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Junk telly

The BBC series Food Junkies portrays fat people as helpless victims of fast-food multinationals. A sceptic chews it over.

Peter Marsh

Topics Politics

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The much-hyped BBC2 TV series, Food Junkies, which ran from 10 to 24 April 2002, is typical of its genre.

Find some stupid people who claim that they are unable to control what they eat – or who have no time to ‘come home and make a salad’ – and portray them as hapless victims of cynical multinational food companies, whose perverse aim is seemingly to kill off the principal consumers of their products.

Add in some ‘experts’, whose life’s mission is to rid the world of fat/salt/sugar or whatever, and a few celebrity chefs for good measure – ‘Yourr feeshancheeps are so deesgusting’ mutters Raymond Blanc darkly – and that’s ‘cutting-edge’ television?

It’s all very unconvincing and disappointing. In the first of the three programmes we were offered a well-worn critique of McDonald’s – the soft target of both food faddists and anti-globalisation activists alike. Commenting in the Independent, Thomas Sutcliffe was suitably unimpressed:
‘It leaned heavily on Eric Schlosser’s book Fast Food Nation…. Ironically, you could say that Food Junkies was the junk-food version of Schlosser’s three-course meal – stripped down for what are assumed to be the coarser appetites of the average viewer. As such it had flavour enhancers (cheesy McDonald’s commercials from the Fifties), emulsifiers (Jenny Eclair and Greg Proops appearing now and then to take our minds off things), and a disappointingly small quantity of quality beef – mostly delivered by Schlosser himself.’

Padding out the programme, both metaphorically and literally, were chubby ‘ordinary folk’ such as the Ackers, who claimed they were unable to resist the cynical marketing forces that drove their excessive consumption of pizzas. It wasn’t their fault, it was the food companies that made them do it – a sentiment reinforced by the Browns, whose culinary and everyday living skills took incompetence to quite novel depths.

The rather nauseating format of the programme seemed reminiscent of, say, The Cook Report, where a fearless fat champion of the people exposes and confronts the cheats and dodgy car mechanics for our entertainment and prurient censure. The problem is, however, that you often end up feeling quite sorry for the victims of the unappealing TV bully and his camera crew mobsters.

And that’s also the problem with Food Junkies. Watching a recording of the first programme in my office at around midday I felt, for the first time in ages, that I could just do with a Big Mac. I settled instead for a Scotch egg from the local Londis.

This uncomfortable similarity between Food Junkies and the ‘doorstep’ style of TV investigation may not be accidental. The executive producer of the series, Stewart Lansley, was the man who last year brought us Kenyon Confronts – the BBC’s attempt to add spice to its current affairs output through undercover exposures of, for example, foreign nationals marrying our local girls simply in order to obtain residency status.

In defence of that series, relegated to a graveyard slot in competition with ITV’s Coronation Street, Lansley said: ‘We would describe the programmes as traditional, hard-hitting investigations…. But we do it in a new format. The style is popular and we use lots of stunts.’ Now isn’t that what Food Junkies was accusing McDonald’s of doing?

The second programme in the series, perhaps predictably, turned its attention to sugar. In order to whet our appetites, as it were, the Guardian helpfully published an article by Laura Barton five days in advance of the scheduled slot titled ‘A spoonful of propaganda’ (1). Here we were treated to a lengthy rant by Aubrey Sheiham, a professor of dental public health at University College, London. ‘ “The city of London is built on sugar”…. His voice is shrill and exasperated. “Just look at the Tate Gallery!” he yelps.’

It is not clear from Barton’s article whether we are dealing with someone who has a credible argument to put forward, or with a person who is out to (a sugar-free) lunch. The fact that patronage of the sugar industry has brought us one of the most exciting art galleries in the world in the shape of the Tate Modern seems hardly a matter for criticism.

Professor Sheiham belongs in a category of medical professionals who devote almost their entire lives to vilifying simple, common food items, as if they were the most pernicious evil that undermined the fabric of our society. Sugar, especially that which is ‘hidden’ in processed foods and fizzy drinks, is, for Sheiham, akin to the product of the Devil incarnate.

But Sheiham neglects much contrary scientific evidence in the process, and often tangles himself up in quite ludicrous failures of logic. Nowhere is this more evident than in his controversial views on fluoride.

