The Science of Airline Food

Airline-food-catering-qualityIn writing this blog I did a little research into what people think of airline food. The responses were rather dismal. One friend reported that the only thing more tedious than the in-flight meals was the in-flight entertainment. Another apparently insists on ordering two of every meal on long haul flights, not because of hunger, but because the uncertainty of fully digesting the second serve is invariably more entertaining than conversation with the stranger next to him. Meanwhile, acquaintances forced to fly economy are even more severe in their appraisal, rating their servings on par with the prospect of a mid-air emergency.

But why are we so harsh on airline food? The whole process is alleged to be a high tech service based on cutting edge science to ensure freshness, flavour and quality. Unbelievable, perhaps, but it’s a fact that airlines spend millions of dollars every year looking to improve the dining experience for their mostly ungrateful customers. So what’s gone wrong with the process? Let’s check-in and find out what’s going on.

Welcome aboard: The Planning

As you cram yourself, your partner and your two screaming children in at the back of plane, the in-flight service is probably the last thing on your mind. You may instead be wondering if you can sell a kidney at your holiday destination so you can fly home in business class. Although your mind is on other things, the airline has been planning your meal to the finest detail for weeks or even months. In-flight menus are not random ideas a cook knocked together in the morning. Many airlines employ world class-chef’s to create their offerings using their knowledge of cultural preferences, supply chains and industrial scale cooking techniques.

Yet the Head Chef’s role is not just to create a tasty meal (some might say not even), but rather to use their foodie knowledge to master the financial aspects of the catering process. For instance Qantas Airways services over 180 destinations in 44 countries every year and serves an astonishing 37million meals on more than 266 000 flights. The sheer volume of ingredients and the supply chains are just staggering, so a clever chef who can cut a good deal, or cut waste can save the airline thousands. American Airlines saved $40000/year alone from its catering bill simply by removing one olive from every garden salad it served. Give that Chef a promotion!

Strap yourself in for: The Preparation

Once Chef has finalised his cooking techniques, allocated portion sizes to and done the deals with his suppliers, he sends his book of recipes to the catering centre. Every recipe is perfected to ensure that your industrially processed serve is consistent to the metric gram in quality and food hygiene standards. Producing millions of meals every year is no small task so catering centres for all airlines are usually located at or very near airports. Inside, the centres feature a whole host of hi-tech environments; from sterilisation equipment and sterile preparation areas through to clever industrial food processors, (steam) ovens, grills and stoves. It might come as a surprise then that despite the volumes involved and even with all the advanced production features, the majority of airline food is still prepared by hand. Once done, the food is then snap frozen and delivered ready for your flight, where it will be re-heated in a typical convection oven before heading for your tray table.

Chicken or beef? Mile High Flavour

So a lot of effort and energy has been put into delivering this culinary offering to your seat. Yet before you even look at it, your appetite has left you. Sensory scientists investigating the reasons for this have discovered that at altitude, the low cabin pressure and low humidity dry out our noses and mouths and this reduces our ability to smell and taste the food. Other studies have shown that loud music (especially Heavy Metal), or even din from the jet engines further reduces our taste and flavour senses. Some estimates suggest the cabin environment reduces our ability to detect sweet and salty flavours by around 30% while airborne.

This is known anecdotally as the Bloody Mary phenomenon, where travellers in the air describe the salty astringent flavour as delicious, but on the ground find the same drink unpalatable. To counter this, airline chefs create dishes stuffed full of Umami flavours and stock wines with bold, sharp characteristics, in an attempt to illicit stronger flavour responses. So if you can actually taste something it is because chef has loaded the serving with MSG and selected a wine that would strip paint from a gutter. Its counter intuitive and a touch ironic, that what you find bland and inedible in the air, is probably over seasoned and inedible on the ground.

We hoped you enjoyed your flight

While getting to your destination might be half the fun, next time you are served something on that fancy little tray, take a moment to appreciate the effort that has gone into its preparation. Your meal is an edible monument to the science and technology that goes into making it and that alone should be enough to make your taste buds come alive. So be brave, tuck in and enjoy your flight.

