Bite-Size JunkI am a size 22. Until my pregnancy I fluctuated between a size 12 and a 14. Then my body blossomed and has remained steady since. I do not waste my time and money on diets I know I will not stick to, nor does the topic of weight enter my conversations. For the most part, I do not agonise over my appearance, although I am not immune to the occasional bout of insecurity. I am not the stereotypical uneducated, low income bracket gorger incapable of ascending a flight of stairs without losing breath. Year after year, my annual medical reassures me that I have low cholesterol and normal blood pressure. I do not subscribe to the generally held notion that anyone with a spare tyre or two is subhuman, a loser, weak and devoid of willpower with nothing to offer society, nay, worse, who through insisting on an irresponsible lifestyle constitutes a parasitical drain on its resources. Currently, big is far from beautiful, big is shunned, vulgar as the glitter of the parvenu’s diamond necklace, obscene. I resent the constant chiding and chivvying of the media and its complete negation of the existence of the bulk of the population with its worship of models whose figures have been digitally (if not surgically) manipulated and their blemishes airbrushed away. Energy that could more fruitfully be channelled into tackling the roots of inequality and unhappiness is diverted instead into futile crusades against flab, waged with the vocabulary of the military campaign (“battle of the bulge”). Ironically, when I was at my skinniest in my early twenties (my metabolism probably more efficient than it is now in middle age) I subsisted on Coke (the gulping, as opposed to the snorting variety). A 1.5 litre bottle of the real stuff, full on sugar without a trace of aspartame, a day. Now I wouldn’t touch the brew, quenching my thirst with Evian, Vittel or freshly squeezed orange juice. I don’t smoke, don’t drink more than a glass of wine at a sitting (and that only when I have guests round for dinner, on relatively rare occasions in other words) and I don’t add salt to my food. For breakfast on mornings away from work I enjoy cottage cheese rendered more interesting with chopped garlic, onion, Gulyáskrém and Piros Arany (imparting a strong paprika flavour) on sesame-seed strewn Turkish bread. I do not stock bags of salt and vinegar or tomato ketchup crisps or any of the other items whose presence in the house would constantly nag at me until my resistance crumbles. The Hungarian tests my resolve with his purchases of sugar-coated sunflower seeds, pitted olives with a blush of paprika, honey-roast peanuts, chocolate stars, chocolate-covered waffles, Zebra cakes (to be fair, these are slipped into the basket at my own request), Lion bars (G’s current favourite) and spekblokjes (marshmallow-like sugar foam in layers of pink and red imitating lardons), at least leaving me with the Gallia melon (half for me, half for the guinea pigs), banana, grapefruit should I feel the inclination to indulge. If I were to take up aqua gym again (as opposed to the brisk walking I have confined myself to of late) I would probably drop a size. I do not apologise for my appetite, nor do I curb it and I can out-guzzle the two males in my household (to an extent this is an assertion of my pre-eminent position at its head, a privilege monopolised by the “breadwinner” under patriarchy, unchallenged in the pecking order, which allowed him the best cuts of meat and generous platefuls, followed by his offspring, leaving the scraps for the uncomplaining, self-sacrificing mother; I relish the role reversal, although unlike the stern master of the Victorian domestic idyll I do not deprive anyone else of sustenance to achieve it, we always have more than enough to go round, what is not eaten being scraped into the bin). I refuse to feel ashamed of my body, in spite of the manifold pressures to set my inner skinny free.
Whenever I return home, I am struck by the number of newspapers discarded on the seats of the Tube and buses. They are ephemeral, their contents by and large intended to amuse, to provide an excuse to ignore the person opposite. My own buying habits of compact and tabloid alike too erratic for what follows to be considered more than fragmentary. Of the barrage of information we are subjected to every day in our urban environments, their articles do provide an excellent source for assessing what occupies the public mind, taking the pulse of current anxieties and obsessions. If you are looking for unvarnished misogyny and an unembarrassed expression of prejudice and intolerance the Daily Mail is hard to beat. I frequently buy it in order to keep tabs on the incremental erosion of our hard-won rights. Its columns make my blood boil, keep me on my critical toes. Besides, it makes excellent liner for the guinea pig cage, of quite acceptable absorbency. Prone to hysteria and righteous indignation, the Mail exposes the subtext of politico-speak, reminding me of why I am a feminist and of the values I espouse. For balance and gravitas I read The Independent. Both publications have recently devoted many inches to the obesity epidemic, a phenomenon with complex causes and no quick-fix solutions. Harassed by deadlines, the average journalist cannot afford to search for deeper causes unless spurred by the prospect of a book spin-off (besides, less easily digestible material does not make for saleable copy), relying on academics and “experts” (rather than the other way round, thereby keeping many departments in funds).
I will begin with a report refreshingly free from the heavy-handed sermonising so characteristic of most contributions to the debate from The Independent, 2nd September 2004, by Terri Judd, entitled From a size 12 to a 16: How women have changed shape: “The hourglass has officially run out. The most comprehensive research into the shape of the nation has revealed that women’s waists are 16cm (six inches) wider than they were in 1951. We are also taller but we have shot up less than we have shot out”.
Acknowledgement by the fashion industry that supermodel proportions are the exception rather than the rule is surely to be welcomed, perhaps it could even act as a clarion call to clothes manufacturers…
Judd continues: “Whereas size 12 was once the average, today’s female is edging towards a size 16 shape and the classic hourglass shape is on the decline (…)
Jeni Bourgourd, senior researcher at the London College of Fashion (LCF) who worked on the data, felt fashion as well as food might account for the dramatic difference. ‘The 1950s survey [the original survey was conducted in 1951] was taken immediately after the Second World War and rationing obviously had an influence. But their undergarments also make a difference. The fashion was for corsets which nipped in the waist,’ she explained.
Nevertheless, there is no denying that over the past 50 years we have developed a much wider girth. The average man is now 177cm, with a chest of 107, waist of 94, hips of 102 and weight of 79kg. Peter Grant-Ross, a researcher with LCF, said the increase in waist sizes had proved the greatest surprise, adding: ‘We discovered there are two types of men. In one group the belly tends to sag forward, possibly due to beer consumption, and the other group has a flat, trim stomach.
‘Women also had two groups but with them it was divided between those where the bottom tends to sag backwards and those who have a trim shape’.
Dr. Ian Campbell, president of the National Obesity Forum, insisted the cause could be summed up in one word – affluence. ‘It is not that people are greedy or lazy. It is just the whole change in our lives. Calories have become very cheap and exercise has become expensive. We have developed a culture that encourages eating. But we are working long and irregular hours and eating processed foods. Exercise is expensive because we are short of time so it is convenient to drive or use public transport rather than walk’”.