For many years fluoride has been regarded as an effective way of inhibiting tooth decay. That is why it is contained in water supplies and in virtually all toothpastes. Sheiham, however, says that he has ‘gone cool on water fluoridation’. In the face of most of the scientific evidence he claims that ‘fluoride does have a negative effect on teeth’. And then he lets slip the reason for his apparent volte face: ‘The dental profession’s concentration on fluoride has let sugar off the hook.’

Deconstructed, his argument seems to follow the line that fluoride does, whatever he says to the contrary, prevent tooth decay, but this means that the alleged ill-effects of sugar are then less apparent, so we should let our children’s teeth rot so that we can see more clearly how bad sugar really is for us.

Such spurious reasoning from Sheiham wins him few friends, except for his colleagues in the club of obsessive anti-food campaigners. And sadly, Sheiham has few friends left in the dental profession either following his rather wild assertion that dentists in this country inflict millions of pounds of unnecessary and even harmful treatment on patients each year and that 20 percent of all dental work is unnecessary. The reason why it is unnecessary, he claims, is that 90 percent of people now do not have any problems with their teeth that require treatment.

How can this possibly be consistent with his other view, expressed with apoplectic vigour, that increased sugar consumption over the past two decades or so has ruined our teeth in an unprecedented manner? Presumably, only Sheiham himself can determine that.

Luckily, we did not have to put up with Sheiham in the programme itself. Instead we were introduced to the mysterious Syndrome X, a metabolic disorder allegedly caused by smoking, drinking, lack of exercise – oh, and too much sugar – for which the portly celeb chef Anthony Worrall Thompson was to test positive by the end of the programme.

The rather more lovely Hélène Mahieu, of Renault Clio ad fame, appeared relatively unscathed by her earlier ‘addiction’ to chocolate and its ‘orgasmic’ properties, while the dour Philip James (who was responsible for drawing up the original plans for the Food Standards Agency but didn’t get to be its head) shrugged off his self-acknowledged status as an extremist and attacked the ‘devious’ tactics of the sugar industry to confuse us all with scientific research.

Who needs research when we all know that sugar is a very bad thing?

The second programme in the Food Junkies series was as contrived and unconvincing as the first. Why we had to witness some fat American blokes scoffing tubs of ice cream in a ridiculous competition to see who could eat the most in a given time remains a mystery. So too does the inclusion of a lardy female private investigator munching sweets while she lies in wait to serve, unsuccessfully as it transpired, a writ on some hapless defaulter – and the weird shaman rituals in Mexico which feature Coca-Cola in a symbolic, quasi-religious role.

Interspersed with such human interest segments was a cast of yet more food ‘experts’, who made brief appearances to hammer home the basic message – fat capitalists are conspiring to increase our sugar intake against our will and we are powerless to resist their Machiavellian charms. As a result, we are falling prey to novel diseases and lifestyle disorders on an unprecedented scale.

What was clearly missing from Food Junkies was the rather more important point that we do have, contrary to the claims of those portraying themselves as helpless ‘victims’, some control here. Obesity stems from the fact that people choose to eat too much, not from the fact that they are force-fed by sinister multinationals or anybody else.

What we might consider to be the exercise of more sensible choices, however, is made more difficult when people are bombarded with admonishments masquerading as health advice and when their sense of personal responsibility is eroded by precisely the kind of demonisation of food that the BBC thinks is appropriate for peak-time TV viewing.

Food Junkies will do nothing to encourage people to have a healthy and positive relationship with what they eat. It will only serve to increase further their largely unfounded fears and the sense of apathy that comes with learned helplessness.

Towards the end of Food Junkies part II we were presented with a somewhat downcast Anthony Worrall Thompson pondering on his mysterious Syndrome X and what he should do about it. There weren’t many indications that he was about to give up smoking. And alcohol? That would be difficult given his taste for good wines. As for sugary puddings, well he didn’t eat many of those anyway – he wasn’t a big sweet eater. But he claimed to be ‘determined’ – after all, ‘we [TV chefs] are image makers’ he immodestly opined.

Well AWT, if that’s really the case, then perhaps we’re all in trouble.

Dr Peter Marsh is co-director of the Social Issues Research Centre.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Food scares

(1) A spoonful of propaganda, Guardian, 12 April 2002

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Topics Politics

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