Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Unheard levels of wrongitude

This is healthier than what he cooks? Really?
Apparently we were wrong. Very wrong. So wrong that it takes wrongness to a whole new level of wrongitude.

See what I mean – how wrong could we be?

Well, that was the headline story across a variety of news outlets yesterday morning, splashed with more relish that Branston could ever produce.

Not, of course, that I would suggest that my brethren in some of the media are less interested in facts than a cheap, sensationalist headline. Oh no.

But while the sensational glee with which some media squealed about TV cooks illustrated the irresponsibility of the same media, it also illustrated the need for enormous care by anyone publishing research, since the research itself, published in the British Medical Journal, was flawed to start with.

First, it seems that the researcher in Newcastle picked a random selection of recipes from the top five cookery books on Amazon in December 2010.

The researcher also picked 100 random ready meals from the UK’s three biggest supermarket chains.

The conclusion is that neither matched World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendations for levels of fats, proteins, calories etc – although the chefs’ meals had less salt than the ready meals.

The researcher stuck with WHO recommendations, so he didn’t bother to consider the matter of additives at all, even though you might think that these might well affect health.

As mentioned previously, the traffic light labeling system, which the researcher also used, is inherently flawed, so it follows that sticking with that for such a survey is going to be flawed too.

It’s impossible to discern just what meals and recipes were chosen. Was it like for like – two salads, for instance – or salad versus a bowl of pasta?

If the books were in the charts at Christmas, were they largely concerned with festive food – in which case, hardly everyday eating?

Since one of the books was by a cook who produces primarily desserts and cakes, how was this treated – as comparable with a main course? How many readymade desserts did the researcher find, which still required some preparation (as his report explains)?

The research appears to have missed the point that not everything in the books would have been intended for everyday eating – or even that eating one such meal a day does not mean that you eat three such meals in a day, every day.

If you eat a light breakfast and lunch, then you can still eat a more ‘indulgent’ meal in the evening and be healthy.

In spite of changing opinion and research, the survey also abides with the worn idea that fats in general are to be limited, and saturated fats in particular (this relates to the use of the traffic light system of labeling too and WHO guidelines. Mind, this is the same WHO that only declassified homosexuality from being a ‘disorder’ in 1990, so it doesn’t have a great record on being up to date).

The research also seems to ignore portion size. As I illustrated here, when a ready meal is only 50g more than a normal can of soup – and that’s your main meal of the day – it is not going to fill you up.

You’ll be eating more – possibly in the form of one or more of the snacks and crisps of which the UK consumes more than the rest of Europe out together.

Yet we’re told:

“Practitioners should take care when advising patients on improvements to their diet. Recommendations to cook from scratch rather than eat ready meals needs to be set in the context of detailed nutritional advice.”

Still, the person who wrote it got his MSc in public health and health services research last year, so is doubtless now advising people to eat more ready meals because they’re ‘healthier’.

He either ignored – or perhaps didn’t know – that by 2005, the UK consumed more ready meals than the rest of Europe put together. You’d think we’d be healthier, then, than any other nation, and particularly the French, with all their cream and cheese and natural fats.

Presumably he also imagines that the way forward is to persuade everyone to calculate absolutely every item of food that they stuff joylessly into their mouth to ensure that absolutely nothing deviates even an iota from WHO guidelines and the daft traffic light labeling.

And therein lies the biggest problem.

When, after 26 years, I eventually stopped dieting back in 1999, it was partly because of a realisation of just how joyless the entire issue of food had become: counting every calorie, working out every gram of fat and carbohydrate.

And still putting on weight over time.

Food had become the enemy. Contemplating it was a torture. Eating anything ‘bad’ (butter, for instance) was followed by guilt.

And still the weight went on.

When I stopped dieting and started to learn to enjoy food, and then to cook, an unexpected thing happened. My weight stabilised. Then, a few years ago, it started – very slowly – to fall.

Regular readers here have a few clues about how I eat these days.

I’m a walking illustration of the counterproductive nature of what has been standard diet advice in the UK for 30-odd years. And I am far from unique, even though the tide is slowly turning among doctors.

Apparently the BMJ publishes some light-hearted research in its Christmas edition, but given the crass press furore, didn’t they actually realise that something contradicting the generally-accepted advice that cooking from fresh is better for you than processed food in such a way was bound to attract such sensationalistic headlines?

But whatever the intention, the BMJ has walked into a situation of gifting some media the chance to slate TV cooks and suggest that readymade meals are ‘healthy’. What’s the betting that some of their advertisers will be in dreamland?

The irony is that high sales of books by TV cooks and chefs may actually indicate that people do want to do more cooking at home.

That fact of UK consumption of ready meals suggests that that is perhaps not happening, but a range of reasons may be at play here.

The general shortage in cooking skills is possibly a factor, as it brings with it a lack of kitchen confidence.

This in turn will mean that cooking things takes longer – or will certainly feel as though it’s longer than a ping meal or ordering a takeaway. And there is a widespread conviction that cooking from fresh just takes too long.

The reality is that food programming is meant to be entertaining. But it can be educational too.

I’ve touched on it before, but this past series of Masterchef: The Professionals alone has shown me how to make a ballotine – and my first attempt was not bad – how to make fondant potatoes (and parsnips work so well too) and how to very simply cook pheasant breasts.

Over the last decade I’ve picked up all sorts of tips and techniques from watching programmes on TV and from books by, among others, by well-known chefs and cooks.

That might, you could be forgiven for imagining, be considered A Good Thing: aspirational, even. Yet Pelling – and others – seem determined to pour scorn on a subject that, quite clearly they know little or nothing about.

Perhaps it’s the shade of that old spirit of Anglo-Saxon puritanism, distrustful of something that might involve ‘too much’ pleasure.

Not that TV cooks aren’t coming in for a kicking from other sources too.

Only last week, environment secretary Owen Paterson suggested that the amount of food that the UK throws away is partly the fault of TV chefs.

He needs to have a word with Pelling then, since she believes nobody ever cooks the recipes of TV chefs.

As various chefs/cooks point out, stupidly conservative use-by dates hardly help, together with that old supermarket ploy of getting people to buy more than they actually need by putting it on special offer.

Only today I heard someone saying that they’d bought double of a particular fresh foodstuff from Tesco because it was on a special offer: if one went off, it didn’t matter.

We throw away vast amounts of bread – how much of that is because it’s utterly crap?

Paterson is right to raise the issue, but the idea that TV chefs and cooks are to blame really is ridiculous.

He suggested that chefs and cooks should pen chapters on using left-overs – as happened in many cookbooks of yore.

On that, he raises an interesting point – possibly without realising it. Education is key.

But should the responsibility for that education be with celebrity chefs?

How about starting such a process in schools, nice and early? How about using such things as Sure Start centres (where they haven’t been closed) to teach parents basic cookery skills?

But that, of course, would mean state intervention. And while, as Paterson shows, the government is quite happy to apportion blame, it is ideologically committed to withdrawing from intervention as much as possible.

Blaming TV chefs is easy. It’s also as idiotic as pretending that TV dinners are healthier than ones made from scratch.

• You can download the full survey here.


  1. Fab article!

    I know a ready meal buyer for one of the big four. He will not allow the stuff in his home kitchen and wont eat anything from there at parties. When I asked him why he said if we knew about half the stuff that goes into them we wouldn't eat them. Makes me shudder to think about it.

    1. Thank you, Kate.

      That one, brief anecdote really says it all.