Friday 15 March 2019

Have you haddock enough?

Posted by Louis Goffe, Research Associate, Newcastle University

That smell. That distinctive saline scent. Your subconscious has your saliva glands brimming before you’re cognisant of what you desire.

Fish & chips is arguably our most iconic contribution to the culinary arts. This most harmonious pairing of Jewish-style fried fish with chipped potatoes, first engaged in the 1860s and have been besotted with each other ever since. At their peak during the inter-war years, there was an estimated 35,000 shops around the country, while in today’s diverse and competitive fast-food market, there remains around 10,500 chippies.
Fish & chips Edwardian style

The interrelating factors that derive our weight are as unique as our fingerprint and untangling and finding solutions is a global challenge. There is no single determinant and competition for a slice of the obesity research funding pie, is as cutthroat as the local high street takeaway shop cluster.

Takeaways are not the prime suspect in unlocking the door to good health, but it’s clear that they do play a role. As such, we need to scope what aspects can change to help provide customers and communities with healthier options.

When it comes to food, there is no universally accepted metric for ‘health’. The term is open to interpretation and keenly fought over, see the fat Vs carbs debate. However, such considerations are rendered obsolete when considering the nutritional profile of independent takeaway food, where meals were found to be “excessive for portion size, energy, macronutrients and salt”. It is the sheer volume of food provided that is the intimidating/wondrous [delete as personally appropriate] factor.

Pizzas are the chart toppers when it comes to portion size, delivering a medium value over 1,800 calories, though fish & chips are not far behind on an excess of 1,600 calories. This is a hefty dollop of energy, given that an adult women is advised to consume 2,000 calories per day. Of course, just because a portion contains this amount of food, it doesn’t mean that one will consume it all. But the evidence is clear “people consistently consume more food and drink when offered larger-sized portions, packages or tableware than when offered smaller-sized versions”.

It was not our assertion that any particular cuisine type is to blame, but to find potential solutions to what has likely been an arms race by traders in response to their most vocal customers to provide the most calorific-kick per quid, as highlighted in this quote from a Scottish fast-food trader.
“They just want chips… they'll have a look and then go along have a look at their deals and then come back and they'll order… they like the value for money. The competition here is unbelievable.”
In our NIHR School of Public Health Research funded study based at Fuse in collaboration with The Centre for Diet and Activity Research at the University of Cambridge, we wanted to challenge the notion that quantity rules above all, to see if traders and their customers were accepting of promotion of smaller meals.

Louis throwing himself into the research
Fish & chips offered the ideal starting template. Their taste is as beholden to us, as espresso is to the Italians, therefore reformulation has limited potential. Despite their volume, they’re presented as a one-person meal, with smaller sizes mainly limited to children, pensioners or as lunchtime specials.

Engaging with traders is a huge challenge. Therefore, we asked Henry Colbeck Limited, an independent specialist fish & chip shops wholesaler, to give the project that foot-in-the-door via a trusted voice. We co-designed the intervention, but crucially, they led on delivery and we retained our independence as a research team for analysis and interpretation of the evaluation data.

We were operating in an intervention landscape reliant on traders’ voluntary participation. This meant an emphasis on the potential financial rewards of provision of smaller meals to traders’ businesses, through articulating the power of customers’ awareness and demand for healthier options.

Henry Colbeck were key to creating a meaningful dialog with and between traders and getting them on-board with the trial. We found both owners and their customers were broadly accepting of the prominent promotion of the lighter meals, with a reported increase in the proportion of smaller meals sales, however our sample size was too small to derive statistical inference.

Lite-BITE box developed by Henry Colbeck Ltd
Interestingly, during interviews with traders, one big question remained, ‘what constitutes a smaller meal?’ During the trial, it was left to traders to define and package accordingly. Concurrent to our independent evaluation, Henry Colbeck sensed an opportunity and developed a new product specific packaging, the ‘Lite-BITE’. They have subsequently sold, along with their partner suppliers across the UK, 12 million boxes in 2018, highlighting that there is the customer demand for a more modest and manageable portion.

Despite this success of raising the profile of smaller meals, how much of them we consume is still unknown and more work is required to better understand the health implications. Also, like the traders in our study, we the consumer, would also benefit from clearer, potentially standardised, portion sizes that could help support nutritionally informed choices.

Our study was formative in nature, but the Lite-BITE box sales show an appetite for smaller takeaway meals and the access to traders that Henry Colbeck provided far out numbers those we could have obtained through door-stepping as academic researchers. We should put all potential tools on the dinner table that could help create healthier environments, including harnessing customer power. So next time you’re in your favourite fish fryer, if it’s not on the menu, ask for a smaller meal and hopefully the owner will soon start to sniff out that saline scent of profit to be made from healthier options.

Louis stars in our video about the research

Image: 'Beamish offers Edwardian-style fish and chips' from BBC Wear 2011:

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