Stop the Hatin’: MSG is good for you!

If we switched from salt to MSG thousands of lives a year could be saved

MSG-flavor-food-additive-ingredientIn 1908 Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda just happened to wonder what gave the Japanese soup Dashi its wonderful flavour. After a little research he found the compound he was looking for in the seaweed ingredients. Isolated, this mysterious crystalline compound looked much like table salt, but was in fact glutamic acid. After a little more testing he determined that when added to food (especially vegetarian dishes), this naturally occurring substance gave a wonderful ‘meaty’ and savoury flavour. Ikeda soon realised the power of this discovery. Humans had a palate for glutamic acid and tastebuds for it that sat alongside of those for sweet, sour, salty and bitter. He termed this discovery Umami and by 1909 he was producing commercial quantities of Mono Sodium Glutamate (MSG), the sodium salt of glutamic acid and was selling it as a flavour enhancer.

This wonderful discovery went onto revolutionise the food industry adding flavour as stocks and seasonings in everything from home cooking through to industrially processed foods. It is also worth noting that glutamic acid occurs naturally in many fresh foods and is actually found extensively across all cultures in the human diet. The reason for this is quite simple; glutamic acid which is converted to glutamate once in the human body, plays a very important role as a neurotransmitter and an anti-oxidant. We have evolved a palate for this flavour to detect the presence of proteins and amino acids in our foods (hence the savoury response), essential components of any balanced diet.

Why then are so many people convinced that MSG is a dangerous, poisonous, toxic compound? The origins of this story can be traced back to 1968 when Dr. Robert Ho Man Kwok, wrote to the New England Journal of Medicine to describe the following symptoms “…numbness at the back of the neck, gradually radiating to both arms and the back, general weakness and palpitation”, which he attributed to eating at Chinese restaurants; and so Chinese Restaurant Syndrome was born. One thing lead to another (full story here), and in no time at all, with very little credible research or investigation, MSG was labelled as the culprit.

From then on the reputation of MSG has been trashed, as public opinion turned against the use of this product. Various interest groups and individuals have taken it upon themselves to label MSG as an allergen/poison/excitotoxin, responsible from everything from asthmatic reactions, hypertension, seizures and a variety of neurological disorders in humans. For some bashing MSG might make a good conspiracy or even a profitable hobby (or business), but the reality is there is no basis for any of these claims.

The truth is that the vast majority of credible scientific studies have failed to demonstrate any definitive adverse human reaction to the consumption of MSG. You can decide for yourself by reading either the 1995 FASEB report, the 2003 FSANZ safety assessment or the more recent 2009 report in Clinical and Experimental Allergy. It is hard to believe that despite the overwhelming scientific evidence clearing MSG of any nasty side effects the myth persists.

Yet if MSG was so dangerous to humans, you would surely expect foods naturally high in glutamic acid like parmesan cheese, peas, mushrooms, tomatoes and corn to make people ill. Human breast milk is also very high in glutamate, as is vegemite (or marmite), and babies and children don’t seem to have an issue with these foods. Likewise, many of us eat, snacks, takeaway and other seasoned food (not labelled as containing MSG) without a care in the world. In fact humans the world over have consumed foods high in added or naturally occurring glutamates for years without any ill effects. So it is particularly ironic that many foodies now view dishes high in Umami as a culinary delicacy and that’s hardly consistent with the reputation of MSG as a dangerous, additive. As of yet, no one has ever thought to report a case of Umami poisoning.

What is particularly disturbing about the misinformation around MSG, is that is has quashed any chance of us using this compound to assist in lowering sodium intake through the use of common table salt. Glutamate contains only a third of the sodium of table salt, and when combined with salt requires much less sodium for the same amount of flavour. Studies have shown that if countries in the developed world swapped salt for MSG to reduce the average sodium (salt) intake by just 10%, this would prevent tens of thousands of strokes and heart attacks every year. Obviously this presents an exceptionally good opportunity to harness a naturally occurring compound to improve our public health. So why are so many professionals afraid of tackling this topic and can the reputation of MSG can ever be repaired?

