Toothpaste and other triumphs

May 19, 2006

Many new 'lifestyle' products have been created or inspired by academics. Harriet Swain uncovers the extraordinary in the everyday

Think of a typical morning. You brush your teeth, shave perhaps, pull on a fleece and head downstairs for a bowl of cornflakes or a slice of toast and a vitamin pill. All are acts so routine that few would usually spare them much thought. But plenty of thinking power has gone into each one - academic thinking power.

Take toothpaste. The formula will have been developed in a lab.

It may have been inspired by an unrelated piece of scientific research. It will then almost certainly have been honed by chemists in a university or industrial lab to accommodate the demands of consumers and industry. The same goes for the shaving foam and the clothes.

Next consider toast. Is the wheat it is made from genetically modified? Is it organic? Either way, academic arguments, as well as experimentation, will have influenced its appearance on your plate. And Gundula Azeez, policy manager at the Soil Association, says that the vitamin pill encapsulates the way academic work influences what we eat in good and bad ways.

Through painstaking lab work, scientists have begun to identify the thousands of vitamins present in plants and to show how each is important for health, she says. Nutritional advice draws on their research. The problem is that it refers only to those vitamins that have been identified.

Therefore, people who take supplements in certain vitamins may be missing out on others that are just as or even more important.

"Science is important, but it is only perceived step by step," Azeez says.

When it comes to food, she prefers a holistic approach and a culture of eating that promotes fresh, organically produced food containing a range of nutrients.

This approach is less appealing to the food industry, where the new buzzword is "functional" foods - those with health benefits beyond their usual nutritional value. Folic acid is added to bread and breakfast cereals, certain yogurts contain "good" (probiotic) bacteria, and milk fortified with omega-3, a fatty acid found in fish oils, has been launched in the UK. Euromonitor, a global information provider, found that retail sales of functional foods grew by a compound annual growth rate of just under 10 per cent between 1998 and 2003, compared with a compound annual growth rate of 2.4 per cent for total packaged food over the same period.

None of this would have been possible without the scientists who identify the elements, measure the effects of incorporating them in everyday foods and evaluate the research findings so that they get the green light from the Government and influential non-governmental organisations.

The types of academics who influence the way we eat have changed over the years. Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University, says 50 years ago much research focused on increasing agricultural yields. Now, with overproduction in Europe, social scientists are seen as influential because they can help mould consumer demand, resolve environmental problems or address issues of supply chain management. "Marketing is much more important and influential in what happens in food than whether a different husbandry system will produce triplet lambs as opposed to twins," he says.

The cosmetics industry has also recognised the value of academic credibility in selling products. This is not just a case of glamorous actresses introducing "the science bit" in haircare advertisements.

University labs are used to develop machines that measure the effects of different products on wrinkle depth, hair strength and tooth abrasion, which can give companies the edge. Chris Flower, director-general of the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association, says the relationship between academics and members of his association goes much deeper. Many companies assign people to trawl through academic journals looking for ideas. An article on an unrelated subject sparked the idea for a shaving gel that foams once squirted on the hand. Hair gels on the shelf are the result of scientific work on emulsions. Flower says that companies are likely to be spending more time on this kind of research because the pace of invention is much faster than it used to be. "People are looking for so many new things," he says. "It is not just about a different colour or texture. They are saying, 'come on, give me something new'."

Academics are also working more directly with companies, which approach them to ask for help in developing a new product.

Academic work can shape our attitudes to lifestyle issues more generally.

"The whole environmental awareness thing is partly academically driven,"

Flower says. "People doing research on the environment and changes to the environment have made us more aware of the impact of what we do." This has led to companies changing packaging and ingredients and to a greater reluctance to include extracts from threatened plant species in products.

"It is an academic interest in one sense, but it has practical consequences on product development in that people are aware of the impact of using these elements," he says.

But the influence that academics have on attitudes is not straightforward.

On the one hand, they have helped to create the technology behind aerosol deodorants. On the other hand, they have produced the evidence that discourages their use. The same is true in numerous other aspects of our lives.

The organic food movement was also inspired by academics. Early in the 20th century, Fritz Haber, a German physical chemist, devised a way of synthesising ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen, which led to the development of cheap inorganic fertilisers and vastly increased food production. Then, Sir Albert Howard, a UK government scientist, researched traditionally run farms in India and developed a sound scientific basis for the benefits of composting and natural ways of controlling pests and producing high-quality plants.

Without research taking place in university aeronautical departments, we would not take for granted an annual summer holiday in the sun. But research on the effects of aircraft emissions on the environment makes us think twice, while academic initiatives such as the International Centre for Responsible Tourism at Greenwich University could eventually prompt us to think of our holidays in different ways.

Other aspects of our leisure time are similarly affected. Mark Griffiths, professor of gambling studies at Nottingham Trent University, says the industry has regularly drawn on academic research suggesting that problem gambling is the result of psychological issues. His own research suggests that it is about product design and the gambling environment. Rather than being shunned, he has been taken up as an industry adviser. The industry wants his help in designing an environment that is less conducive to problem gambling so it can be socially responsible while reaping more money by widening its customer base. "I never dreamt 20 years ago that I would be helping the industry," he says.

Griffiths says that when academics act as consultants or get involved in think-tanks or governmental commissions they tend to exert considerable influence because they are respected as experts. They also often set the framework of debate.

Stephen Overell, head of media at the Work Foundation, a research and management consultancy, says that while attitudes to work in the UK are more managerially driven than in other European countries, academics influence day-to-day life at the level of ideas. "They come up with a new idea and way of looking at things and it captures the attention of policy-makers and suddenly that language the academic created is becoming the stuff of political debate and chattering class-style conversations," he says.

For example, Richard Sennett, professor of sociology at the London School of Economics, inspired Tony Blair's respect agenda, while a book on happiness by Richard Layard, another LSE professor, has planted the idea of personal and social - as well as economic - success being important to a society. But these, Overell says, are philosophical issues. How they translate into our everyday lives is harder to pin down.

He suggests that the first rumblings of lifestyle changes usually appear in the press, closely followed by academics setting the intellectual foundations and terms of debate. Practitioners then tend to take over, with academics returning later to evaluate what has been happening. "They are there towards the beginning and towards the end," Overell says. He also suggests that those who really have an influence tend to be "academics plus" - those who have written popular books or run consultancies - rather than straight academics.

Certainly, the influence that academics exert on our lives is rarely achieved in isolation. It demands collaboration between thinkers, consumers, industry and the Government. Referring to attitudes towards food, Azeez also suggests another element - common sense. Although even this, somewhere along the line, may well have been influenced by academic study.

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