The Guardian (London) May 2, 2006,,1765302,00.html


Tough on crime, to hell with the causes of crime if they make money


Research shows a direct link between junk food and violent behaviour.

But governments are in cahoots with the industry


By George Monbiot

Does television cause crime? The idea that people copy the violence

they watch is debated endlessly by criminologists. But this column

concerns an odder and perhaps more interesting idea: if crime leaps

out of the box, it is not the programmes that are responsible as much

as the material in between. It proposes that violence emerges from

those blissful images of family life, purged of all darkness, that we

see in the advertisements.


Let me begin, in constructing this strange argument, with a paper

published in the latest edition of Archives of Pediatrics and

Adolescent Medicine. It provides empirical support for the contention

that children who watch more television eat more of the foods it

advertises. "Each hour increase in television viewing," it found,

"was associated with an additional 167 kilocalories per day." Most of

these extra calories were contained in junk foods: fizzy drinks,

crisps, biscuits, sweets, burgers and chicken nuggets. Watching

television, the paper reported, "is also inversely associated with

intake of fruit and vegetables".

There is no longer any serious debate about what a TV diet does to

your body. A government survey published last month shows that the

proportion of children in English secondary schools who are

clinically obese has almost doubled in 10 years. Today, 27% of girls

and 24% of boys between 11 and 15 years old suffer from this

condition, which means they are far more likely to contract diabetes

and to die before the age of 50. But the more interesting question is

what this diet might do to your mind. There are now scores of studies

suggesting that it hurts the brain as much as it hurts the heart and

the pancreas. Among the many proposed associations is a link between

bad food and violent or antisocial behaviour.


The most spectacular results were those reported in the Journal of

Nutritional and Environmental Medicine in 1997. The researchers had

conducted a double-blind, controlled experiment in a jail for chronic

offenders aged between 13 and 17. Many of the boys there were

deficient in certain nutrients. They consumed, on average, only 63%

of the iron, 42% of the magnesium, 39% of the zinc, 39% of the

vitamin B12 and 34% of the folate in the US government's recommended

daily allowance. The researchers treated half the inmates with

capsules containing the missing nutrients, and half with placebos.

They also counselled all the prisoners in the trial about improving

their diets. The number of violent incidents caused by inmates in the

control group (those taking the placebos) fell by 56%, and in the

experimental group by 80%. But among the inmates in the placebo group

who refused to improve their diets, there was no reduction. The

researchers also wired their subjects to an electroencephalograph to

record brainwave patterns, and found a major decrease in

abnormalities after 13 weeks on supplements.


A similar paper, published in 2002 in the British Journal of

Psychiatry, found that among young adult prisoners given supplements

of the vitamins, minerals and fatty acids in which they were

deficient, disciplinary offences fell by 26% in the experimental

group, and not at all in the control group. Researchers in Finland

found that all 68 of the violent offenders they tested during another

study suffered from reactive hypoglycaemia: an abnormal tolerance of

glucose caused by an excessive consumption of sugar, carbohydrates

and stimulants such as caffeine.


In March this year the lead author of the 2002 report, Bernard Gesch,

told the Ecologist magazine that "having a bad diet is now a better

predictor of future violence than past violent behaviour ...

Likewise, a diagnosis of psychopathy, generally perceived as being a

better predictor than a criminal past, is still miles behind what you

can predict just from looking at what a person eats."


Why should a link between diet and behaviour be surprising? Quite

aside from the physiological effects of eating too much sugar

(apparent to anyone who has attended a children's party), the brain,

whose function depends on precise biochemical processes, can't work

properly with insufficient raw materials. The most important of these

appear to be unsaturated fatty acids (especially the omega 3 types),

zinc, magnesium, iron, folate and the B vitamins, which happen to be

those in which the prisoners in the 1997 study were most deficient.


A report published at the end of last year by the pressure group

Sustain explained what appear to be clear links between deteriorating

diets and the growth of depression, behavioural problems, Alzheimer's

and other forms of mental illness. Sixty per cent of the dry weight

of the brain is fat, which is "unique in the body for being

predominantly composed of highly unsaturated fatty acids". Zinc and

magnesium affect both its metabolism of lipids and its production of

neurotransmitters - the chemicals which permit the nerve cells to

communicate with each other.


The more junk you eat, the less room you have for foods which contain

the chemicals the brain needs. This is not to suggest that food

advertisers are solely responsible for the decline in the nutrients

we consume. As Graham Harvey's new book We Want Real Food shows,

industrial farming, dependent on artificial fertilisers, has greatly

reduced the mineral content of vegetables, while the quality of meat

and milk has also declined. Nor do these findings suggest that a poor

diet is the sole cause of crime and antisocial behaviour. But the

studies I have read suggest that any government that claims to take

crime seriously should start hitting the advertisers.


Instead, our government sits back while the television regulator,

Ofcom, canoodles with the food industry. While drawing up its plans

to control junk food adverts, Ofcom held 29 meetings with food

producers and advertisers and just four with health and consumer

groups. The results can be seen in the consultation document it

published. It proposes to do nothing about adverts among programmes

made for children over nine and nothing about the adverts the younger

children watch most often. Which? reports that the most popular ITV

programmes among two- to nine-year-olds are Dancing on Ice,

Coronation Street and Emmerdale, but Ofcom plans to regulate only the

programmes made specifically for the under-nines. It claims that

tougher rules would cost the industry too much. To sustain the share

values of the commercial broadcasters, Ofcom is prepared to sacrifice

the physical and psychological wellbeing of our children.


At the European level, the collusion is even more obvious. Last week,

Viviane Reding, the European media commissioner, spoke to a group of

broadcasters about her plans to allow product placement in European

TV programmes (this means that the advertisers would be allowed to

promote their wares during, rather than just between, the

programmes). She complained that her proposal had been attacked by

the European parliament. "You have to fight if you want to keep it,"

she told the TV executives. "I would like to make it very clear that

I need your support in this."


I spent much of last week trying to discover whether the Home Office

is taking the research into the links between diet and crime

seriously. In the past, it has insisted that further studies are

needed, while failing to fund them. First my request was met with

incredulity, then I was stonewalled. Tough on crime. To hell with the

causes of crime.

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