My big fat sandwich moan

Last week, the latest in the current spate of “shocking exposés” of how badly Britain is eating appeared in the newspapers. We have all now heard that (gasp!) eating McDonalds every day is bad for you; that drinking to excess destroys brain cells (double gasp!); and that fatty, sugary snacks are not the solution to Britain’s obesity problem. So what could it be this time?

Well, this time the culprit was the humble sandwich. Britain is the country where the sandwich originated and estimates suggest that we still consume over 12 million sandwiches each year. Personally, I have probably eaten more sandwiches in my four years here than in the rest of my life – they are everywhere you look! And I remember being overawed by my first visit in 1989 to a Marks & Spencer sandwich section. There were separate areas for different breads (brown, white, wholewheat, gluten-free, tortilla wraps, bloomers), different basic fillings (cheese, ham, chicken, egg, beef, seafood), vegetarian, low fat etc etc. This was a far cry from home where your choices were cheese and chutney; cheese and tomato; ham and tomato and chicken mayo!! Suffice to say it was love at first bite for me and now that I live in London, I am still a regular consumer of sandwiches. In the City we have a vast array of sandwich suppliers to choose from – little independent sandwich bars; branded sandwich shops like Pret-a-Manger, EAT and Benjy’s; or behemoths like Tesco, Sainsbury’s or Boots. I have become quite a connoisseur of what to buy and what not to buy among the staggering array that these guys offer and of course I have my favourites.

So I was rather disgruntled to read about this report all about the fat content of sandwiches. My favourite everyday sandwich is some variation of cheese, spring onions and mayo – and guess what: it’s the one that comes in for the most flak as being high-fat and unhealthy! After outing my poor sandwich as a one-way ticket to obesity, the report goes on to suggest that such dangerous foods should be dropped in favour of healthy, low-fat alternatives (like egg and cress, bleeeeeurrrgh) in an effort to combat Britain’s growing obesity problem.

Now this annoys me for a number of reasons. Firstly, duh, it’s cheese and mayo combined – how on earth can people even be mildly surprised that it’s high fat?? Secondly, the label clearly states the nutritional values, including the fat content – so anyone who takes 10 seconds to read will be adequately warned that they are about to consume a high-fat food. Thirdly, the report goes on to compare the fat in a Mars Bar (11g) with the fat in a cheese & mayo sandwich (about 40g) – but misses the point that the sandwich is a whole meal whereas the Mars Bar is a snack. I mean, nobody seriously considers a Mars Bar and a cheese sandwich as alternatives (or am I completely off the mark here??). Fourthly, next door to the Dreaded Fatty Cheese Sandwich is a whole host of low-fat options so it’s not as if everyone is being forced to eat high-fat sandwiches. Of course, bear in mind that often low-fat/sugar-free options end up being stuffed full of nasty chemicals to try and replicate the taste of the full fat/salt version, to the point that you wonder whether it wasn’t better to take your chances with the salt and fat! (Slightly off-topic but also related, I have on occasion in a fit of virtue had a low-fat tuna sandwich from Tesco instead of my cheese & onion favourite, and it was dire. The tuna flaked like wet cardboard and fell out onto my lap (no mayo to keep things together) and the whole thing tasted dry and faintly bitter. Never again. Shudder. My point is that if they can put a man on the moon, why can’t they make a healthy option that actually tastes like something? I mean, come on – low fat cottage cheese instead of mayo – how much would that hurt?)

I can see the next step in this glorious nanny-state of ours where we are already planning a traffic-light system to warn customers about fatty and salty foods: sandwiches with more than a certain level of fat or salt will be pulled from the shelves by stores after pressure from Government. Don’t laugh – if McDonalds can be pressurised into withdrawing supersize meals and Cadbury’s persuaded to discontinue large versions of popular chocolate bars, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to foresee a day where I can’t buy a fatty sandwich when I want one.

I am a great believer in free choice. I am not huge on censorship and I absolutely despise being told what to do, say, think. Or eat. I am not overweight, diabetic or a burden on the public health system in any other way. I absolutely demand the right to make an informed decision to buy fatty, salty, unhealthy food if I so choose. The way things are going around here, that will soon be tantamount to buying hard drugs. Will I have to mainline melted butter into my veins? Snort MSG?? And wait till these guys cotton onto the terrifying stuff being sold in “health” shops – a 100g packet of macadamia nuts contains almost 70g of fat!! I reckon their days of unrestricted availability are numbered…

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  1. says

    I think they are going well and truly mad in this country (UK) – the best way to tackle obesity is to teach people the joys of cooking not to label a mars bar as “FAT DANGER”. Of course the former is harder. If people can’t figure it out for themselves that a 7 inch mars bar is probably not the best idea for a lunch then we are in REAL trouble. (on the other hand extreme times sometimes do call for extreme measures…)

