The man behind the ‘Angry Chef’, on absurd health claims, who he holds responsible and how he’s working to influence the industry from the inside
January has just finished. And I’m sat opposite a man who has turned his fury at the fake news that abounds in food and drink into a career. So where else to start than the subject of diets? “You feel like there’s progress and we’re moving on from some of this stuff but then January comes along,” chuckles Anthony Warner, the quietly spoken author behind the Angry Chef blog. “There are still the same themes of restriction, denial and body image, or being the ‘perfect you’. I find it very frustrating. It’s always people selling something, that’s the depressing thing.”
Warner’s first blog post, back in December 2015, tackled pretty much the same theme, exposing the ‘infuriating’ gaps in the argument of a ‘sugar-free guru’ attempting to shift copies of her latest cookbook. He quickly amassed thousands of followers. And his own book deal. “It was stuff I cared about, stuff I thought was damaging people and needed exposing. I think people responded to that.”
It also helped that, unlike many bloggers, Warner brought expertise and experience to the table. Not only does he have a degree in biochemistry but he’s spent the past two decades working as a chef, first in restaurants, then catering and - for the past decade - in the food industry. In fact, when he first felt the fury brewing he was creative development chef at Premier Foods and strolling around the annual Food Matters Live event.
“One of these clean eating bloggers was speaking on the main stage. It was something I’d vaguely been aware of and, as someone working in product development, something I was interested in. [But] it became very clear, very quickly that she had absolutely no idea what she was talking about. Much of what she was saying was scientifically illiterate.” Her “extraordinary claims” included dairy drawing out calcium from your bones, and other foods acidifying your organs. “All extraordinarily ridiculous.” Even more worrying was that industry peers were praising her efforts.
The Angry Chef on…
The Eat-Lancet report: The way we produce food, especially meat, is deeply problematic and needs to change. But [the report] came from a standpoint that veganism was this panacea that would save the world, which is absurd.
The obesity epidemic: It’s an endemic problem, not an epidemic. Our increase in BMI has actually been fairly steady, it’s starting to level off in fact. The problem is far more people at the extremes of around 40-plus.
Taxing junk food: These are systemic problems that need addressing in that way rather than via a single top-down intervention like taxing food. So many problems are linked to inequality or poverty. Aggressive taxation will just make people struggle more.
Diets: Diets can change body composition, make you lose muscle mass and hormonally enter into dysregulation overriding hunger signals. Your body doesn’t think you’re on a celebrity diet, it thinks it’s starving.
Sufficiently incensed, he created the “tongue in cheek” persona of the Angry Chef (“Premier were very good, they said as long as I was clear views were mine it was fine”) and began ranting about the ridiculousness of vilifying all processed foods, the trouble with diets and the danger of “wellness warriors” such as the speaker he’d come across.
Warner holds industry responsible for a lot of this harmful rhetoric around food. “I am a supporter of the industry because I think it’s very good at feeding people, and very good at getting food on to shelves, which is an incredible challenge. But in terms of the way it deals with health, I find it problematic.”
Take clean eating. Psychologists are well aware of the damage done by assigning ‘clean’ or ‘dirty’ labels to foods, qualities consumers can subconsciously assume themselves. “But where does that language come from? I’d argue most of it comes from industry. They had this push to ‘clean up’ products via clean labelling. It was about getting all the ‘nasties’ out of food. That language led to this trend of clean eating.” And even now, with a backlash against clean eating in full swing, ‘guilt-free’ treats and ‘detox’ products continue to line our shelves. “Detox what? Which toxins are we removing here? It might be legal but the food industry has a responsibility to look beyond legality toward people having a better relationship with food.”
An industry that doesn’t perpetuate food myths, whether knowingly or not, has never been more important given the sheer confusion of consumers now, bombarded with conflicting health messages. “The way we access media has changed dramatically and we have this way of sharing on social media which is without checks, balances and filters. People say what they want. It starts with Gwyneth Paltrow saying you can detox by eating kale, then there’s a continuum to others saying you can cure cancer with this special diet. There are many examples of people being pulled into that.”
So, how can industry better rebut this sort of rubbish? Warner doesn’t exactly have the answers. He does think brands and retailers can help by reinforcing the fact no extreme diet is healthy and no single product is “health in a box”. Instead, it could help by “encouraging them to eat a variety of foods. But that struggles to translate into something you can market and sell.”
In addition, “it could pay its employees better, give people a living wage so they’re not living in poverty. It’s not the fact we sell people a chocolate bar, that’s an honest transaction. The shame is the pay and working conditions of many people. Change that and you do a lot more to help improve the health of the nation.”
It’s one of many examples where Warner doesn’t hold back in criticising the industry. But having spent years in product development, and still consulting for food and drink companies alongside his writing, he seems a bit wary of people arguing he’s too close to the problem. In fact, half an hour or so after we say our goodbyes he follows up with an email to clarify.
“My view has always been that I can positively influence the food we eat in this country to a far greater extent working within the industry than I can writing books or a Sunday Times column,” he says. Writing is too low-paid to be a realistic full-time job for most people, other than those who are fairly privileged, he adds. “They tend not to have that much knowledge of how people actually eat, and how the food industry works. I think I have made myself unpopular by challenging their beliefs and pretensions, but I really feel these are things that desperately needed challenging.”