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Charles Glen King and the story of Vitamin C

Today is the birthday of Charles Glen King (22 Oct 1896 – 23 Jan 1988), an American biochemist and the ‘other guy’ who also discovered Vitamin C.

In the early 1930s, King was doing research on the anti-scurvy effects of lemon juice on guinea pigs (guinea pigs are one of only a small group of animals besides humans who cannot produce their own vitamin C, hence they can get scurvy like us). At the same time, Hungarian physiologist Albert Szent-Gyorgyi was studying the chemical hexuronic acid that he had previously isolated from animal adrenal glands. Within 2 weeks of each other, both King and Szent-Gyorgyi published papers on the discovery of Vitamin C, showing that the vitamin and hexuronic acid were the same compound.

Szent-Gyorgyi went on to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1937, for his part in the discovery of Vitamin C, while King was not similarly rewarded. Controversy remains over the extent to which both men deserve partial credit for the discovery.

Given the extent to which Vitamin C is lost from food due to storage, cooking etc, a dietary supplement may be necessary to ensure that you get enough of the good stuff.
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Vitamin C is also known as ascorbic acid, thanks to its anti-scurvy properties (a- = not; scorbus = scurvy). Besides fighting off scurvy, Vitamin C has many other benefits – it is a cofactor in numerous enzymatic reactions in the body, and it has important antioxidant properties. It also enhances iron absorption, and is a natural antihistamine. However, while it is found in high concentrations in immune cells, its flu-fighting power may be a myth. Despite extensive research, Vitamin C has not been proven effective in the prevention or treatment of colds and flu. It does not reduce the incidence or severity of the common cold, but there are some indications that it may help reduce the duration of illness.

Still, even though it may not ward away the sniffles, getting a decent daily dose will definitely do you more good than harm – there doesn’t appear to be many adverse effects from overdosing, since excessive amounts of Vitamin C is simply lost through nonabsorption or urination.

So, don’t hold back on the chilli peppers, guavas, leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, fresh herbs, kiwifruit, strawberries and, yes, good old oranges.

And while you’re feasting away, spare a thought for Charles Glen King, the unsung hero in the Vitamin C story.

Give us this day our daily bread

Today is World Bread Day. While it coincides with the United Nations’ World Food Day, it’s a much more lighthearted celebration.  For the past seven years, 16 October has been the date that bloggers and other social medialites the world over have baked bread, and shared their experiences with their friends and followers.

A steaming, freshly baked bread must be one of the most basic culinary pleasures in life.  When you’ve been away from fresh food for a few days, there are few things better than a thick slice of bread, hot out of the oven, generously spread with melting butter.

Ahh, bread and olives. Add a glass of wine and life is good.
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In a way it is fitting that World Bread Day falls on the same day as World Food Day, given the role of bread as a basic source of nutrition the world over.  Bread is one of the oldest prepared foods, with evidence of bread-making dating back some 30 000 years. Earliest breads seem to have been a form of flat-bread made from starch extract from the roots of plants, while ‘modern’ grain-based bread appeared around 10 000 BC.

Considering it’s prevalence, bread plays an understandably important role in culture and religion. In Christian religion, bread is a symbol for the the body of Christ, while Jewish religion uses different types of bread for specific religious ceremonies and events. Bread is often equated to our general daily necessities (‘Give us this day our daily bread’, ‘putting bread on the table’). Around the 1950’s, ‘bread’ started to be used as a slang euphemism for money – a figure of speech that is now common the world over. Aligned with this comes terms like ‘bread-winner’ as the main income-provider in the family.

Bread is such an amazingly versatile food – once baked, it can be eaten warm or cold, or toasted. Eat it with dipping liquids like gravy, olive oil or soup; spread it with sweet or savoury toppings; stack it as a sandwich with your favourite fillings including meats, cheeses and more – the options are limited by your  imagination only.

All this talk is making me peckish – I think I can do with a slice of toast with homemade marmelade!

Which leaves me with just one question: Whatever was the greatest thing before sliced bread?

Analysing your personality on World Egg Day

Today, the second Friday of October, has been proclaimed World Egg Day by the International Egg Commission (IEC) [], to raise awareness of the nutritional value of eggs, and has been celebrated annually since 1996.

