Sugar and fat and all things profitable

23rd October 1998 at 01:00
IT WAS entirely predictable that David Blunkett's proposed nutritional guidelines for schools would elicit the usual knee-jerk response from the Anti-Nanny Staters, spearheaded by that most terrifyingly Nanny figure of all, Ann Widdecombe.

Guidelines are acceptable to Widdecombe because they can be ignored - but suggest recipes for healthier alternatives to the standard fat, sugar and stodge and it "smacks of the Nanny State".

Anti-Nanny Staters fight to protect the vital human right to eat yourself into an early grave if you so choose. Along with the food industry, they like to insist that there's no such thing as an unhealthy food, just an unhealthy diet, conveniently passing on the responsibility for the nation's notoriously bad eating habits to the individual.

They should be renamed the Status Quo-ers, because in our current food culture, children are put under relentless pressure from all directions to eat only junk. If that is not countered by an alternative message, then junk is all they will end up eating.

Take the diet served up on children's television in the UK. In 1996, Consumers International found that a massive 95 per cent of food advertisements were for over-processed junk. Top of the kiddie food advert pops in Britain came confectionery, with breakfast cereals following a close second. Ads for foods such as fruit and vegetables were almost non-existent. It appears that the only remotely healthy ads that our children are likely to see are for frozen peas.

No wonder then, that even the best-intentioned parents begin to get disheartened when from the youngest age, children start gravitating towards sweetened fizzy drinks, not water; towards biscuits, not the fruit bowl; to crispy crumb fish formed into a special marine "shape", not fish; from unsticky breakfast cereals into sticky ones.

The pressure continues at school. A concerned parent reported to me how she felt out on a limb at her child's nursery because she didn't agree with the new rule that crisps and diluted "fruit" squash was the only acceptable snack.

Once, visiting a distinguished private secondary school, I learnt how the headmaster had proscribed clementines in the playground because "'the children dropped the skins and it looked bad". Somehow or other he didn't seem to notice all those packets of crisps and soft drink cans bobbing around in the wind.

Of course junk is a nice little earner for cash-strapped schools. Earlier this year it was reported that one Merseyside School forecast a Pounds 15,000-a-year profit from its "snack and soft drink vending machines" - junk dispensers.

Now in Sweden - a country that Miss Widdecombe would doubtless denounce as a Nanny State - no such folly is tolerated. Food advertising is not allowed on children's' television. While we welcome the revenue to be earned from letting junk food manufacturers loose in our schools, the Swedes are actively proselytising children about the benefits of natural, wholesome food.

The lean, healthy and dynamic Swedes don't seem to mind having their civil liberty to eat junk eroded. In the UK, make the slightest attempt to straighten out the nation's deeply aberrant ideas about what constitutes a reasonable diet and you can expect a ton of bricks to fall on your head from those defending our right to remain toothless, obese and sluggish.

The irony is that Education Secretary David Blunkett's guidelines - however controversial - are still pathetically inadequate to approach the nutritional problem we have on our hands. His script is still written by the food industry. Yes, it's a good start to suggest stir-fry, not deep-fry, to promote salad bars, not chocolate bars, but all this is to be achieved within the financial constraints of CCT (Compulsory Competitive Tendering) which effectively forces school caterers to go for the lowest common denominator food on offer.

Thus Mr Blunkett's guidelines, if implemented, will take form in the ghastly "cash cafeteria" where a child will be lucky to see a simple sliced tomato, cucumber disc or carrot baton. Instead, the most tangible manifestation of his guidelines is likely to be an increased presence of highly- processed techno-foods and drinks of debatable benefit sporting "lite" and "diet" labels.

The fact of the matter is that if the Government really wants to improve the nation's diet, by any significant measure, starting with the food children eat, it must be prepared to dismantle the structural constraints which allow the food industry to make a mint out of fat, salt, sugar and stodge.

Tony Blair and colleagues may be fond of their char-grilled squid at the River Cafe, but their discernment doesn't extend to standing up to the barons of junk. Just days after Mr Blunkett's guidelines were announced, we learn that the Government is back-pedalling on its long-promised Food Standards Agency. Why? Because the Anti-Nanny Staters are making political capital out of it of course.

Joanna Blythman is author of the award-winning The Food We Eat (Penguin, Pounds 6.99)

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