The proposal follows growing concern about the poor quality of people's diet - particularly those from the most deprived communities. Picture: Rob McDougall
How a pill a day could keep the riot squad away in Scottish prisons...
Inmates at a Scottish prison are to take part in a government-sponsored study to determine whether healthy eating can help influence behaviour.
Vitamin supplements could also be offered to people issued with antisocial behaviour orders and those given police warnings for causing problems in their community.
The proposal follows growing concern about the poor quality of people's diet - particularly those from the most deprived communities.
However, prisoners' rights groups said the money would be better spent ensuring prisoners had decent meals rather than having to supplement their vitamin intake.
Previous research has suggested that giving vitamins, minerals and fish oil supplements reduces aggression and violent attacks. Now researchers want to test if giving supplements can help in the fight against crime in general.
If further research confirms that supplements reduce bad behaviour in these groups, the idea could also be extended to disruptive pupils in schools, according to researchers due to speak at a conference in Glasgow tomorrow.
Professor John Stein, professor of neurophysiology at Oxford University, said he hoped to start the study involving 1,200 inmates within three months.
Inmates at three prisons - including one in Scotland - will receive either nutritional supplements or dummy pills. It is hoped the research will support the findings of a smaller study in 2002 which revealed a 40 per cent drop in violent incidents among inmates taking the extra vitamins.
The supplements will contain a mixture of vitamins, minerals and omega-3 fatty acids.
Prof Stein said: "It is quite clear to me that if this is working among prisoners, it is going to work outside as well. One of the problems is food might be worse outside prison than in.
"The sort of people we would like to target are those who have ASBOs, people who have been causing problems in their communities."
Prof Stein said studies in the US had reported an amazing response in cutting violent behaviour after offering vitamins to offenders. While people with ASBOs could not be forced to take vitamins, and the results if they did would be more difficult to monitor, he believed there would be an improvement in behaviour.
Prof Stein added: "What we need to be able to do is identify the people at risk and offer them these supplements. People's diets are getting worse.
"The 'working-class' diet is worse now than during the [Second World] War. Even then, people were given cod-liver oil, vitamin C and other supplements."
Prof Stein said he believed there was a direct correlation between rising crime and the falling quality of people's diets. "Crime in this country has gone up inexorably and what has changed in recent years apart from diet? It can't be due to genetics.
"We can talk about the breakdown in family life until we are blue in the face, but all the psychiatric and social care provided has not stopped the rate of rising crime."
He added: "We would also like to go into schools and see if giving diet supplements can cut down problem behaviour.
"The disturbances caused by these children are always put down to social and psychological problems. But I am con- vinced that improved diet would help to change that." Prof Stein is due to discuss his research at the "Diet, Behaviour and the Junk Food Generation" conference in Glasgow tomorrow, organised by the Food and Behaviour Research unit, which is based in Inverness.
Dr Alex Richardson, director of the unit and an Oxford University researcher, said: "Mood and behaviour are influenced by dietary factors which impact on the brain.
"If the right nutrients are not taken in by the body, it affects the brain's signalling ability and impact on the neurotransmitters. The problem is that modern diets are energy-dense and nutrient-poor, so the body is not getting the nutrients the brain requires to function properly. If the brain is not able to function properly, that is when we get problems with behaviour and violence."
Dr Richardson said it was necessary to carry out studies using vitamin supplements in the community if policy-makers were to be convinced of the benefits.
"It would be money well spent to find out the impact of giving these supplements to people on ASBOs and problem students," she said. "Look at the programmes we are already spending millions on. How much is the ASBO system costing?"
Figures in Scotland show 283 ASBOs were granted in 2005-6 - a surge of 38 per cent on 2004-5 and double that of the previous year.
A spokeswoman for the Scottish Executive said: "We currently have no plans to give people issued with ASBOs vitamin supplements. However, we are taking forward a comprehensive programme to improve the nation's diet. We are raising school-meal standards and are banning the sale of full-sugar fizzy drinks in all Scottish schools.
"At a wider level, work is being done to tackle food inequalities and improve access to and take-up of a healthy diet in low-income communities.
