HARD TO SWAL­LOW

The An­gry Chef’s at­tack on those who say the food in­dus­try’s love of su­gar is mak­ing us obese lacks a con­vinc­ing ex­pla­na­tion

The Guardian Weekly - - Culture - By Bee Wilson

In­ever quite knew what the word “sophistry” meant, un­til I read this book. Sophistry means the clever use of ar­gu­ments that seem true. The orig­i­nal an­cient Greek sophists were peo­ple, ac­cord­ing to Plato, who were vir­tu­oso ath­letes of words. Above all, sophists are plau­si­ble. That’s what makes them so dan­ger­ous.

This is what came to mind read­ing the lat­est screed by An­thony Warner, who worked for many years at Premier Foods, one of the big­gest food com­pa­nies in Bri­tain, which man­u­fac­tures Mr Ki­pling cakes, An­gel De­light desserts and Batch­e­lors Su­per Noodles, among many other pro­cessed foods. Ten years ago, the Belfast Tele­graph de­scribed Warner as TV pre­sen­ter Loyd Gross­man’s “Ital­ian de­vel­op­ment chef” be­cause Warner was the per­son who helped Gross­man de­velop his own-brand pasta sauces. But that was be­fore Warner trans­mo­gri­fied into “The An­gry Chef ”, the name of an ex­ple­tive-rid­den blog that he started writ­ing in 2016 “ex­pos­ing lies, pre­ten­sion and stu­pid­ity in the world of food”. He could have called him­self “The An­gry Con­sul­tant to the Food In­dus­try” but it wouldn’t have had quite the same ring. In 2017 the blog gave rise to a book, The An­gry Chef: Bad Science and the Truth About Healthy Eat­ing.

To be­gin with, many in food writ­ing cir­cles con­sid­ered Warner a breath of fresh air. I was one of them, go­ing so far as to write a blurb for the book, wel­com­ing it as a “brac­ing and funny tirade against the non­sense and harm done by food fads”. I liked the way he skew­ered the quack­ery of al­ka­line di­ets and the ab­surd overuse of co­conut oil and other so-called su­per­foods. I knew that Warner worked for the food in­dus­try, but I didn’t feel that this had an un­due im­pact on his ar­gu­ments. Maybe there was an el­e­ment of “my en­emy’s en­emy is my friend” in my lik­ing for Warner’s writ­ing. Over the course of my life, too many peo­ple close to me have de­vel­oped eat­ing dis­or­ders and when Warner at­tacked the re­stric­tive rules and “nu­tri­bol­locks” of the clean eat­ing trend, his anger seemed right­eous.

But the more I read Warner’s blogs and ar­ti­cles, the more I started to find his anger oddly lim­ited. He seemed to have plenty of fury for the “pre­ten­sion and stu­pid­ity” of health blog­gers and de­tox regimes but re­mark­ably lit­tle anger for the food in­dus­try that has mar­keted sug­ary junk foods to vul­ner­a­ble con­sumers, in­clud­ing chil­dren, on an un­prece­dented scale, with cat­a­strophic con­se­quences for health.

And now we come to his new book on the causes of obe­sity, which sug­gests that every­thing you thought you knew about nu­tri­tion and weight is wrong. On first glance, there is much here that seems both plau­si­ble and just. For one thing, Warner recog­nises that obe­sity has com­plex and mul­ti­fac­eted causes and it is not – as so many per­sist in claim­ing – a col­lapse in willpower. Warner makes a plea to end the dread­ful way in which peo­ple with obe­sity are stig­ma­tised by the me­dia. “Sham­ing fat peo­ple does not help them. It makes their lives harder. It makes their health worsen,” he writes. He is right about this. Through­out the book, Warner po­si­tions him­self not so much as an an­gry chef as a cud­dly teddy bear on the side of tol­er­ance, love and com­pas­sion. He urges us to “stop judg­ing peo­ple by how they look” and to rel­ish the sim­ple things in life such as shar­ing sand­wiches in the park.

