Would a discovery that might reduce the level of youth crime be something of potential importance? Can you imagine anyone answering no?
Dr Stephen Schoenthaler is a professor of criminology at the University of California in the US. About 20 years ago, he came across an off the wall theory that intrigued him. The reason for the phenomenal increase in youth crime in America, the theory said, was not genetics, Dr Spock, feminism or the atomic bomb but wait for it sugar.
Because modern processed, refined foods are so high in sugar, it was argued that juvenile offenders were suffering from reactive hypoglycaemia caused by a rebound effect from the excessive sugar in the bloodstream. Interesting idea, thought Dr Schoent-haler, but there was little or no scientific evidence to prove it. So, brimming with suppressed scepticism, he organised a small scale trial in 1981 to test it. He approached an obliging juvenile correctional centre, had the soft drinks and sweets vending machines removed, and the prison canteen offer meals made from fresh meat, vegetables and fruits, rather than processed foods.
The effects were dramatic: within three months, a major improvement in the children’s behaviour was accompanied by a staggering 40 per cent drop in serious breaches of discipline.
Schoenthaler was given permission to repeat the same experiment in three more centres in California, on over a thousand juvenile offenders. Again, a better diet produced the same dramatic improvements.
But was it really the sugar? If it was, Schoethaler argued, he would expect to see a rapid improvement in behaviour, because reactive hypoglycaemia is a short lived phenomenon. But reports showed that behaviour did not change that quickly; rather, it gradually improved over a period of weeks. So he deduced that something else in the diet must be responsible. He guessed it had to be the extra nutritional value of the meals in other words, vitamins and minerals.
Schoenthaler began a new series of experiments in other juvenile detention centres, this time using vitamin/mineral tablets to mimic the dietary changes.
His latest experiments, completed in 1995, have been conducted on over 400 offenders, aged 18 to 25, in two separate prisons in California. For 15 weeks, vitamin/mineral tablets were given to half the inmates and placebos to the other half, in exactly the randomised, double blind way that new drugs are tested. Blood samples were taken before and after the experiment to check the prisoners’ levels of nutrients.
Apart from the tablets, there was no other change to the prison regimen. In particular, the guards continued to record violations of prison discipline in their accustomed manner. As none of the prison staff knew who was taking the real tablets, this gave Schoenthaler an objective measure of any behavioural changes.
The results were clear cut. In the supplements group, breaches of prison discipline fell by 38 per cent, with a marked decrease in violent offences. There was no change at all in the placebo group. Interestingly, the improvements in behaviour didn’t occur across the board. When he analysed the blood samples, Schoenthaler discovered it was only those prisoners who had originally been malnourished whose behaviour improved which provided powerful confirmation of his theory.
These dramatic findings have obvious implications for governments faced with a rise in juvenile crime. It would now seem that some of it, at least, is due to poor nutrition. However, so radical is the idea that Schoenthaler has found it impossible to get his results published in any major scientific journals. The prestigious journal Nature, for example, refused to consider his paper, and Science said “the topic is of no interest”.
These rejections are particularly surprising given the pedigree of the research. Schoenthaler even had the official backing of the California Senate, which had passed a special law to permit the study to take place, and had appointed a nine man committee (among them two eminent professors of nutrition, a professor of criminology and a professor of biostatistics) to oversee the work.
The progress of science relies on the open pursuit and dissemination of knowledge. However, in practice, it sometimes seems as if science is structured to do quite the reverse. There are often fierce obstacles in the way of researchers whose work might challenge received ideas or offend special interest groups. Livelihoods and careers can be threatened. As a result, few scientists have the courage to pursue heretical lines of research. When they do, the system will often find other ways of stopping the truth “getting out”. The decision not to publish is simply covert censorship.
So, who is the kind of person who doesn’t think Schoenthaler’s discovery is important? A number of high priests of science, who feel comforted by the certainty that the earth indeed is flat.
Tony Edwards is a TV producer and science writer.