food & drink

Storm in a Coffee Cup

So the FSA think we should give up toast and roast potatoes because there is a cancer risk from the acrylamide they contain.

As so often this is, at best, misleading science and quite probably total bollocks. Moreover the FSA is going beyond it’s brief in warning us about something which is basically an assumption based on evidence that’s struggling even to be flimsy.

Yes, acrylamide can cause cancer. This has only been conclusively demonstrated in laboratory rats fed thousands of times the dose we would consume. There is no real evidence of normal doses causing any problem for humans. Like all these things the dose is important and the evidence has to be taken in a sensible context.

There is apparently more acrylamide in coffee than toast or roast potatoes, and most people consume far more coffee at breakfast than they do burnt toast. Yet we aren’t being told to stop drinking coffee because of the acrylamide.

And how many women crave burnt toast when they’re pregnant? Anecdotally quite a lot. Are we really going to add toast to the ever growing list of things pregnant women aren’t allowed to even see? If so, we have to ask how we all managed to get here in the first place.

No. I for one shall be treating this advice with the contempt it deserves. Yet again the FSA is bringing itself, and by association all dietary advice, into disrepute.

For more background see:
Is acrylamide in your toast really going to give you cancer?
Why you don’t need to worry about eating brown toast
‘Alternative facts’ are now threatening our roast potatoes. Enough!

And remember: Research causes cancer in rats.

Ten Things

I love the summer months for the variety of locally grown foods, and some from warmer climes, are available and at their best. And May is when one of my favourite foods — asparagus — is in season here in England. With summer fruits like strawberries hard on its heels.

As Noreen often observes, to our 19th century (and earlier) ancestors we must be living like the gentry because here are …

10 Foods I’ve Eaten in the Last Week
(some of them more than once!):

  1. Asparagus
  2. Avocado
  3. Smoked Salmon
  4. Duck Breast
  5. Brie
  6. Fruit Crumble
  7. Curried Steak Salad
  8. Sausages
  9. Olives
  10. Strawberries

Your Interesting Links

There’s a lot in this month’s edition, which is a few days late, so let’s get straight in.

Science & Medicine

Scientists have tried to work out the five most addictive substances on Earth and what they do to your brain.
No real surprises though.

Another set of scientists have discovered a mysterious boiling river in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. Well it’s almost boiling and certainly hot enough to lightly poach the unwary.

Talking of boiling water, what temperature does it actually boil? And why can’t you make tea at the top of Everest (even supposing you were stupid enough to want to)?

And to the other end of the scale … Yet more scientists have been and recorded the sounds at the bottom of the ocean. Not just any ocean but deepest part, the Mariana Trench. And they were in for quite a surprise.

From sound to … sound. It seems that parrots are a lot more than just pretty birds. They have their own parrot languages and are also known to make tools.

Back to water and a German scientist has worked out just how Archer Fish are so adept at shooting down insects with a jet of water.

And now to things medical … One in five of us believe we have a serious allergy, but most of it is just belief. Here’s a summary of some key things you should know about allergies and intolerances (which aren’t the same at all!).

“I’ve been told bacon smells lovely.” Just what is it like to live with no sense of smell?

There’s no reason why it should work, but it does. We’ve all experienced the placebo effect but here are five popular placebo myths explained.

[Trigger Warning] It is thought that anything up to a quarter of all pregnancies end in miscarriage, the vast majority in the first 12 weeks, and often there is no obvious reason. However miscarriage remains a taboo and is seldom talked about. But medics are now putting effort into trying to find underlying reasons and to help those women most badly affected and those most at risk. [Long read]

What happens when you have a hole in your ear? Specifically a hole in the canal(s) of your inner ear? It’s rare, but the effect is quite frightening. [Long read]

Seems that attacking people who are overweight (or worse) is counter-productive. You don’t say!

Are you a loner? And a nerd? Yes many of us who do a lot of thinking (it’s often called research, or work) are. So we need some peace and quiet — and a little sympathy.


It is important that we talk openly, frankly and honestly to our children about sex and pleasure. Peggy Orenstein has a new book out on “Girls & Sex”; here‘s a piece about it and a few myths exploded. But don’t forget the boys as well; they have to be taught about sex and pleasure, and often respect for the girls too.

At which point it seems appropriate to ask why the clitoris doesn’t get the attention it deserves? And why does this matter?

It seems there are engineering lessons to be learnt from the design of the penis and the mechanics of erection

Social Sciences & Business

The surprising chances of our lives can seem like they’re hinting at hidden truths. On coincidences and the meaning of life.


Apparently a 5000-year-old linen dress is the oldest know woven garment. and it’s on display in London.

There are many mysteries about the lives and deaths of the Egyptian Pharaohs. But it looks as if one may have been solved as CT scans have revealed brutal injuries to Pharaoh Ramesses III.

We’ve all come to know (and love?) the @ sign. But I remember being totally mystified by it as a kid using my father’s typewriter, which isn’t surprising as it appear to have a long and rather convoluted history.

Edward Johnston and the typeface that changed the face of London Underground, and much else besides. with a rather more than walk-on part by Eric Gill.

I love the Museum of London Docklands and they’re opening a new gallery which centres around the museum’s building itself. IanVisits got a sneak preview.

