If the old adage ‘you are what you eat’ was meant to be taken literally, I would have completed my transformation into a freakish cornflake/girl hybrid by about the age of seven. This would have been an idyllic existence, perhaps only marred by an unquenchable thirst for milk. But putting aside fantasies of sprouting pizza wings until technology catches up, the idea that the food we consume is directly linked to our health and wellbeing isn’t exactly a controversial theory. What food pyramids teach us (apart from the fact that in Ancient Egyptian pantries, the good stuff was kept up top) is that fruit and vegetables are good for you, whereas a deep-fried chocolate bar wrapped in bacon might be best saved for special occasions, when you have a specialist doctor on standby.
But beyond these basic guidelines, is there any truth to some of the more peculiar food myths out there, the ones that sound like they were thought up not by scientists in lab coats, but by a frustrated babysitter trying to get some kid to stop eating pizza and go to bed? How else did it get around that eating too much cheese will give you nightmares? Why are oysters an aphrodisiac, and will your hair really grow curly if you eat too many bread crusts? These are the questions that keep me up at night, and in the interest of science I’ve taken it upon myself to investigate a few of these well-known food fables and find out whether or not what you eat makes a real difference after all.
I don’t know how many times I was told as a child that eating carrots helps you see in the dark. Its perhaps one of the least damaging lies that can be told to children, and at the time the story seemed to check out – rabbits eat carrots, after all, and they didn’t seem to be staggering blindly through their burrows bumping into things. It just so happened that I loved carrots, and in my mind I was basically one salad away from turning into Cyclops from X-Men. Unfortunately, while scientists have identified the vitamin A found in carrots as necessary for the synthesis of rhodopsin, a particular pigment in the eye that aids vision in low light, no amount of carrots will ever let you see completely in the dark. The origins of this old wives’ tale can be traced back to the Second World War, when the British Government announced that their air force’s incredible success in intercepting German bombers on night raids was due to the amount of carrots eaten by pilots, and not the newly-developed radar they were keeping under wraps. In the 1940s, vegetables giving you the power of night-vision was apparently the more believable story.
The belief that eating fish will make you smart is a prevailing one, and one of the main reasons why I switched from salmon to dolphin (the smarter the fish, the smarter you get, right?). Taking the idea on good faith, my consumption of fish and chips peaked around the time of my final high-school exams, due in no small part to the small voice in my head telling me fish was ‘brain food’, even if it was smothered in enough deep-fried batter to send me into a food coma instead of hitting the books. Unfortunately, the truth is that force-feeding your child tuna from birth is not a foolproof plan to raise the next Einstein or Stephen Hawking – only Dora the Explorer can do that. However, the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish (particularly in oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, and tuna) are the rock stars of polyunsaturated fatty acids, credited with improving everything from heart health to the brain. Which is good, because if you’re buying something called ‘Fish Oil’ to willingly ingest, you want to know it’s doing something.
So with two food-based superpowers denied to us, where do we go in our mission to build up an army of super-healthy mutants? Having been denied super-vision and super-intelligence, can we at least hope for super-strength? If the tattooed and perpetually squinting cartoon character Popeye has taught us anything, it is that YES WE CAN. All you have to do is swallow a can of spinach and you’re good to go about your daily business with the combined strength of an Olympic weightlifting team – and who’s going to argue with a pugnacious sailor with anatomically disproportionate forearms? Today, while spinach no doubt enjoys its status as a superfood, lording its high vitamin and mineral content over all the other leaves in the salad aisle, it seems that what Popeye really used his strength for was propping up the spinach industry. In 1937 the spinach-growing town of Crystal City, Texas erected a statue of their greatest patron. And in the end, isn’t encouraging young children to want to eat a flavourless green leaf the greatest feat of strength there is?
Words by Georgia Oman