January 20th 2017
The Angry Chef: “'Free-from' is not the same as healthy”
February 16th 2017
He's on a mission to expose the ‘Lies, pretensions and stupidity in the world of food’. We caught up with The Angry Chef to talk all things food, fads, facts and clean eating
Having worked in professional kitchens for over 20 years and with a BSc in Biochemistry, The Angry Chef’s background in food and science has placed him in a unique position for differentiating between fact and fad.
Motivated by an enthusiasm to keep our relationships with food healthy and fired up by unsubstantiated claims by manufacturers and individuals in the food industry, Anthony Warner's popular blog angry-chef.com, hopes to provide a helping hand in separating promise from proof. “I love food more than anything, but science is my other love,” he says on his site. “I was once a scientist but I left it all to follow my passion for food. I am no longer an expert on any area of science, but I have retained my critical eye. I know the importance of the scientific method. I retain the ability to critically appraise information. I also have a pretty good bullshit detector (although I owe this more to my 25 years as a chef).”
A roster of additional characters can also be found in his posts, each demonstrating a specialised skill set to help provide information from other scientific and evidence-based viewpoints. “I have a couple of very well qualified helpers with the blog, who for various reasons only appear as anonymous characters - and they make sure the science is as accurate as it can be,” he says. “They both have PhDs and ninja skills.”
‘Exposing lies, pretensions and stupidity in the world of food’ as his blog’s strapline reads, we caught up with him to find out what gets him his angriest, his thoughts about the backlash against ‘clean eating’ and what a healthy relationship with food means to him.
GTG: Could you tell us about the inspiration behind your name and your blog? What motivated you to want to voice your concerns about what was happening in the food industry?
My motivation came from hearing one of the leading 'clean eating' bloggers speak at a food industry conference a couple of years ago. Although she was likeable, bright and even informed in some areas, some of what she was saying was clearly unscientific and wrong. It inspired me to look more and more into the world of clean eating and wellness and for a scientifically aware pedant, much of what I found was truly horrifying. In the food industry, in order to make a health claim for a product you have to have really strong evidence that it is based in fact, but in highly influential blogs and books people can say whatever they want to based on feelings and opinions. Although often this is harmless, sometimes it can lead to dark and dangerous places. I decided that some of the claims being made needed light shining upon them. Although it only really started as something to be shared amongst a few industry colleagues, it seemed to strike a chord. I am not quite sure where the Angry Chef character came from, but writing in that way is quite liberating and allows me to say stuff in a way that I would be reluctant to otherwise.
GTG: How would you say that your background as a chef and in science has informed your perspective when it comes to lending a critical eye to the latest food crazes?
I think about food all the time and much of my work involves looking at food trends, so I do tend to spot things coming down the line. My critical eye perhaps comes more from my scientific background, but I love food and fight to protect it, so I guess my passion for fighting against dietary BS comes from there. My whole chef career has been about trying to improve people's relationship with what they eat and help them enjoy food a little more, so that drives me to write and research for the blog. It gives me the energy for the battle.
GTG: What are the biggest food lies you think the public are being fed at the moment and why? What gets your ‘SOI’ (‘Scale of Ire’) blazing?
'Lies' is a strong word. There are a few charlatans out there, but I genuinely think that much of what is out there is due to misunderstandings or people taking shortcuts. One of the main things that annoy me is this feeling that the world of nutrition cannot make up their minds about what a healthy diet is. There are some outliers who will claim that all conventional dietary advice is wrong, but if you look at most governments, health charities and organisations around the world, they will tell you the same sort of thing - eat a balanced diet, not too much, lots of fruit and vegetables, plenty of complex carbs, try to swap some saturated fats for polyunsaturated and get plenty of variety. This advice is consistent and it is mostly just people selling fad diet books and videos that claim otherwise, many saying that you should exclude carbohydrates and eat loads of saturated fat. If you want to believe them over the NHS, the World Health Organisation, The British Heart Foundation and Cancer Research that is fine, but personally I like to trust the consensus view of respected organisations that take their time to look at all the evidence and not just cherry pick studies to suit an agenda.
There are lots of others of course. I can't stand anyone using moralising language like 'Frankenfood food' or 'fake foods' when it comes to dietary choices. Sugar is not a drug that you need to detox from - it is a completely natural foodstuff contained in all fruit and vegetables that has been part of our diet throughout the history of humanity. Different foods do not acidify or alkalise your body, that is a complete misunderstanding of science, created to sell dangerous fake cancer treatments. The so-called 'paleo' diet has nothing to do with what our palaeolithic ancestors ate, it is just an old fashioned restriction diet given a new name. 'Natural' is not the same as healthy. 'Free-from' is not the same as healthy. Home-cooked food is not inherently better than processed food, either morally or nutritionally. I could go on, and I do at length on my blog.
