Wednesday 24 October 2012

Gastronomic Paradise

Health Minister Anna Soubry (that's the Department of Health in England but this will apply to Wales too) announced today that "consumers will be able to make healthier choices about the food they eat with the introduction of a new, consistent system of front of pack labelling".

Note that she didn't say it would be "simple", however, and indeed she could not have done so as the new system is a complete mess combining three different approaches, namely "guideline daily amounts (GDA)", colour (traffic-light style) coding and "high/medium/low" text. This comes after a three-month consultation with retailers, manufacturers and other interested parties on "what a consistent, clear front of pack label should look like"!

This dog's breakfast of a compromise comes about because of a failure to agree between public health wonks and the food retailers. The public health people have been arguing for years for a simplistic, dumbed down traffic-light system distinguishing "good" (green), "so-so" (amber), and "bad" (red) foods while the retailers have had varying views but tended to want to offer more facts and less arbitrary, simple judgements. No doubt the retailers were jockeying for their best commercial interest but, whatever their motives, they were actually in the right.

The public health people make three fundamental mistakes. The first is to patronise people by suggesting that facts shouldn't clutter their finger-wagging messages. The second is to fail to see the consequences of traffic lights which would inevitably see manufacturers carefully manipulating ingredients by a small fraction in order to get a "healthier" label thereby duping the unwary. The third and far more serious problem is that they are unwittingly reinforcing the very worst attitudes towards nutrition in the UK by suggesting that entirely healthy foods like butter, cheese, bacon, chocolate etc are bad for you, thereby adding to our society's flawed relationship with food which sees many people suffering eating disorders, a high proportion of the population painfully yo-yo dieting, and, yes, a lot of obesity - itself largely a symptom of the national guilt trip about food.

The EU, no doubt because it includes countries with a much more psychologically healthy attitude to food (and less obesity), like many UK retailers supports GDAs because of course this is really all about eating a balanced diet including all sorts of food but in the right proportions (for heaven's sake - who does not know this?).

Most French people love food and are at ease with it. They do not understand why anybody would call cheese unhealthy nor do they suffer guilty self-reproach masked by gallows giggling just because they are eating a cream bun. But there are early signs that some French people are absorbing what they call "anglo-saxon" (actually meaning British and American) guilty attitudes to food and their government should resist this with every fibre in their slim bodies, if necessary turning away British public health officials at the Channel ports to stop them spreading pernicious ideas about food in their gastronomic paradise.

Lots of good information and onward links on physical health including diet here.


I guess I should evidence all this with one example of typical domestic French cooking I am particularly fond of...

Fry one or more pork chops in (per chop) a small knob of butter and an equal amount of vegetable oil; when they're done remove the chops to the (hot) plates which you are going to eat them off; add (per chop) a big serving-spoonful of crème fraîche (on no account the "low-fat" version - in reality a horrible concoction with added industrial gum which won't cook properly!) and two heaped teaspoons of French mustard to the juices in the pan, heat vigorously while stirring for 30 seconds, season - including a good grind of pepper - and pour over the chops. Serve with new or boiled potatoes and a big green salad on the side (you only need dress the salad lightly with vinaigrette because once you've eaten your chop you can copy the French by mixing it a bit with the remaining sauce on your plate - yum); finish the meal with fresh fruit. A good starter for this meal would be sliced big tomatoes with a splash of balsamic vinegar and a drop or two of olive oil. This works well for one person as well as numbers - and no waste necessary.

In this case the suggested light starter and pudding balance the fairly substantial main course - if you have a light main course you can have more substantial other courses. With a decent breakfast (I mean some toast and marmalade, or boiled egg and soldiers, or similar) and other secondary meal (perhaps soup, bread and a little cheese plus fruit) you can eat like this every day and slowly lose weight or maintain a healthy weight (adjusting portion sizes to your size and activity levels). It's not rocket science! So do I practise what I preach? Very imperfectly as far as eating the right amount is concerned - but I don't beat myself up which is the most important message here.