote. As long as I didnt get into fights, my teacher could give a shit why I came to school in tears. Cantus widow, Katie McGowan, with whom he had two daughters, told me that her husband hoped to use his platform for social change and eradicate the hunger and suffering that he had experienced in his childhood.

When he was 11, Cantu moved to the Bay Area to live with his father, who made him pay rent to sleep in an outhouse on his small property. His first job, when he was about 13 he had to lie about his age to get it was in a fried-chicken shack. The food was awful, he wrote, but he was enraptured by the restaurants tandoor. It was cooking at its most elemental, with the chef as nothing more than the mediator between food and fire.

He also worked as a floor-sweeper at his fathers workplace, a factory that developed high-tech parts for the aerospace and defence company Lockheed Martin. At his jobs he watched and learned between the cooking and the machinery, absorbing lessons about craft, precision, and mechanics, Cantu said in an interview in 2011. He would often talk about how, as a kid, he had taken apart and rebuilt his fathers lawnmower to understand how a combustion engine functioned.

Cantu holds a piece of passion fruit pasta in Motos kitchen. Photograph: Jeff Haynes/AFP/Getty

In 1991, after dropping out of high school, Cantu was offered free bed and board by Bill and Jan Miller, a Portland couple who offered help to teenagers in need of support. Encouraged by the Millers, who became like family to Cantu, he enrolled at the Western Culinary Institute in Portland. After culinary school, he spent the next few years travelling up and down the Pacific Northwest, working for next to nothing in dozens of restaurants, from fancy establishments such as Wolfgang Pucks Spago in Beverly Hills to a Burger King in Orange County.

One day, during this period, while he was tripping on magic mushrooms, Cantu came across a copy of On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee, the foundational text of molecular gastronomy, a style of cooking that promised to fuse postmodern art with intricate scientific experimentation. The book was a revelation to Cantu, and from then on, he began devouring books and new influences. From the 19th-century French gourmand Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, Cantu took the idea that just as food sustains our physical existence, taste sustains our psychological existence. Enchanted by MC Escher, Dal and Van Gogh, Cantu resolved to infuse the ideas of great artists into his cooking. At Moto named after a Japanese word that can mean anything from idea to desire to origin he would go on to create a dish of duck and skate wing emulating Eschers tessellated woodcut Sky and Water I. It was accompanied by an edible image that would change tastes from duck to fish as you chomped your way through it.

Perhaps his greatest influence, though, was the legendary Chicago chef Charlie Trotter, whose cookbook Cantu had cherished at college. Trotter, who died in 2013, was besotted with jazz and philosophy and sought to bring relentless improvisation to his cooking, trying never to serve the same dish twice. As a boss, he was notoriously demanding and volatile. For every anecdote of Trotters brilliance and exactitude many former employees went on to win Michelin stars there were dozens more accounts of the brutal culture he fostered. Employees at the restaurant were expected to give, give and give again, with 16-hour shifts considered normal.

Resolving to learn at his masters feet, Cantu flew to Chicago in 1999 and headed to Trotters restaurant, where he begged Matthias Merges, the long-term chef de cuisine, to hire him. Eventually Merges gave in. I needed a guy to show me how to kick ass in a no-holds-barred kitchen with nothing but hall-of-fucking-famers on every station. Thats what it was, Cantu recalled in a Facebook post years later.

It was intense, it was unforgiving, Merges told me. Most people who couldnt take that kind of pressure in that environment usually weaned themselves out after 10-12 months. But Cantu relished the hothouse atmosphere. If one of the restaurants senior chefs joked that Cantu should shell peas after work until 4am while watching the Discovery Channel, he took it as a challenge. No matter what they piled on, I did it, Cantu wrote.

Cantu lasted four years at Trotters, ascending the ranks to become sous chef, the second-highest position in the kitchen, at one of the most daring and decadent restaurants ever to have opened its doors to the public. He was 26 years old. In 2003, Cantu applied to be executive chef at Ima, a yet-to-open Asian fusion restaurant in Chicago. After laying on an intricate tasting dinner for the investors, including fish cooked tableside in his polymer oven, Cantu convinced them to not only to hand him the role, but also the creative reins. He also suggested another name for the restaurant: Moto.

Setting up a new restaurant was avery different business to working at an established institution. Money was tight, access to the citys finest suppliers was gone. Moto was the first restaurant in Chicagos now-bustling West Loop meatpacking district, and each night, before service could begin, staff had to hose down the street outside to stop the smell of pig blood wafting in through the windows. Ben Roche, who joined Moto early on, told me that the restaurant started out super low-budget: broken brick walls, plumbing that didnt work, and shit ovens, that initially gave the kitchen the feel of a torture chamber.

In its early days, many customers, mistaking Moto for a sushi bar, were bewildered when they were presented with a 20-course degustation menu. Cantus solution was to hand them the edible polaroid of the maki roll. This was just the start of Cantus joyously bizarre innovations. He was obsessed with the seemingly infinite forms a single taste could assume. A pork sandwich, say, did not have to look like a pork sandwich. For the Moto dish Cuban Missile Crisis, the constituents of a Cuban pork sandwich bolillo bread, pork shoulder, pickles were flattened out, rolled up, fried and wrapped in a collard green. The end was then dipped in red pepper puree, rolled in an ash made of spices and placed in a $2 ashtray, looking for all the world like a Bolivar no 2 cigar.

The Edible Menu: food-based ink on a tortilla. Photograph: Amy Stallard

Motos most characteristic dishes were all, in some way or other, bound to this mischievous method, from the Cuban cigar to the duck and mole cannoli that looked Sicilian but tasted Mexican. We wanted people to leave the restaurant wondering How? or Why? or What the hell was that? Trevor Niekowal, who worked at Moto from 2005 to 2007, told me.

Behind the subterfuge and sleight-of-hand lay deeper philosophical questions: if something looked, smelled and tasted like a particular food, did it really matter that it didnt contain the food in question? If you could produce a lobe of foie gras from yellow split-peas without force-feeding a duck, then would foie gras in the future have any more value than an apple or a pot of cress?

Cantu was equally fascinated by the practical implications of his experiments: if these products could be made cheaper and more accessible say, to those with dietary restrictions or little money then animal cruelty could be reduced, as could much of the environmental damage in our production of food. Whats more, the sheer variety of tastes accessible to the average person would become almost unlimited.

Moto began to gain momentum in 2004, when it appeared on the Chicago restaurant review show Check, Please! All three reviewers a used car salesman, a public school teacher and a lawyer described it as the best dining experience of their life. After the show aired, the bookings surged in. The following year, the New York Times ran a feature on Cantu, presenting him as a futurist wunderkind hellbent on revolutionising the dining experience with inventions such as inside-out bread cooked with laser beams or ion-particle guns used to levitate food. Although none of these innovations ever made it onto the menu or even far beyond the conversation with the journalist in question the article helped confirm Cantus image. He was, in the words of a 2006 profile in the magazine Fast Company, the Edison of the Edible.

Cantus approach did not always lead to excellent food; the ratio, according to a couple of former chefs I spoke to, was three brilliant, four good, three bad. Bad could be an idea that sounded great in the morning meeting but didnt make it past its first night of service. One of the restaurants less successful creations was the dynamite stick, a raspberry-flavoured white chocolate tube, filled with three different-coloured purees, and finished with a candied vanilla bean wick. The waiter would drop the stick onto the guests plate, whereupon the dynamite would explode, splattering the multicoloured purees across the plate. When done perfectly, Roche told me, it was a very beautiful and surprising technique. When the waiters got the timing wrong, it meant that Moto would have to cover a guests dry-cleaning bill.

