Wild palates: the Mitchell Cotts family in The Kitchen
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Eat, pray, love: Britain’s seriously loopy eating habits

Do people really do this stuff? Apparently, they do. 

The Kitchen
BBC2

The Kitchen is Gogglebox with added turmeric. Here are people, from all sorts of places and backgrounds, in their homes, cooking and eating. I read somewhere that hidden cameras had been used in its making, and thought fearfully of all the spoons I was about to see being clandestinely licked. In truth, it’s far worse than this. The cameras, it appears, are very much on view, with the result that its participants comprise all the usual show-offs and eccentrics (you might say borderline weirdos). Only this time around they come with George Foreman-style grills, “anti-cellulite” shakes, pheasant curries, “chorizio” (sic) and freezers that were last defrosted in 1973. If you’re thinking of tuning in, you will certainly want to order in the Pepto-Bismol first.

Naturally, the series works hard to reinforce our prejudices when it comes to dinner (or tea, a little reinforcing of my own). The well-off middle classes tend to cook – they may even, dammit, gut the fish they caught earlier – and the poor raid their freezers in search of breadcrumb-based foodstuffs. So far, so predictable. Beyond this, though, The Kitchen serves up some seriously loopy eating habits. Do people really do this stuff? Apparently, they do.

In Birmingham, for instance, the Evans family eats a huge cooked breakfast – burgers, sausages, potato waffles, eggs, beans – three times a week, a feast they bless with grace: “Dear God, thank you for this amazing variety.” Aware that this isn’t the healthiest way to live, they compensate – or the womenfolk do – in two ways. First, they concentrate very hard indeed on the sight of the fat pouring over the sides of their electric grill and into a tray below – a greasy evacuation they have invested with an almost quasi-religious significance, like tears leaking from the Madonna’s eyes. Second, lunch consists of a diet shake. The household’s arteries may well be furred but bottoms are holding steady at a regular size.

Odder still are the Bradshaws, a couple with Lancashire vowels who have retired to Devon. Mrs Bradshaw’s repertoire consists solely of pies and pasties, which she bakes in quantity and then dutifully feeds to her husband, the only concession to his heart condition being that she now serves them with mash rather than chips. The couple like mostly off-white food – even their mushy peas looked grey – and take their own meals away on holiday, so as not to be any “trouble” to anyone. We meet them on the way to Aberystwyth, a seaside town that presumably has a ready supply of mince-inspired goodies. But once bitten, twice shy: in a previous life, they made the mistake of visiting Italy, where “it was all pasta and pizza”. Only the bread rolls saved them from certain starvation! Their suitcase was the size of a small ranch.

For badly behaved children, we moved up the social ladder to Cheltenham, where a girl called Daphne was feeding her trout with tarragon to her ferrets, in order to avoid its reappearance on her plate the next day. Luckily, Mummy and Daddy, well oiled with Chardonnay, tend to see the funny side. Also, to Suffolk, where we were introduced to the Mitchell Cotts children, who are named after plants (Valerian and Campion among them) but behave like wild animals. Daddy has a baronet for a brother, but the household food budget is limited enough to need to be supplemented with road kill and onions (according to him, they fall from the local lorries like conkers from the trees). I think he was boasting about the road kill; perhaps he has seen one too many programmes starring Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

Flattened bunny or no flattened bunny, at least he wasn’t about to serve bottled pasta sauce or turkey mince, both of which appeared elsewhere and sit high on my list of Things I Don’t Understand (And Am Vaguely Disgusted By). It is thanks to opinions like this that – nausea aside – I am an ideal viewer of this series. Like Gogglebox, The Kitchen slyly invites its audience to put aside its flashy liberal views and thence to feel free, just for an hour or so, to make all sorts of mean-minded judgements. You have mine. Now do enjoy coming up with your own. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Grayson Perry guest edit

Davide Restivo at Wikimedia Commons
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Scientists have finally said it: alcohol causes cancer

Enough of "linked" and "attributable": a new paper concludes that alcohol directly causes seven types of cancer.

I don't blame you if you switch off completely at the words "causes cancer". If you pay attention to certain publications, everything from sunbeds, to fish, to not getting enough sun, can all cause cancer. But this time, it's worth listening.

The journal Addiction has published a paper that makes a simple, yet startling, claim: 

"Evidence can support the judgement that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx [part of the throat], larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and [female] breast"

So what's especially significant about this? 

First, scientists, unlike journalists, are very wary of the word "causes". It's hard to ever prove that one action directly led to another, rather than that both happened to occur within the same scenario. And yet Jennie Connor, author of the paper and professor in the Preventive and Social Medicine department at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has taken the leap.

Second, alcohol not only causes cancer of one kind – the evidence supports the claim that it causes cancer at seven different sites in our bodies. There was weaker evidence that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer, while the link between mouth cancers and alcohol consumption was the strongest. 

What did we know about alcohol and cancer before?

Many, many studies have "linked" cancer to alcohol, or argued that some cases may be "attributable" to alcohol consumption. 

This paper loooks back over a decade's worth of research into alcohol and cancer, and Connor concludes that all this evidence, taken together, proves that alcohol "increases the incidence of [cancer] in the population".

However, as Connor notes in her paper, "alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco's", partly because we still don't know exactly how alcohol causes cancer at these sites. Yet she argues that the evidence alone is enough to prove the cause, even if we don't know exactly how the "biologial mechanisms" work. 

Does this mean that drinking = cancer, then?

No. A causal link doesn't mean one thing always leads to the other. Also, cancer in these seven sites was shown to have what's called a "dose-response" relationship, which means the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of cancer.

On the bright side, scientists have also found that if you stop drinking altogether, you can reduce your chances back down again.

Are moderate drinkers off the hook?

Nope. Rather devastatingly, Connor notes that moderate drinkers bear a "considerable" portion of the cancer risk, and that targeting only heavy drinkers with alcohol risk reduction campaigns would have "limited" impact. 

What does this mean for public health? 

This is the tricky bit. In the paper, Connor points out that, given what we know about lung cancer and tobacco, the general advice is simply not to smoke. Now, a strong link proven over years of research may suggest the same about drinking, an activity society views as a bit risky but generally harmless.

Yet in 2012, it's estimated that alcohol-attributable cancers killed half a million people, which made up 5.8 per cent of cancer deaths worldwide. As we better understand the links between the two, it's possible that this proportion may turn out to be a lot higher. 

As she was doing the research, Connor commented:

"We've grown up with thinking cancer is very mysterious, we don't know what causes it and it's frightening, so to think that something as ordinary as drinking is associated with cancer I think is quite difficult."

What do we do now?

Drink less. The one semi-silver lining in the study is that the quantity of alcohol you consume has a real bearing on your risk of developing these cancers. 

On a wider scale, it looks like we need to recalibrate society's perspective on drinking. Drug campaigners have long pointed out that alcohol, while legal, is one of the most toxic and harmful drugs available  an argument that this study will bolster.

In January, England's chief medical officer Sally Davies introduced some of the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world, and later shocked a parliamentary hearing by saying that drinking could cause breast cancer.

"I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues," she told the hearing, "And do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think... do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Now, it's beginning to look like she was ahead of the curve. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.