Maybe one day people will come to realise Umami, Glutamic acid and MSG are all harmoniously related to good food and flavour. In the meantime, why not do your bit and explore Umami for yourself. Invite some friends over for a meal high in Umami. Brush up on a bit of background information on the topic, here, here and here and be the perfect host.

At its conclusion, let them know that the meal they had was high in glutamates (MSG) and let the conversation go from there.

If the (full story here) hyperlink doesn’t work, google ‘That Won-Ton Soup Headache’: The Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, MSG and the Making of American Food, 1968–1980

For more information on Taste and Flavour Roles of Sodium in Foods read

Facebook’s Emotion Manipulation Study Makes People Angry

facebook-anger-emotion-studyFinally there is proof that any Facebook controversy is guaranteed to get people foaming at the mouth faster than Pavlov’s dog: Facebook’s Emotion Manipulation Study.

The 2012 study run by researchers from Cornell University and the University of California in conjunction with Facebook, manipulated almost 700 000 user feeds in a bid to see whether negative or positive content could be used to alter the mood of the user. According to the paper now published in the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers found that: “emotions expressed by friends, via online social networks, influence our own moods, constituting, to our knowledge, the first experimental evidence for massive-scale emotional contagion via social networks, and providing support for previously contested claims that emotions spread via contagion through a network.”

More simply put, Facebook were checking to see if lots of happy posts from your friends make you feel more or less happy. To test this out, our friends at the social network deliberately spiked news feeds with only negative or only positive posts. They then measured how this affected user responses to the artificial news feeds. Seems that the more positive the posts in your newsfeed the happier you will feel and post- and vice versa.

As far as human psychology is concerned this is nothing new. It’s been long known that people’s moods are directly affected by their environment. This is however the first time anyone has shown that Facebook news feeds can alter our moods. Realistically that finding is no surprise either as our moods and emotions are a product of the environment and for many of us Facebook is part of our emotional environment.

When the story broke, the ensuing outrage was equally as predictable. The study did not have the usual ethics approval because Facebook is not an academic institution. Unethical! The users were not informed of their participation. Immoral! Facebook manipulating people’s emotions; deceitful, evil, creepy. Oh the humanity!

Meanwhile Facebook remained silent (as usual), leaving it to one of the research team Adam Kramer, to defend the study as “consistent with Facebook’s Data Use Policy, to which all users agree prior to creating an account on Facebook.” Kramer also said, “The experiment in question was run in early 2012, and we have come a long way since then.” Thanks Adam, this could be reasonably interpreted as an admission that Facebook is still experimenting with news feeds right now. If they have learnt anything from this study, they won’t publish the results next time.

However, the most interesting result of this study is (as always), the typical outpouring of online anger directed at Facebook whenever the public feels they overstep the mark. Those of us that sign up to Facebook choose to give our personal information and share our content freely in return for the service. It should come as no surprise to any of us that the data we provide and the content we see in the Facebook service is processed and manipulated. We see what Facebook want us to see in our news feeds, in exactly the same way Google searches only reveal what they want us to find. This is standard practice across the entire online environment. So what’s the beef?

Perhaps the next study Facebook participates in should explore just how quickly online anger and indignation spreads when users feel that they have been exploited. It happens often enough to be of widespread interest to the public and outraged users seem to like it when their opinions are recorded, so no ethics will be required. But best of all, they could get a follow up paper showing that when Facebook controversy promotes “massive-scale emotional contagion via social networks”, social media users can turn very nasty, very quickly.

The Future: Never Say Never

Never say never, because limits, like fears, are often just an illusion.’ – Michael Jordan

future-office-robots-technologyIs Star Trek simply fiction or is it an option that humanity should be actively pursue? Was FIFA president Sepp Blatter really joking when he suggested that some day football could be played on other planets? Are hoverboards and jetpacks just around the corner? All valid questions that could be debated to the end of time or until they actually occur, whichever comes first. So this week, I’ve put together 5 things people say will never happen, and given a prediction of when you can expect to see them for real. And yes, you can hold me to them.

Robots will never happen in my time.