Cantu pushed his team hard, and they, in turn, helped shape the creative development of the restaurant. Both Trevor Rose-Hamblin, the general manager at Moto and the second Cantu restaurant, iNG, which opened in 2011 in Chicago, and another former collaborator, Rocco Laudizio, remembered with fondness Cantus signature method of getting your attention while you were off the clock: texting you his message letter-by-letter until you responded, whatever the hour. Working with Cantu meant being told that today you were going to work out how to grow vegetables in space, said Rose-Hamblin. He meant this literally: one of Cantus side project was consulting with Nasa and Elon Musks company SpaceX on 3D-printing food for astronauts, and growing crops aboard spaceships.

In 2010, Cantu and Roche were given a cable television series, Future Food, and a laboratory to explore their wildest ideas. One idea that Cantu pushed on the show, which has since become a holy grail of the food industry, was the possibility of artificially creating a vegetarian burger patty that tasted and behaved like ground beef. Cantu milled beetroot through a meat grinder to imitate the coarse texture of mince and bound the patty with glycerides to give it fattiness. The patty even bled while cooking on the grill.

The meatless burger was one element of what Cantu called zero food-mile gastronomy, where every element of your meal could be produced in-house. He also embraced aeroponic farming, where plants are grown without soil through constant aeration and the roots are sprayed with nutrient mist. To Cantu, meatless meat and plants grown from little more than light, air and mist were the first tentative steps towards a world where restaurants beginning with his own could engineer steaks, eggs, vegetables and all manner of kitchen produce in-house, from natural ingredients, and at low ethical, financial and ecological costs. His hope was for these techniques to become available to everyone, with aeroponic farms eventually becoming as much a part of every normal home as central heating.

Nothing better embodied Cantus utopianism than the miracle berry. This small west-African fruit contains miraculin, a complex molecule that temporarily disrupts the sour and bitter receptors on the human tongue. The miracle berry was one way to rewrite the rules of what food could be. It was capable, Cantu would often say, of making a lemon taste like the sweetest lemonade youve ever tasted and of giving bitter foods a savoury, meaty quality. (The miracle berry first came to international prominence in the 1960s, thanks to Robert Harvey, an entrepreneur who managed to synthesise miraculin, attracting tens of millions of dollars in investment as he challenged the sugar and artificial sweetener industries. Miralin as his synthesised sweetener was called was on the cusp of launching before the FDA, in 1974, ruled it to be an additive and prohibited its use in the US.)

Cantu first came across the miracle berry in 2005, when a chef at Moto introduced him to its flavour-tripping capabilities. Shortly after, he received a message from a friend, asking if he knew of any way to alleviate her friends difficulty with eating during chemotherapy. Discovering that such patients experienced a rubbery, metallic taste while eating, Cantu and Roche worked in Cantus garage late at night after Moto had closed, chewing on aluminium foil and rubber, before dosing with the berry and trying them again. They developed miracle berry strips, designed to easily dissolve on the tongue. It worked, and the 86-year-old chemo patient was able to enjoy her first meal in months. For years, Cantu kept and treasured the voicemail from his friend that told him his idea had worked.

The miracle berrys potential captivated Cantu. If you could take abundant, local plants that still had nutritional value, and make them delicious without lathering them with fat and sugar, you would be opening up a whole new palette of consumable foods. Taking the idea even further, if you could replace refined sugar with natural alternatives without sacrificing flavour, the effect on public health would be seismic. Rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease could potentially plummet.

Road Kill. Photograph: Amy Stallard

On Future Food in 2010, Cantu performed a startling proof-of-concept dinner for the miracle berry, demonstrating to diners how unpalatable-yet-edible plants could, through the tricking of their tastebuds, be used to mimic familiar flavours in dishes. In one dish, he took crabapples, cactus and hay from his own backyard, and had his chefs turn those ingredients into barbecued steak, astounding the restaurants guests.

There was, however, a problem with the miracle berry: it didnt work on everyone. For some, the miraculin would have little-to-no impact, and so the unsweetened, bitter, acidic foods would taste every bit as bad as their original ingredients would suggest. It was also a very expensive crop to grow, and one that can be difficult to grow domestically because of its intolerance to cold. The culinary use of the berry, as opposed to the medicinal use for chemotherapy patients, drew scepticism. In nature, theres a reason some things taste good and some things dont, and a lot of times things dont taste good because theyre not good for you, Grant Achatz, chef-proprietor of the three-Michelin-starred Chicago restaurant Alinea, told the Chicago Tribune in 2012.

Nonetheless, Cantu persisted with the idea, walking into iNG one day and ordering his head chef Nate Park to get all of the white fucking sugar out of this restaurant by the end of the day and find natural substitutes to replace it. In 2013, he wrote and published The Miracle Berry Diet Cookbook with more than 150 painstakingly composed dishes suited to the miracle berry, from teriyaki chicken to lemon and cream cheese eclairs all made with zero sugar. The thorough testing for the dishes used so much lemon juice and vinegar that Chris Jones, Motos chef de cuisine, lost some enamel from his teeth.

Cantus obsession with the idea reached its height with the opening of the Chicago cafe Berrista in 2014. Berrista allowed Cantu to reach an audience beyond the world of fine-dining, offering, in a more commercial form, some of the innovations hed developed at Moto, such as carbonated fruit. The food was, in Rose-Hamblins words, stupendous the best cafe food in the city, but the central purpose of the cafe a space to promote the miracle berry was rendered defunct fairly quickly. The idea of changing flavours in your mouth in a coffee shop was just a difficult reach, Merges, chef de cuisine at Trotters, told me.

By the beginning of 2015, Cantu was working on Moto: the Cookbook, and preparing for the opening of a new brewery and restaurant, Crooked Fork. But things were also unravelling. Cantus second restaurant, iNG, closed in May 2014. An ambitious plan for a state-of-the-art green lab a dedicated space for Cantus experiments fell through. Moto was mired in financial disputes. An investor, Alexander Espalin, was suing Cantu for allegedly moving funds around his businesses too freely, using the money from Moto to shore up his other ventures, as well as failing to pay him due profits. The lawsuit, which Cantus wife Katie dismissed on Facebook as another case of someone trying to make a buck off of him, sought to oust Cantu from the restaurant he had built from nothing.

Meanwhile, Cantu was bouncing from Moto to Berrista, to his research company Cantu Designs, to the new brewery, to a nonprofit mentoring programme he ran in honour of Charlie Trotter, trying to keep each of his projects going. Despite these pressures, his friends and colleagues did not notice that Cantu was suffering more than normal. At the start of 2015, when Cantu visited him in California, Roche recalled him as in good spirits, with lots of stories to tell of the latest project he was working on. Cantu also travelled to Scotland and Vancouver with Rose-Hamblin, hoping to learn about the craft of brewing ahead of Crooked Forks opening. To Rose-Hamblin, Cantu also seemed happy and excited about the future, although he was apprehensive about the upcoming departure of Motos chef de cuisine, Richie Farina, who was leaving after seven years.

Then, on the morning of 14 April, Rose-Hamblin walked into the large warehouse space where the brewery was supposed to open later that year. Cantu had hanged himself.

Roche was at work when he heard the news. I didnt know how to process that right away, it was as if someone had just taken the wind out of me, he said. In a commemoration of his passing, Farina led a memorial dinner service in Moto on the Saturday after Cantus death, supported by past and present staff, and offering a tribute menu of Moto classics from the previous decade. Moto would survive another year under a new chef, Chris Anderson, retaining its Michelin star. It would, however, serve its final service on Valentines Day 2016, after being sold to the Alinea Group, which now owns the entire block on Fulton Market where Cantus two restaurants stood.

