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Nutrition and crime? Sounds way too good to be true

Csaba Toth, a blog reader from Hungary, sent me the link to an article that claims that fresh fruits, whole-grain bread, and a salad bar are the real way to fight crime.

The most compelling part of the article reads as follows:

Bernard Gesch, physiologist at the University of Oxford, decided to test the anecdotal clues in the most thorough study so far in this field. In a prison for men between the ages of 18 and 21 in England’s Buckinghamshire, 231 volunteers were divided into two groups: One was given nutrition supplements along with their meals that contained our approximate daily needs for vitamins, minerals and fatty acids; the other group got placebos. Neither the prisoners, nor the guards, nor the researchers at the prison knew who took fake supplements and who got the real thing.

The researchers then tallied the number of times the participants violated prison rules, and compared it to the same data that had been collected in the months leading up to the nutrition study. The prisoners given supplements for four consecutive months committed an average of 26 percent fewer violations compared to the preceding period. Those given placebos showed no marked change in behaviour. For serious breaches of conduct, particularly the use of violence, the number of violations decreased 37 percent for the men given nutrition supplements, while the placebo group showed no change.

Far be it from me to dismiss out of hand subtle factors that have unexpected consequences on crime. Still, the link between vitamin pills and crime just doesn’t make much sense to me unless one has a reasonable theory about what it is in the supplements that could make a difference.

The article also makes references to how the rise of fast food and convenience food parallel the rise in crime, trying to link this controlled study back to broader social changes. I have two problems with that argument. First, it does not appear that people are more inherently criminal today than 40 years ago when fast food was rare. Second, I highly doubt if you look at the evidence that people today are getting less vitamins and minerals than in the past. They may be eating more fat and more calories (although the latter is a contentious issue among nutrition researchers), but that has nothing to do with the controlled study above.

I am skeptical of the whole thing. Still, if small changes in nutrition radically affect criminal behavior, it certainly would be a better solution than the ones we have, like incarcerating 2 million Americans. So perhaps it is worth further investigation.