As an affordable source of high quality protein, eggs do indeed play a vital role in feeding people around the world, both in developed and developing countries. According to the IEC, eggs contain just the right mix of amino acids required to build human tissue, and is second only to mother’s milk as a protein source for human nutrition. Egg yolks are also an abundant source of Vitamin D.

Considering the different ‘egg personalities’, I wonder what a preference for double yolked eggs might signify?
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OK, so here’s an interesting egg story. According to a recent report on research performed by Mindlab International, a person’s preferred way of eating eggs may have a lot to say about their personalities, jobs and even sex drive. Applying data mining techniques to a sample of just over a thousand British adults, they searched for statistically meaningful relationships between people’s characters, lifestyles, social class etc, and whether they preferred their eggs boiled, poached, fried, scrambled or as an omelette.

Here are a few highlights from the Mindlab findings:

  • Poached egg eaters are mostly women, and tend to be outgoing, energetic extroverts. They prefer brighter clothing, livelier music and tend to be happy.
  • Boiled egg fans are also mostly female, and they tend towards the upper working class. They are likely to be disorganised, careless and impulsive, and run a higher than average risk of getting divorced.
  • Fried egg eaters tend to be younger males, and from the skilled working class. They are more open to new experiences, creative, curious and imaginative. They apparently also tend to have a higher sex drive.
  • Scrambled eggs is the preferred choice among those in their twenties and thirties, who tend to be in managerial or senior level jobs. They were also found to be less neurotic, but at the same time more guarded and less open.
  • Finally, the omelette is a middle class favourite, and omelette lovers tend to be reliable, organised and disciplined. They also tend to have tidy homes, live longer, and are less likely to get divorced.

So there you have it…

If the above ‘research’ does not sound enough like pseudoscience yet, the Mindlab findings go further and relates egg-eating habits to star signs. Apparently Aquarius, Leo and Taurus prefers their eggs poached, Cancer, Capricorn and Libra are fans of fried eggs, and Aries, Gemini, Pisces, Sagittarius, Scorpio and Virgo opt for scrambled eggs.

Still reading?  Well, even your position in the family pecking order may influence on your egg preference – first borns are said to prefer scrambled eggs, while those who were born third or later would rather eat their eggs fried. Second borns apparently have no marked preference.

What exactly the value of these results are, is beyond me. But then again it did give me something to write a blog post about, so I guess I shouldn’t complain. 🙂

Happy World Egg Day, everyone!

Salami – good when it’s meat, less so when it’s science

Today is a celebration of that greatest of cured meats – it’s Salami Day.

Salami is a cured, fermented and air-dried sausage-style meat, usually made from pork and/or beef, but also sometimes from a range of other meats including venison and turkey (and even, apparently, shark and swordfish in Japan). The meat is minced together with a range of spices, garlic, minced fat, herbs and wine or vinegar, and left to ferment for a day or so before being stuffed into a (usually edible) casing and hung out to cure. The casing is sometimes treated with an edible mold culture which adds flavour and helps protect the salami from spoilage.

It first became popular with South European peasants, thanks to the fact that it doesn’t require refrigeration, and can last at room temperature for a month or longer. (It is this feature that also makes it one of my personal favourite foods to take on multi-day hikes – few things beat a couple of slices of salami on some cracker-bread over lunch, somewhere out in the middle of nowhere.)

A traditional aged, peppered Hungarian salami – finger-licking good.
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Of course, in science, salami has a very different connotation. The phrase ‘salami science’ refers to a scientific publishing tactic where the same body of research is published in more than one journal, or, more commonly, the results from a single research project is sliced up into multiple smaller research results (spread over time, for example) and published separately. This second option is also referred to as ‘salami slicing’ because you are effectively slicing your single research salami into a whole bunch of smaller slices, spread across different publications.

This is an unfortunate practice because it can skew research data, and it makes it more difficult to get the ‘big picture’ with regards to a specific body of research. It is, however, the result of the way the value or worth of a scientist is measured in the scientific community – the more you publish, the better you are rated, and the more funding you can attract. This ‘publish or perish’ phenomenon is well-known in science, where the size of an individual or group’s scientific output is overemphasized, rewarding quantity over quality.