Every friend of Cantus that I spoke to referred to his frenetic drive and energy. When he had an idea, and he believed in something, he put 100,000% into it. It was 24/7 the man was superhuman, Cantus former communications director, Derrek J Hull, told me. I dont know of any other human being who would be willing, or physically able, or mentally able, to do that. His chefs would be used to him greeting them first thing in the morning with a new contraption, if he hadnt texted them with ideas to wake them up; his wife already adjusted to his poor sleeping patterns would see him stop sleeping completely in times of high stress, or sleeping all through his Sundays off out of total exhaustion. With each day, he strived to bring the world closer to his vision.

He was a rescuer, said Brett A Schwartz, who spent two-and-a-half years filming Cantu for his documentary Insatiable: The Homaro Cantu Story, but he couldnt rescue himself.

In his lifetime, Cantu was not able to see his most radical aims become reality. But that doesnt mean that they wont. Although the miracle berry still seems a long way from solving world hunger, it does appear to have a future in palliative care, as pilot studies have been conducted on its effectiveness in restoring the sense of flavour to chemotherapy patients. The training Cantu gave his chefs has also translated well to Silicon Valley. Chris Jones, who was Motos chef de cuisine until 2011, was the first of Cantus team to head to the coast and join the food manufacturer Just, Inc. He has been joined by half a dozen former Cantu employees, including Roche and Farina, and they have moulded the companys approach along the lines of Moto.

Cantu performed R&D work for Just, Incs CEO, Josh Tetrick, a young venture capitalist who hopes to displace the egg and meat markets with animal-free, vegan versions of these products. Tetrick told me that Cantu was the person who introduced him to the intersection between the culinary world and science. He was astounded when Cantu was able to reel off stacks of obscure academic information about the protein composition of albumen and the formation of egg shells in different species. Still, Cantu rebuffed Tetricks offers of a full-time job out in San Francisco. He had Moto, and Cantu Designs, and believed that he could produce the same innovations as Tetrick in the manner he had always done task by task, day by day, however he fancied.

Homaro Cantu in 2012. Photograph: Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

Cantu was proud to see his team moving on to new ventures, taking delight in raising wolves and not sheep, as he told a handful of them upon their departure. But Rose-Hamblin also recalled Cantus attachment to the chefs he had lost to San Francisco, and mentioned his dream for everyone to live on his block at Old Irving Park to have a thinktank and a laboratory, and to build an empire of innovation with them all.

Later this year, Just intends to release its first clean meat products to the market, including a burger patty. It is also working on a foie gras, which will be cruelty-free and markedly cheaper, while maintaining the same flavour and texture. Technology is finally catching up with Omars ideology, one of Cantus former chefs, Thomas Bowman, told me.

But Cantus vision was wider than the work of a single company. It was all-encompassing. He understood that we are heading towards disaster, with the folly of our consumptive habits already reshaping the planet. He thought it was obscene to have food so inaccessible to those who need it. But through this stark analysis shone a belief in the transformative power of scientific advancement, and an urgent desire to make an impact now. Few individuals, never mind chefs, have acted on such ambitions. Its neither easy nor convenient to want to change the world, Cantu wrote, in the final lines of the introduction to his cookbook, but we must stretch our imaginations, and never forget that we have gone from cave-dwellers to space explorers in the blink of an eye.

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The dark truth about chocolate

Grand health claims have been made about chocolate, but while it gives us pleasure, can it really be good for us?

Chocolate has been touted as a treatment for agitation, anaemia, angina and asthma. It has been said to awaken appetite and act as an aphrodisiac. You may have noticed were still on the letter A.

More accurately, and to avoid adding to considerable existing confusion, it is the seeds of the Theobroma cacao tree that have, over hundreds of years, been linked to cures and therapies for more than 100 diseases and conditions. Their status as a cure-all dates back over 2,000 years, having spread from the Olmecs, Maya and Aztecs, via the Spanish conquistadors, into Europe from the 16th century.

The 19th century saw chocolate drinking become cheap enough to spread beyond the wealthy, the invention of solid chocolate and the development of milk chocolate. Later came the added sugar and fat content of todays snack bars and Easter eggs, which time-travelling Aztecs would probably struggle to associate with what they called the food of the gods.

Recent years have seen chocolate undergo another transformation, this time at the hands of branding experts. Sales of milk chocolate are stagnating as consumers become more health-conscious. Manufacturers have responded with a growing range of premium products promoted with such words as organic, natural, cacao-rich and single-origin. The packets dont say so, but the message were supposed to swallow is clear: this new, improved chocolate, especially if it is dark, is good for your health. Many people have swallowed the idea that its a superfood. Except it isnt. So how has this magic trick-like metamorphosis been achieved?

Its foundations lie in chocolate manufacturers having poured huge sums into funding nutrition science that has been carefully framed, interpreted and selectively reported to cast their products in a positive light over the last 20 years. For example, studies published last year found chocolate consumers to be at reduced risk of heart flutters, and that women who eat chocolate are less likely to suffer from strokes. Consuming chemicals called flavanols in cocoa was also linked to reduced blood pressure. In 2016, eating chocolate was linked to reduced risks of cognitive decline among those aged 65 and over, while cocoa flavanol consumption was linked to improved insulin sensitivity and lipid profiles markers of diabetes and cardiovascular disease risk.

Such studies have generated hundreds of media reports that exaggerate their findings, and omit key details and caveats. Crucially, most recent research has used much higher levels of flavanols than are available in commercial snack products. For example, the blood pressure study involved participants getting an average of 670mg of flavanols. Someone would need to consume about 12 standard 100g bars of dark chocolate or about 50 of milk chocolate per day to get that much. The European Food Safety Authority has approved one rather modest chocolate-related health claim that some specially processed dark chocolate, cocoa extracts and drinks containing 200mg of flavanols contribute to normal blood circulation by helping to maintain blood vessel elasticity.

Cocoa pods harvested on the Millot plantation in the north-west of Madagascar. Photograph: Andia/UIG via Getty Images

Prof Marion Nestle, a nutritional scientist at New York University, uses the word nutrifluff to describe sensational research findings about a single food or nutrient based on one, usually highly preliminary, study. She points out that most studies on chocolate and health get industry funding, but journalists generally fail to highlight this. Industry-funded research tends to set up questions that will give them desirable results, and tends to be interpreted in ways that are beneficial to their interests, she says.

Research has repeatedly shown that when food companies are paying, they are more likely to get helpful results. US researchers who reviewed 206 studies about soft drinks, juice and milk, for example, found that those receiving industry money were six times more likely to produce favourable or neutral findings than those that did not. Most nutrition scientists who accept money from industry are in a state of denial, according to Nestle, whose book Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat is due to be published in October. The researchers involved feel it doesnt affect the integrity and quality of their work, she says. But research on drug industry funding shows the influence is generally unconscious, unintentional and unrecognised.

The public are also misled into believing chocolate is healthy through what scientists refer to as the file drawer effect. Two of the aforementioned studies those on blood pressure and markers of cardiovascular health are meta-analyses, meaning they pool the results of previously published research. The problem is that science journals, like the popular media, are more likely to publish findings that suggest chocolate is healthy than those that conclude it has no effect, which skews meta-analyses. Its really hard to publish something that doesnt find anything, says Dr Duane Mellor, a nutritionist at Coventry University who has studied cocoa and health. Theres a bias in the under-reporting of negative outcomes.

Then theres the problem that, unlike in drug trials, those taking part in chocolate studies often know whether they are being given chocolate or a placebo. Most people have positive expectations about chocolate because they like it. They are therefore primed, through the conditioning effect famously described by the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov to respond positively. They may, for example, become more relaxed, boosting levels of endorphins and neurotransmitters, and triggering short-term physiological benefits.