Food & Drink

Are you a devoted breakfast eater? Or are you like me and usually not want breakfast? Breakfast is supposed to be the most important meal of the day, but is it? Spoiler: probably not.

Apparently we don’t have a clue how to shop for vegetables. Dear God, Mr American, tell me something I’ve not known this last 60 years.

Professional chefs on mould, food waste and expiry dates.

The UK has sheep coming out of its ears, so why won’t UK supermarkets stock British lamb? Surely it has to be better than frozen New Zealand lamb that’s been shipped round the world; and because it’s on our doorsteps it really shouldn’t be more expensive. Sorry supermarkets (and butchers) if you aren’t going to sell me fresh British lamb, I’m not buying lamb. Simples.

Shock, Horror, Humour

Finally, for the avoidance of doubt — and the education of the masses — here’s the CPS guidance on nudity in public.

Sweet and Sour

As one might expect, Christopher Snowdon (he who has taken the new alcohol guidelines apart) writing over on City AM is not at all impressed by George Osborne’s new tax on sugar.

It’s a money spinner; no more, no less — at least according to Snowdon. For my money, if we really want a tax on sugar to reduce consumption as well as raise revenue, Osborne has missed several tricks:

  • tax all forms of sugar in all products
  • tax all sweeteners (natural and artificial) including honey and stevia (on the basis that they encourage a liking for extra sweetness)
  • make the tax a sliding scale, starting at something small for less than (say) 1g per litre or kilo, rising to something draconian (20%, 25%) for over 10g per litre or kilo
  • make it a consumer tax (like tobacco duty) rather than a levy on the producers

That would hopefully affect all consumers, relatively equitably. It would encourage people to buy less-sweetened products (without having to give up sweetness completely). And encourage producers to reduce sweetener content with substantial price advantages, and hence hopefully higher sales/greater market share.

Oddity of the Week: Seaside Rock

It has just been brought to my attention that Blackpool (and one suspects other places) are now offering seaside rock in a variety of flavours other than the hitherto ubiquitous peppermint and occasional fruit flavours.

According to the Blackpool Gazette local vendors are now offering flavours such as cappuccino, peanut butter, gin & tonic, chicken tikka, cheese & tomato pizza and, rather oddly, fish & chips.

Cappuccino and gin & tonic might just work. I’m not convinced about the others.

Your Interesting Links

So here we are again with another round of links to interesting items you might have missed the first time around. Again not too much heavy science but a lot of oddities …

Cats vs Dogs. Who wins? Well from an evolutionary perspective scientists have concluded that cats are better.

Since when has a Goth Chicken been a thing? Quite a while apparently as it is a recognised breed with black feathers, black meat and even a black heart. And they are highly prized.

We all know we eat too much animal protein, so it’s no surprise that the trend for replacing red meat with chicken isn’t actually helping.

George Monbiot considers evidence that obesity is an incurable disease and asks why then governments are intent on punishing sufferers.

So what is it like if you lose your sense of smell?

There are lots of medical screening tests available but which are really useful and what are the drawbacks?

Michael Ignatieff looks at the ongoing human impact of the Fukushima accident and subsequent clean-up.

So which shall be the master: the Meridian or GPS? It seems they don’t agree where the Greenwich Meridian is by a small matter of 102 metres. which is fine, apparently.

Galileo looked at a pendulum and thus begat GPS. Or how seemingly trivial observations and inventions can have long-lasting and profound effects centuries later.

And while we’re on inventions, a creative man has built a machine to feed his cat — but only when the cat hunts and finds a hidden ball and puts it in a slot machine!

Mention of Galileo makes us turn to history, but let’s start even further back in time … An English academic working in America has been looking hard at the walls of Tutankhamun’s burial chamber and thinks he’s spotted the bricked up entrance to Queen Nefertiti’s tomb.

Now here’s an equally puzzling conundrum. Was Shakespeare stoned when he wrote his plays? Well maybe, because pipe remains found in Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon garden have been analysed and found to contain not just tobacco but also cocaine and cannabis.

Struan Bates at takes a further look at London’s York House Water Gate, this time as represented by various artists.

Has anyone got a couple of million to spare? If so, Dungeness is up for sale — yes, that large expanse of shingle on the Kent coast. And as it’s a very environmentally sensitive area it needs a suitable owner. Now if I can just win the lottery …

After which it is all downhill (or do I mean down the beach?) …

Guys … Do you want to increase your fertility? If so, take a tip from the Scots and wear a kilt!

Don’t want to wear a kilt? OK, so nudism is another option. Here are two items where young ladies look at the experience of social nudity: the first talks of the challenges of being a lifelong nudist and the second tackles nudity in the interests of research.

Meanwhile Amnesty International has found some sense and now backs the worldwide decriminalisation of prostitution. Is it too much to hope the politicians might now listen? Yes, I thought so.

And finally some words from a working, legal (albeit American) prostitute on the misconceptions people have about the job she has chosen for herself.

That’s all. More anon.

Oddity of the Week: Dong Tao Chicken

The Dong Tao chicken is a somewhat gruesomely bizarre breed with elephantine legs and feet. It is very popular in Vietnam where it is prized for its meat, which is considered far more delicious than that of normal chickens.

An adult Dong Tao chicken can grow to weigh three to six kilograms, with legs as thick as a person’s wrist. The hens are generally white, while the cocks have colourful feathers.

More information at

Chicken Foot Curry, anyone?