Jane Devine: Celeb chefs’ health claims unpalatable

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THERE’S a place for celebrity chefs, but it’s not swallowing their assertions that their recipes are good for us, writes Jane Devine

A number of years ago I remember watching Delia on telly. Some of her comments seem prehistoric now: “If you can get one, a red pepper would be lovely,” and “if you can’t find coriander, parsley will do.”

It all seems so innocent, the days before complicated show-cooking, the days when a sauce was a sauce and not a jus and you had to buy olive oil in the chemist. It was a time when home cooking was what you cooked at home and it was simple and normal.

Then came the era of the celebrity chef with their complicated recipes, prime-time TV shows and accompanying recipe books, complete with glossy photos and adjective-packed descriptions. Cooking became dazzling, vogue and a little more complicated. It also became horrifyingly unhealthy.

Research published last week by the Fat Panel, who surveyed 900 recipes from 26 celebrity chefs, claimed that 87 per cent of the recipes fall short of the government’s healthy eating standards; and 92 per cent of the chefs in the survey offered at least one recipe with levels of saturated fat exceeding the recommended daily dose.

We’ve all seen the shows with Nigella swooning over a dollop of double cream; Gordon barking about a pack of butter; or Jamie bish-bash-boshing about glugs of olive oil. They know the tricks: add sugar, fat and salt and anything tastes good, or at least tastes of sugar, fat and salt. There’s no problem with that: these recipes are not for every day and life and cooking would be dull if we didn’t have a treat once in a while.

But, while there is no problem with indulgent recipes, there is a problem with the attitude that many of these celebrity chefs are displaying.

First, that home cooking – from their recipes – is better for you. Home cooking, yes. From their recipes, doubtful. In addition to the evidence from the Fat Panel, in 2012 researchers from NHS Tees and Newcastle University took 100 recipes randomly selected from the offerings of the likes of Lorraine Pascale and Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall and compared them to own-brand supermarket ready meals. The ready meals were nutritionally much healthier.

But there is much greater concern over the crusades that, in particular, Jamie Oliver has adopted on making school meals healthier. This man who advised government on improving school dinners is also the creator of the Meatball Sandwich with Pickled Cabbage. This delicacy contains a whopping 957 calories per helping – twice as many as a Big Mac.

Celebrity chefs have their place and when you want to know how to boil an egg or learn the basics of real cooking, there’s always Delia. But when they start whipping up a storm about the dangers of ready meals and the merits of home-cooking (using their books); or shoving a healthy eating lifestyle down our throats, when their offerings are sometimes not healthy at all, it is hard to swallow. They can’t have their cake and eat it.