The responses of study participants can be affected by their beliefs and assumptions about chocolate, says Mellor. Research has also found people who volunteer for studies are more likely to be affected by their beliefs about an intervention than the population as a whole.

So hard to resist: a chocolate shop in Bruges, Belgium. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Many of the studies that involve people being given chocolate and tracking their health over time are short and have small numbers of participants. This adds to the difficulties nutritional scientists have in separating out the effects of consuming one food or nutrient from the rest of their diet and other variables and interactions within the body.

So when and why did chocolate companies become so keen on using science as a marketing tool? The answer depends on whom you ask.

During the 1990s, scientists became interested in the French paradox the now discredited observation that heart disease rates were low in France despite a national diet high in saturated fats. One proposed explanation was relatively high consumption of flavanols, a group of compounds found in red wine, tea and cocoa which, at high doses, had been linked to the prevention of cellular damage. US researchers caused a stir when from around the turn of the century they concluded that Kuna people off the coast of Panama had low blood pressure and rates of cardiovascular disease because they drank more than five cups of flavanol-rich cocoa per day.

This undoubtedly stimulated chocolate industry research. However in 2000, a Channel 4 documentary reported on the use of child labour and slavery in cocoa production operations in Ghana and Ivory Coast the source of most of the worlds chocolate. This triggered a wave of media reports and negative publicity.

Some say the industry poured money into science at this time to divert attention away from west Africa. Efforts by many of the large chocolate companies to demonstrate health effects started side by side with the outcry over the use of child labour and slavery, says Michael Coe, a retired anthropologist formerly of Yale University, co-author of The True History of Chocolate. Some of it was legitimate science, but it was stimulated, at least in part, by the need to say something positive about chocolate.

Industry figures strenuously disagree. There was no connection between those two things, says Matthias Berninger, vice-president for public affairs at Mars, Inc, when asked whether Coe is correct. The Kuna story sparked a lot of interest. The level of investment and energy and intensity of research was much more driven by that than it was by the idea of creating a halo around chocolate.

Critics have accused Mars in particular of using nutritional science to cast its products in a good light. Through its scientific arm, Mars Symbioscience, it has published more than 140 peer-reviewed scientific papers on cocoa flavanols and health since 2005.

The family-owned company has traditionally remained tight-lipped about its involvement in cocoa research. However, last month it published its policies on conducting and funding research. Asked whether it had previously been involved in using research to suggest chocolate was healthy, Berninger says: I do believe that that was so tempting, Mars couldnt resist it. If you look back 20 years, there was this idea that this could create huge opportunities for us.

But he says this changed long ago. As a marketing strategy, we have not engaged in that for more than a decade. In 2007, the European Union tightened regulations on nutrition and health claims. Meanwhile, research was making it increasingly clear that health benefits claims for commercial dark chocolate products were unrealistic because of their low flavanol content.

Yet campaigners highlight how chocolate companies, including Mars, have fought public health regulations that might undermine their profits using third parties. US public health lawyer Michele Simon produced hard-hitting reports in 2013 and 2015, documenting how the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) and the American Society of Nutrition (ASN), were receiving large sponsorship fees from major food industry companies. In 2014, the ASN had gone in to bat on behalf of its corporate backers, including Coca-Cola, Mars and McDonalds, against a US government plan for added sugar content to be included on food labels, and questioning the evidence on their negative health effects. A year earlier, the AND stated its support for a total diet approach, and opposition to the overly simplistic classification of specific foods as good or bad. Its about co-opting health organisations, and buying legitimacy among professionals and members of the public, says Andy Bellatti, co-founder of US-based Dietitians for Professional Integrity.

Chocolate manufacturers have also used the classic corporate strategy of using third-party lobbyists to manufacture artificial scientific controversy. Science is, by its nature, about evidence-based probabilities not absolute certainties. The exaggeration of uncertainty was perfected by the tobacco companies in the 1950s, and later copied by the asbestos and oil industries. Chocolate makers have done this through lobbying groups such as the Washington-based International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), which campaigned against added sugar labelling in the US, and opposed the World Health Organisations 2015 advice that less than 10% of daily energy intake should come from free sugars those added to food and drinks and occurring naturally in honey and fruit juice.

Criticisms of these tactics seem to be hitting home. Mars broke ranks with fellow chocolate-making ILSI members including Nestl, Hershey and Mondelz, which owns Cadbury, in 2016 when it denounced a paper funded by the group questioning research linking sugar consumption and poor health, and related health advice. Last month Mars announced it was leaving ILSI.

Dont count on it: large quantities of the flavanols found in chocolate need to be consumed before they will have an impact on blood pressure. Photograph: Anthony Devlin/PA

Marss Berninger agrees that the chocolate industry could do more to prevent the spread of health myths. Chocolate is a treat you should enjoy occasionally and in small portions, not a health food, he says. Did we say that loud enough over the last 10 years? I would say no.

Public health campaigners welcome Marss new stance. Some see it as a genuine attempt to do the right thing, while others highlight how large food companies are seeking to reposition themselves in the face of growing environmental and health concerns. Whatever the motivation, the gulf between the chocolate industry and its critics seems to be narrowing.

Children hoping to celebrate Easter in the traditional chocolatey style on 1 April will be reassured to hear the two sides also agree on another aspect of the debate. While chocolate is probably not healthy, its also not harmful when enjoyed in sensible amounts, says Mellor. Chocolate is candy, adds Nestle. As part of a reasonable diet, its fine in moderation.

You can say anything with figures

The role of the media in helping chocolate makers exploit our failure to grasp the complexities of nutrition science was laid bare in a 2015 expos. German television journalists set up a three-week study in which they asked one group of volunteers to follow a low-carb diet, another to do the same but add a daily chocolate bar, a third to make no change to their diet. Both low-carb groups lost an average of 5lb, but the chocolate group lost weight faster. By measuring 18 different things in a small number of people, the spoofers made it likely they would find statistically significant but fake benefits of eating chocolate.

The peer-reviewed International Archives of Internal Medicine agreed to publish a hastily written paper within 24 hours of receiving it for a fee of 600. John Bohannon, a Harvard University biologist and science journalist in on the hoax, put together a press release. Within days stories had been published in more than 20 countries. The Mail Online, Daily Express, Daily Star and Bild were among those that fell for it.

I was just really ashamed for my colleagues, says Bohannon. These are people who regurgitate whole chunks of press releases and almost never call on outside sources. In my book, thats not even journalism. Its just an extension of PR.

Big Food: Critical Perspectives on the Global Growth of the Food and Beverage Industry, edited by Simon N Williams and Marion Nestle, is published by Routledge

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I feel less stuffed after dinners and less guilty: why I stopped eating meat

My journey towards vegetarianism started 30 years ago for practical reasons, but the more I eschew animal products the better I feel about everything

My experience of giving up meat has been a gradual process, starting about 30 years ago, when a vegetarian friend and her two little boys came to live with me and my daughter. For practical reasons, we ate less meat. Why bother to cook two dinners when you need only cook one? Anyway, we all loved macaroni cheese and baked potatoes, and the odd tuna bake, because fish seemed sort of halfway and my friend wasnt a strict enforcer.

Back then, meat still featured heavily when my parents visited. After all, I did love meat. I had been brought up on it and my mother was a superb cook. Her stews and casseroles, oxtail and neck of lamb; her roasts, turkey stuffing and chicken liver pat; her chicken soup and salt beef were delicious beyond words. There was something about meat-eating that my father found admirable, too, especially in boys. He once sat at the table with the children, watching my friends three-year-old son eat a large sausage. Look at that! he said with pride and joy. What a good boy! He failed to comment on my daughters equally impressive sausage-eating.