The strange­ness of the book emerges when you start to ex­am­ine what he is ac­tu­ally say­ing about the causes of mod­ern obe­sity and, more widely, of diet-re­lated ill­ness such as type 2 di­a­betes and heart dis­ease. He im­plies that it is not re­ally about carbs, nor about su­gar and any­one who sug­gests oth­er­wise is prob­a­bly some snooty mid­dle-class per­son who shops at Whole Foods.

He writes de­ri­sively of for­mer New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s “in­fa­mous (failed) at­tempt to halt the sale of su­per­size soft drinks” in the city (although Warner ad­mits we do need The Truth About Fat by An­thony Warner

to cut down a bit on su­gar, “if only be­cause of the as­so­ci­ated den­tal prob­lems”).

Warner also en­cour­ages us to dis­card the no­tion that obe­sity re­sults from calorific con­fec­tionery be­ing pushed on us in ev­ery su­per­mar­ket and newsagent on a scale never seen in the past. The only rea­son that there is so much cho­co­late in the su­per­mar­ket, ac­cord­ing to Warner, is be­cause of our moral­is­ing cul­ture of guilt. “In places where Twix and Dairy Milk do not oc­cupy the role of guilty plea­sures, they fail to dom­i­nate the su­per­mar­ket shelves.” This is pure sophistry. He does not men­tion the fact – which is no se­cret, if you read trade jour­nals on con­fec­tionery – that the ex­ces­sive quan­tity of sweets in our shops is part of a de­lib­er­ate strat­egy by re­tail­ers and man­u­fac­tur­ers to cre­ate “in­ter­rup­tion points” as we walk around stores.

In Warner’s book, obe­sity is not about an over­sup­ply of calo­ries, and it is not about the rise of take­aways near schools or wider changes to our food en­vi­ron­ment, so there is lit­tle point in try­ing to re­form the obe­so­genic en­vi­ron­ment we live in. “Of­ten the en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­count is lit­tle more than a thin dis­guise for con­tempt,” he in­sists. “Mostly the idea is that fat peo­ple need to be co­erced into more mid­dle-class food op­tions, cook­ing from scratch, meals round the ta­ble, less fried chicken, more hum­mus.” By equat­ing sound ad­vice with co­er­cion, he makes it im­pos­si­ble to of­fer sound ad­vice. It is pos­si­ble to hate fat-sham­ing and still to want to ap­por­tion some of the blame where it be­longs, with the food in­dus­try. But that’s pre­cisely what Warner wants to rule out.

So what does he think caused the trans­for­ma­tion of our bod­ies over the past few decades, if it isn’t food? Warner’s can­di­dates in­clude poverty, stress and poor hous­ing. He is right that all of these fac­tors cor­re­late with poor di­ets, but he al­ways seems to miss out the part of the ar­gu­ment that brings eat­ing into the equa­tion. One of his pre­ferred ex­pla­na­tions for obe­sity is genes. His propo­si­tion is that “larger peo­ple go for larger peo­ple, and tend to pro­duce more chil­dren when they do”. It is cer­tainly true – as ge­netic stud­ies in­volv­ing twins have con­firmed – that our in­di­vid­ual re­sponses to food, in­clud­ing our ap­petite, have a strong ge­netic com­po­nent. But Warner does not have a con­vinc­ing ex­pla­na­tion for why ei­ther genes or poverty would sud­denly be driv­ing weight gain, given the rapid rise in obe­sity across the world from 1980 on­wards.

If you think that the ques­tion of what chil­dren eat is “triv­ial”, this is the book on obe­sity for you. It will chime with many peo­ple’s wish not to be lec­tured at by peo­ple who claim to know bet­ter, and goes to great lengths to ab­solve the food in­dus­try and its re­lent­less mar­ket­ing of pro­cessed food from play­ing any role in mod­ern diet prob­lems.

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