Nature magazine has gone so far as to say that salami science “threatens the sustainability of scientific publishing as we know it”. Fighting this practice means more time and effort have to be spent by journals and publications to ensure that the same results have not been published elsewhere, thus increasing the workload on already stretched staff and peer reviewers.

Of course quantity is not the only criterion used to judge or measure a scientist’s research output – references and citations also play an important role. However, formulae for quantifying research output is often oversimplified and skewed towards quantity. To again quote Nature magazine, “The challenge then is not only to establish more sophisticated means to assess the worth of a researcher’s scientific contribution, but for bodies making such assessments to make it plain that it is scientific rigour and not merely numerical output that will lead to success”.

It definitely seems slicing your salami thin is better when you’re talking meat than when you’re talking science. In fact, referring to the meaty version, it’s probably a very good idea to slice it thin – when it comes to processed meat (including salami), moderation is definitely a good thing. In a report in the Guardian, the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) has warned that excessive intake of processed meat can increase your risk of developing cancer.

According to the WCRF, “If everyone ate no more than 70g of processed meat – the equivalent of three rashers of bacon – a week, about 3,700 fewer people a year in Britain would be diagnosed with bowel cancer”.

So, in celebration of Salami Day, get yourself a good quality salami (paying a bit more really is worth it when it comes to enjoying a good salami) and enjoy a taste of meat-heaven.

Just don’t overdo it.

And don’t cheat with your research. 🙂

Coconut in the spotlight

Today, would you believe, is World Coconut Day – one of those facts which is usually greeted by a response of “Say what?”. It does feel like a bit of an arbitrary thing to have its own special day, doesn’t it?

But when you start thinking about it, the coconut is one pretty impressive drupe. Yes, that is, botanically speaking, what a coconut is – an “indehiscent fruit in which an outer fleshy part (exocarp, or skin; and mesocarp, or flesh) surrounds a shell (the pit, stone, or pyrene) of hardened endocarp with a seed (kernel) inside”, also known as a drupe. The coconut we usually buy in the shops is not how it hangs on the tree – its just the hardened endocarp shell, with the greenish brown exocarp and fibrous mesocarp already removed.

The coconut – more than just a pretty face!
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The coconut, it turns out, is an amazingly useful drupe. So much so that the coconut tree has been called the ‘Tree of Life’:

  • the water inside the coconut is a refreshing drink, and is used extensively in cooking and a range of medicinal purposes
  • its white flesh can be eaten raw, or desiccated (dried) and grated, and used for culinary or medicinal purposes
  • it’s kernel can be processed to produce coconut oil
  • the coconut oil, water and flesh are also used extensively in soaps and cosmetics
  • the water inside the coconut is sterile until opened, and mixes easily with blood – as such it can be used as an emergency intravenous hydration fluid
  • its shell can be made into charcoal, or made into household items like bowls and other handicrafts
  • coconut shells are also used as the bodies of musical instruments, or banged together for percussion
  • it’s fibrous husk can be used to produce coir, which is used in rope, door mats, brushes, mattress stuffing etc
  • the nectar derived from incising the flower clusters of the coconut can be drunk as is, fermented to make palm wine, or boiled to create a sweet, syrupy candy
  • the husks and leaves of the coconut tree is used to make furnishings and decorations
  • fresh coconut husks can be used as a body sponge
  • the leaves are also used in cooking, to wrap rice, for example
  • coconut fronds are tied together to make brooms
  • the trunk of the coconut tree can be used in construction, or hollowed to make drums and small canoes
  • coconut roots are used in dyes and processed for medicinal purposes.

And so the list goes on…

Given the amazing value that can be gained from the coconut and the coconut tree, it is hardly surprising that it is treated with such immense respect in its main growing regions (including Indonesia, Philippines, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam). It is commonly used in cultural and religious activities, and plays an essential role in Hindu weddings and other rituals.

Still wondering why the coconut got its own World Day? Neither am I!

It’s ‘More Herbs, Less Salt’ Day – time to give your heart a breather

Today, according to those in the know, is ‘More Herbs, Less Salt’ Day. Another of those days that has been thought up to try and nudge us towards a slightly healthier lifestyle (much like ‘Independence from Meat’ Day, that I blogged about earlier).