But my friends vegetarianism started me thinking. The only other serious vegetarian I had known was at school in the 50s and she had bad acne and funny-smelling breath, which put me off. Here was someone with clear skin, odour-free, robust, amusing, charming nothing like the mimsy, pallid, socks-sandals and bobble-hatted vegetarians of my earlier, ill-informed imagination. She didnt like eating meat, but she also had good reasons for not doing so some personal, but most ethical. So, I began to eat less. I knew already about the cruelty of veal and foie gras production, so I never ate them. I knew pink meats salamis and bacon were carcinogenic. Now I found out much more.

Quick guide


What is a megafarm?

There is no legal definition in the UK of a mega farm, but in the US concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are defined as those housing 125,000 broiler chickens, 82,000 laying hens, 2,500 pigs or 700 dairy or 1,000 beef cattle. These are the biggest of the intensive farms, which in the UK need permits if they house more than 40,000 chickens, 2,000 pigs or 750 breeding sows. There are now 789 mega farms in the UK, and the number of intensive farms has risen by more than a quarter in six years, from 1,332 in 2011 to 1,674 last year.

Why are they controversial?

Mega farms and intensive farms are controversial because they require keeping tens of thousands of animals in a small space, which campaigners and independent experts say can hamper their ability to express natural behaviours, such as nesting. The animals are often kept indoors throughout their lives, though on some farms they are allowed access to outdoor areas at least part of the time. There are also concerns that animals on mega farms may be over-medicated, as if one gets sick the whole herd is generally required to be treated.

Why do some people believe we need them?

Mega farms and intensive farms take up much less space than traditional farms, and they allow animals to be kept securely, away from predators and potential carriers of disease, such as badgers. Their conditions are tightly controlled, allowing farmers to monitor the amount of daylight, water and feed for the animals, and if disease develops the livestock can be treated quickly. They are much cheaper to run than traditional farms.

Years later, my mother moved in. By then, red meat was bad for her and her false choppers made it impossible to chew anyway, so we were down to chicken and fish. Then along came the internet, Facebook and Twitter, with an avalanche of horror stories about intensive meat production: vast farms crammed with mutilated pigs, tormented cows, lambs and their mothers, chickens flung about and trampled, cruel and brutal abattoirs, the horse and dog meat trade, overuse of antibiotics, our resulting poor health and the wrecking of the planet. This torrent of grisly information made eating meat seem completely potty. The more you learn about meat-eating and farming, the easier it should be to give up. A teacher of animal husbandry tells me that, every year, by the time her students have seen lambing, the incubating and hatching of eggs and an animals complete life cycle, one-third of them have given up eating meat.

A beet and Feta cheese salad with parsley. Photograph: Mizina/Getty Images/iStockphoto

But even with all my nasty new knowledge I still found it difficult. Most of all, despite it potentially causing cancer, I missed lovely, crunchy bacon. I tried soya bacon granules, but they didnt work for me. I missed the texture of meat something to chew. So, we still had turkey for Christmas and occasionally I ate meat when visiting friends, because they had cooked it. I pretended I was being polite, but really it just gave me an excuse to eat it again.

Unsurprisingly, a friend called me hypocritical when I ate her free-range roast chicken while whingeing about being a vegetarian; she pointed out that I fed my dogs meat, particularly chicken. My argument was that you cant have a vegetarian dog. I knew some people who did and the poor thing had non-stop squitters, which didnt seem fair.

Then, two years ago, I had a breakthrough. I kept eating fish and shellfish, but there was no turkey at Christmas. We had nut roast instead and delicious it was, too with all the trimmings, which are just as, if not more, tasty than turkey and less of a palaver to cook. Heaven knows why I had clung to this pointless tradition for so long. Now I felt that, at last, I was giving up meat properly and not being so feeble. I am sure my digestive system has improved as a result, I am far less bad-tempered and I feel less stuffed up and knackered after dinners and less guilty.

I have found that it is easier for a meat lover to give it up if you dont dwell on what you are missing, but think of all the delicious alternatives. It might also help not to ban meat absolutely from your diet for ever. There is nothing like something being strictly forbidden to make you want it more. You can relapse. Sometimes, in a restaurant, I have been desperate for liver and onions with mashed potatoes and I have eaten it a couple of times over the past few years. I am not proud of myself, but at least I eat much, much less meat than I used to. Hardly a scrap.

It is now a comparative breeze to give up meat. We all know animals are sentient. There is not half as much sneering at vegetarians as there used to be. Famous, admired, personable and muscular vegetarians and sportspeople abound; the availability, variety and quality of vegetarian food has increased enormously. Decades ago, an English salad was lettuce, cucumber and tomatoes with Heinz mayonnaise; we had never seen an avocado. Now we have olive oil and countless varieties of delicious dressings and vegetables from everywhere on earth.

Our current favourite salads are: aubergine roasted in zaatar, olive and sunflower oil, salt, lots of pepper, with raw cherry tomatoes and mozzarella; grated celeriac and carrot, oil and cider vinegar, garlic, mustard and chopped tarragon; oranges with fennel; and mixed green leaves with sprinklings of toasted sunflower and sesame seeds or chopped and roasted almonds. And, since it is winter, there are a squillion soups you can make with vegetables, adding beans for protein (forget Blazing Saddles). Try a soup with haricot beans, celeriac, tomatoes, onions, garlic, parsley, rosemary and thyme, with some olive oil and lemon juice added at the end.

Before I even start on all the complex mixtures with sprinklings, there are 101 things you can do with my own favourite vegetable, the potato: bake, roast, rosti, latkes, layered and baked with cream, colcannon, bubble and squeak and, of course, chips. I make them from red potatoes; I dont want to brag, but they are exquisite.

I havent found many prepared vegetarian products that I am wild about, but you can make a passable bolognese with Quorn mince and some people can do wonders with tofu. Try it rolled in cornflower, salt and loads of pepper and deep fried. I have found a pleasant, chewy mozzarella veggie burger, plus vegetable pies, quiches and pizzas. A local burger bar serves divine portobello mushroom burgers, which are tastier than the meat burger. Honestly. A friend tested them both.

I miss meat less and less, because I still have fish (often fried with the chips). But once you are on this path, where do you stop? I feel I ought to take the next step, of giving up the fish and shellfish, which I also love. Last year, in the fish shop, I saw a man holding up two live lobsters, asking how soon he should boil them; could he keep them alive in water for a bit? There they were, waving their arms in the air, distressed, I assumed. So, no more lobster for me. I have learned that octopuses, the stars of Blue Planet II, are very intelligent and may be able to see with their skin, so no more of them, either. Veganism is probably the end of this road, but I dont know whether I will make it.

Meanwhile, that three-year-old boy who ate the sausage never ate meat again. Those are his salad recipes above and he is now a strapping fellow. My daughter has given up meat and is considering veganism, along with increasing numbers of people. There were 542,000 vegans in the UK in May 2016, up from 150,000 10 years before (a 360% rise). Almost half of them are young, aged 15 to 34. On top of this, there are about 1.2 million vegetarians (1.8% of the UK population).

So, I am really just going with the flow and hoping that the tide becomes stronger. In the first six months of 2017, 28% of Britons cut down on meat a sensible move, seeing as it increases your risk of obesity, cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis, type 2 diabetes, food poisoning (particularly from chicken) and premature death. Although the world will never stop eating meat, perhaps more of us could, at least, stop eating such huge amounts of it. Then we could all have longer, healthier, happier lives. I have just got to sort out the dogs dinners.

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Three coffees a day linked to a range of health benefits

Research based on 200 previous studies worldwide says frequent drinkers less likely to get diabetes, heart disease, dementia and some cancers

People who drink three to four cups of coffee a day are more likely to see health benefits than problems, experiencing lower risks of premature death and heart disease than those who abstain, scientists have said.

