Monday, 22 February 2010

Moral and immoral chocolate

The Telegraph has a story about a new "chocolate" bar which, we're told, "can be eaten during Lent." Read on, though, and you discover that the distinctive feature of this product is that it is extremely low in fat. That's because it contains about 60% water. It was developed at the University of Birmingham. I do hope the researchers gain the full commercial benefit from their work, which could be billions and would fund any number of academic posts in chemistry, classics and other endangered subjects.

The new process replaces fat particles in the food with water or even air bubbles. Allegedly it's almost impossible to taste the difference. They suggest that the "new generation" of low fat "superfoods" could solve the country's supposed obesity crisis - which the Department of Health insists on erecting into a major national priority despite the fact that, even with today's supersized population, it only killed around 757 people last year. That is, admittedly, 757 more than were killed in Britain by terrorists.

Still, those afflicted by "body image issues" - doubtless after looking at too many airbrushed magazine adverts - will love these new super-low-fat chocolate bars. The researchers are also excited by their new "super-porridge", the main selling point of which is that it hangs around in a person's stomach for 5-6 hours thus banishing any feelings of hunger, and an equally super low-fat mayonnaise.

I can't help thinking that whoever wrote the story has the wrong idea about Lent. Lent is supposed to be concerned with spiritual discipline and self-denial, not a handy way of losing a bit of weight. If the new low-fat chocolate tastes as good as an old-fashioned one but doesn't pile on the pounds, then where's the self-denial? No-one eats chocolate in order to get fat: it's an unwelcome side-effect. If chocolate is sinful, it is because it is self-indulgent; the price paid for which is weight gain (and, in extreme cases, diabetes, heart disease, whatever). As such it is a moral food. By exercising the restraint involved in giving up something for whose taste you crave, you get the reward of losing weight. If you succumb to temptation, your punishment awaits. And quite right too. People who stuff their faces with chocolate deserve to get fat.

But this new super-chocolate is a patently immoral food. It promises reward without punishment, pleasure without pain. You can have it all, says super-chocolate, and you don't have to pay the price. In the limited case of super-chocolate, this may be true - if so, it will prove immensely popular. But it offers a dangerous lesson. The economic disaster which currently faces us is the result of the politics of "you can have it all", a nation living on credit headed by a supposed financial wizard who proclaimed an end to boom and bust. As a consequence, an enforced fast awaits which will last much longer than the forty days of Lent. Politics, meanwhile, will be engaged in the search for a new form of "super-chocolate" to convince voters that it's just business as usual. The con goes on.