Leading Article: Green salad, home-made brandy and a large pinch of salt

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The Independent Online
A plate of grass drizzled with olive oil for Christmas lunch? A little of what you don't fancy does you good. As we report today, Albanians are terribly healthy considering their poverty. If they survive childbirth - a hazardous business, given the state of the Albanian health services - their life expectancy is about the same as ours. Yet their annual income is about pounds 250 a head, compared with more than pounds 12,000 for the UK.

Apparently, because most Albanians cannot afford meat, they eat (when they can) fresh fruit and vegetables, bread, and olive oil. One of our staff reports a visit four years ago, soon after the fall of the Communist regime, when all food was scarce. Under the chandeliers in the marble dining-room of Tirana's only luxury hotel, the Italian-built Hotel Dajti, he studied the extensive menu, only to be told that everything on it was off. The only food available was "salad", which turned out to be plate of what looked like grass, albeit of a relatively broad-leaved variety.

There is a Scrooge-like aptness in The Lancet's choosing to publish its findings at this time of excess consumption in the rich parts of Europe, complete with maps showing the distribution of olive production and mortality, showing a clear negative correlation between the two. We already knew Mediterranean food was healthy; is now the best time to remind us?

Fortunately, we can take some of The Lancet's findings if not with a pinch of salt, at least with a glass of wine. We do not have to surrender everything to the miserabilism of the medical profession.

Others of our correspondents vigorously contest some of the report's assertions. The Lancet argues that alcohol consumption in Albania is "the lowest in Europe" and that "prevalence of smoking is very low in the whole country". Our man in Tirana snorts in disbelief. He recalls staying with an Albanian family and being served home-brewed grappa in an old, recorked bottle. For breakfast. And consumption of large quantities of Skanderbeg brandy is a matter of national pride. This foul-smelling concoction is named after a 15th-century Albanian leader who stood up to the Ottoman Empire, and is made drinkable only by being taken with tobacco.

The drinking at least fits in with the advice we reported yesterday from Sir Richard Doll, who is emerging as the adult equivalent of the nation's Santa Claus. With all the authority of the man who first demonstrated the link between smoking and lung cancer, he tells us two or three alcoholic drinks a day are good for our health.

That, plus the Deliafication of Mediterranean fare, should make the strictures of the food police more palatable. Ms Smith has popularised chargrilled vegetables, stopped us sneering at rocket and told us how to use olive oil.

But the Lancet report raises other important issues. It is one of the responsibilities of government to let us know that fruit, vegetables and carbohydrates are good for us and that too many meat and milk products, and total calories, are bad. But that does not mean they should go around banning things.

Beef on the bone has been banned on the basis of a 5 per cent risk that there may be one extra CJD infection in the UK next year. Assuming half the population might otherwise have eaten bony beef, an individual may face an additional 1 in 600 million risk of contracting CJD. Compared to the risk of contracting, say, lung cancer from unbanned cigarettes, the decision to ban beef on the bone was extraordinary.

(In passing, however, we are compelled to comment on the disgraceful opportunism of William Hague in staging his stunt this week, buying an illegally-sold T-bone steak at Smithfield. We remember the hysterical moral tone of Conservative lectures directed at Labour MPs in the Eighties, sanctimoniously reminding poll-tax refuseniks of their duties as legislators to uphold the law, no matter how much they disagreed with it.)

Broadly speaking, it is the approach to tobacco which is right: health warnings, not bans. Cigarette packets are plastered with ever starker and more unambiguous counsels of doom. Food labelling has a long way to go to catch up; but rather than banning beef, why not label it? "The Government's Chief Health Officer says: They don't eat this stuff in Albania." That sort of thing. But let people choose.

The other intriguing thought provoked by the Albanian findings is: how come, if healthy food can be so cheap, "health food" is so expensive? There is something very strange about the fact that, in rich countries, poor people tend to eat less healthy food than rich people, whereas in Albania, where nearly everyone is poor, people eat healthier food than in rich countries.

We know about the diseases of affluence. We know, although we hardly care to think about it, about the "acceptable" level of deaths on our roads. After diet, one of the most important explanations of Albanian longevity is the lack of motor vehicle traffic.

As The Lancet authors speculate, Albania may hold some clues for us as to how to combine health and wealth. Leave the car at home. No mince pies. No brandy butter (except possibly made with Skanderbeg). And Delia Smith's Summer Collection instead of tasteless, mass-produced turkey. What they do not say, however, is that the Albanians may live for a long time, but their diet does not make them smarter. They still fell for that pyramid-selling scam, didn't they?