Science fiction has created an unrealistic expectation of robots: that they will have to look and talk like humans before they have an impact on our modern society. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Robots have already revolutionized manufacturing, health and space travel, and they are already invading your daily life in the form of cash machines, cleaning appliances, coffee makers and toys.

The robot Asimo and whole generation of humanoid, household servants like him have been in development since the 1980s, but there are now claims it is already possible for members of this mechanical clan to read human emotions. This ability is of course a real game changer for the robo-human relationship. Whether or not robots ever achieve real artificial intelligence is irrelevant if they can read a person’s expression and react accordingly. This makes companionship a real possibility and will allow robots to gain meaningful roles along side humans. If you think this is a long way away, think again. There are currently plans in Japan to enter a robotic team against humans in the 2030 World Cup and Google is seriously trialing a robotic car. Robotic cars won’t be safe of course until we finally get every human driver off the road.

Verdict: Companion robots (and World Cup team) commonplace by 2030, Google cars not legal until 2040.

I would never have an implant

Most people seem terrified of having an electronic implant, although they have been in use since the 1970s in the bionic ear and other medical devices. Is it because people fear they might be turned into machines or it could let someone track their every movement? Maybe sinister people might use an implant to control your thoughts and actions. These fears might actually be well founded, although to be honest it might be too late to do anything about it now. Today it’s already possible to track you through the social security system, or watch your movements on CCTV. A variety of organisations can store the information in your emails, financial transactions or even your search results and use this data to shape what you see online. And some of these organisations are even creating marketing campaigns that use that data to influence what you experience and buy in the real world.

As a result it is very easy to be negative about the implications of an implant that might connect to big data, but your phone is essentially already playing that role. So why not relax and start thinking of the benefits a cybernetic implant might bring to your life one day.

A bionic ear or eye could restore senses that are damaged or might be used to fix damaged nerves in spinal injuries and muscles in injured limbs. Post-operative care, or managing chronic illness and pain could all be managed simply and without drugs via an implant. And lets not forget that these same implants might improve your mental abilities. Would having a small chip inserted discretely on your person really be any worse than some of the modern body art we see today?

Verdict: Think about it, it worked for the 6 million dollar man in the 1970s. Implants standard by 2035.

Humans will all live longer than 100 years

We spoke about this last week on FiST Chat and it has generated plenty of discussion since. The greatest concern is that extending human longevity will result in a large dependent population of elderly people. Short term this might appear to be the case because the age related diseases that weaken our bodies and mind represent huge hurdles, but medical science is already looking into preventative medicines and genetic remedies that will allow us to live longer, healthier and happier lives.

Don’t expect miracles in the short-term, but do expect to be able to lead an active life your whole life, where wrinkles, hearing loss are things of the past and mental and physical decline are halted before slow our existence.

In the knowledge age society, experience, skills, and wisdom and will have high value and senior citizens will be revered instead of being feared.

Verdict: Being old is set to become very cool. Average human lifespan 100 years of age by 2060

We will never find alien life

Just 20 years ago we thought our chances of encountering alien life almost improbable. Our solar system appeared barren and earth looked an unlikely miracle despite the size of the universe. Although it was probable life elsewhere might exist, it was highly unlikely we’d ever see it. Strangely though in the last 20 years while the probability alien life exists hasn’t changed, our perspective has. Our telescopes have now spotted hundreds of planets orbiting faraway stars, some of these worlds are even comparable to earth. Maybe one day we will find intelligent life out there.

Meanwhile, closer to home, its unlikely that we will find intelligent life in our Solar System, but that doesn’t mean life won’t exist on one of the planets or moons in our neighbourhood. Despite disappointing results so far, further exploration of Mars will almost certainly reveal evidence of organic life similar to that on Earth. But it’s around the moons of Jupiter and Saturn the biggest surprises might be uncovered where life quite different from that here on earth might have evolved.

Verdict: It will be life Jim, but not as we expected it; discovered elsewhere in our solar system by 2050

There is nothing left to invent.

While some people think we might be running out of cool inventions, nothing could be further from the truth. Whether you believe in economic supercycles or not, the next wave is already coming. Tomorrow’s technology is based on today’s silicon chip, on today’s modern medicine and on today’s laser technologies, but they are wearable, implantable, invisible and much, much more powerful.