Indeed, leaning towards herbs, rather than heaps of salt, to season your food is not a bad idea at all. I’m sure anyone who has opened a general lifestyle magazine in the last 10 years will know that salt isn’t all that great for our overly stressed 21st century bodies – our poor hearts already have enough to deal with. Giving the heart a further knock by subjecting it to a high salt diet really isn’t a winning idea.

Using more herbs and less salt not only makes your food healthier, but tastier and prettier too.
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There’s a significant body of research linking high sodium diets to high blood pressure, which in turn is linked to heart attacks, strokes, kidney disease and other nasties. Proving that a decrease in salt actually reduces the risk of heart disease has been more difficult, but a long-term research project conducted a few years ago, aimed to do exactly that. In an article entitled “Long term effects of dietary sodium reduction on cardiovascular disease outcomes: observational follow-up of the trials of hypertension prevention (TOHP)”, the research team from Harvard Medical School presents their results from a long-term follow-up assessment related to a sodium-reduction, hypertension prevention study done 15 years earlier. In the original intervention, a group of adults followed a sodium reduced diet for between 18 and 48 months. From the long-term follow-up research it was found that, compared to the general population, “Risk of a cardiovascular event was 25% lower among those in the intervention group (relative risk 0.75, 95% confidence interval 0.57 to 0.99, P=0.04), adjusted for trial, clinic, age, race, and sex, and 30% lower after further adjustment for baseline sodium excretion and weight (0.70, 0.53 to 0.94), with similar results in each trial.”

This led them to the conclusion that “Sodium reduction, previously shown to lower blood pressure, may also reduce long term risk of cardiovascular events.”

To really put you off a high salt diet, a visit to World Action on Salt and Health, a website dedicated to “improve the health of populations throughout the world by achieving a gradual reduction in salt intake”, should do the trick. Just note, however, that this day (and most scientific research) calls for ‘less salt’, not ‘no salt’. As one of the primary electrolytes in the body, salt is essential for the body to function – just not at the levels that we’re consuming it.

Herbs on the other hand don’t just taste good – they’re like a veritable medicine cabinet in your garden (or pantry, if you don’t grow your own). Besides often being rich in vitamins and trace elements the body needs, specific herbs have long been known for their medicinal effects.

Herbs like chamomile and lavender is known to have a calming effect, parsley, oregano and echinacea can boost the immune system, garlic contains selenium, which can help reduce blood pressure (now there’s a good one to fight the effects of a high sodium diet!), mint and feverfew have been reported to reduce headaches, basil and bergemot fights colds and flu, lemon balm and rosemary is good for concentration and memory… The list goes on.

Of course, as with everything in life, the key is moderation – ‘more herbs’ should not be seen as a license to go overboard on every herb you can lay your hands on. Reckless and injudicious use of herbal supplements can be very detrimental to your health, to say the least. Colodaro State University hosts a nice site, Herbals for Health?, which is worth a read – it gives a balanced overview of the pro’s and cons of a few popular herbal supplements.

Despite the cautionary notes above, culinary herbs, especially freshly home-grown, generally speaking should not cause health risks when used in moderation as an alternative to salt in daily cooking, and that, after all, is what this day is all about. Using herbs in cooking can be a very exciting way to improve your health and well-being, so have fun experimenting with all those new tastes and flavours!

Celebrating George Crum and the birth of the potato chip

I should start today’s post with a bit of a disclaimer – while this tale is told as the truth, the exact date details are difficult to confirm. However, most references I could find stated the date as 24 August 1853, so here goes.

On the above date, Railroad magnate Commadore Cornelius Vanderbilt went dining at the Moon Lake House, a restaurant in Saratoga Springs, New York. He ordered french fries, but found the fries he received too thick, bland and soggy, so he sent them back to the kitchen. George Crum, the chef at the Moon Lake House, wasn’t impressed by what he considered to be an overly fussy customer, so he went overboard to address his concerns – he sliced the fries paper-thin, fried them to a crisp and seasoned them with a generous helping of salt. Much to his amazement, Vanderbilt loved the the crispy chips, so much so that the restaurant decided to add them as a regular menu item, under the name ‘Saratoga Chips’.

