Deep-Fried Candy Bars: Scotland's Worst Food?

James Owen in London
for National Geographic News
December 28, 2004
The deep-fried Mars bar, served with a side order of fries, threatens to usurp the haggis as Scotland's best-known dish.

Worried public health experts, who investigated stories about the chocolate-covered caramel and nougat candy bars being deep-fried at Scottish fast food outlets, say the claims are not an urban myth.

The researchers discovered similarly bizarre examples of calorie-laden fast food cuisine, such as batter-fried ice cream, pizza, and pineapple rings.

The study, reported this month in the British medical journal The Lancet, adds to concerns over poor diet and physical health problems in Scotland. Only last month First Minister Jack McConnell, the leader of Scotland's executive cabinet, described the country as "one of the unhealthiest nations in Europe."

Doctors David Morrison and Mark Petticrew, both based in Glasgow, Scotland, say they decided to check claims that Scots had developed a taste for deep-fried Mars bars after the phenomenon was mentioned by Jay Leno on his NBC Tonight Show in the United States.

"We hoped to be able to lay to rest an urban myth," said Morrison, a consultant in public health medicine with the National Health Service.

Morrison and Petticrew surveyed around 300 Scottish fast food restaurants that sell Britain's most popular meal: fish and chips (fries). They found 22 percent of these "chip shops" also served deep-fried Mars bars (a Milky Way in the U.S.). Each contains more than 420 calories.

Average sales were 23 bars per week, with some shops selling more than 200 each week. Three-fourths of customers were children.

The researchers found that Mars bars aren't Scotland's only deep-fried specialties, with chip shops also frying up ice-cream, pizza, pineapple rings, pickled eggs, Snicker bars, and bananas.

Deep-fried Haggis

Haggis, Scotland's national dish, a combination of seasoned meat and oatmeal boiled in a sheep's stomach, also appears on the fast food menu. But instead of being boiled and served with "neeps and tatties" (turnips and potatoes), in the traditional way, the haggis goes into the deep fat-fryer as well.

The deep-fried Mars bar is believed to have originated in the northeast Scottish village of Stonehaven, following a bet struck between a chip shop owner and a customer. The Carron Fish and Chip Bar today sells as many as 300 deep-fried Mars bars a week. They cost 70 pence each (U.S. $1.38), or £1.70 (U.S. $3.30) when served with fries.

"Encouragingly, we did also find some evidence of the penetration of the Mediterranean diet into Scotland, albeit in the form of deep-fried pizza," said Petticrew, director of the social and public health services unit of the UK Medical Research Council, a government health research body.

Morrison said this fried-food culture probably has its roots in the industrial revolution, when there was mass migration to cities from rural areas.

The shift "resulted in a loss of much of the indigenous food culture. Much of Scotland's indigenous food is very healthy—oats, root vegetables, venison, fish, and seafood," Morrison said. "Heavy industry and labor demands eating a lot of calories, and fatty food is a good and cheap source. Deep-frying also kills bacteria and viruses, making it a relatively safe food."

Morrison noted that in the 18th and 19th centuries Scotland's fortunes were built on importing sugar, among other commodities. "This is likely to have given us our predilection for sweet food," he said.

Scotland records among the highest rates of heart disease, cancer, and strokes in the developed world, according to official figures. Residents also have the lowest life expectancy.

A major report for Scotland's Chief Medical Officer, which looked at the relationship between diet and disease, stated that Scots have the highest premature death rates from coronary heart disease in the world.

Meanwhile, the Public Health Institute for Scotland found that in 1998, 62 percent of men and 54 percent of women were either overweight or obese.

Morrison said there's a duty for the National Health Service and other public bodies to inform and educate the population about what constitutes a healthier diet.

"Poor Diet"

Speaking last month, Scotland's First Minister, Jack McConnell, admitted that such efforts need to be stepped up.

"In comparison with the rest of the UK, with Europe, and with too many countries worldwide, our mortality and morbidity rates across far too many indicators are lamentable," he said. "Poor diet, excessive drinking, lack of exercise, and drug abuse all contribute to making us one of the unhealthiest nations in Europe."

McConnell claims some progress has already been made, noting that investment in public health since 1999 has cut death rates from heart disease by 14 percent.

However, a new report, published earlier this month by Scotland's National Health Service, suggests that levels of obesity in children is still rising. It states: "By the school year ending 2002, 30 percent of 13- to 15-year-olds were estimated to be overweight—this was double the expected number."

And it's these youngsters who appear most susceptible to the delights of the deep-fried Mars bar, according to Petticrew, the study co-author. He said 76 percent of Mars bars were sold to children, and 15 percent to teenagers. "Sixteen percent of shops said they were more likely to sell them during school term," he added.

Kevin McIndoe, a Glasgow newspaper journalist, said he has yet to come across the infamous dish in the city's chip shops. "If they do a deep-fried Mar bar, it's not something they put on the menu," he added.

However, McIndoe, 38, does admit to having a soft spot for the odd battered sausage and deep-fried black pudding.

Despite the Mars bar study, McIndoe said he feels the Scots' reputation as unhealthy eaters is overexaggerated. He added, "It's a bit like me saying everyone in London likes jellied eels."

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