This is where the mostly neglected factor of city planning comes into play. The price of our seclusion in leafy suburbs, our mock rural idyll is that supermarkets have been squeezed on to perimeters. This is all very well for the middle-class, but the reluctance of local councils to spend their increasingly parsimonious allocations from central budgets on anything but the essentials has sapped them of the will to improve public transport provision. Meanwhile, poorer housing estates are forced to rely on a network of corner shops, which sell the occasional apple or unappetizing, browning-floreted cauliflower with wilted leaves.
The focus is not on the positive finding that enough wealth is circulating to allow a certain trickle down to all, the benefits spreading to girls, the most vulnerable group, but on the cost of being overweight: “Professor [Tom] Sanders [King’s College, London] put an increase in height, particularly dramatic in young girls in the past few years, down to better nutrition and fewer childhood illnesses such as measles and whooping cough during the vital formative toddler years.
Weight he put down to a lack of exercise, adding: ‘The major factor is computers and television. The best predictor of whether someone is overweight is how many hours they spend in front of the television or computer. In Holland and Denmark obesity levels are low because they walk much more’. [Actually, that is not quite true: they cycle much more, their governments having provided them with proper paths and stands for parking. Both countries are by and large flatter and therefore cycling is not quite the sinew-stretching trial it is in the UK].
Ironically, he said, many people actually eat less than they did 30 years ago when a stodgy diet was encouraged but today’s ‘munch culture’ had led to people constantly snacking.
Professor Sanders predicted that Britons would follow the US example and continue to get taller. ‘It looks like we are set to get very fat but we may follow America, where the more affluent groups have reversed the trend while the poor get fatter. The gap between the thin and the fat will get wider and you will be branded by your waistline’”.
Professor Sanders is being naïve: we are already exposed to ridicule and open hostility for transgressing the norm. Fat-bashing remains one of the few socially acceptable instances of bigotry.
The hunger for comfortable, stylish garments for the amply padded is not being satisfied: “James Wishaw, creative director at Gieves & Hawkes, the Savile Row tailors, said: ‘High fashion has become more mainstream which is clear from the number of different sizes that are available in different high street stores. But despite the fact that women are getting bigger, the models are getting smaller and smaller. The industry doesn’t reflect normal women’ [Indeed these images have the insidious effect of keeping us down, leaving us exhausted, depressed, demoralized, unable to measure up, forever squandering emotional and what little physical energy we have left in sculpting ourselves “acceptable”. The further beyond the grasp of the many the ideal is, the more tyrannically it is vaunted].
The researchers also hope their data will benefit other industries such as car and furniture manufacturers. Even crash-test dummies may have to be altered. But, more importantly, they believe their work may assist the medical profession in understanding the extent of the obesity problem. Experts have [warned] that this is causing increased instances of diabetes and heart trouble” [an opinion relentlessly drummed into our recalcitrant skulls in practically every piece on the subject, Judd presumably including it to deflect charges of being too sympathetic to tubbies].
The bottom of the page includes illustrations of the implications of a general size increase for various branches, under the heading What a bigger consumer means for…, a selection of which I reproduce.
Firstly, transport: “British Airways offers 78cm leg room, a 17 cm increase on 1950, when the measurement was 61cm. Extended seat belts are offered to those with a broader girth – but passengers who are worried about whether they will fit into a single seat are simply offered the chance to buy two. The average seat size on a British train is 50cm compared with 48cm in 1950”.
Then, entertainment: “The All England Tennis Club is increasing the size of centre court seats at Wimbledon to 46cms wide from 2006 after concluding that the seats installed in 1922 are now smaller than those in BA economy class (…) Cinema seat sizes, far more spacious since the advent of multiplexes, have not increased. ‘They’re big enough already’, says the Odeon group”.
Finally, cars: “The average car seat in 2004 is 50cm wide; in 1950 it was 46cm. Seats are getting bigger in the US but the UK and Europe are lagging behind, according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. A study last year found those weighing 100-119kg are twice as likely to die in a crash than those weighing 60kg or less. Measures to help could include redesigning seat belts to suit different weights and body shapes”.
Even infants have not been spared concern about the pernicious effects of overeating, witness the following story in the Daily Mail, 5th February, 2005, Flawed weight charts ‘have led to parents overfeeding babies’: “Many parents have been overfeeding their babies because official charts have been flawed for years and set target weights too high, warned a study yesterday.
Mothers and fathers have been encouraged to reach weights for toddlers which could be up to 20 per cent too high, said the World Health Organisation.
Their study revealed that growth charts showing ideal weights for infants are largely based on those given formula milk.
But breast-fed babies grow more slowly and could be judged to be underweight even when healthy.
This can lead to some mothers being advised to supplement their child’s diet with formula milk or even wean the infant, depriving the baby of the benefits of breast milk.
Researchers fear the problem could have fuelled the spread of obesity and created future problems of heart disease, stroke and diabetes” [in case, by some miracle, it had slipped our minds].
Compliance with the culturally imposed standard of slenderness cannot start too soon: “‘Children who have been breast-fed go on to suffer less obesity, they have lower rates of cardiovascular disease and so on’”.
Excess flesh can only ever be pathological: “Tam Fry, of the Child Growth Foundation, said: ‘Our perception of what is a healthy baby is all wrong. A bouncing chubby baby is not a healthy baby’”.
Further comment on our expansion appeared in the Sunday Times, 2nd May 2004, by Nick Speed and Nina Goswami, Today’s children are tubbier than yesterday’s adults: “The average 11-year-old girl now has a bigger waistline that is 2in bigger than that of the typical adult woman 60 years ago.
A comparison of recent data from the Child Growth Foundation and clothes sizes from the 1940s shows how today’s children are beginning to dwarf adults of previous generations.
While Marks & Spencer’s standard patterns for adult women in the 1940s were 33-21-33, the average waist size of an 11-year-old girl is now just under 21in, rising to 24in for 13-year-olds.
Today’s average woman is another 4in wider, coming in with pear-shaped vital statistics of 36-28-38. The largest waist size in which John Lewis, the department store, sold girls’ skirts in 1954 was 28in. They now go up to 34.
Boys are also requiring larger and larger sizes. Whereas the biggest collar size in John Lewis’s shirt range for boys was 14 in 1954, it has now increased to 17. Sweaters that were made in the range of 28-36in now go up to 44in”.
Once again, far from celebrating the plenty, which allows us all to sprout taller, we are reminded of the downside of our prosperity: “The demand for larger sizes is a reflection of obesity rates that have now risen to 15% in 15-year-olds, say retailers. They believe the changing clothes sizes reflect today’s more sedentary lifestyle.
David Rowlinson, the sizing specialist for Marks & Spencer, says: (…) ‘Nowadays, they [today’s children] are likely to be driven everywhere and spend a large part of their free time in front of the computer at home. At the same time, eating habits have been transformed. Nutrition has improved, but there’s a lot more choice of food’”.
Even more pointedly, in the Daily Mail, on 4th June, 2005, Robin Yapp laments our unwillingness to bestir ourselves, Obesity crisis makes English teenagers fattest in Europe: “Figures presented to an obesity conference show that one in four youngsters aged 13 to 17 in England is obese or overweight.