A few years later, in 1860, chef Crum opened his own restaurant, and he took pride in serving his ‘signature dish’, placing potato chips in baskets on every table.

Crispy, crunchy potato chips – not the healthiest snack around, but we cannot seem to get enough of them.
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Despite the popularity of Crum’s invention, no-one recognised it’s potential as a mass-produced, off-the-shelf snack – it remained a restaurant delicacy until 1926, when Mrs Scudder began mass-producing potato chips packaged in wax paper bags. In 1938, Herman Lay started producing Lay’s Potato Chips, the first successful national brand in the US.

The rest, as they say, is history – chips (or crisps, as the Brits like to call them) have taken over the world, with the global chip market in 2005 generating total revenues of more than US$16 billion. That’s more than a third of the total savoury snack market for the year.

Of course, being deep-fried and doused in salt, chips aren’t exactly a health snack. They have been identified as one of the leading contributors to long-term weight gain, as well as being linked to heart disease. In response to these issues, potato chips companies are investing huge amounts in research and development of new, more health-conscious products. Frito-Lay, for example, have reportedly invested more than $400 million in new product development, including techniques to reduce the salt content in Lay’s potato chips without compromising taste.

Now flavour is one thing, but did you know that the crunch produced when we bite into a chip, also plays a significant role in our perception of the snack? According to a New York Times article, a team of psychologists at Oxford University conducted an experiment where they equipped test subjects with sound-blocking headphones, and made them bite into potato chips in front of a microphone. In different test runs, using the exact same chips, the sound of the crunch was processed in different ways and passed back to the testers via the earphones. Taking their perception of the unaltered sound as the benchmark, they found that when the crunchy sound was amplified, testers considered the chips to taste fresher and crispier, while muting the crunch resulted in the same chips being rated as less crispy and stale.

Hmmm, all this talk about crunchy chips is making me hungry – I can definitely do with a bag of good old Salt & Vinegar chips right about now!

You can have your pi and eat it, on Pi Approximation Day (22/7)!

Today is 22/7. No prizes for guessing what that means – yes, its Pi Approximation Day! March 14th (3.14) is also celebrated as Pi Day, but I kind of prefer the 22/7 version.

Pi, that curious little number that seems to pop up every time we start going in circles. A number so important that it even got its own name – not many numbers can claim that distinction!

Instead of going in circles trying to figure out what to give the kids for lunch, take your cue from the date and bake them a pi!
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Pi, or π, is a mathematical constant that represents the ratio between a circle’s circumference and its diameter, or π = C/d. It is what’s known as an irrational number – a number that cannot be expressed as a ratio between two integers. Being irrational, it has an infinite number of digits in its decimal representation, and it does not end with a repeating sequence of digits. It is also a trancendental number – a number that cannot be expressed with a finite sequence of algebraic operations.

In addition to its application in geometry and trigonometry, the constant π is found in many formulae, in a variety of sciences, including physics, number theory, thermodynamics, statistics, electromagnetism and mechanics.

The value of π (to 5 decimal places) is 3.14159, which is also approximately the value of 22 divided by 7. Calculating the value of π to higher and higher degrees of accuracy have been a challenge to mathematicians and computer scientists through the ages. Utilising the latest computing technology, the digital representation of π has now been calculated to more than 10 trillion digits. Memorising π to a large number of digits (a practice called piphology) is another challenge taken up by many pi-fanatics, and the current record stands at an astounding 67 890 digits, recited in 2005 in China by Lu Chao over a period of more than 24 hours. (Wow, he probably doesn’t get out much!)

A nice trick to remember the first few digits of pi is to use a poem or sentence where the lengths of the words correspond to the digits in pi. A well-known example, courtesy of English scientist James Jeans, is “How I want a drink, alcoholic of course, after the heavy lectures involving quantum mechanics”, cleverly representing pi’s first 15 digits.

Such is the pervasiveness of the number π that it can even boast numerous appearances in modern popular culture, from TV series (Simpsons, Twin Peaks) to novels (Carl Sagan’s “Contact”) to pop music (Kate Bush’s “Pi“).

Celebrating the Invention of Margarine

Way back in 1869, French chemist Hippolyte Mege-Mouries entered a contest held by Emperor Napoleon III, who offered a prize to anyone who could come up with an satisfactory substitute for butter, for use by the French armed forces. Mege-Mouries won, and patented his butter-replacement on 15 July 1869.

