Anthony Worrall Thompson: A few more bugs in our food and we'd be healthier

'Last week research revealed that a third of children under four are overweight. Sterile convenience meals are to blame'
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The Independent Online

When I was a child I used to spend a lot of time with my grandmother, who cooked me wonderful meals. Those were the days when we weren't so obsessed with hygiene and germs. It was normal to take in milk bottles with silver tops pecked by the birds, and store food in the larder. We didn't think every item of food should be kept in the fridge - if we had a fridge - or think that it was a disaster for meat to be placed next to other foodstuffs.

When I was a child I used to spend a lot of time with my grandmother, who cooked me wonderful meals. Those were the days when we weren't so obsessed with hygiene and germs. It was normal to take in milk bottles with silver tops pecked by the birds, and store food in the larder. We didn't think every item of food should be kept in the fridge - if we had a fridge - or think that it was a disaster for meat to be placed next to other foodstuffs.

My grandmother often used to make trifle, and one Sunday I told her that the trifle did not taste the same as usual. She dipped her finger in the red sauce adorning the top of the pudding - and discovered that it was blood which had dripped on to the trifle from a roast rib of beef. I was none the worse for it; I didn't suffer an upset stomach (in those days we didn't have food poisoning, we had upset stomachs).

I am not an advocate of sloppiness in the kitchen, or unhygienic practices, but we have gone too far in our pursuit of germ-free food. Despite all our endeavours to improve hygiene, all that seems to have happened is that the outbreaks of food poisoning have increased. I believe that some of the problem is caused by the obsession we have about cleanliness. We used to develop natural defences so that our bodies could tolerate more, but today we don't build up our immune systems. Our obsession with bacteria could be the death of us.

There are other, hidden dangers from food. The amount of fats, sugars and salts in processed food, for instance, is undoubtedly harmful. Only last week researchers from Liverpool University revealed that almost a third of children under four are overweight, including nearly one in 10 who are classified as obese. The study blamed parents' reliance on ready meals, with high fat content, for the increase in children's weight, and warned that it will lead to heart disease and other health problems.

We should be more discerning: not all fats are bad for us. Olive oil is a good healthy alternative to animal fat. And in our concern about saturated fats we have ignored the amount of "transfats" we eat. These ingredients - man-made, processed substances such as margarine - are particularly harmful and are linked to health problems. It's not as if the food industry does not know how harmful they are. As long ago as 1956, the Lancet carried a study which showed that hydrogenation in food manufacture could contribute to various diseases such as cancer. And in the US, an experiment was carried out using cockroaches. Cockroaches usually eat anything but when some margarine was put in a cage, none of them would touch it.

I believe other health problems are caused by ingredients in our food: the chemicals added during factory processing, the antibiotics which animals are given, which could be passed on to us. All contribute to lowering our immune systems. There are theories that the increasing number of allergies - and the high incidence of asthma in children - is caused by pollution. I'm not so sure. I grew up when there were pea-souper fogs and factories belching fumes, yet the incidence of chest problems among children seemed far less. I can't remember anyone experiencing an anaphylactic shock after eating a peanut, or being stung by a wasp.

Then there is our high sugar intake. A hundred years ago, 4lbs of sugar per person per year were consumed; today that figure has risen to 160lbs. No wonder we have seen the incidence of diabetes increase 10-fold in the past 40 years.

Juice junkies probably think fruit is far better for them than manufactured fizzy drinks. But they forget that juice contains sugar in the form of fructose. It's the same with medicine.

There are people who believe that a carbohydrate rich diet is a healthy diet. They read that it is wise to eat plenty of pasta and brown bread. But they forget that kind of diet suits an athlete. If you eat lots of carbohydrate and don't take plenty of exercise, it turns to glucose, which turns to fat.

It is important we are well informed about the origins and processing of food. The consumer should know what he or she is eating - and especially what children are eating.

Even better would be to go organic. For some people, that is not a realistic option because much organic food is unaffordable. Specialist shops charge high prices, although some supermarkets have a good range, and are not so costly. But as more of us demand organic produce and the supply increases, so prices should come down. A word of warning. There's no point buying organic produce if it's been flown in - wasting energy - when home-grown produce is better in terms of both taste and the impact on the environment. My tip: back local food. Or even better, grow your own.

People who do grow their own know the other secret of food: it's not that hard to cook delicious meals. Nor does it take long. I remember the time when I went to a motorway café and asked for a plain omelette. I could have a mushroom one, or a ham one, but plain? No. Why not? They bought them frozen, and it took three minutes to cook. If they'd started from scratch, it would have taken one-and-a-half minutes to make.

The best food is fresh, tasty and simple. It's a myth that cooking it is difficult and time-consuming. If we believe that, we end up with the food we deserve.

 

Antony Worrall Thompson is a chef. He was speaking yesterday at the 'We are what we eat ... But who decides?' conference in London.

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