This is more than twice as many as in countries such as Finland, Germany and Holland.
Experts say that such children face serious risks later in life because being seriously overweight increases the risk of diabetes, heart disease and various types of cancer”.
Not the sort of league table, which we hope our compatriots will top: “Figures compiled by the [International Obesity] task force show that in England 25 per cent of 13 to 17-year-olds are obese or overweight.
In Greece, Ireland, Cyprus and Italy the figure is 23 per cent. But in Germany it is 11 per cent and in the Netherlands it is only 9 per cent.
England also has one of the highest rates of weight problems in seven to 11-year-olds, with 27 per cent of children in this group being obese or overweight.
While this figure is lower than in Spain, Portugal or Italy, where the rate is more than 30 per cent, it far exceeds that in other Northern European countries including France (19 per cent) and Germany (16 per cent).
The figures were discussed at the European Congress on Obesity in Athens yesterday, which heard that countries such as the UK are ‘narrowing the gap’ in childhood obesity with the U.S., where 30 per cent of children are overweight”.
The toll taken by adipose deposits is painted bleakly: “Dr. [Philip] James [of the International Obesity Task Force] said that parents must do more to encourage their children to be active if increases in the rate of obesity are to be stopped.
‘It is not just a question of overweight people being less healthy and more cumbersome, but of their losing out in every walk of life,’ he said.
‘They have less chance of a happier private life, of getting jobs, of attracting social respect. Indeed, they are often the object of scorn’”.
Plainly it occurred neither to Dr. James nor to Yapp that perhaps the discrimination against and contempt towards the fat might be worth tackling.
It all boils down to the lower orders not recognising their humble station, the loose morals and decline in traditional authority that are making the country go to the dogs (or perhaps the dogging): “Previous studies have already suggested that huge numbers of teenagers in this country are putting themselves at risk of an early grave by smoking, binge drinking, using drugs and having underage sex”.
On the one hand, we are exhorted to acquire the skills in such short supply within the knowledge-based economy, whilst on the other we are scolded for spending too much of our time in front of the screen surfing. With scare stories circulating in the press about predatory paedophiles lurking round every street corner, sensational instances of boys and girls snatched from their front gardens to be raped and murdered is it little wonder that parents prefer to keep their progeny indoors? Or, on an even more basic level, when toddlers can stray onto busy roads and councils are shutting down the few remaining playgrounds for fear of litigation. Moreover, the streets, we are told, teem with gangs, happy to mug their classmates for their mobiles or pocket money. Proper child care facilities to keep up with the number of women who want (or are forced from sheer necessity) to pursue a career may feature in electoral brochures, yet have failed to materialise, leaving TV as the only affordable babysitter. Exploitative employers make a nonsense of calls to make family and working life reconcilable.
Then there is the role played by the food companies. In the Daily Mail, on 1st May, 2004, Sean Poulter (justifiably) issued his Warning on TV’s diet of junk food ads: “Britain’s children are being ‘force-fed’ a diet of TV adverts for junk foods high in fat, sugar and salt, warns a report.
It says youngsters watch an average 20,000 commercials a year, with 95 per cent of them ‘pushing’ unhealthy products which ‘influence’ what they choose to eat.
Around 1,150 junk food ads are shown daily during children’s programmes on commercial and satellite channels, reveals a study by market research analyst Neilson Media.
McDonald’s spent £32 million on television adverts last year followed by Coca-Cola (£13 million) and Pringles (nearly £7 million).
Research for the Government’s Food Standards Agency has confirmed a link between advertising and children’s eating habits. Sports personalities and pop stars are paid fortunes to advertise junk foods.
The report brought fresh demands from MPs, doctors and consumer lobby groups for controls on TV advertising – which the Government has so far rejected”.
The evils of niche marketing translate to morose sag: “Some 20 per cent of 15-year-olds and 10 per cent of six-year-olds are already obese. It is predicted that one in three children could be seriously overweight by 2020 unless there are radical moves to improve diet and activity levels”.
The penalties of excess are reiterated: “Paediatrician Julian Hamilton-Shield, from Bristol, said: ‘Type-2 diabetes is one of the largest consumers of the NHS budget. Undoubtedly, if we are seeing it develop earlier and in more children, then we will have major problems.
‘In addition, if you continue being obese from childhood into adult life, you run a far greater risk of diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, liver problems and cancer’”.
In its 2nd May 2004 edition, The Observer printed an excellent essay by Nick Cohen [producer of the Channel Four documentary Fat Pushers], Junk the food ads: “Most of the ads on the Cartoon Network are predictable. Children with access to satellite or cable are pushed Pepsi, Walkers, Coco-Pops and all their imitators and competitors, and offered every available means to dose themselves with sugar, salt and fat. To the Government and the advertising industry, the propaganda has nothing to do with the explosion in childhood obesity which, according to the Chief Medical Officer, may lead to the next generation suffering from the first fall in average life expectancy in 100 years. Obesity and the fatal diseases that drag along behind it are the result of lack of exercise, they say, not of the advertising that seeps its way into every corner of children’s lives via television, text messaging, the internet and schools”.
Like him, I utterly deplore the manner in which the food giants batten parasitically on the innocent: “When presented with the unlovely coalition of politics and commerce, most people instinctively know they are being swindled. But how? The ads on the Cartoon Network, Britain’s largest commercial children’s channel, provide a small clue. They aren’t all for junk food and toys. If you have access, you can tune in and, amid the vignettes of Michael Owen, David Beckham and Gary Lineker topping-up their poverty-line wages by encouraging the young to pig out, there are apparently incongruous ads for money-lenders and ambulance-chasing lawyers. Have you tripped over a broken paving stone or suffered complications during an operation? No-win, no-fee solicitors will take up your case. Have you got so many mortgage and credit card debts that you have nothing to spare? Norton Finance and companies like it will offer you anything from £1,000 to £100,000.
Children can’t brief solicitors or borrow six-figure sums. The ads are aimed at their parents – usually mothers – and are a tribute to pester power. When a mother says that the costs of consuming are becoming too high, helpful commercials tell her children that she can find the money to return to the marketplace by suing the NHS or by gambling that the property market won’t crash by remortgaging against the values of her house.
By any ordinary standard, this is exploitation of the sickest sort, but it passes unremarked because of an iron separation between the theory and practice of what doctors call Britain’s ‘obesogenic’ culture”.
The sheer duplicity involved is mind-boggling: “As a working assumption, they [advertisers and politicians] all know that, in practice, children’s culture is saturated with advertising and that advertising works. But they can never admit it in public because a statement of the obvious might push Parliament to follow other European countries and ban advertising aimed at children.
