As someone who grew up in London, I can say with some experience that there’s no takeaway better than fish and chips*. When I was a child, we lived in Muswell Hill, around the corner from Toff’s, an award-winning fish-and-chippie, and every once in a while my dad would give up on cooking, disappear, and return with faintly steaming goodness wrapped in the traditional grease-stained newspaper.
What followed resembled lions thronging around a kill, except with more 5-year-old elbows and the occasional spatter of tomato sauce.
According to news sources from around the world, however, we shouldn’t have been touching those soggy, oily wonders. Now, I know what you’re thinking — fish and chips are terrible for you, they’re full of fat, high in salt, and are basically the devil’s food anyway! All of this is true, but it appears that fish and chips are not just bad for our hearts. You see, this wonderful English classic is not just clogging our arteries, it’s actually giving us the flu.
Except, of course, this is bollocks. Fish and chips might be a calorie-dense treat best reserved for the one time in the year that you’re actually willing to eat your weight in fried potatoes, but it’s almost certainly not giving you influenza.
Seriously Silly Science
Usually, when I see a story like “How fish and chips and other processed foods could stop the flu vaccine from working” from the Daily Mail, the first thing I do is track down the study. But this time, I quickly learned that there wasn’t really much point. You see, this entire fearful story — dozens of headlines claiming that you could get the flu from eating fish and chips, or other fatty foods — is based on unpublished research shown at a presentation last week.
I’ve written before about this problem — unpublished research hasn’t yet been through the lowest bar for scientific accuracy, peer review, which means that there’s a much better chance that it’s wrong. Or that the conclusions will change between now and a paper being published. Or that it will be watered down to the point of being an entirely different story altogether.
Unpublished research is a bit like trying a wheelie for the first time. You hope that you know what you’re doing, but whether you end up looking great or like a fool is more up to chance than anything.
You get the picture.
But even then, this research doesn’t tell us very much. The study itself looked at what happened when mice were given a preservative that’s common in a variety of fatty foods. Basically, the mice who were given amounts of this additive similar to the amount that people might eat in their diet had changes to cells in their immune system which caused them to be sicker when exposed to the influenza virus. They then checked and found that this was because these mice were producing less of a type of immune cell that’s important in identifying and fighting off an infection.
Essentially, more additive equals more flu. Not great if you want an illness-free winter.
But you can’t just take rodent research like this and apply it directly to people. Mice and people are different in many ways, not least their immune systems, and while rodent studies are important in identifying potential mechanisms that might be causing health issues, they aren’t definitive about what’s happening in people like you and me.
It’s entirely possible that the reactions that the researchers found in this study don’t have resemblance to what happens in actual people who get the flu. It’s possible that we’ll find out that this preservative is damaging our immune systems, but it’s just as likely that this has nothing to do with people at all.
It’s very hard to know from reports about unpublished research whether this means anything at all.
Which brings us to all those news stories. Is this interesting research? Absolutely. Does it mean that eating fatty foods — especially fish and chips, because the preservative in question is found in frozen fish — is going to make you more prone to influenza? We don’t really have any idea. All we can say at the moment is that unpublished research indicates that lab mice who are fed nutrient pellets containing tert-butylhydroquinone are a bit worse off than mice that aren’t.
It’s very hard to associate that to you or I fighting off a flu infection.
If you want to be protected against the flu — which is going to be especially important in the coming year, which looks to be a big flu season — get vaccinated. The best way to protect yourself and others from this deadly infection is to make sure you can’t get the disease in the first place.
You should probably eat less fish and chips, but not because they are going to damage your immune system. If you’re buying freshly cooked fish and chips that were a potato minutes before, you probably aren’t going to get any of this preservative anyway.
Fish and chips might clog your arteries, but they aren’t going to give you the flu.
You can now listen to Gid on the Sensationalist Science podcast:
*Note: throughout this article I will be talking about “fish and chips”. Some people might dispute my description, because technically “fish and chips” could be grilled salmon on a bed of honey-roasted parsnips, but I am firmly of the mind that if your fish and chips aren’t deep-fried and so oily they would be defended by climate change denialists you’re doing it wrong.