Salt 'n' vinegar with sugar on top: It's National Chip Week. Just one example of a food industry on the defensive, says David Nicholson-Lord

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The Independent Online
NOT A LOT of people know this, but we are in the middle of National Chip Week. It began on Monday and promises to leave us all a bit better informed about that staple of the British diet. Did you know, for instance, that 40 per cent of Britons eat chips abroad, that three-quarters of us think the most important attribute of the perfect chip is that it 'mustn't go soggy', that one in 10 would give up sex, alcohol and smoking rather than chips? For these facts, and many others, we are indebted to no less an authoritative source than the Chip Census 1994, a survey of more than 1,000 people conducted for the Frozen Food Information Service.

All good harmless fun, no doubt. But there is a sub-text. For the chip census reveals consumers are 'confused' about chips. They 'do not understand that oven chips are fairly low in calories. One-third of consumers incorrectly thought that a baked potato would be lower and 17 per cent thought pasta would be lower in calories than oven chips. Only one person in 20 correctly spotted that oven chips were the best option.' Chips, in short, are good for you.

This is a remarkable conclusion, not least because it runs directly counter to what most nutritionists have been saying for a decade. It also runs counter to the main thrust of health education policy, which has been telling us since the late Eighties that we should eat fewer chips, not more, since they add substantially to the average Briton's intake of fat and we are all consuming too much fat. What accounts for this apparent departure from received wisdom?

First, the comparisons must be taken with a healthy dose of scepticism. Are we comparing like with like? Four ounces of oven chips, for example, are compared with a 6oz helping of jacket potato with 1oz of butter - a distinction not made clear in the publicity but which could influence both calorie and, more important, fat content. Rice and pasta, for example, are not in themselves fatty foods. Chips, generally, are. Granted, it is possible to cook chips that carry a relatively low fat burden - the National Chip Week people tell us how - but that is not how many of us eat them. Fat chips are healthier - but the fast-food restaurants serve us thin chips. Chips cooked in unsaturated oils are healthier, but try telling that to the fish-and-chip shop owner in Glasgow or Giggleswick. Try telling it to their customers, too, who sprinkle salt liberally on their chips and thus, according to most nutritionists, increase their chances of hypertension as well as heart disease.

One of the more worrying consequences of the government-inspired cutbacks in independent academic research, and the increased reliance of universities on contract work with industry, is that genuinely objective work is in diminishing supply. Research, increasingly, is a question of pipers and tunes. Who has the money for polls, surveys, promotions, information packs? Industry has. Who spends around pounds 500m a year advertising food and drink on television? Industry does (by contrast, the Health Education Authority's budget for nutrition advice is around pounds 1m). Whose views might thus be expected to prevail?

The Frozen Food Information Service is what some critics from the public health lobby disparagingly, and not altogether fairly, refer to as an industry 'front' organisation. It represents the frozen food industry - firms such as Bird's Eye and Iceland. There are other such organisations - the Sugar Bureau, the Salt Data Centre, and so on. Their job is to represent industry, which finances them, but this fact is not always clear, particularly to the innocent or uninitiated. As yesterday's report from the National Forum for Coronary Heart Disease Prevention made clear, schools are awash with information from industry and schoolchildren are drowning in a sea of food industry advertising and sponsorship.

If a child watches commercial television for an hour each day after school and all Saturday morning, he or she will see 92 adverts a week, 80 per cent of which are for products high in fat or sugar or both. There is evidence that young children are especially vulnerable: most four- year-olds cannot tell the difference between programmes and advertisements. Advertisers dispute this - they argue that the purpose of advertising is not to increase consumption but to maintain a product's market share. Common sense - and most parents' experience of 'pester power' - suggest otherwise.

However, there are growing signs that industry is on the defensive. The great food scares of the late Eighties - salmonella, listeria, 'mad cow' disease - left a public anxious as never before about the reliability of an increasingly complex and extended food chain. The Government's national health targets, published in The Health of the Nation in 1992 and calling for reductions in areas such as fat intake, obesity and heart disease, touched some raw nerves.

There is talk, from the European Commission and health groups alike, of new restrictions on advertising. The Government has turned down a ban on tobacco advertising but one on baby milk-powder, the subject of a long-running boycott campaign by consumer groups, looks set to go ahead. The Advertising Association speaks of a threat to 'commercial free speech'. Pressure groups such as Action and Information on Sugars are waging new and effective campaigns against sweets at supermarket check-out counters, sugary bedtime drinks and syrupy cordials such as Ribena.

It is against this background that National Chip Week should be seen. In recent weeks a professor at the London Business School has attempted to demolish the findings of a highly critical report on food advertising published last year by the National Food Alliance, one of the late Eighties generation of consumer pressure groups. The report was financed by the Advertising Association. A 'new' - and much kindlier - perspective on sugar, diet and dental health is being distributed to dentists, courtesy of the Biscuit, Cake, Chocolate and Confectionery Alliance. There is also an increasingly receptive market in right-wing newspapers - which, of course, means most newpapers - for diatribes against 'health fascists' and 'professional anxiety mongers'.

The Empire, in other words, is striking back, and it's not doing too badly. According to the Frozen Food Information Service, the good news about chips has been carried on Sky News, Meridian Televison, Capital Radio, the Daily Mirror and 'lots' of regional newspapers. Whether you think this is a blow for free speech or vested interests will depend in part upon your attitude to what that professional medical heretic, Dr James Le Fanu, calls 'dietary neurosis'.

One suggestion from health specialists is for an independent source of information on diet financed, not by the taxpayer as at present, but by an industry levy. This would surely be preferable to hearing how wonderful chips are from the people who sell them.

Matthew Symonds's column returns in the spring.