Instead of serious reform, we have a laughable campaign by the Government and ITV [the irony of ITV’s source of revenue being derived from advertising is not lost on Mr. Cohen] for the nation to touch its toes, which takes great care not to say what every nutritionist knows – that you need to be an athlete to burn off the fats and sugars in junk foods. Medical researchers at Oxford University calculate that it would take the average child 45 minutes to run off a bag of crisps; one hour and four minutes to run off a chocolate bar. The Lancet reported a few years ago that a child who had a burger ad fries needed to run a marathon.
Faced with these disquieting figures, it’s easier – far easier – for Ministers to engage in exhortation and moral uplift than to take on powerful interests. Indeed, they go further and create a looking-glass world in which the parents, teachers and under-funded public health workers who are demanding tough regulation are the truly powerful interest, while advertisers and processed food manufacturers are the victims”.
Manufacturers are quite ruthless in defending their swollen profit margins: “On the one hand, it is taken as read in the industry that children don’t go into shops to browse, but head straight for the brands that advertising has put into their heads. On the other, executives absolutely deny that the stupendous increases in sales of junk foods are anything to do with them. British children spend more time watching television than being taught by teachers, but it is an article of publicly professed faith to deny that television has an effect”.
The comparison Mr. Cohen draws with the arrogant disregard for the welfare of its customers shown by the tobacco industry is fully warranted: “The advertisers and manufacturers have refused to accept that propaganda has an effect. For good measure, they don’t accept the need for health warnings on fatty, salty and sugary foods because they don’t accept there is such a thing as an unhealthy food. They have to hold the line, not merely because they may see their profits reduced in Britain, but also because of the potentially enormous markets in China and India. The danger from their point of view is that, if Britain regulates, the governments of developing countries will follow its example.
What we are seeing is a repeat of the battles over cigarette advertising. In private the companies admit they’re hawking dangerous products – ‘We don’t smoke that shit,’ a manager of RJ Reynolds tobacco company explained to Dave Goerlitz, an actor employed to advertise Winstons. ‘We reserve the right to sell it to the young, the poor, the black and the stupid’”.
His conclusion: “The pressure from obese patients on NHS budgets is already strong and will soon be unbearable. In a free country, the Government can’t respond by forcing children to exercise or eat their greens. All it can do is what it did with cigarettes and dam the flow of propaganda”.
Surely a glimmer of hope could be discerned in the humbling of everyone’s favourite villain, McDonald’s? In The Independent, on 28th September 2004, Deborah Orr pondered the undertaking by companies to diminish the gargantuan helpings routinely served in The inimitable power of the big screen: “The food industry in Britain claims that its Manifesto for Food and Health, which calls for a voluntary ban on super-size chocolate bars, is a response to its concern about obesity. We all know instead that it’s a response to fears that if it doesn’t put its own house in order, then the Government will. The manifesto promises to tackle not just big portions, but also fat, sugar and salt levels in processed food, tighter controls on advertising and on the sale of sugary foods and drinks in schools”.
The stubbornness of certain individuals, however, knew no bounds: “For, while super-size portions have played a part in promoting obesity, at least one young man on the radio was insisting yesterday that if he couldn’t get a super-size Mars bar, then he’d just buy two. What can be done in the face of such intransigently poor diet? Introducing laws which ban selling any more than a certain number of chocolate biscuits as if they were paracetamol? [Duh, the die-hards amongst us would just drive to the supermarket next door, undermining Kyoto commitments by cranking up greenhouse gas emissions in the process].
Certainly, the young man in question is not likely to be acting out of a lack of knowledge. Surely there are few people who don’t know, even though they refuse to believe it, that chocolate bars are fattening and unhealthy. What the [Morgan] Spurlock [who conducted an experiment to determine the effect of a non-stop diet of burgers, chips and the like on himself in the film Super Size Me] approach seems to do though, is to get through to people at a personal level that they are not the exception. Eating a poor diet does have an immediate and detrimental effect on one’s health”.
In spite of covering over half the pack with dire admonitions (and in some countries X-ray pictures of tumours), smokers have not been deterred. A fundamental of human psychology seems to have evaded Ms. Orr, namely that for every unwelcome rule a subversion strategy will be concocted. Our ingenuity is quite breathtaking.
Jonathan Brown in The Independent, 29th September 2004 chronicled the reversal of fortunes in Health fears eat into profits at McDonald’s: “The fast-food giant McDonald’s is used to serving up super-size profits for its shareholders as well as bulging cartons of burgers and fries to a hungry public”.
However: “The UK arm of the global chain, which owns two thirds of the 1,235 McDonald’s restaurants across Britain, reported operating profits were down £61m on the previous year. However, the company insisted that across the UK group as a whole, which includes its lucrative property holdings, the figure was closer to a £5m fall. Profitability, it said, had been steadily falling since 2000.
The company blamed the decline in operating profits on financial restructuring and claimed that results were in line with expectations”.
It was enough to wipe the grin from Ronald’s face: “Never before has the lustre of the Golden Arches appeared so dim. The company has enjoyed three decades of phenomenal growth since launching its first restaurant in Britain 30 years ago. But this latest bad news comes at a critical time for its burger empire as it is involved in a rearguard action to defend its menu against a barrage of criticism from health and nutrition campaigners as well as a raft of litigation in the courts”.
The chain was clearly worried enough to alter its range: “Last March, it announced the most significant change to its menu ever by introducing salads in all its restaurants and providing more nutritional information to an increasingly health conscious public.
The Salad Plus initiative has seen outlets offer fruit, yoghurts and mineral water alongside the more traditional menu of Big Macs and French fries”.
Rejoicing would be premature: “The company is confident of continuing success and plans to open a further 22 restaurants in Britain this year and 24 in 2005 (…). Industry analysts believe McDonald’s current problems are compounded by an explosion of choice in the proliferating fast food outlets in Britain’s towns and cities”.
Indeed, upon closer scrutiny, the amelioration was merely cosmetic: “Ian Tokelove of the Food Commission said consumers had woken up to the choices available. ‘McDonald’s have tried to convince us that they are making their food more healthy but their salads have been shown to have more fat than a burger when you take into account the dressing,’ he said”.
Brown’s initial optimistic note was echoed in the editorial, McDonald’s loss is the healthy consumer’s gain: “Such is the iconic status of McDonald’s that the company’s fortunes have always been closely followed. The fast food chain’s extraordinary global rise since it was founded half a century ago, and its close association with America’s post-war economic supremacy, mean that when McDonald’s runs into trouble there are usually critics on hand to proclaim the end of an era. Yesterday’s revelations that the pre-tax profits of McDonald’s UK operation have fallen dramatically in the last year provide another chance for the doomsayers to try to pull down the celebrated golden arches”.
Its verdict: “Many people appear to be rejecting McDonald’s on health grounds. It is certainly possible to welcome this development, since it shows the public beginning to accept the need to eat more healthily. But perhaps more encouraging is the fact that the market is sending a clear signal to McDonald’s. The company has scrapped its ‘super-size’ range in the US, and is phasing it out in Britain. It has also devised a range of salads and juices to counter accusations that all its products are unhealthy.