The research, which collated evidence from more than 200 previous studies, also found coffee consumption was linked to lower risks of diabetes, liver disease, dementia and some cancers.

Three or four cups a day confer the greatest benefit, the scientists said, except for women who are pregnant or who have a higher risk of suffering fractures.

Coffee is one of the most commonly consumed drinks worldwide. To better understand its effects on health, Robin Poole, a public health specialist at Britains University of Southampton, led a research team in an umbrella review of 201 studies based on observational research and 17 studies based on clinical trials across all countries and all settings.

Umbrella reviews synthesise previous pooled analyses to give a clearer summary of diverse research on a particular topic.

Coffee drinking appears safe within usual patterns of consumption, Pools team concluded in their research, published in the BMJ British medical journal on Wednesday.

Drinking coffee was consistently linked with a lower risk of death from all causes and from heart disease. The largest reduction in relative risk of premature death is seen in people consuming three cups a day, compared with non-coffee drinkers.

Drinking more than three cups a day was not linked to harm, but the beneficial effects were less pronounced.

Coffee was also associated with a lower risk of several cancers, including prostate, endometrial, skin and liver cancer, as well as type-2 diabetes, gallstones and gout, the researchers said. The greatest benefit was seen for liver conditions such as cirrhosis of the liver.

In a linked editorial, Professor Eliseo Guallar from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg school of public health in Maryland wrote that coffee is safe, but hold the cake.

He argued that the latest study showed that coffee consumption seems generally safe, but added: Coffee is often consumed with products rich in refined sugars and unhealthy fats, and these may independently contribute to adverse health outcomes …

Does coffee prevent chronic disease and reduce mortality? We simply do not know. Should doctors recommend drinking coffee to prevent disease? Should people start drinking coffee for health reasons? The answer to both questions is no.

Pooles team noted that because their review included mainly observational data, no firm conclusions could be drawn about cause and effect. But they said their findings support other recent reviews and studies of coffee intake.

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Only one in 10 Americans eat enough fruits and vegetables, CDC study finds

Only 12% meet the daily fruit recommendation and 9% the vegetable recommendation, and people living in poverty have especially low rates

Only a sliver of Americans eat enough fresh fruits and vegetables, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Just 12% of Americans eat the minimum daily fruit recommendation of one and a half to two cups per day, and only 9% consume the minimum daily vegetable recommendation of two to three cups per day, according to the study, published on Thursday.

The study confirms years of data demonstrating that Americans do not eat their veggies, Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University, told the Guardian. Assuming this result is close to reality, it suggests the need for taking much stronger action to make it easier and cheaper to eat fruits and vegetables.

The study, which broke out groups of Americans by state, class, race and gender, found some subgroups were even less likely to eat enough produce.

Men, young adults and people living in poverty all had especially low rates of fruit and vegetable intake. While 15.1% of women eat the recommended amount of fruit each day ,just 9.2% of men do the same. Similarly, 11.4% of wealthy Americans eat enough vegetables, but only 7% of poor people did the same.

Because a poor diet is linked to cancer, obesity, heart disease and diabetes, public health authorities have long endorsed a diet rich in fruit and vegetables.

Sarah Reinhardt, a nutritionist and food systems analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), said there was a growing awareness about the importance of healthy foods. We have a lot more work to do to make sure they reach every corner of the country, she said.

The CDCs findings also showed the disparities in fruit and vegetable consumption by state. For example, just 2.2% of South Dakotans between 18 and 30 years old eat the recommended daily serving of vegetables.

While people in West Virginia, which often tops lists of the least healthy and poorest US states, were the least likely to get enough vegetables on average just 5.8% of West Virginians ate the recommended amount.

Residents of Alaska were most likely to eat the recommended amount of vegetables, though the percentage is low only 12% of adults there eat enough.

Improving these rates is particularly challenging because just 2% of US farmland is devoted to growing fruits and vegetables, according to UCS. Reinhardt said farmers would need to grow almost twice as much produce just for Americans to get the recommended amount of servings.

The food industry is not exactly working with public health on this, theres a multimillion-dollar industry working to get people to eat [processed foods], Reinhardt said.

The new research comes from the CDCs 2015 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, which looks at how Americans eat and behave. Researchers called American adults landlines and cellphones and asked how often people eat beans, dark greens, orange vegetables, other vegetables, whole fruit and fruit juice.

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The joy of eggs how ‘nature’s multivitamin’ shook off the scare stories

Decades of dud healthy-eating guidance sent the humble egg into nutritional exile. But with new advice about runny yolks suggesting that salmonella in raw eggs is a thing of the past, its time to lick the cake bowl again

Every morning for breakfast I eat a runny-yolked egg, often boiled, sometimes poached, or fried. In any given week Ill consume eggs in other meals frittata, souffle, as a binder for breadcrumbed fish, in baking, quiche, kedgeree, fresh pasta, perhaps. I reckon that I personally get through anything between 10 and 15 eggs weekly. I do it not only because I cherish their near-magical cooking properties, but also as a two-fingered salute to a dogmatic government dietetic establishment that has pumped taxpayers money into convincing us that this most perfect of natural foods is something we should restrict, even fear. Guess what? Ive maintained a healthy, normal body weight, and lived to tell the tale.

So forgive me if I dont applaud the latest Food Standards Agency (FSA) edict telling us that pregnant women, babies and elderly people can now eat eggs raw or soft-cooked without calamitous consequences, as if this was some sort of thunderbolt revelation, a recent achievement. Its more a case of: Youre 30 years too late guys, but better late than never.

For decades, we were told to eat no more than two eggs a week. Photograph: Alamy

Eventually, after demonising eggs for a quarter of a century or more, the authors of our governments egg script that eggs could clog your arteries and poison you are stealthily dismantling the flashing red lights they have put around this elemental food in the public mind. Now, like offenders participating in restorative justice schemes, we need the civil servants and scientific advisers who unnerved us about eggs to say mea culpa, and reflect on how their adherence to bankrupt healthy eating orthodoxy sent one of natures cleverest food packages into nutritional exile.

Its hard to think of any food that can compete with eggs in overall health terms. They provide us with high-quality protein that contains all nine essential amino acids in the precise proportions required by the body for optimum growth and maintenance. Eggs outperform all other proteins from both animal and plant sources. Protein is the macronutrient that most efficiently satisfies appetite. It also reduces the secretion of ghrelin, the hormone that stimulates hunger. A body of research suggests that eggs might help us stay slim. For instance, one trial found that women who ate eggs for breakfast felt more full and consumed fewer calories for the rest of the day and for the next 36 hours. Thats certainly my experience.

Free-range hens foraging for food in the Lake District. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

Eggs are often referred to as natures multivitamin pill, with ample justification, because they contain vitamins A, D, E, and a range of B vitamins, in significant amounts. They are also an oval treasure trove of minerals, 10 of them calcium, phosphorus, zinc, selenium, potassium, sodium, copper, iodine, magnesium and iron; and more obscure, but nevertheless vital micronutrients, choline, lecithin, lutein and zeaxanthin. If ever there was a genuine superfood, the egg is it.

And yet many Britons fret about eating eggs because weve been drip-fed fear of this most versatile food, and like biddable citizens, many of us have swallowed it.

For decades, public health gospel was that we should eat no more than two eggs a week. The egg was an early victim of the late 20th-century fixation with cholesterol; yolks contain it. This thinking, progenitor of the supposedly healthier egg white omelette in the US, was that the cholesterol that naturally occurs in food causes heart disease and stroke. It doesnt. Actually, cholesterol is a vital component of cell membranes. Among other things, it heals and repairs the body, supports our cognitive function, and helps our bodies make vitamin D and hormones.

