This essay was published in Scottish Review on Wednesday 2 March 2011.
‘How would you describe the essence of a flavour that only two people in the world know? One that is such a closely guarded secret that it is held under lock and key in a vault in Switzerland? A taste so precious, so unique…….There is only one word to describe it. Phenomenal’ So runs the blurb on the website of our self-proclaimed ‘other national drink’. You know, the one allegedly made from girders. And yes, according to the FAQs, since the original recipe was launched in 1901, it has always contained a small amount of iron! Cue pictures of tough, healthy kids with red hair and phenomenally clever advertising campaigns.
I first encountered the expression, as a piece of smart-assed graffiti, in my student days at the tail end of the so-called ‘hippy era’, but more recently ‘You Are What You Eat’ has been the title of a TV series and a book by the Scottish nutritionist Gillian McKeith, she of the nagging presentational style, obsessive interest in other people’s stools, dubious qualifications and grossly overweight bank balance. The aphorism had been long-established before any of that, however, dating back at least as far as 1826, when Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, writing in Physiologie du Gout, ou Meditations de Gastronomie Transcendante, observed, “Dis-moi ce qui tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es – tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.”
The precise phrase didn’t enter the English language until more than a hundred years later when the American health food and weight loss pioneer Victor Lindlahr, who was a strong believer in the idea that food controls health, popularised it and brought it to the public consciousness through his own book of the same name. It was given a new lease of life in the 1960s when adopted by advocates of macrobiotic wholefood as a slogan for healthy eating. Belief in the grain-based natural diet was so strong in some quarters that when Adelle Davis, a leading spokesperson for the organic food movement, contracted the cancer that later killed her, she attributed the illness to the junk food she had eaten at college. Since then, with a few honourable exceptions, all of us have succumbed to a greater or lesser degree to the growth in mass production of processed food.
You might hope therefore that the findings of the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), reported recently in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, might act as a wake-up call to parents in the rest of the UK, and Scotland in particular. Dr Kate Northstone, of Bristol University’s Department of Social Medicine, along with her fellow researchers, have gathered sufficient evidence to suggest that children who eat a diet rich in healthy foods at the age of three are more likely to have higher IQs by the age of eight and a half, and that, conversely, children whose diet consists largely of processed foods with a high percentage of sugars and fats have a lower IQ by the same age, regardless of whether their diet has improved in the intervening years. In other words, good nutrition in the crucial first three years of a child’s life is essential to the development of the brain and its capacity to learn, and where that is denied the consequences may well be irreversible. Previous studies by the group, which tracks the health and wellbeing of approximately 14,000 children born in 1991 and 1992, have shown a close link between diet in early childhood and behaviour and performance at school.
You don’t have to be an academic researcher to walk into your local supermarket and see the vast quantities of junk which are shifted on a daily basis: whole aisles devoted to multi-packs of potato snacks – many of which contain nothing as nutritional as even the humble spud – and quarter-gallon drums of fizzy sugar drinks (often referred to euphemistically as ‘juice’). Buy some, get loads more free. Nor do you need a university degree to work out that a fair percentage of it is destined for the mouths of babes, often as a substitute for breakfast, especially in hard-pressed households where budgets are tight and parents are in a hurry. The knock-on effect is that an unacceptable number of young children in this country face an uphill struggle at school even before the first bell rings. Yet anyone who watched Jamie Oliver’s recently televised campaigns to introduce healthy menus into first English and then American schools will realise the magnitude of the task facing anyone who tries to turn this junk-food juggernaut around.
An early addiction to high doses of sugar, salt and fat is a hard habit to break, and many of those same young people who are deprived of the vital nutrients their bodies and brains need in the early years, can still be seen years later, arriving in school playgrounds up and down the country, guzzling as they go. Imagine how you would feel and perform, physically and intellectually, if breakfast consisted, inter alia, of carbonated water, sugar, citric acid, quinine, ammonium ferric citrate, soya grits, emulsifier, guar gum, sodium diacetate and monosodium glutamate, along with a generous dose of colourings and preservatives. Or, to put it another way, juice and crisps. It’s nothing short of child abuse. Isn’t it?