Health concerns, of course, are not the only factor behind McDonald’s decline. Greater competition has also had an effect, meaning that people are not always opting for healthier alternatives. But this trend does offer some hope to those who believe that allowing the market to respond to enlightened consumers, rather than enforcing regulations, will ultimately prove better for the nation’s health”.
As someone who partakes of the occasional Egg McMuffin or croissant with butter and jam, I can corroborate that skateboarding teenagers, offering the illusion of activity, are now depicted on the recyclable paper bag. As for its most notorious products, at most I might ingest a chicken burger, preferring my fish in the form of smoked trout, tuna steak or sole meuniere. Even the smell of beef is enough to turn my stomach and I banished all meat from my diet for the eight years when I was a vegetarian (a period, which included my pregnancy). However, where McDonald’s and its rivals have the edge is in the sheer speed of filling up. The chips are shovelled into the carton almost as soon as you reach the head of the queue. In such restaurants you don’t stick out like a sore thumb if alone. No stigma is attached to single occupancy of a table. You are not made to feel like a sad spinster on a forlorn outing from the dust-covered shelf and you can retreat to hotel room after the minimum of (purely transactional) contact. My colleague KC, whose gourmet credentials are unimpeachable, having frequented the most expensive and exclusive establishments on earth, whose palate can hardly be described as unrefined, has confided in me that when deprived of company, he is happy to pop into a Quick for a Double Suisse.
Our embrace of exotic cuisine, greater disposable income and desire to wind down after the slog combine to propel us in the direction of restaurants, according to the Daily Mail, 29th January 2005 (author unattributed), in Britain’s honour to dine out on: “Cash-rich, time-poor Britons spend more time eating out than any other Europeans.
We spend an average £312 per head on restaurant meals last year, a survey has shown.
And experts predict our spending will go on rising, reaching £356 a head by 2009.
A report from industry analysts shows meals out have become a regular habit for most Britons, rather than something we save for a special occasion.
The second biggest spenders on restaurant meals are the Italians at £295 per head per year. Next come the French, on £249.
Datamonitor consumer markets analyst Daniel Bone said the trend to sine out more reflected the amount of time Britons spend working and the lack of time they have to relax and socialize.
‘Consumers want to maximize their time and going out in the week allows them the chance to socialize without the hassle of cooking’”.
The Independent reacted to the same compilation of statistics on 14th January 2005 in Maxine Frith’s Unsociable hours and commuting turn Britain into nation of snackers: “Britain is a nation of snack-eaters, spending more on crisps and chocolate than any other country in Europe, a survey shows. An average of £204 per person is spent on snacks every year, research by the market analyst Datamonitor found.
Spaniards spend just £55 a year, the French, £146 and Italians, £115. The total snacks market in Britain is now worth £12.3m a year.
Analysts blame the rise of snacking on unsociable working hours, changing shift patterns and the number of journeys people make each day. Britons recorded the highest number of journeys per day in Europe last year. The average adult made 6.4 trips a day, compared to a European daily average of 4.5.
Danielle Rebelo, a consumer markets analyst at Datamonitor, said: ‘Stress levels are often higher while people are commuting, and transport problems and cramped conditions during the rush-hour mean consumers are seeking comfort from eating and drinking on the move.
‘Driving generates most of the on-the-move consumption because consumers are likely to eat and drink when a car journey includes a stop at a petrol station, since they then have the opportunity for impulse purchases’.
Sales of crisps, nuts and other ‘bagged snacks’ amount to £1.77bn a year. Cake sales rose by 5 per cent in 2004, to £800m a year and Britons now spend an average of £45 per annum on chocolate.
The rise of snacking has been blamed for increasing rates of obesity, particularly among children.
With increasing numbers of people now ‘desk-fasting’ – eating the first meal of the day at work – sales of cereal bars rose 31 per cent last year (…) Fewer than one in four people believes eating between meals is intrinsically unhealthy”.
The very notion of a snack machine dispensing something healthy with a limited shelf life that would require frequent restocking (i.e. someone paid to do it) is (sadly) a complete a non-sequitur. During my many research trips to the reading rooms of archives, I would rather starve than squander my precious time budget on terrace meals, yet sooner or later, biology dictates that the concentration plummets with no fuel. Driven by conspicuous rumblings, I would insert my coins in exchange for a Twix or a yoghurt-coated muesli bar.
If we consoled ourselves with the maxim that savoury is good, sweet bad, we would be labouring under a misapprehension. The ostensibly healthy sandwich is little better than a bacon roll in the greasy spoon we crossed the street to avoid, according to the Daily Mail, 4th October 2004 (unattributed author), in Fat-packed lunch: “Some sandwiches sold by High Street chains contain two-thirds of the maximum amount of fat that women are recommended to eat in a whole day”.
We are helpfully acquainted with the relevant amounts: “The Food Standards Agency suggests that no more than 35 per cent of the daily energy intake for an adult should come from fat. This works out at around 86g of fat for an average man and 61g for a woman”.
With the curtailment of lunch breaks, high calorie rubbish is unlikely to be eschewed. Pasta salads run the risk of drips on documents, whereas a few crumbs can be blown discretely off the keyboard. Indeed: “The British Sandwich Association estimates that more than 2.4 billion sandwiches are bought in Britain every year, generating sales of £3.5 billion”.
Maxine Frith in The Independent (27th September 2004) in Not-so-super sized: sweet makers say big bars must bite the dust heralded the latest initiative to pacify badgering campaigners: “Grab your sack-sized packet of crisps and yard of chocolate while stocks last: sweet portions are about to be slimmed down. Food manufacturers have responded to concerns about the growing girth of the average Briton by pledging to downsize their products.
King-sized chocolate bars and extra-large snacks are to be scrapped by some of the country’s biggest food manufacturers. The confectionery giant, Cadbury Trebor Bassett, is among the firms that have agreed to phase out ‘super-sized’ portions.
Industry insiders said the move was a victory in the battle to make manufacturers more responsible for the marketing of their products. Super-sizing has become one of the most controversial issues in the debate between the food industry and health campaigners over how to tackle soaring rates of obesity and weight problems.
Manufacturers had said their extra-large versions were designed to be shared or eaten over time, rather than consumed in a single sitting by one person. But health experts say increasing portion sizes have added to the UK’s growing weight problem. Three quarters of the adult population is now classed as overweight and one in five is clinically obese. One in ten six-year-olds is obese, rising to one in five at the age of 15, a report by a House of Commons select committee has shown”.
The move possessed greater symbolic than revolutionary value: “The FDF [Food and Drink Federation] publishes its Food and Health Manifesto today, which pledges ‘to explore new approaches for individual portion sizes to help reduce over-consumption’. The FDF cannot force members to stop super-sizing, but the manifesto includes commitments from individual companies on sizes.