While some of these technologies will work their way into the exercise or kitchen appliance inventions we see on home shopping, some of them will also be the reason one day you will finally get your hoverboard and jetpack.

Of course the best inventions of all are yet to be imagined but once they are, humans will find a way to make them, because that’s what we do. Nobody could have imagined an electric light before electricity or the digital age before the silicon chip, yet each step has given us new technology that inventors use to make the tools we see around us. You might love the latest gadget you own today, but deep in your heart you know you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Verdict: You think that’s cool? The year 2036 is cool.

New Anti-Ageing Pills Now A Step Closer

Live longer happier, healthier lives

anti-ageing-pill-live-longerWhen eminent Australian scientist David Sinclair made claims recently that an anti-aging pill could be just 5-10 years away, it caught our attention on FiST Chat. This is a BIG statement and one not to be taken lightly, especially from a scientist who rates a mention on Time’s ‘most influential’ list. But is it really possible science is on the verge of unlocking the fountain of youth to live longer happier lives?

Currently we are living longer on average than at any other time in human history. One hundred years ago, if you had told a parent their children would have a life expectancy twice as long as theirs, they would have good reason to be skeptical. Yet that is almost precisely what happened. In this case the miracle ‘pills’ came in the form of better nutrition, hygiene, vaccines and medical treatments all of which reduced infant and childhood mortality. Thanks to these medical advances, today, the statistics tell us we can all reasonably expect to live into our mid-eighties.

Unfortunately we also know that this added longevity isn’t as golden as it sounds and the battle now has shifted to preventing age related diseases so we can enjoy a better quality of life. Basically, as we get older we go through a natural physical decline associated with our DNA wearing out over time. As part of this process humans also become more susceptible to diseases of age, such as diabetes, osteoporosis, some cancers, and Alzheimer’s. It is these diseases that are reducing the quality of life past 70 years of age and are holding life expectancy below 100.

While the detrimental effects of ageing are related they also require two separate strategies to combat. In this particular case David Sinclair is primarily discussing pills that can combat the effects of age-related diseases. Over the last twenty years he and other researchers have been busy identifying and testing compounds that can protect against disease that reduce the quality of our lives. These compounds have been found in all sorts of foods, from olive oil to fish and even in red wine. If Sinclair is right, and there is no reason not to believe him, then a reduction in chronic age-related illness over the next twenty years is possible and we could see a remarkable improvement in the quality of our lives within a generation.

There is a remarkable amount of knowledge, skills and experience held by the senior end of our community and these anti-ageing pills will go a long way to unlocking this potential, particularly if the treatments can combat neuro-degenerative diseases. But technically these sorts of treatments don’t match what most people imagine when we think of anti-ageing. For most of us the concept of anti-ageing and living longer happier lives, conjures visions of looking and feeling like a thirty year old even at twice that age.

The natural effects of ageing are the result of our DNA acquiring more mutations over time, and this is most acutely seen in wrinkled skin and felt in the aches and pains of older bodies. As unlikely as it seems, a cure for these symptoms of ageing may one day be possible. In 2009 Nobel Laureate Elizabeth Blackburn won her prize for unraveling the mystery of cellular ageing, and the highly regarded Aubrey de Grey believes that using this knowledge means a child born today has a 50% chance of living to 150 years of age.

Of course living to this age would have enormous implications for the future of humanity. Although the scientists involved in this research are always careful to avoid any reference to eternal life, there is a tacit suggestion behind their carefully chosen words. If it were possible to live for two centuries feeling like a 30 year old, its hard to believe that humans wouldn’t want to double their life expectancy again, and again.

For some this might present a dystopian vision, but the reality may be subtly different. Age brings with it, knowledge, skills and experience that are arguably lost from society all too soon. Extended life expectancy and the introduction of cybernetic technologies will help preserve and archive our accomplishments so it can be shared with younger generations. It will make life more precious, and knowledge more valuable. It may even finally bring peace to the world. Extending human life expectancy beyond 1000 years of age is also the only way that humans can meaningfully explore space beyond our solar system.

