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14 February 2000

All because we love our chip rolls

New Statesman Scotland

By Alistair Moffat

During the filming of Some like It Hot in Florida, Marilyn Monroe was gently teased about the extra curves she had recently acquired. “I guess it’s the seafood diet,” she said. “When I see food, I just eat it.” In the land of orange juice, crab claw salad and fresh fruit, that might not have caused Marilyn more than a debatable cosmetic problem. In Scotland, much of the food you see can also kill you.

In a report published this month, it turns out that one in eight people admitted to Scottish hospitals is undernourished. Mike Lean, the appropriately named professor of nutrition at Glasgow University has not only revealed this shaming, near-Dickensian statistic, but also writes that the condition of these patients is routinely ignored by doctors and nurses.

It may be that they see this as a cultural and not a medical problem and therefore something beyond their competence. And they would be right. So far as the blunt statistics for heart attacks are concerned, Scotland remains the perennial sick man of Europe. Analysts often use the excuse of history. As a relatively poor nation on the cold and windswept Atlantic margins, we have long consumed cheap, filling and unhealthy food. For every one fruit or fish shop in Scotland’s towns and cities, there are four or five bakers – generally doing a roaring trade.

When schoolchildren pile into the streets at their lunch break, many of them give their canteens, where nutritionists might just get at their diet, a body swerve and head straight for the bakers or the chip shop. Some enterprising bakery chains have installed chip fryers and are able to produce that Scottish schoolkid staple, the chip roll. The culture that invented the deep-fried pizza and the deep-fried (in crispy batter) Mars Bar has some ingrained nutritional problems.

The Scottish Executive is acutely aware of the human and economic cost of these. Not only do Scots die of their diet, they also put the NHS under unnecessary strain as well. The cumulative impact of illness on the economy can be difficult to measure but, judging by the clinical statistics, a sizeable impact there must be.

In the next three to four months, a National Diet Co-ordinator for Scotland will be appointed with the clear remit first to understand and then to begin to deal with our terrible eating habits. This is encouraging news and precisely the sort of area the Scottish Executive ought to be dealing in. It is a peculiarly Scottish problem requiring Scottish solutions. Change will be a long-term process. Such deeply embedded cultural habits will not be turned around in the lifetime of a parliament – it may take generations to persuade Scots that eating chips with every meal is not a clever idea. So long as the new diet co-ordinator (dreadful title – exactly the sort of thing to persuade the deep-fried-pizza eaters that his/her pronouncements are not for them) is clear that changing our national attitudes to food is a cultural matter and not something that can be fixed by mechanical or legislative measures, then improvement is possible.

But how does Scotland’s chief cook/head chef/food tsar begin to think about our problems? Giving away a government-subsidised free apple with every steak pie supper is not the answer. But involving the private sector may be a good start. If the Scottish Executive can find ways of incentivising food retailers and suppliers to develop and manufacture healthier products and aggressively market them, then new policies might have a hope of eventual success. The central difficulty is that young people do understand that chip rolls are bad for your health, but they see those difficulties as so far down the line that they have no need to worry about them in their teens. Unfortunately, they set cultural habits then that are very hard to break later. Many people, in an honest moment, associate their idea of good food, or a really satisfying meal, with what they ate as children or young people. Worlds away from the lunchtime queues outside Scotland’s bakers’ shops are the menus of some of London’s most expensive and successful restaurants. Bangers and mash (posh aliases always fail to disguise the real thing), toad-in-the-hole and sticky puddings are all unfailingly popular as occasional treats for the calorie-controlled habitues of these overpriced establishments. People in Scotland with little cash and less sense simply continue to eat childhood rubbish all their lives until it kills them.

But if a strong commercial connection can be made between the diet co-ordinator and the Scottish food industry, then there is a chance that healthy fare could find real popularity. If it can be made cheap, accessible and attractive, Scottish youngsters might begin to be weaned away from saturated fats, bakery products and dairy fat.

After all it was a different sort of collusion between public agencies, private and privatised companies which produced a British bottled water industry out of nothing. Surely it is not beyond the wit of public policy and commerce to work together to create a different sort of Scottish food industry. Perhaps a good start could be made with Scottish football fans. Instead of pies and Bovril at half time, crowds could be offered fruit. If they eat it, then Scotland has an evolutionary chance of breeding a forward line tall enough to head the ball. And if they don’t, there is always the referee, or the team.

Alistair Moffat