Mege-Mouries called his invention oleomargarine – the name that, after shortening, became the trade name ‘margarine’. (In some places it is still colloquially called ‘oleo’.) He set up a manufacturing operation for his margarine, but it did not prove successful, so he eventually sold his patent in 1871 to Jurgens, a Dutch company that became part of Unilever.

Vegan delight – a dollop of margarine melting into a hot, fresh potato.
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From early in its history, margarine (typically composed of vegetable oils) faced fierce rivalry from the dairy industry, who was concerned about the impact it would have on butter sales. In its basic form, margarine is a pearly white colour, so noting this could be a point of differentiation between margarine and butter, the dairy industry lobbied legislators to restrict the addition of artificial colouring agents in margarine. Long-standing legislative bans on added colour were put in place in the US, Canada and Australasia, with Australia and some US states only starting to allow coloured margarine by the mid 1960s and Canada hanging on to their colour restrictions until as late as 1995 (Ontario) and 2008 (Quebec). Canada clearly did not take kindly to margarine – it was completely banned there until 1948.

Even today, although butter and margarine no longer have to look different, the battle between the two camps rage as fiercely as ever. While there is general consensus that a low-fat polyunsaturated margarine is much less harmful to your heart (it doesn’t contain the cholesterol abundant in butter), the butter lobby is quick to point out that margarine is not a “natural food” and that its artificial colourants have been linked to cancer. From an environmental point of view, the margarine-manufacturing and packaging processes are said to be more intensive and thus less desirable. Then there is the moral and ethical debate, with veganism promoting plant-based margarine over animal-based butter.

Opting for butter or margarine remains a personal decision, based on taste, health, morals and cost. But with health, moral and cost arguments leaning strongly towards the margarine camp, it is no surprise that, worldwide, margarine is definitely the spread of choice, outselling butter by significant margins.

Invention of the microwave oven – time-saver or taste-killer?

Today we celebrate a device that, despite being a really innovative invention, has in the eyes of many become synonymous with anti-innovation in the kitchen.

On this day, way back in 1894, Dr Percy Spencer (9 Jul 1894 – 7 Sep 1970) was born – the self-taught engineer who, many years later, invented the microwave oven. Before the Second World War, Sir John Randall and Dr HA Boot invented the magnetron tube, with which they were able to produce radar microwaves. A few years later, after the war, Percy Spencer was doing research work on the magnetron tube. While working on an active radar set he noticed that a chocolate bar in his pocket had melted – the radar melted the chocolate bar with microwaves. From this discovery, he started investigating the possibility of using microwaves to cook food. Spencer fed microwave power from a magnetron into a sealed metal box. When he placed food into the container and radiated it with microwave energy, the temperature of the food rose rapidly. This resulted in the development of the microwave oven – a device that cooks food with radiation used to heat polarised molecules in the food.

The microwave oven – only good for popping corn?
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The first microwave ovens were large, heavy units, used in restaurants and commercial kitchens. The first countertop microwave was introduced in the mid sixties, soon becoming a ubiquitous device in kitchens around the world.

While the microwave oven is great for reheating food, cooking vegetables, and heating liquids like water or milk, it has not yet achieved any real culinary status. For the most part, it is used to heat ready-made, pre-packaged microwave meals. Microwave cooking can be quite healthy – it’s impact on nutrient content in food is said to be no worse than conventional heating, and thanks to the shorter preparation time, more micronutrients may be retained when microwaving vegetables, for example. But it is limited in application, and for the most part not capable of achieving the culinary effects and flavours created with conventional baking, frying, browning and slow-cooking. (Somehow I don’t expect to see Jamie Oliver’s “The Italian Microwave” or Nigella Lawson’s “The Microwave Goddess” hitting the cookery shelves anytime soon!)

So while the microwave oven definitely has it’s place in the modern kitchen, it may also probably stand trial as the primary culprit in thousands of dull, colourless and uninteresting meals prepared in the past 40 years.

Where do you stand – is the microwave oven an invention to celebrate, or to lament? Do you find it a must-have time-saver in the kitchen, or do you still have difficulty stomaching most microwave meals?