History has shown that the greatest human advances are made one step at a time. So before we even begin to dream of much longer lives, we need to make the most of our current lifespan. In this instance it might be as simple as taking David Sinclair’s anti-ageing pills and living longer happier lives, without the threat of age related disease. This alone would mean that age would no longer isolate the elderly and it might also allow youth to embrace and learn from the ageing process rather than fear it. And that’s a direction worth exploring.

Watch FiST Chat 169: Anti-Ageing Pills Coming Soon for more on this topic.

Apple’s WWDC, Google’s “right to be forgotten” and why Facebook doesn’t believe in biometrics.

WWDC-iOS8-Tim-Cook-AppleIt’s been another boring year for technology products as hardware producers struggle to invent another product as influential as the iPhone. The unexpected benefit of this is that it puts all the tech companies under the spotlight, and if you listen very carefully to what they say, you can see some big changes on the road ahead for the industry.

This year’s Apple Worldwide Developers Conference seemed an innocuous affair, but the reality is the complete opposite. The conference aimed enticing 3rd party software developers to get on board the Apple platforms, spruiked OSX and iOS as the pinnacle of technical excellence, innovation and design. This sales pitch might be nothing new, but there were some very subtle shifts in the Apple stance worth a second look.

During the presentation Apple announced its purchase of Beats (the music subscription service), a marked departure from the company’s original iTunes philosophy. They also hinted Apple might finally allow multiple users on single devices, something they have resisted for the last decade. Together these two announcements suggest that Apple is finally relenting on its famous lockdown ecosystem and opting to allow users some crossover between apps and devices.

Fierce competition between product developers, operating systems and ISPs are at the heart of the battle now raging almost invisibly behind the hardware. It’s a fair bet someone behind the scenes has done the sums and calculated that for Apple to maintain or increase its market share, it has to offer new services and let users switch across those multiple devices that may or may not be an Apple. Make no mistake, the iTunes business model got Apple where it is today; for them to now include a subscription service in their repertoire, speaks volumes for where the market is going to be longer term.

Ben and I have discussed the battle of the ecosystems on earlier episodes of FiSTchat, but until now we haven’t seen much change to the status quo. Most people own multiple devices, and for one reason or another use multiple platforms. The old business models of Apple’s niche OS and Microsoft’s ubiquitous Windows OS and Office software are under pressure from the ever expanding and universally accessible Google Chrome and Android offerings. This positional shift by Apple is both a defensive move to protect its market share, but will also allow it to chase new opportunities that until now have been left to developers on the more entrepreneurial Android platform.

Meanwhile, in another sign of the times, the good old Google search engine is currently under fire on a couple of fronts from the long arm of the law. Sovereign legal systems which have traditionally struggled to deal with any internet related issue are finally catching up. In a recent European Court ruling, Google must now remove unfavourable search results involving ‘irrelevant’ and ‘outdated’ information. Termed as the ‘right to be forgotten’, this ruling has massive implications and has polarized public debate. It is an issue that is both highly complex and has both positive and negative outcomes depending on how it is interpreted.

To remove the offending search results, the individual only has to fill out the ‘right to be forgotten’ form correctly, and Google can magically vanish these references. Of course we have always known that Google can tweak their algorithms to do this, but they have never admitted so publicly until now. Which may be why Newscorp Chief Executive Robert Thompson has come out and demanded that search engines (read Google), do more to combat illegal downloads after the latest season of US drama Game of Thrones set a new record for piracy.

It’s rare to see such legal pressure applied to the online platforms we know and love. Ultimately the tech giants generally seem to talk and act as if they are a law unto themselves: the NSA furore being a good example of their arrogance. Could it be that these challenges to the online world are just the thin edge of the wedge and this might send the message that the public (and legal system) can bite when it comes to dealing with these giant corporations?

Finally to wrap this all up, Facebook Engineer Gregg Stefancik has come out and said, “I hate biometrics.” The reason for this is because once a person’s biometric data is compromised, it can’t be amended. Its simple: if someone steals your biometric identity, you can’t change your biometric information (fingerprints/ retinal scan) like you can an ordinary password. Perhaps biometrics might go the same way as other flash in the pan technologies before it?

