It has become the target of relentless jibes about the Scottish diet since its invention over 20 years ago by the owner of a fish and chip shop in the north-east of Scotland following a special request from a schoolboy. But now the infamous deep-fried Mars bar is the focus of a three-year £177,088 study funded by the Wellcome Trust, the global charitable health foundation, to investigate the politics, class bigotry and anti-Scottish sentiment stirred up by the Scots’ consumption of the culinary delight.
Dr Christine Knight, a Wellcome Trust senior research fellow and a nutritionist at the University of Edinburgh, is undertaking the project – “Stalking the Deep-Fried Mars Bar” – examining the history of the stereotype of the Scottish diet.
Knight is due to give a talk next Thursday, “A deep-fried Mars bar?”, at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh, discussing why the notorious emblem of Scotland’s diet has captured the public imagination and provokes such strong reactions.
The snack was created in 1992 by Lorraine Watson from the Carron Fish Bar (formerly The Haven) in Stonehaven, and its fame soon spread worldwide.
Fans include Prince William, with reports from the nation’s fish and chip emporiums saying its main devotees are tourists and schoolchildren.
Last year researchers from the University of Glasgow warned that consumption of the 1,200-calorie treat could help “trigger a stroke within minutes”, with its high fat content reducing the blood supply to the brain.
However, Knight said the deep-fried Mars bar acts like a “lightning rod”, bringing with it value judgments of class and English attitudes to Scots, and can influence government polices to health.
“I arrived in Scotland from Australia around seven or eight years ago with no real impression about the Scots diet. But I can trace the moment when I became aware of a certain attitude to it to a specific conversation when I was at a wedding in England and someone said to me: ‘Oh, but doesn’t everyone in Scotland eat deep-fried Mars bars?’
“As a migrant it takes time to become aware of the social and cultural environment and to pick up on those undertones.
“The more I looked into it the more I realised the deep-fried Mars bar is actually the flashpoint to talk about national stereotypes in the UK.
“Historically these things about food surface a bit more when there are political tensions. Food historians said this happened during the Jacobite rebellions and the Act of Union when there was satire about food like haggis.
“In the 1990s, when the deep-fried Mars bar arrived on the scene, a number of ‘ducks’ were lined up.”
These “ducks” were obesity, heart disease, the debate on fatty food and the political changes going on between Scotland and England.
“But while many stereotypes have a grain of truth, the deep-fried Mars bar myth is used as lazy shorthand and does not necessarily go about the business of unpacking the real socio-economic problems of inequalities which are a factor in diet.”
Knight added: “Whenever we make a moral judgment there’s an element of class. In a way, comments about national diet can also have a class slur which has morality, class and taste all rolled into one.”
Knight added that the debate set “the bar low” when it came to discussion on Scotland’s health, with the assumption that “anything was better”.
Celebrity chef Nick Nairn, founder of the Cook School in Aberdeen and who was the youngest Scot to win a Michelin star, said: “The deep-fried Mars bar has been a millstone round the neck of Scottish cooking. It started as a bit of a joke but soon became the peg on which to hang all the ills of the Scottish diet.
“We have a kind of paradox here where we have one of the greatest larders on our doorstep with the greatest fisheries, wonderful agriculture, wild game and venison, but are known for the cursed deep-fried Mars bar. It has been a real distraction from positive health stories, and if this research helps get rid of it, it is welcome.”
Malcolm Roughead, chief executive of VisitScotland, said: “With 90 per cent of visitors rating Scotland’s food as good or excellent, it is clear the deep-fried Mars bar is a far cry from the rich and varied culinary delights which can be enjoyed during a trip to Scotland today.
“In fact, our reputation for quality fare is growing, and where once the Scottish diet was the subject of ridicule, we are now widely celebrated for our outstanding natural larder, which includes fresh seafood, succulent meat, delicious soft fruits and world-famous spirits.
“The Year of Food and Drink 2015 is designed to raise awareness of our authentic dining experiences and encourage visitors, both from Scotland and further afield, to embark on their own culinary journeys.”