Belatedly, when scientific research made it too embarrassingly apparent that cholesterol in eggs had almost no effect on blood cholesterol profiles, official UK nutritional guidelines were quietly altered. Now NHS Choices says: There is no recommended limit on how many eggs people should eat. But any diligent citizen who pays attention to the governments Eatwell plate its pictorial image of its recommended healthy diet, which is heavily weighted towards processed carbohydrate foods might nevertheless conclude that a bowl of cornflakes is still nutritionally preferable to an egg.

Edwina Currie, the MP who started the salmonella in eggs scare in 1988. Photograph: Brian Bould/ANL/REX/Shutterstock

Nutrition apart, the FSAs latest pronouncement is that we can now eat raw or runny Lion-stamped eggs without courting food poisoning. The major reduction in the risk of salmonella in Lion eggs is testament to the work carried out by egg producers. The measures theyve taken, from vaccination of hens through to improving hygiene on farms and better transportation, have dramatically reduced salmonella levels in UK hens, says FSA chairman Heather Hancock. But were eggs really ever a major, or even a minor, source of food poisoning in the UK?

Edwina Currie started the whole salmonella enteritidis and eggs saga in 1988 with one sentence: Most of the egg production in this country, sadly, is now affected with salmonella, triggering either Britains first major food scare, or its first mass-media moral panic over food, depending on how you see it. At that time, egg producers loudly contested her assertion and the putative linkage of eggs with food poisoning, and to this day, many microbiologists agree with them. Dr Richard North, a leading independent food safety consultant who has conducted lab tests on salmonella in eggs, and evaluated 60 salmonella outbreaks in the UK, is a case in point. Only one, or at most two of the outbreaks I studied credibly had egg as a source. He attributes the rise in salmonella food poisoning cases in the late 1980s to two alternative causes. First, a surge of salmonella infection, not in egg-laying hens, but in factory farmed broilers (chickens reared in intensive systems for their meat). Salmonella is one of the recognised diseases of intensification that dog this type of production. Second, North points to the 1980s fashion among food manufacturers, at the supermarkets behest, for a blander, lower-vinegar mayonnaise: Mrs Beetons classic mayonnaise recipe was actively bactericidal.

Lion-stamped free range hens eggs. Photograph: Alamy

Contrary to the FSAs line that vaccines dealt with a genuine problem, North maintains that the whole salmonella and eggs debacle was a classic food scare based on myths and dodgy science. And its one of those never-to-be-resolved debates anyway, now that the FSA has given eggs its blessing. Feel free to lick the cake bowl once again. Even Currie now says: If you buy eggs in the UK you can be pretty sure theyre safe.

I buy free-range organic eggs every week from a local producer. I know him by name and can look into his eyes. His eggs dont have the Lion stamp or need it. He has confidence in the cleanliness and safety of his production methods and after years of eating them, so do I. His small flock of grass-fed, free-ranging hens are not kept in close confinement and so are much less susceptible to disease of all sorts. Supermarkets love a nationwide protocol, such as the Lion stamp, to reassure customers of safety, but this doesnt mean that any eggs that dont bear this stamp are risky.

Whichever retrospective interpretation of the salmonella and egg saga you believe, theres no doubt that eggs are more good news these days than bad. Back in Curries time, 92% of hens were kept in cruel battery cages. Nowadays, thanks to concerted campaigning from animal welfare groups, such as Compassion in World Farming, the equivalent figure has almost halved and cages have been marginally improved or enriched with welfare in mind. All the key supermarket chains are pledged to phase out shell eggs from caged hens by 2025. In practical terms, Compassion in World Farming recommends Soil Association-certified organic eggs for the highest welfare they must be free-range and no controversial beak trimming is permitted and failing that, free-range eggs from more traditional breeds of hen, because they are put under less pressure to produce. Caged eggs are still routinely used in food manufacturing and catering, but a growing number of companies, including Unilever, Sodexo and Nestl, have also committed to sourcing only cage-free eggs in their global supply chains, again by 2025.

Supermarket chains are pledged to phase out shell eggs from caged hens by 2025. Photograph: Alamy

Its worth noting that the fipronil egg scandal, which broke in August, where imported egg products were contaminated with an insecticide often used as flea killer affected only pre-prepared eggs used in food manufacturing and catering. Cake mixes used by industrial bakeries were withdrawn, along with liquid pasteurised eggs bought by chefs, and pre-cooked, factory-made supermarket convenience foods: certain salads from Asda and Sainsburys, some Morrisons egg sandwiches, and Waitrose deli filler were affected. The moral of the story here is: if there are dodgy eggs to be offloaded, theyre not likely to still be intact in their shells, but pre-processed in some way.

Eggs are definitely poised for a comeback, although it has to be said that throughout all the years that eggs were dispatched to the nutritional wilderness, many people, sceptical about public health advice, never stopped eating them. In the UK we eat on average between three and four eggs a week. In the 1960s, our national average egg consumption was five. But over the past 12 months, retail egg sales have risen by 4%. In the current grim landscape, where more and more citizens need to use food banks just to put a meal on the table, eggs, which are so affordable and offer such unbeatable nutrition and sustenance, never more deserved a place on our plates. Just think of the character of Katie in the film I, Daniel Blake. She surely needed an egg, not a can of sweet baked beans, yet many food banks have no fresh food to offer, often for safety reasons. Similarly, government-stoked worry about safety has deprived whole demographics the elderly, children, people in care homes and hospitals of the pleasure and incomparable nutrition of properly cooked, that is not overcooked, eggs.

Katie, the character in I, Daniel Blake, would have benefited from an egg from the food bank. Photograph: Allstar/Eone Films

Last week in Galway, at the international Food on the Edge chef symposium, South African chef Margot Janse spoke about how her Isabelo charity in Franschhoek now feeds 1,400 disadvantaged pre-school and primary school children every day, often the only healthy meal they receive. She started by giving out home-baked muffins, with mixed results. Some children didnt find them sweet enough. But it was boiled eggs that the kids really loved and that grew full attendance at school. There are lots of hearts of gold that care [about fighting poverty] but an egg also has a heart of gold and is a lot more practical, she concluded.

Whatever your current status starving, peckish, dieting, feasting, economising, working, travelling, convalescing, or just going about your daily business its hard to beat an egg.

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Poor diet is a factor in one in five deaths, global disease study reveals

Study compiling data from every country finds people are living longer but millions are eating wrong foods for their health

Poor diet is a factor in one in five deaths around the world, according to the most comprehensive study ever carried out on the subject.

Millions of people are eating the wrong sorts of food for good health. Eating a diet that is low in whole grains, fruit, nuts and seeds and fish oils and high in salt raises the risk of an early death, according to the huge and ongoing study Global Burden of Disease.

The study, based at the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, compiles data from every country in the world and makes informed estimates where there are gaps. Five papers on life expectancy and the causes and risk factors of death and ill health have been published by the Lancet medical journal.

It finds that people are living longer. Life expectancy in 2016 worldwide was 75.3 years for women and 69.8 for men. Japan has the highest life expectancy at 84 years and the Central African Republic has the lowest at just over 50. In the UK, life expectancy for a man born in 2016 is 79, and for a woman 82.9.

Diet is the second highest risk factor for early death after smoking. Other high risks are high blood glucose which can lead to diabetes, high blood pressure, high body mass index (BMI) which is a measure of obesity, and high total cholesterol. All of these can be related to eating the wrong foods, although there are also other causes.

causes of death graphic

This is really large, Dr Christopher Murray, IHMEs director, told the Guardian. It is amongst the really big problems in the world. It is a cluster that is getting worse. While obesity gets attention, he was not sure policymakers were as focused on the area of diet and health as they needed to be. That constellation is a really, really big challenge for health and health systems, he said.

