Hard to swallow
Jamie Oliver's hit TV show Jamie's School Dinners seemed to endorse some 'porkies' about modern food.
It’s undoubtedly a good thing to feed children the best food we can. But TV chef Jamie Oliver’s campaign for better school meals is being used as a weapon in a cultural war about what we eat.
Food is discussed in black-and-white terms. On the one hand, we have mass-produced convenience meals produced by large companies, designed to be dished up easily at your local takeaway, or bought by the car load from the supermarket down the road. On the other, we have local food bought daily from local shops, preferably organic and always freshly prepared. In this simplified and moralised version of reality, the industrialised food is ‘bad’; the small-scale food is ‘good’.
Jamie’s School Dinners on Channel 4 made a number of assertions about the effects of processed food on children. According to the programme, children eating freshly prepared food are less likely to be obese, more likely to behave better, and have fewer asthma attacks.
Most luridly, it claimed that some children were now so constipated that they were vomiting their own faeces, and that this new generation were the first expected to die before their parents.
These claims deserve to be challenged because they create unnecessary fears about what we eat and, by implication, reflect badly on those who allow children to eat certain kinds of food.
There was little evidence presented in the programme that modern school dinners cause obesity – it was just assumed. Modern school meals may be highly processed, too reliant on salt and fat for flavour, and rather boring. But there is no such thing as ‘junk’ food. Our digestive systems do not distinguish between fish fingers and caviar. If food is a factor in rising obesity levels, this is due to the quantity being eaten, and the way it is consumed, rather than the way it is produced. And, as Peter Marsh from the Social Issues Research Centre points out elsewhere on spiked, the notion of an epidemic of childhood obesity bears little relation to what is actually happening: a very gradual rise in children’s weight over the years, caused by a number of different changes in lifestyles (1).
There have been studies which suggest that malnourishment in early life can lead to anti-social behaviour later on. However, to extrapolate from these to children’s diets in Britain today assumes that processed food is devoid of important nutrients. In fact, that much-maligned burger and chips has plenty of vitamins, minerals and protein. And children generally are consuming more fruit juices and fortified foods than before, topping up any deficiencies elsewhere in their diets. Commenting on one study, Dr Ann Hagell of the Nuffield Foundation told BBC News: ‘In my experience diet is not part of the explanation. It can cause hyperactivity disorders, but anti-social behaviour is more influenced by parenting and genetics and teen peer pressure in teenage groups.’ (2)
Kirsty Jackson of Asthma UK told me that, while the organisation suggests that asthma sufferers have a balanced diet, and specific foods such as oily fish may be of some help, food is only occasionally mentioned as a trigger for attacks – and the foods mentioned were as likely to be ‘healthy’, such as bananas or cheese, as processed. Asthma may occur in people with an allergy to a particular foodstuff, but as an article in the journal Paediatrics notes, ‘chronic or isolated asthma or rhinitis induced by food is unusual’ (3).
Constipation and vomiting
Is it really possible to vomit your own faeces? Not according to Professor Roy Pounder of Royal Free and University College medical school in London. What is possible is to regurgitate barely digested food in severe cases of constipation – but it’s extremely rare. This regurgitated food might look like faeces, but it’s not. ‘I’m just finishing 25 years at the Royal Free Hospital’, he told me, ‘and with simple constipation I don’t think I’ve ever seen it…. It’s vanishingly unlikely for children to vomit from constipation. To reach the point of blocking to vomit, I would be looking for another reason for their vomiting’.
Children dying before their parents
This is the most astounding claim of all – and it is completely unsupportable. In the face of supposedly unhealthy modern diets and eating habits, life expectancies continue to rise. Yet this claim would suggest that children will die on average 20 years younger than their parents. There are circumstances in which this might occur, such as in the case of severe infectious disease – the AIDS pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa being an example – but no serious commentator would suggest that obesity is going to be a killer of otherwise healthy young people in the way that AIDS is.
A more moderate interpretation of this claim is that this new generation of children will die at a younger age to their parents – ie, that average life expectancies will start to fall. A new report in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that if obesity levels in the USA were to continue to rise at present rates, a fall in life expectancies of a few months might occur in decades to come – but even this idea is regarded as ‘excessively gloomy’ by an editorial in the same journal (4).
Overall, the suggestion from the programme was that we’ve been feeding our children what amounts to poison for the past few decades. That implies a pretty low opinion of parents – how could they allow this to happen?
When Oliver talks about the white working classes, he sounds like many health professionals trying to break into recalcitrant groups who resist modern health messages. In a recent webchat on the Channel 4 website, Oliver praised ethnic minorities as a potential model for a more civilised approach to food, but lambasted the white working classes:
‘The sad thing is that generally ethnic kids and ethnic dinner ladies embrace either the cooking or the eating 10 times quicker than what we have learned to call “white trash”. And you just thought it was on Jerry Springer! This doesn’t mean they are bad people – far from it, just that ethnic minorities have a bigger sense of family, culture, have a use for the dinner table in the house and use food as a way of celebrating and communicating and being a family. It sounds very sad but in my experience it’s totally true. But, it doesn’t mean the harder kids won’t get turned around, it just takes a little longer.’ (5)
When these arguments are presented by health authorities and food cranks, they often fall on deaf ears. They can have much more purchase when presented by the trendy, campaigning chef, who has become an empty vessel to be filled by the prejudices of our age.
Add to this the extra emotional twist of children. ‘You may have given up on eating proper food, but think of your kids’, seems to be the message. Oliver’s ideas resonate with aspiring parents from all walks of life who want something better for their children – a noble desire. But in the process, we’re being sold dodgy arguments about health and food.
You would never know from Oliver’s programme that our diets are now better and more varied than ever before, or that the industrialisation of food production and retailing has widened access to just the kinds of foods Oliver is so keen to promote. Olive oil, pesto or thai curry paste would be unavailable to the majority of the population were it not for greatly expanded production and big supermarkets.
Using mealtimes to teach children about what to eat, and how to eat it, is a worthy cause – but let’s cut the crap about the dangers of modern food.
Making a meal out of school dinners, by Rob Lyons
(1) Fat and fiction, by Peter Marsh
(2) Poor diet linked to bad behaviour, BBC News, 22 November 2004
(3) Respiratory manifestations of food allergy, Paediatrics, June 2003
(4) Obesity ‘could cut US life spans’, BBC News, 17 March 2005
(5) Webchat: 10 March, Jamie’s School Dinners, Channel 4
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