  2. says

    You are right. When you start looking at what the average person in the UK eats, it is totally unsurprising that obesity, heart disease and diabetes are on the rise. Nobody actually seems to cook – people fall off their chairs in stunned amazement when I tell them I cook. Every night. Using raw ingredients (a microwave meal from ASDA is NOT cooking!!). The reasons for this are, as usual, plentiful and complex. I learned my cooking habit from my mother – but if your mother is a single parent with 4 kids living on a council estate and struggling to make ends meet, why would she take you to Borough Market and teach you the joys of seasonal produce? And of course there is the perennial annoyance that unhealthy, sugary, fatty, salty pre-packaged foods are a lot cheaper than unprocessed foods – and don’t even ask about the prices of organic fruit, veg or meat.
    So yes, desperate times probably do call for desperate measures, but to me this smacks of a quick-fix solution that treats the symptoms of the problem and not the cause. It’s like a poltical party championing the death penalty in an attempt to appear tough on crime. Lots of publicity but no actual solutions. Oh, and did anybody notice that there is an election coming up? 😉

  3. says

    It’s no different here in the U.S. these days. No one’s pulled super-size candy bars off the shelves yet, but it is undoubtedly on some fat nazi’s agenda. I expect the anti-obesity campaign to build up over the next few years to the level of the anti-smoking campaign of the past 20 years: anyone caught eating anything with more fat content than a celery stalk will be painted a pariah.
    Obesity is undoubtedly a problem – I could lose a few pounds (stone in the UK?) myself. But now that you’ve mentioned cheese/onion/mayo sandwiches – which I’d never heard of before this post – guess what I’m having for lunch today…

  4. says

    Multidirectional not entirely thought out rant mode on.
    We just had an election and I am firmly of the opinion that people will believe any old shite and fat is the old keep ’em scared and dumb. Fat is a dream for marketers – tell them something about the fat and they won’t even worry about all the sugar and the usual drek of processing. Bang on on the mars bar -it’s only valid nutritional context is if you need a quick shot of carbs and arse scratching doesn’t.
    Attacking sandwiches is way off the mark by authorities. Sandwiches have a lot of potential goodness – try popping some fresh tomato in cup o soup. Nope. Mayo can be good, Aoli has eggs (tick), olive oil (double tick), and garlic (triple tick) – bread is low GI energy and cheese calcium and protein. If people knew better they’d make the shift and get pissed off when they find out that most commercial variants of bread and mayo have sugar in them If they learnt to like cheese they’d be happier with less of better stronger tasting stuff. Sandwiches are up against easier to please, hot, greasy, cheaply supersizable, salty alternatives and need all the help they can get.
    Being poor is no excuse for watching, listening to or eating crap – peasant food rocks! Rich people worked this out ages ago.
    As for the giant mars bars, companies have to take the (w)rap for that and it’s just a cheap marketing move and a market failure. All that happens is that competitors respond and super size becomes normal size and around we go again. They might actually appreciate help getting off the merry go round. Levies like on sizes of individual, like on alcohol content? Just a thought. I’m not inherently against goverments intervening, if it’s evidentially based. If there’s a market advantage in serving unhealthy maybe it needs to remove that.
    The government has it’s best role in educating rather than banning and companies only really want to educate us as far as this shites shinola. Labelling *is* educating but it has to be done right – all good signage is simpler rather than more complex. I think a star system might be an educative tool. Nutritional info only works if you have something to compare it with. How about a simple sliding scale with middle point being a recognised ideal.
    Calories; Fat; Sugar; Nutrients; Salt; Low GI carbo/ Hi GI carbos.
    Movie style rating sytem 2/5 stars (high sugar, animal fat content)
    Ahmm that’s enough.
    Oh one more thing – low fat alternatives can be good but they have to be high quality and that’s $

  5. says

    Hmm… There’s an idea. The anti food censorship movement starts here! Cooksister as a resistance movement – who would have thought…
    I’m already the recipient of strange looks when I enthusiastically eat the fat on barbecued pork or lamb chops!! So I guess I’ll be first up for pariah status. I agree that obesity is a huge problem (pun intended) and we are now only seeing the tip of the iceberg – as this first generation of obese British children grows up there is going to be an unprecedented strain on the health system and the economy (think days lost due to sick leave). But I’m not sure that outlawing sugar, fat and salt is the answer – it certainly hasn’t worked for drugs or alcohol!! I think people need to learn to cook again – every school child should have to pass an exam in basic cooking and nutrition. If they are not learning these skills at home, then schools should have to teach them. I also think that there should be less financial incentive to buy unhealthy food. A Big Mac, fries and Coke shouldn’t be cheaper than a wholewheat tuna sandwich, fresh orange juice and a peach. But how to achieve this is another question – one for which I don’t pretend to have answers…
    Oh, btw, my best “fatty” sandwich is grated cheddar & red Leicester cheese with chopped spring onions and mayo on wholewheat. Bliss!!
    Multidirectional rant – you weren’t kidding!!
    It’s true – “demonized” foods are a marketer’s dream. If you can put “low fat” or “sugar free” on your product, it seems you can get away with as many E-number additives as you like.
    Sandwiches are great because they can be as healthy or as unhealthy as you choose – that’s my hobby horse of the moment: CHOICE! I also agree that the Government has an obligation to educate (see response above) and I like your point about simple signage. Although I like the detailed breakdown and religiously read it, people would probably prefer a simple system like a sliding scale. I like the idea of adding the GI index on the label too. I would also like to see more uniformity in the labelling law – for example some products list the sodium per 100g, others list the salt per 100g – and the two are far from identical!!