All of the tech news discussed in this week’s blog is subtle, sensible and predictable. Yet it still came as a bit of a surprise when these issues finally appeared in the mainstream. Perhaps the lack of exciting new product releases in recent years has convinced us there is nothing much happening in the tech world. But if you read between the lines you can see some very big battles looming for the tech industry in the near future, and not all of these can be solved by simply releasing a new product.

Watch FiST Chat 168: WWDC 2014, OS X 10.10 Yosemite and iOS 8 for more on this topic.

No Pain, No Gain: Runners High Tech Gear

hi-tech-running-shoesRunning used to be so simple. At its most basic, running is merely a mode of transport. Point yourself in the direction you want to go, lean forwards and move your legs fast. Children run because they can. Adults should only do it to escape death, catch some food or to get somewhere else quicker.

Running was never a very popular pastime until the 1980s with the invention of the running shoe, the rise of professional sport and some slick marketing from guys in suits who rhymed ‘fun’ with ‘run’. In a single moment times changed, and suddenly running became a seriously trendy hobby. Flash mobs of amateur runners took to the road with Forest Gump like fervor, to run and run and run some more.

Today the 1980s ‘fun’ runner is dead (no one ever believed this anyway), and the sweat bands are gone. At the 21st century starting line stands the modern hi-tech runner, festooned in expensive high-tech accessories for added performance. Shoes, lycra clothing and data loggers make even the worst runner look competent. But do any of these items actually make you a better runner?

In recent times science has shown that running shoes are perhaps the most over-rated performance accessory in modern history. They may have special colour designs and soles filled with gel, but they do very little except protect your feet from stones and sharp objects, while injuring your wallet. Research has shown that even the cheapest shoes will perform as well as the most expensive ones and even then standard running shoes don’t outperform shoes worn on the wrong feet, or even footwear made from recycled car tyres. It was this research that gave rise to the barefoot running fad, which went on to prove that barefoot running was no better for you than running in normal shoes. Don’t take my word for it though, the African distance runners who grow up daily running 10miles each way to school with in bare feet are the ones that win medals – wearing shoes.

Let’s be clear, there is nothing wrong with looking good while running; although science is still to discover why anyone would find a man swathed in lycra attractive. In some cooler climes it might be necessary, but any real runner knows that until the Mercury gets below 0c Celsius, any serious runner will be sweating hard into whatever fabric they wear. Super dry fabrics will keep you dry and not hold sweat, but they can also feel very cold on because of their high evaporative ability. Whatever was wrong with good quality cotton? If you are on a budget, a pair of underpants inside of old boxer shorts and a holey t-shirt is all that is necessary to run a 4 minute mile.

As for accessories, try an old fashioned watch, with a chronograph of some kind, just so you can keep track of your pace. The watch can tell you how you are doing in silence, in a way that doesn’t interrupt the screaming voices in your head. These voices are important and must be listened to if you are ever going to achieve anything through your running program. And don’t try to block the pain out by listening to music as you jog limply through city streets, because that is a giveaway that you’re a pretender on a 2 minute jog to the café.

Currently the ultimate tech accessories are the data logging tools, connected to your phone or via blue tooth connections to watches or wristbands. As you run, they can shout distance, times and track positions to you. This can be useful in mapping out specific courses or logging your last known position when you go missing, but apart from that, these items only delude you into thinking you’ve improved your performance. Honestly, no one cares when you share your session with others online. It might feel great self-congratulating your (dubious) achievement but this will only get you defriended by anyone you know who post pictures of what they eat.

The timeless message “no pain, no gain”, is the unfortunate truth for all runners; professional or otherwise. The benefits of running only come when every avenue of endeavor, physical and mental, have been exhausted on the course you run. No technology available today can make it any easier. Running is tough work, and the rewards only come afterwards in the form of runners high and an icy cold beer. For this reason it’s rare to see a runner with a smile on their face; maybe technology can fix this in the future.