Food Fatale

Feature by Simone Gray | 17 Mar 2006

Food and health matters are hardly out of the headlines these days, and north of the border, the outlying forecast look particularly grey and bleak. With even the traditional Scottish haggis having faced a media roasting of late due to its high level of saturated fat and salt contents, one wonders if Scotland's ever increasing paunchy masses are doomed to stumble behind in the health stakes on a national level and in comparison to its European counterparts.

Phil Hanlon, Professor of Public Health at Glasgow University, says, "Scotland's ranking in the international league table of health has not always been as poor as it is today. Now, however, despite our comparatively good economic status, we are losing ground to most other western European countries. Although life expectancy is rising, healthy life expectancy is static, so added years of life are being lived with limiting illness." It is these limiting illnesses that are most worrying and Prof. Hanlon admits that, although we are making substantial headway in certain sectors of the population, it is the economically vulnerable and the young that offer cause for most concern.

A survey by the World Cancer Research Fund has revealed that fewer than one in ten British youngsters are eating the five-a-day recommended daily portions of fruit and vegetables. Herein lies a major difference between many of our western European neighbours and us. When markets and fresh produce are literally scattered around your neighbourhood bringing the best of local food into your homes and schools, the organic and more alluring fresh produce wins out to the gloss and packaging of large mass-produced supermarket tender. It is this way of life, striving for a short chain that runs from farm to fork that many southern Europeans take for granted, yet they too face pressures from the influx of global take away conglomerates that are escalating levels of obesity with the health problems that ensue.
While in Scotland much of the natural produce is of a high standard including export quality seafood and beef, it is really a matter of getting that produce direct to every door at prices that equal the giant chains. In these larger stores, the problem of the higher priced organic produce versus cheaper, less healthy alternatives cannot be avoided.

Studies show though that the diet of the Scots provides a higher proportion of fat, contains less fruit and vegetables, supplies less energy from foods and beverages and incorporates considerably more fried food - both within and outside the home - leaving the Scottish nation highly susceptible to the host of chronic illnesses that result from poor diet.

If the queue of school children and adults alike for pies and cans, and the number of fish and chip shops leaving their oily traces in all parts of Scots cities is anything to go by, the scale of the problem hasn't been misjudged. The National Federation of Fish Fryers, the largest organization representing the take-away food trade, state on their website that in the 9,000 fried fish shops around the country, over 60,000 tones of fish and 500,000 tones of potatoes are sold annually, proving that this take-away option is the nation's favourite. So, while Scots wipe the traces of more fatty meals from their lips, EU countries are enjoying a range of more healthy national dishes like paella, pasta and meze platters made with a wide variety of local specialties including olive oil, fresh vegetables, seafood and vitamin-packed dips and sauces, such as humus, pesto or tahini.
That is not too say that the Scottish selection is all bad, that fish and chips have no place in the traditional fayre, or that we are all doomed to die diseased deaths.

The Scottish Executive is determined that through education, policy change, investment and healthy living promotions a difference can be made. Steps are being taken, but will it be enough? Prof. Hanlon reckons that compared to ten years ago, Scots should be proud of what is already being done to make vital changes, "A variety of policy changes and education drives are offering very effective interventions to improve Scottish health prospects for the future and great benefits have already been seen in socially advantaged groups," he states, "but is it enough to reverse the damage of years of cultural deprivation and lack of education on these matters? No, a lot more needs to be done."

Surely we can do more to reverse the detrimental health downswing and create the balanced lives we could and should be living; "There are many pieces of advice one could suggest to improve our health forecasts," Prof. Hanlon continues, "but if there was one thing I would like for the future, it would be to ensure that our young people get food that is healthy and wholesome and that they participate in 30 to 40 minutes of exercise a day, thus helping to achieve a healthy balance." The message is clear: eat healthy, live active and enjoy the fresh taste.