GTG: On your blog you highlight food companies using underhanded tactics to sell unhealthy foods as some of the worst culprits when it comes to damaging the world of food. What are some of the worst that you've come across and how would you like to see this better regulated?
Most large food manufacturers comply with very strict guidelines when it comes to health claims on food. There are smaller companies making disingenuous claims, the most common perhaps being that a product can somehow 'Detox' you. To claim this with no evidence is illegal. No food can remove toxins from your body, but there are so many that claim to do so that I suppose the authorities cannot keep up. Fortunately we have very good systems like our livers and kidneys for removing toxins. A special tea or smoothie will make no difference.
Because of the regulations, most of the claims of larger manufacturers and retailers are slightly more implicit. I get annoyed that 'free-from' has became a byword for healthier, and in many retailers the 'Better-for-you' section is full of gluten-free and dairy-free products. Although free-from products have a place for people with allergies and intolerances, a myth is being created that these products are somehow healthier for all, which is just not the case. Many gluten-free options might be higher in sugar and fat than their gluten containing equivalents, perhaps leading people to a less healthy diet.
Telling someone that certain foods are toxic or 'unclean' in some way can be very damaging
GTG: There’s been a noticeable backlash against the term ‘clean eating.’ What are your thoughts on its use, meaning and interpretation?
I have been a big critic of clean eating in the past - and will continue to be so. As a movement, it seems to encompass a number of different dietary doctrines, many of which are based on a very shaky understanding of science. So the idea that gluten is unhealthy for everyone, that food changes the acidity of the body, that certain foods have medicinal properties and can cure or prevent specific diseases - these are all parts of different clean eating doctrines. Mostly this pseudoscience is just a smokescreen to justify the selling of restrictive diets. These days, the idea of 'going on a diet' seems a little outdated and low rent, so clean eating sells itself as a lifestyle and yet in reality it is still just about weight loss. When you look at their websites and Instagram feeds, these new diet gurus are still selling aspirations of thinness and the sort of exclusion diets most of them talk about are potentially very damaging for people's relationship with food. Telling someone that certain foods are toxic or 'unclean' in some way can be very damaging, especially for people susceptible to disordered eating.
I have nothing against anyone sharing nice recipes for vegetables, but when that comes with messages of exclusion and shame and moralising talk of food being 'clean' or 'dirty', I think that is very irresponsible and the people selling it need holding to account.
GTG: Are there any people in your opinion - experts or fellow chefs - in the industry who you think serve as good authorities?
There are plenty of experts who can be trusted. Dietitians and registered nutritionists (look for RNutr after their name to show they are registered with the Association of Nutrition, as anyone can call themselves a nutritionist) are regulated and give out good advice. I personally think chefs should stay away from giving specific advice on nutrition, particularly when it comes to diets to treat specific diseases, or creating weight loss programmes.
That is not to say they don't play in important role. Chefs, cooks and food bloggers are hugely important when it comes to helping people eat healthily, because they are skilled at giving people inspiration for making food taste good, encouraging the eating of more variety, more vegetables and just taking time to enjoy food a little more. A healthy diet is far more about enjoying a load of different things than it is about maintaining some magical balance of nutrients to ensure maximum health.
GTG: What would be your recommendations for people when it comes to sharpening up their own ‘bullshit detectors’?
I love the Bertrand Russell quote - 'Fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, wiser people so full of doubt'. It is often the people who are most vociferous that they are right about something that you should be most wary of. Real scientists will usually be more likely to say, 'Well it's complicated...'. Unfortunately, often we are more inclined to believe people who are certain and give us simple messages. I have learnt to be suspicious of people who are certain, especially when their views seem to differ from the sort of boring 'eat a balanced diet' advice we get from the likes of the NHS.
GTG: What does healthy eating and a healthy relationship with food mean to you?
It is about having a good relationship with as many different foods as possible and taking the time to enjoy what you are eating. Lots of variety, try as many different things as possible and don't get stuck in routines and restrictive diets.
GTG: What future projects do you have in the pipeline?
My book is out in July this year, so recently that has taken up most of my time. I have also been writing for New Scientist, Delicious and The Pool about food and science. As for the blog, I am moving away from clean eating for a while and looking at some of the people who present themselves more as respectable scientists but whose claims don't stand up to scrutiny. We have a few in our sights.