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All this 'muddled and misleading' public health advice is starting to make me ill

PUBLISHED: 13:29 02 February 2017

Roast Potatoes aren't even safe from the health police. Picture: Great British Chefs

Roast Potatoes aren't even safe from the health police. Picture: Great British Chefs

Great British Chefs

The big food news of the week is not the opening of a fabulous new restaurant, or the celebration of an excellent local producer; no, once again it's a warning that eating something tasty might give you cancer.

This time, it’s crispy roast potatoes and burnt toast (although I’m not sure why anyone would want to eat that anyway) which has got the health police foaming at the mouth.

While these stories make for good headlines, as usual the facts don’t quite back them up. So on the basis of not a lot, we have to add roasted vegetables and well-done toast to a huge list of foodstuffs which have been reported to give you cancer, such as barbecued meat, broccoli (really), cheese, chicken, grapefruit, peanut butter, pizza, soup...

In fact, the list is so long, that if you removed all of them from your diet, you would die of malnutrition long before the big C got you.

This latest scare is an attempt to get us to consume less acrylamide, a chemical which is formed when a surprising number of foodstuffs are cooked for prolonged periods at high temperatures, as when you roast a potato.

While very high doses of acrylamide are undoubtedly toxic, you would have to ingest industrial quantities of the stuff to do any measurable damage. To put it in context, the daily level of consumption per kilogram of body weight to cause even a ten per cent increase in tumours is more than 150 times the upper limit of average human consumption.

Cambridge University statistician Sir David Spiegelhalter points out that you would have to eat 320 slices of burnt toast a day to get anywhere near even a minor level of risk. And if you’re doing that, I suspect that your long-term cancer risk will be the least of your worries.

No less an authority than Cancer Research UK says on their website: “Evidence from human studies has shown that, for most cancer types, there is no link between acrylamide and cancer risk... Even food industry workers, who are exposed to twice as much acrylamide as other people, do not have higher rates of cancer.”

All of this is symptomatic of a muddled and misleading approach to public health, and that in itself is rather counter-productive. When public bodies issue such scare stories, presumably because getting their names in the paper justifies their taxpayer-funded existence, the confused public simply turns off – and probably misses sensible advice about eating a balanced diet in the process.

Practically everything in life, if taken to extremes, carries a health risk. Instead of issuing scare stories based on dodgy or inconclusive ‘evidence’, shouldn’t public health officials be encouraging us to have a positive relationship with what we eat? It is noticeable that in countries where food is viewed as a pleasurable and sociable experience, public health is noticeably better.

Shouldn’t we simply be teaching people to enjoy – and that is the important word – things in moderation? To eat healthily certainly, but not in a way which removes all of the joy from mealtimes, and to exercise. That would be much more socially useful than telling people that a pint in the pub or a glass of red wine with their dinner will give them cancer.

So hands off our roast potatoes. Life can be miserable enough as it is, and the good we get from the pleasure of eating good food is in itself beneficial to us.

Congratulations to Norfolk chef Charlie Hodson, who last week won the Great Sausage Roll Off, a national competition, judged by Pierre Koffman no less, to create the best sausage roll.

Charlie’s winning creation was a homage to locally-sourced Norfolk ingredients called the Nelson Sausage Roll, with pork from South Creake farmer Tim Allen, black pudding from Fruit Pig, rapeseed oil from Crush, Norfolk saffron, Norton’s Dairy butter, and Norfolk White Knight vodka

Part of his prize was to recreate the dish on Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch, giving an even bigger audience to this fine list of Norfolk produce.

Here in Norfolk we know how good our local produce is, but we are singularly bad at telling the rest of the world about it.

So three cheers for Charlie for getting out there and putting his reputation on the line to champion our county’s food.

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