Forget the foodie fearmongers - let's eat, drink and be merry

The news that Jamie Oliver's food is more 'unhealthy' than supermarket convenience meals only brings home how stupid it is to make health the be-all and end-all of food.

Christmas came a week early for me. The headline in yesterday's Telegraph summed it up: 'Jamie and Nigella's meals "unhealthy"'. Researchers at Newcastle University and NHS Tees had compared recipes from books by Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Lorraine Pascale, among others, with supermarket ready meals. And the researchers concluded that the much-maligned convenience food is better on all sorts of measures than the stuff these celebrity chefs would have us prepare.

Christmas came a week early for me. The headline in yesterday’s Telegraph summed it up: ‘Jamie and Nigella’s meals “unhealthy”’. Researchers at Newcastle University and NHS Tees had compared recipes from books by Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Lorraine Pascale, among others, with supermarket ready meals. And the researchers concluded that the much-maligned convenience food is better on all sorts of measures than the stuff these celebrity chefs would have us prepare.

At least Lawson hasn’t tried to bang the drum about how the nation should eat. Her recipes are as full-fat as she is full-figured. Lawson’s playfully flirtatious presentation is all about giving in, not giving up. The Mockney Moraliser, on the other hand, has had it coming.

First, he ran a crusade to persuade parents that their children’s school meals were life-shortening crap. Then he turned his attention to the people of the northern English town of Rotherham, like some Victorian missionary trying to convert the natives. No wonder he called it his ‘Ministry of Food’, for ministry it certainly was. Then he tried to repeat the trick in the US, only to find his less-than-successful show shunted round the schedules. Now he’s being sued for falsely claiming on that US that an ingredient in American processed-meat products – which he described as ‘pink slime’ – was a threat to children’s health.

Yet much as I would like to see Oliver cringe in the midst of bad publicity, the truth is that the people behind the Newcastle study are even worse than he is. So fearful are they that simple-minded folk may become bloated on Jamie’s Cauliflower Macaroni – which apparently contains 1,100 calories per serving and 58g of fat – and other tasty treats that the authors of the study suggest that such cookery shows be restricted till after the 9pm TV ‘watershed’ and should be considered for a ‘traffic-light’ labelling system. I would hope their collective tongues were in their cheeks when they wrote the article, but somehow I doubt it.

In reality, if you cook almost anything from one of these celebrity cookbooks with a modicum of skill, you are likely to produce something that tastes better than 95 per cent of ready meals. Convenience food in a tin or plastic tray has its place, but a home-cooked meal will almost certainly taste better. The comparisons in the Newcastle study are also a bit dubious. Firstly, ready meals are often a bit stingy on the portions, so comparing calorie counts might simply reflect smaller sizes. Secondly, it’s surely your diet as a whole, not one specific dish, that matters.

But Jamie-related schadenfreude aside, the fact is that judging food so narrowly on health grounds is stupid, whether the judgement comes from celebrity chefs, academic researchers, nannying politicians or puritanical campaigners. The health claims made about how ‘deadly’ certain foodstuffs could be are greatly exaggerated. Moreover, fretting about calories or saturated fat is a great way to spoil your appetite.

A bit of perspective is required. Recent research suggests the overweight now outnumber the malnourished around the world. That is not an indictment of modern society but a stunning achievement. Better to be chubby than starving or anaemic. The proportion of the world’s population that does not get enough to eat has been falling steadily for decades, from 23.2 per cent in the early Nineties to under 15 per cent today – despite a rapidly growing world population. As for all that unhealthy living we are supposed to be doing, the UK Office for National Statistics reported on Monday that people in England and Wales are living even longer than originally thought, with both men and women living, on average, well into their eighties.

We should enjoy our food - not live a miserable, high-fibre, low-fat, flatulent existence in the (probably vain) hope of eking out another year or two of life. To ruin our food by treating it as poison is just daft. We can carry on eating, drinking and generally being merry – which is a rather handy lesson to learn at this time of year.  Cheers!

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

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Issue 27: 15 April 2014

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