Our diet and lifestyle problems cannot be tackled through government action alone - it is everyone's responsibility to eat a healthy, balanced diet and take regular exercise."
A Scottish Prisons Service spokesman said discussions about a new study using vitamin supplements on inmates in Scotland were ongoing. He added: "No decision has been taken yet. Our research and ethics committee must give careful consideration before giving the go-ahead as we need to take into account the needs of prisoners and the prison system."
Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said there was plenty of evidence to prove a good diet helps concentration and physical health. But she said paying drugs companies for supplements was "counter-productive, demeaning and dangerous".
She added: "The evidence is vitamin supplements are no substitute for wholesome food and if prisoners were fed properly they would not need supplements.
"I think it is appalling. A few supplements will not help prisoners appreciate food, learn about budgeting for meals or cooking. It is a gross waste of public money. If you give people decent food it affects their behaviour. You cannot solve the problem with a pill."
SCIENTIFIC STUDIES BACK THE LINK BETWEEN FOOD AND MOOD
THE effects of diet on behaviour have been noted by scientists for decades - although it is only recently that proper research has been carried out into such links.
As long ago as the Second World War, doctors noted an improvement in the behaviour of children given orange juice (Vitamin C) and cod-liver oil (Vitamin D) to counteract wartime food shortages.
Since then, scientists have found that the levels of many vitamins and minerals affect behaviour - a link that experts believe can be used to transform the conduct of offenders.
A lack of Vitamin B3 (niacin) can lead to nervousness, irritability, confusion, suspicion and memory problems.
Low levels of Vitamin B1 (thiamine) are known to lead to increased hostility and more aggressive behaviour, which can be moderated with supplements.
A shortage of Vitamin C and zinc can lower mood and put people on a shorter fuse.
Low levels of polyunsaturated fats (Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids) have been linked to a range of behaviour problems, including Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
A deficiency in folate acids, which occur in foods such as peas and spinach, has also been suggested as a cause of memory problems and behavioural disorders.
A long-term study in California found that feeding children oily fish, which is high in Omega 3, can lead to improved brain function and slash the probability of antisocial and violent behaviour later in life.
And research has found higher levels of seratonin and dopamine - "feel-good" chemicals produced in the brain - in the spinal fluid of people with higher levels of Omega 3 in their bodies.
Conversely, some studies have also shown a correlation between a poor diet high in saturated fats and sugar and violent behaviour in both children and young adults.
Other research has shown that foods high in additives like E-numbers, which include colourings, preservatives and flavourings, can adversely affect behaviour patterns.
And some studies have shown that prisoners, on average, consume much lower levels of the recommended daily intake of nutrients such as selenium, potassium, iodine, magnesium and zinc, which have all been linked to good physical and mental health.
A TO K OF BENEFITS
• Vitamin A: The suggestion that eating carrots would help you see in the dark has some truth in it. The body makes vitamin A from beta carotene, found in carrots, which helps vision in dim light, as well as boosting the immune system and helping to maintain healthy skin.
• B Vitamins: Fish is brain food, so we are told. It also contains vitamin B, which has been linked with increasing mental alertness. Other benefits include bolstering the metabolism, helping maintain muscle tone, aiding digestion and circulation.
• Vitamin C: When the sneezing starts most people reach for oranges and lemons but lots of fruits, including strawberries and kiwi fruit are rich in vitamin C. The jury's still out on its effect on the common cold, but research suggests it does boost the immune system and help fight viruses.
• Vitamin D: Known as the sunshine supplement, it is commonly believed that vitamin D helps fight depression and cheer us up. Its health benefits are said to be substantial with deficiencies linked to 17 types of cancers, strokes, heart disease and osteoporosis.
• Vitamin E: With powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory powers, it is commonly used in face creams.
• Vitamin K: Helps bones, teeth, nails and hair grow strong and healthy, and makes wounds heal fast.
• Folic Acid: Commonly taken by pregnant women to help development of the foetus, it has also been suggested it helps keep dementia at bay in older people.