The problem is often seen as the spread of western diets, taking over from traditional foods in the developing world. But it is not that simple, says Murray. Take fruit. It has lots of health benefits but only very wealthy people eat a lot of fruit, with some exceptions.

Sugary drinks are harmful to health but eating a lot of red meat, the study finds, is not as big a risk to health as failing to eat whole grains. We need to look really carefully at what are the healthy compounds in diets that provide protection, he said.

undernourishment graphic

Prof John Newton, director of health improvement at Public Health England, said the studies show how quickly diet and obesity-related disease is spreading around the world. I dont think people realise how quickly the focus is shifting towards non-communicable disease [such as cancer, heart disease and stroke] and diseases that come with development, in particular related to poor diet. The numbers are quite shocking in my view, he said.

The UK tracks childhood obesity through the school measurement programme and has brought in measures to try to tackle it. But no country in the world has been able to solve the problem and it is a concern that we really need to think about tackling globally, he said.

Today, 72% of deaths are from non-communicable diseases for which obesity and diet are among the risk factors, with ischaemic heart disease as the leading cause worldwide of early deaths, including in the UK. Lung cancer, stroke, lung disease (chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder) and Alzheimers are the other main causes in the UK.

The success story is children under five. In 2016, for the first time in modern history, fewer than 5 million children under five died in one year a significant fall compared with 1990, when 11 million died. Increased education for women, less poverty, having fewer children, vaccinations, anti-malaria bed-nets, improved water and sanitation are among the changes in low-income countries that have brought the death rate down, thanks to development aid.

People are living longer but spending more years in ill health. Obesity is one of the major reasons. More than a billion people worldwide are living with mental health and substance misuse disorders. Depression features in the top 10 causes of ill health in all but four countries.

Our findings indicate people are living longer and, over the past decade, we identified substantial progress in driving down death rates from some of the worlds most pernicious diseases and conditions, such as under age-five mortality and malaria, said Murray Yet, despite this progress, we are facing a triad of trouble holding back many nations and communities obesity, conflict, and mental illness, including substance use disorders.

In the UK, the concern is particularly about the increase in ill-health that prevents people from working or having a fulfilling life, said Newton. A man in the UK born in 2016 can expect only 69 years in good health and a woman 71 years.

This is yet another reminder that while were living longer, much of that extra time is spent in ill-health. It underlines the importance of preventing the conditions that keep people out of work and put their long term health in jeopardy, like musculoskeletal problems, poor hearing and mental ill health. Our priority is to help people, including during the crucial early years of life and in middle age, to give them the best chance of a long and healthy later life, he said.

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Should link between dementia and artificial sweeteners be taken with a pinch of salt?

How peoples capacity for forgetfulness and lies may have impacted on research tying stroke and dementia to diet drinks

They were supposed to be the healthy alternative to their sugar-rich siblings. But now lovers of diet colas and other low-calorie drinks have been hit by news that will radically undermine those credentials: a counterintuitive study suggesting a link to stroke and dementia.

The study in the journal Stroke may cause a rethink among those worried about obesity, diabetes or a possible early heart attack from sugar-rich drinks who have been considering making a change. It comes to the alarming conclusion that people polishing off one can a day of artificially sweetened drink are nearly three times as likely to have a stroke or develop dementia.

Its a shocking conclusion. But the first reason to pause is that the study found no such risk in people who drank standard sugary lemonades and colas.

There is little previous evidence with regard to dementia, which is why the researchers were looking at it, but the link between sugar and stroke is very well known. Too much sugar raises the risk of obesity, diabetes, heart attacks and stroke. Its altogether a bad thing, which is why the World Health Organisation is telling us all to cut down. So what was going on in this study?

The evidence it analyses is pulled from the well-respected Framingham Heart Study a cohort of more than 5,000 people in Massachusetts, US, whose diets and lifestyles have been monitored for nearly 50 years, with the main objective of finding out more about heart disease. Along the way, researchers have looked at other health outcomes.

What they are up against is peoples capacity for forgetfulness and lies. This is the case with every study into the food we eat except for those rare ones, almost impossible to do today, which have in effect imprisoned their subjects and controlled every sip and mouthful they took.Researchers understand this and try to take account of it, but it is difficult.

There are several possible other reasons why an increased stroke risk was associated with diet drinks and not sugary drinks. One is what is called reverse causality. People who come to realise that they are ill and have a high risk of a stroke then switch their behaviour by choosing diet drinks long after sugary drinks have helped cause the problem.

When it came to dementia, the link with diet drinks that researchers saw disappeared once they took some elements of the health of the people in the study into account. When the researchers accounted for other risk factors for Alzheimers, such as risk genes, diabetes, heart disease, cholesterol levels and weight, this significant association was lost, suggesting that these drinks are not the whole story, said Dr Rosa Sancho, head of research at Alzheimers Research UK.

The researchers point to it themselves: We are unable to determine whether artificially sweetened soft drink intake increased the risk of incident dementia through diabetes mellitus or whether people with diabetes mellitus were simply more likely to consume diet beverages, they write. But they call for more research and others will support them in that.

Artificial sweeteners have been viewed with suspicion by a lot of consumers for many years and not entirely deservedly. They are not natural, in the way that sugar is natural, being grown from beet or cane. Some of the hostility comes from those who worry about ingesting man-made chemicals. But while some artificial flavourings have been shown to carry health risks, studies have failed to find similar problems with artificial sweeteners.

Aspartame has been extremely controversial since its approval for use by several European countries in the 1980s, says NHS Choices. In 1996, a study linked it to a rise in brain tumours. However, the study had very little scientific basis and later studies showed that aspartame was in fact safe to consume, says the NHS.

Large studies have also been carried out to look at whether the sweetener increased cancer risks, and gave it a clean bill of health. The European Food Safety Authority said in 2013 it was safe even for pregnant women and children, except for anyone with a rare genetic condition called phenylketonuria.

Dumping aspartame from its low calorie bestseller did not give PepsiCo the halo effect it hoped. In 2015, it announced it was taking the sweetener some people love to hate out of Diet Pepsi and replacing it with sucralose. A year later, when it became clear Coca Cola would not follow suit and that fans preferred their drink the way it used to be, it did a U-turn and put aspartame back in.

There have been huge efforts to develop artificial sweeteners that will taste as good as sugar and be acceptable to the doubters. Stevia, a plant extract, is marketed as a natural sweetener to the increasingly sceptical health-conscious.

Now it is not just drinks. Public Health England is putting pressure on food companies to cut 20% of sugar from their products by 2020. That will probably mean smaller chocolate bars, where artificial sweeteners just wont deliver the same taste. But they will be part of the answer in other foods.

Sweeteners such as sucralose, which is 650 times sweeter than sugar, have long been in breakfast cereals and salad dressings, while saccharin is in store-bought cakes, despite a scare over bladder cancer which caused the Canadian government to ban it as an additive in 1977. It lifted the ban in 2014. The safety debate will go on, but artificial sweeteners are likely to play a bigger part in our diet as the squeeze on sugar ramps up.

There are those, however, who think artificial sweeteners will never be the answer to obesity and the diseases that follow in its wake. The problem, in their view, is our sweet tooth and the answer is to reduce our liking for sweetness. So they want to see the gradual reduction of the amount of sugar in our drinks and our food and snacks without it.

It worked with salt, says Cash, the campaign for action on salt and health, which did much to bring down the salt levels in our food without our noticing it. The same should be possible for sugar. But not if artificial substitutes are used to keep our food and drinks tasting just as sweet as they did before.

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