Cadbury Trebor Bassett is to abandon King-sizes in the second quarter of 2005. The company is the world’s third-largest soft drinks company as well as producing Dairy Milk and other confectionery. Kraft Foods said it was developing ‘single-serving’ versions of its cheese and snacks and reducing portion sizes. Nestlé said it was also switching its focus to bite-size versions, such as mini Rolos and KitKat Kubes.
An FDF spokeswoman said: ‘This is the industry setting down a marker and saying people cannot accuse us of not being at the table in the debate over obesity. This is the biggest milestone in the food and health debate since the health select committee report this year. We hope that this will debunk the myth that food manufacturers are not doing anything to tackle the obesity problem, and cannot contribute to the debate’.
She added: ‘Our members are committed to reducing over-consumption. Some companies are going to be phasing out larger portions and others are looking at ways of more responsible packaging and marketing’.
A 100g, king-size Snickers chocolate bar has more calories than a meal of sirloin steak and potatoes, the select committee report said.
McDonald’s has also capitulated to consumer demand and pledged to phase out super-sized meals from all its British stores by next year”.
Other steps were promised: “The FDF manifesto has also pledged action in six other ‘key areas’, including labelling of products and responsible advertising. Manufacturers will also remove vending machines from primary schools [since my schooldays tuck shops must have proven too costly to run] to improve nutrition”.
Labels are all very well if you have a degree in chemistry and/or medicine to decipher them and place them in the context of your overall eating pattern (provided your eyesight is good enough to enable you to read the miniscule print). In order to take even the semblance of an informed decision, information of a different sort to simple screeds listing additives, such as the maximum quantity of fat for men and women respectively (to be fair, I have noticed that Marks and Spencer’s chocolate-covered raisins packs boast such tables) are required.
Shrinking Crunchies is a sop, epitomising the cynicism with which we are treated, by both sides. On the one hand, it represents a transparent ploy so we don’t feel so guilty about eating them (they are harmlessly dubbed “fun” or “treat” sizes), we can the more easily delude ourselves that they can’t do any harm. Moreover, we are likely to masticate our way through more than we otherwise would have (again we are confronted with the fundamental psychological mechanisms on which the manufacturers rely). On the other, it is erroneously (and insultingly) assumed that one simple manoeuvre will convince us that serious action is being taken to obviate the problem (when the banning of hydrogenated vegetable oil from processed foodstuffs would do infinitely more good). For all their flaws, the chocolate manufacturers are cannier and more aware of human foibles. Like the man overheard by Deborah Orr, if we are thwarted in our desire, we will buy a six-pack of normal-sized bars instead and scoff the lot (and think of the thousands of tons of extra packaging waste generated by this genuflection to the outraged).
A couple of days ago (23rd September 2005), Maxine Frith reviewed progress made towards living up to the targets in Food giants are accused of dodging ‘super-size’ pledge: “Some of the country’s biggest food manufacturers have been accused of misleading consumers over pledges to scrap ‘super-sized’ products. Companies are simply rebranding their king-sized products by cutting them into more pieces and claiming they are for ‘sharing’. Others offer mini-sized versions alongside extra-large packs”.
Unsurprisingly: “Burger King and McDonald’s are continuing to offer large versions of their chips, drinks and sandwiches, despite pledges to phase out super-sizing”.
Frith went on: “Cath Dalmeny, a policy adviser with the Food Commission, a lobby group, said: ‘All these pledges have been nonsense. The manufacturers have tried to pull the wool over the eyes of the public at the same time as trying to get the Government off their backs, but what they have done is misleading. These products are still high in sugar, fat, salt and calories and are contributing to the obesity problem’”.
The discrepancy between the self-congratulatory statements for public consumption and the extent of policy changes is painfully apparent: “Companies such as Cadbury attracted generous publicity by announcing the end of super-sizing. In a follow-up report yesterday, the FDF claimed it was making ‘real progress’ on the commitments. In the brochure, Cadbury Trebor Bassett says: ‘[We] have withdrawn king-size portions’. But a spokesman for the company later confirmed this referred only to king-sized bars of products such as Boost and Crunchie”.
Repairing the dent in their “caring” image, being seen to be doing something was the priority, after all, children are main target group (hook ‘em young). I still prefer the taste of Cadbury’s to the most refined Belgian counterpart because I associate it with childhood. Habits established young are hard to break. Expecting the food colossi to show a sense of social responsibility is like expecting the chief executives of cigarette multinationals to suffer sleepless nights through pangs of conscience.
I switch off or change channels when cookery programmes come on. For me they are little more than a dull and a relatively cheap way of filling expanded schedules. Nor do recipe books keep dust-free patches on my shelves. I wouldn’t be able to put a name to a photograph of a celebrity cook if my life depended on it. Janet Street-Porter in The Independent, 21st April, 2005, We’re screwed up about food (and sex) chuckles at our incompetence: “When it comes to haute cuisine – or even basic cookery – we really do have the same attitude as we do to sex. My goodness, we love watching television programmes featuring food. We buy hundreds of thousands of books and magazines about it. We love drooling over gorgeous photographs of artfully arranged glistening roasts and pilaffs, and we have secret, smutty thoughts about its various stars from Nigella to Jamie. But do we actually get mucky about it? Surely the fact that our waists are expanding, our salt levels soaring and our consumption of junk food gargantuan is proof that most of us are voyeurs, rather than enthusiastic consumers.
When it comes to catering skills, most of us are still stuck in the missionary position with little enthusiasm for change to regular tried and tested routine. We might tune in to radio shows about vegetables, but how many of us know how long to steam broccoli and then how to persuade the family to eat the stuff? (…)
It’s well known that fruit buying is something the British do to make them feel virtuous, like buying deodorant (…) All over Britain, kiwi fruit, pears and bananas are sitting in kitchens going mouldy while we pass up the opportunity to eat fruit in favour of shovelling down a bar of Fruit and Nut.
Analyse any middle-class refrigerator and what do you find? The healthy choices and the mucky nestling cosily side by side. Crisps and carrots, porridge and oven-ready chips, apple juice and cola. At my local newsagents, the number of magazines on offer about food has meant the porn shelf has been greatly reduced”.
Our ignorance is stunning: “(…) for the benefit of millions of viewers who wouldn’t know what to do with a sun-dried tomato and probably think that crème brulee is something you smear on your thighs after too much exposure to the sun”.
The education system is at fault: “As we no longer bother to teach cookery skills at school, it’s not surprising most of our young have no idea where peas come from and what you do with a wok (…) Meals aren’t eaten at tables, but grazed when convenient during commercial breaks.
If a large number of children are leaving primary school unable to read, why do we think they’ll want to follow recipes? If mum opens packets and shoves them in a microwave, why should we expect them to start cooking from scratch? Yet as we evolve into a leisure-based economy with tourism an important source of income, there’s little chance of finding a suitably skilled and interested workforce because school leavers don’t have any idea of what is required”.
