THE BLOG

The sweet taste of freedom - and trans fats

07/06/2010 01:01 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

'And what," I asked my friend's three-year-old, in my best making-small-talk-to-toddlers voice, "did you do in the park?" "We had snacks," he said. "Apples and pears and carrots!"

It was a moment not unlike the one this week when my mother - my mother, who never knowingly walks down a street unless it's lined with shops, and for whom exercise is a quick tussle with the Hoover, and sport a nasty virus that used to take over the telly on Sunday afternoons, but now, in her widow-hood, blessedly doesn't - casually mentioned that she'd missed England-Germany, but caught England-Slovenia. Apples and pears and carrots! Said in a voice that implied that this was some kind of a treat.

My "how lovely!" was, I fear, a little lukewarm, distracted as I was by memories of picnic rugs peppered with Mothers Pride, roast chicken crisps and Penguins. Distracted, too, by thoughts that this was a child that should be stuck in a glass case and put in a museum. But his pleasure was sincere. Brought up by a father who was himself brought up on good Jamaican home cooking, he's been filleting fish and dicing onions since he was tiny. Broccoli is his idea of a good time.

Broccoli is not my idea of a good time. My perfect day would be spent in a patisserie; or perhaps a wine bar; or perhaps nipping between the two. First, a croissant. Then, maybe, a Florentine. You can, I find, solve the so-much-sugar-that-I-feel-a-bit-sick-now problem by: a) brushing your teeth at regular intervals, and: b) alternating with wine and kettle chips. If forced to pick some "proper" food, then I'd plump for something involving bread or pastry and cheese. Carbohydrate and fat, in other words. I adore carbohydrate and fat. Especially with added salt or sugar.

I'm not quite sure where Andrew Lansley stands on carbohydrate and fat. Or, indeed, on salt or sugar. As the son of a pathologist, I suspect he thinks that a little of what you fancy is fine, but it would be terribly silly to eat a lot of it. And he would be absolutely right, because it is terribly silly to treat your digestive system as a human processing plant for a range of toxic chemicals when you could be pampering your cells and DNA with steamed fish and veg. It's just that most of us aren't that keen on steamed fish and veg and even Jamie Oliver, it seems, can't make us.

Jamie's attempt to persuade the children of the nation to eschew turkey twizzlers for chickpea chapatis had, the new Health Secretary told a conference of the British Medical Association on Wednesday, failed. "If," he said, "we are constantly lecturing people and trying to tell them what to do, we will actually find that we...are counterproductive in the results that we achieve". Ah, yes. New Labour nannying is over. I have set my people free.

This presumably is also why Lansley has dismissed calls by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence to ban trans fats. They're illegal in New York, Denmark and Austria. According to Nice, they may be linked to the deaths of as many as 40,000 people a year. Trans fats were first used in soap and candles. In 1911, Procter & Gamble hit on the brilliant idea of chucking them down our throats as a cheap alternative to pig's lard. We've been eating them - in processed foods, ready meals, biscuits, cakes and takeways - ever since.

Children, said Lansley, should be allowed to eat what they like. We should all be allowed to eat what we like. Lansley and his friends will, of course, choose to eat sensible meals, with fish, and meat, and vegetables, at a table, but if we want to cram our gullets with candle wax and sodium nitrite and monosodium glutamate, then that's up to us. He's sure that, if we think about it, we'll make good, grown-up choices. He's not going to patronise us by telling us what they should be.

The trouble is, we don't make good, grown-up choices. We're eating more and more of this rubbish, rubbish that causes obesity, diabetes, heart failure and, it seems (since countries that eat food that looks like food have much lower rates of it), cancer. We're doing it for a range of reasons, but the biggest has to do with food manufacturers and their considerable marketing budgets. Processed food is instant, cheerful and cheap. It's also addictive. It's meant to be addictive. Once you start eating it, you just can't stop.

Habits are formed early in life, and they're extremely hard to break. I will always think of sugar as nurturing, and wine as festive (though you could argue that nurture and celebrations aren't absolutely necessary several times a day) but after having cancer twice, I'm trying to cut down on both. It's not easy, but I'm doing it because I'd quite like to stick around.

Andrew Lansley can't arrange for everyone in this country to have cancer just to scare them into eating more healthily. And he's right that Jamie's crusade was not, in terms of uptake (though we don't yet know about the health benefits for those eating the new menus) a great success. This is tricky stuff. But poor people in this country - the people who eat the most processed food, and the highest in trans fats - are dying 10 years earlier than the richest, and the health gap's getting wider every day.

The smoking ban has shown that governmental intervention can change a culture, and save lives. I think I'd have a bit more faith in this Government's "choice agenda" if it wasn't quite so allied with big business profits.