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Health warnings: Food for thought or scaremongering through science?

By Eilis O’Hanlon

Published 30/10/2015

In spite of our consumption of unhealthy foods, statistics show we’re healthier and living longer than previous generations
In spite of our consumption of unhealthy foods, statistics show we’re healthier and living longer than previous generations
The World Health Organisation has declared war on much of our loved foodstuff

There's a new and familiar addition to the ever-growing list of Things That Look Harmless But Are Probably Going To Kill You. This time it's the cherished Ulster Fry.

Though perhaps that should read "dreaded Ulster Fry" after the World Health Organisation included processed meat among the most serious substances that cause cancer, alongside tobacco, diesel fuel and asbestos.

Northern Ireland's national dish might even deserve to be at the very top of the so-called Group 1 category, as it comprises both sausages and bacon. That makes eating the pair of them as part of a cooked breakfast equivalent to smoking a cigarette and cigar at the same time.

Add in all the grease around the fried egg and it's only a matter of time before the Government sends teams of health professionals in chemical protection suits into the nation's kitchens to stop those frying pans from inadvertently sending their owners to an early grave.

As a vegetarian, I ought to feel insufferably smug about this. And don't worry, I do, just as I did during that whole horsemeat scandal.

At this rate, those of us who don't make a habit of eating our fellow creatures will soon be a source of envy, rather than the usual baffled suspicion.

Nonetheless, it's hard to view these latest warnings without raising a sceptical eyebrow. Reclassifying bacon as a weapon of mass destruction looks like another example of the health police using alarmist propaganda in the hope of scaring people into doing what they're told.

Such tactics are increasingly prevalent. There are so many things vying for the public's attention that claims need to be melodramatic to penetrate our jaded defences.

In the media, this strategy has become synonymous with a website called Upworthy, which promotes what's known as 'viral' content through sensationalist stories designed to reach the largest audience in the shortest space of time.

Even those who are unfamiliar with the concept will have come across examples. They usually bear headlines declaring: "This woman only popped into the corner shop for a packet of chewing gum. You won't believe what happened next."

It's all carefully crafted to generate web traffic in a crowded market and now it seems as if science is heading in the same direction, making its claims more 'Upworthy' in an effort to be heard above the crowd.

This week's story can basically be summed up as: "Some scientists had a look at processed meat. What they discovered will blow your mind." The problem with this approach is that it invites derision and is asking to be ignored. By demanding attention, it provokes indifference, because, as a consumer, you immediately factor in the possibility that what you're about to read is complete rubbish.

So, the claims have to get ever more startling in order to generate a response. It's a vicious circle. Science has, in effect, become another boy who cried wolf.

Take the case of global warming. In 2014, the UN released its starkest-ever warning on climate change, predicting a future planet riven by violent conflict over dwindling food and water supplies, with millions displaced from their homes. Far from terrifying people into changing their habits, it had the opposite effect.

If the future really was going to be that bleak, what difference could it make if we all turned off a few extra light bulbs? If we're doomed, we might as well go out with a bang.

Health warnings have reached the stage where they're having the same, counterproductive effect. There are so many dire prophecies about the foodstuffs that might kill us that it's impossible to keep up with the swelling catalogue of well-meaning advice. Fatalism quickly sets in. A few weeks ago, it was sugar. Before that, salt. There are calls for taxes on fizzy drinks and minimum prices on alcohol. Is it any wonder that people start asking why they should bother trying to avert disaster, when their entire diet is apparently so full of potential pitfalls?

Especially when remembering all those times the experts got it wrong.

Eggs were the enemies for a while. Then it was decreed that eggs were fine again. Better than fine. Actually good for you.

Next week, they may decide eggs are dangerous once more. What if the boffins are wrong about processed meat, too?

Who says they won't discover in six months' time that sausages can cure rabies, or that bacon is a secret superfood, like cranberries, prompting the official guidance to change?

It's not that the science is wrong. Excessive sugar and salt patently is unhealthy and both are added surreptitiously to far too many everyday products.

Likewise, people do eat more meat than is good for them. Once it was part of the main meal of the day. Now it's an ingredient in practically every dish, every sandwich, every snack. The effect on our insides isn't pretty. It also means treating animals like commodities on a factory production line.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs issues monthly statistics on slaughtering. The latest figures show that 800,000 pigs were killed in the UK in September alone, together with 1.3m sheep and 142,000 cattle.

Globally, the tally comes to more than 50bn animals every year. It's not possible to process that many for the food chain without them being misused terribly.

So, as one of those smug vegetarians, I should probably welcome any campaign that cuts this hellish industry down to size; not least because cancer is a scourge that destroys too many families and eternal vigilance is needed to beat it.

But the truth is that, as long as you make the effort to lead a fairly active lifestyle, and include sufficient amounts of fruit and vegetables in your diet, then the increased risk from eating processed meat is so slight, even by the WHO's own calculations, that it's almost irresponsible to include it on the same list as the most carcinogenic substances known to man.

There is no safe level of asbestos, but an Ulster Fry now and then isn't going to do that much harm. Just ask other countries, who consume more meat than the British and Irish.

The French eat beef by the bucketload. No pig is safe around the ham-loving Germans. They still live longer than we do. Why?

Because France and Germany have better healthcare. We'd be better off concentrating our efforts on solving that problem.

The good news is that doomsayers are usually wrong. Life expectancy is increasing all the time; in spite of our bad habits, we're healthier than previous generations.

We must be doing something right.

Belfast Telegraph

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