Complacency is misplaced: “How we laughed when Delia told us all how to boil an egg on her BBC TV series all those years ago. But she was right – we’ll never be a nation that appreciates good food if most of us can’t cook, don’t want to cook and prefer to eat quickly and cheaply. There’s no point in talking about red cabbage gazpacho to people who don’t even eat the green variety. I’m not impressed we’ve ended up with 14 restaurants in a poll of the world’s top 50. Quite frankly, we have more horrible places to eat per head of the population than any other country in the civilized world. In my rented house in Marrakech last week, the housekeeper cooked a feast for four every night for £10, full of fresh vegetables, beautifully prepared stews and healthy salads – it was second nature”. J S-P conveniently glosses over the lack of availability of shelf after shelf of refrigerated cheeses and snacks and aisle after aisle of chocolate temptations in her holiday destination. As for the maid, throwing together a dish or two is her occupation (note that JS-P herself does not admit to lifting a finger in the kitchen). Then there is the small matter of the price of vegetables there compared with here.
John Walsh, likewise in The Independent (13th July, 2005), picked up on the theme of lost culinary skills in So what’s for TV dinner tonight?: “(…) we’re ready-meal junkies.
Mintel, the market-research organisation, reports that British people now spend a staggering £18bn on supermarket meals, 63 per cent more than in 1994.
You know the meals they’re talking about – the chicken tikka masala dinner that comes in a thin polythene pack covered with a transparent film, through which you can see a compartment of dark orange soup and another containing lemon-hued rice flecked with bits of dark matter, possibly cloves. They come packaged with a colour photograph promising that the contents, once heated, will be irresistibly tasty and visually appealing, a prospect cruelly dashed when you remove it from the oven.
Not only do 70 per cent of us admit to eating convenience food, but more than 80 per cent of us eat chips that are pre-sliced and frozen, and over a third of us consume that toxic modern aberration, the Pot Noodle snack. No other race in Europe joins in our enthusiasm for chicken and noodle dust irrigated by boiling water.
Mintel took a sample of 25,000 people, and blamed the convenience-food boom on the pressure of modern life and the reluctance of working women to make supper any more. ‘A key consequence of the inexorable rise in the number of women who work full- or part-time, has been a progressive loss in traditional skills and greater reliance on prepared foods, such as cooking sauces, frozen foods and chilled ready meals, in large part driven by time-poverty,’ the report noted”.
He sanctimoniously wrinkles his nose at the brashness of one ready meal: “More than a third of the Mintel sample vowed they’d happily pay a premium for foods that don’t contain artificial additives. But somebody is buying Asda’s own-brand Chicken Roast Dinner, that features (it says proudly on the box) ‘Succulent cooked skin – on chicken breast with added dextrose, with rich chicken gravy, roast potatoes and tender carrots’. (This bold admission of the presence of additives is unusual. Mostly, you have to search for the presence of Maltodextrin and Diglycerides of Fatty Acids in the small print on the back).
Lower-income families may be attracted by the rock-bottom prices of some ready-meal varieties, which may seem the last word in pauper cuisine to some delicate sensibilities. But on both sides of the Atlantic, we have for many years enjoyed a changing love-hate relationship with the bung-in-the-oven dinner”.
Walsh then sketches the history of the phenomenon: “The man behind it all was Gerald Thomas, a salesman at C.A. Swanson and Sons, frozen food retailers from Omaha, Nebraska. His invention was born of necessity – the necessity of finding a home, in 1953, for 270 tons of unsold turkey. Sales of poultry had been disappointing, and his company now had 10 refrigerated railway box cars full of turkey carcasses. The company of bosses, Gilbert and Clark Swanson, asked their staff to find a solution. Thomas had a brainwave. He’d seen aluminium trays used to keep food hot in the kitchens of Pan Am. So he asked for a spare tray and spent the flight home designing a new tray with three sections for meat, vegetable and potato. Back home he showed the thunderstruck brothers his invention and suggested they market it as an adjunct of the nation’s favourite new pastime – watching TV.
The first Swanson TV Dinner in 1954 was turkey with cornbread stuffing, buttered peas and sweet potatoes, the meal was cleverly packaged in an aluminium rectangle designed to look like a television and it retailed at $0.98. The Swansons warily produced 5,000 of the things and watched as, over the next 12 months, 10 million were sold.
A frozen fried-chicken dinner came out in 1955, followed by steak and meatloaf, each devoured in huge amounts by families grouped around tiny, eight-inch monochrome TV screens. In 1960, in a radical departure, a fourth tray was added to house a dollop of pudding (tinned peaches, ice-cream, chocolate brownie).
Two years later, the name ‘TV dinner’ was dropped to encourage consumers to eat ready-made meals any time of the day. In 1969, Swanson Frozen breakfasts arrived: the nation’s favourite was Pancakes and Sausage”.
In the UK we were relatively slow in catching on: “The only convenience foods were out-of-season fish and vegetables developed in the Sixties by Birds Eye and Findus. TV dinners hit the UK in the 1970s, mostly in the form of lasagne and frozen cakes. In the 1980s, as the number of working women [sic! i.e. the housewife doesn’t work!] boomed, the microwave cooker answered the demand for more convenient ways of preparing meals. Every spouse got used to having a plate of cold meat, veg and gravy transformed into a tongue-scalding, lip-scorching repast in a matter of seconds”.
Perish the thought that he should betray blatant sexism: “In England we’re a little embarrassed about our fondness for supers prepared and processed by a company rather than a loving spouse. We’re slightly disgusted with ourselves (see the Pot Noodle TV commercials). We may be becoming better educated about the dangers of saturated fats, sodium and artificial additives. But for the moment, we’re finding it hard to give up our Chicken in a Pot super, ‘in a rich gravy topped with fried potato chunks’”.
Once again, it is left to the Daily Mail to make the subtext explicit. James Tozer writes (8th September, 2005) in Bring back cookery lessons to boost healthy eating: “Home economics should be put back on the National Curriculum because a generation of mothers has lost the skills to cook, health experts said yesterday.
The Government’s ‘five-a-day’ message to persuade the public to eat more fruit and vegetables is failing because many families simply do not know how to prepare healthy food, a conference [of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health] was told.
Bringing back cookery lessons was hailed as a key step towards tackling the problem”.
He takes care to trundle out a woman to fire a broadside against those uppity feminists who broke free of the kitchen: “Julie Barratt, the institute’s director for Wales, told delegates in Cardiff: ‘The skills of preparing healthy meals from fresh ingredients have already been undermined by the popularity of convenience foods and the fact that families don’t sit down together at mealtimes. So girls are too often not learning cooking skills from their mothers, and with the disappearance of home economics from schools we’re faced with a generation and a half of young people who simply cannot prepare healthy meals’.
With the launch of the National Curriculum in 1988, home economics was absorbed into design and technology with woodwork and metalwork and is now known as ‘food technology’.
Prince Charles is among those who have called for it to be made a subject in its own right once more.
Miss Barratt said: ‘Although an educated minority has taken on board the message about healthy eating, for far too many people a head of broccoli may as well be from another world’”.
