Deeply fried, deeply satisfied

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The Independent Online
I don't know exactly why, but I was curiously exhilarated by the news this week that a deep-fried battered Mars bar (with a side order of chips) has become the latest culinary craze north of the border.

It certainly isn't because I want to eat one - I can't really face a Mars bar cru, and the thought of the warm gloop of the interior doesn't exactly tease the palate. In texture I guess it would be something like a toffee-flavoured oyster. But there was something heroically gross about the idea that caught my imagination. It was as if a team of dietary freedom fighters had carefully worked out the most devastating combination of sugar and fat conceivable before releasing it into the teenage subculture - a secret weapon of corpulence and cardiac arrest aimed at the heart of the health lobby.

I haven't encountered such a reckless disregard of alimentary safety since I was at school and discovered that many boys ate their breakfast sausages with a thick top-dressing of marmalade (the closest Lancaster Grammar could get to a chutney, I suppose).

The next day several newspapers reported that the Government was sitting on an official report which warned that we are getting fatter by the minute. They sat on it rather heavily, so it leaked (the image that comes to mind is of a portly pin-striped bottom descending on a jam doughnut). In 10 years' time, if you believe the report of the Nutrition and Physical Activity Task Force, a quarter of all British men and one-fifth of women will be clinically obese. Most of them, presumably, will be Scottish - munching their way towards 2005 by filling that niggly gap between meals with enough calories to power a small Highland town.

Most journalists put the non-appearance of the report down to Government bad faith, but I wonder myself whether they haven't just given up in despair, ground down by the clear evidence that most people are happy to eat themselves into an early grave. My own confidence in the power of governments to adjust the diet of their citizens took a grave knock some years ago, after a visit to a Brixton supermarket.

The woman in front of me had children hanging from both sides of her cardigan and a baby cradled beneath a trembling finger of cigarette ash. On the conveyer belt were laid three jumbo aqualungs of Pepsi (non-diet), a frozen pizza, several packets of those vivid orange snacks that look like packing material and some more cigarettes. "Zit orright if I pay for this wiv milk tokens?" she asked when she reached the check-out. The cashier nodded in a defeated sort of way. He had clearly lost too many arguments about the calcium content of Cheesy Wotsits.

The simple problem is that junk food is often more delicious than mediocre healthy food. Set a greasy chip butty, laced with sugary tomato ketchup, against a plate of flaccid green beans and boiled cod, and most people will know immediately where their taste buds are pointing. You might enjoy the latter meal, by disciplined exertion of will, but only because it is heavily sauced by a sense of doing the right thing.

Healthy food is an acquired taste, one that requires a modest exercise of skill and the expenditure of time. Junk food, on the other hand, does all the acquisition for you, flooding your mouth with the instant, addictive gratifications of sugar and fat. Like Pavlov's dogs we salivate when the convenience food manufacturers ring our bells.

Only one thing will really change that - and it isn't government exhortations that we eat more carrots, or increased expenditure on cycle paths. Somehow they have to make deep-fried Mars bars taste bad - and education is probably the only way to do that. The flavour of mortality is an insidious one, even in small quantities, and it is capable of tainting the most delicious combination of poisons.

It's worth pointing out, incidentally, that the deep-fried Mars bar isn't by any means the first instance of chippy innovation. For many years the local fish and chip shop near my wife's childhood home in Preston has sold deep-fried jam butties. They even come with a health warning, though it isn't one that offers much hope to dietary reformers. "Please do not give batered [sic] jam butties to young children", reads a hand-made notice Sellotaped to the counter, "The jam get's [sic] very hot and can scald". Disfigurement, in other words, is broadly acceptable if it takes years to show, but not if it's instantaneous.

Miles Kington is away.