“But the institute rejected the idea of a ‘fat tax’ on junk food because it said no products were in themselves unhealthy if they were not consumed to excess”.
These career women, too lazy to bend over bubbling pots and pans in the evening, what a disgrace! As for boys being encouraged to peel potatoes or rustle up scrambled eggs, the silence could scarcely be more eloquent.
I conclude with Johann Hari’s delightfully self-deprecating I love junk food – but that’s my choice (The Independent, 17th November 2004): “If the ‘nanny state’ were going to ‘attack junk food’ (…) I would be the first person to waddle to the barricades. My idea of gourmet eating is a KFC bucket (just £9.99!) with Hot Wings. And those funny little chicken strips. And chicken popcorn (don’t ask). I wept – literally wept – the day the McPizza was phased out (1991-4; may it rest in peace). I want to be buried in am immense polystyrene Big Mac box.
Oh, stop scowling. Food snobbery is as ugly as every other kind of snobbery. Yesterday, on the Today programme, a reporter was dispatched to Newcastle – as though to an African wildlife reserve – to inspect the contents of Geordie shopping trolleys. And – what do you know! – the proles eat biscuits and frozen hamburgers. This was explained in the disturbed tones normally used to describe Serb atrocities.
It has always seemed depressing to me that the people who claim to sympathise with the British working class have such contempt for their culinary habits. I saw a demo outside a McDonald’s this summer that seemed to be based entirely on the fact that the food is ‘disgusting’. Enough with the aesthetic arguments against junk food: plenty of people enjoy it, and to dismiss them all as thick or vulgar is offensive.
If people want to abuse their own bodies, they should be free to do so. Smoking, drinking, over-eating, under-exercising? It’s your own business – provided you are aware of the risks and you have genuine choices. It’s the job of the government to make sure you understand what you’re doing to yourself, and to make sure alternatives are available if you want to stop”.
He eloquently encapsulates the contrast in philosophy between the British right and left in a few brief paragraphs: “The post-Thatcherite British right now espouses a strange brand of libertarianism that sees freedom as synonymous with government inaction and market supremacy. In fact, real libertarianism has always been about maximising the actual choices people can make in their everyday lives. It usually requires a mixture of robust markets and active government.
That’s why the political row about healthy food is so interesting: it demonstrates a rare and tangible philosophical difference between the parties. In the blue corner are the Tories, adopting a throw-them-all-to-the-markets mentality that refuses to see any flaws in how markets operate. In the red corner is Labour, arguing that government action is needed to help you cope with and understand markets. Labour is now openly acknowledging that – left to their own devices – markets will not guarantee the conditions for a reasonable life.
(…) Class is the flabby elephant in the room in this discussion. All the research indicates that poor people are disproportionately fat, and it’s not (…) because they are somehow congenitally lazy or greedy. The reality is that many poor people in Britain are trapped in what sociologists call ‘food deserts’. Since very few poor people have cars and most of them have kids who can’t be dragged on 10-mile bus journeys with piles of shopping bags, they are dependent on the nearest food retailers. In disadvantaged areas, the nearest food store is usually a corner shop with no fresh food. The rise of out-of-town supermarkets has made these nutrition-free zones even larger and decent food even harder to get to.
I’ve seen this where many of my relatives live. If you can’t afford a taxi back from the supermarket miles away, it’s literally impossible to do any decent shopping; there just isn’t any fresh food on sale within travelling distance, so you settle for stacks of frozen and tinned food from the local corner-shop. It’s like being trapped in a sea of lard. You go live there and try to stay thin.
This is the old story of what happens when markets are not properly regulated: they screw the poor. How is that a meaningful form of libertarianism? In this instance, markets deny the choice of healthy food to the very people who need it most.
Labour has been slowly articulating an alternative: they have considered offering government subsidy to supermarkets if they agree to open stores selling cheap, fresh produce in the heart of food deserts. This creates meaningful choice as opposed to the chimerical choice offered by the markets.
(…)At first, the idea of the Government warning you about the risks involved in a poor diet sounds patronising. Everybody knows non-stop kebabs are bad for you; who needs John Reid to remind them? But how many of us know that even a healthy sounding breakfast cereal can be as full of sugars and salts as a quarter-pounder with cheese? How many of us know that fruit juices can often be more sugary and bad for you than a can of Coke? Tons of research shows that people often assume their diet is far more healthy than it actually is. That’s what happens in a raw, unhindered market; unclear and even deceptive labelling.
The Government is proposing instead a simple, easy-to-follow classification system for foods. Really unhealthy foods will be marked with a red dot. Moderately unhealthy foods will be marked with an orange dot. Healthy foods will be marked with a green dot. Once this is introduced, you will know, unequivocally, hw risky your diet is. No more scanning the incomprehensible nutritional details on the back of a packet. No more denial. The market on its own always gives you a choice. The market regulated by government gives you an informed choice. That’s the difference between the Tory and Labour approaches”.
More is in the pipeline: “Starting in the poorest areas, free personal trainers will be provided by the state. It’s easy for the rich to stay thin when they have a beautiful, toned trainer to motivate them. Soon, the poor will have that option too. Don’t moan about the expense – it saves money in the long term by bringing down NHS bills.
Of course, some people – like me – will have the choice to eat healthily and work out with a personal trainer, but still opt for being a fat bastard. That’s our right in a free society. But the option has to be there. At the moment, for too many people down the income scale, it’s not: they are trapped with a decision between McCain’s Oven Chips and Bird’s Eye Oven Chips. Labour is trying to spread real choices across our society; the Conservatives want to restrict them to those who are rich enough to pay, while accusing everybody else of ‘restricting choice’ and ‘nannying’.
All this discussion of oven chips is making me hungry, and I think I can feel my arteries unclogging. If you’ll excuse me, I believe there’s a Double Whopper out there with my name on it. I shall chuckle as I stroll past the gym I can afford to join and the personal trainers I can afford to hire. It’s called choice – shouldn’t everyone have it?”
Shifting the burden of responsibility on to the individual is opting for the softest target, picking on the most vulnerable (certainly less disruptive, ruffling fewer feathers and carrying a smaller price tag than rebuilding our deprived estates, paying decent wages, cutting working hours and persuading boys to don aprons and wield whisks). Depicting obesity as a purely moral issue of personal willpower is exactly what the food companies want: they can ply their products with transfats to their heart’s content. Inserting information on the label is an effort to shift the blame: the consumer was informed, he/she was aware of the risks. I don’t relish the idea of grease furring my arteries, but I push the knowledge to the back of my mind whenever I break off a square of chocolate. I am merely obeying consumerism’s first commandment. Restraint is not a virtue and we are assailed by temptations wherever we turn, without respite.
Food Standards Agency Conference
Report on Exposure of Children to Food Advertising
Food and Health Manifesto
Food and Health Manifesto Follow-Up
Obesity Report Summary
Obesity Report (Full Version)