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30 years too late: the egg exonerated

Friday 13 February 2009

Our countryside affairs commentator John Sheard, whose interest in food goes back to the days of rationing after World War 11, praises one bunch of scientists who have exonerated one of his favourite foods – and curses another bunch who struck it off the menu for 30 long years

WHEN I was nobbut a lad exploring the Derbyshire Dales in the austerity days of the early 1950s, there was a high spot of the day which I can still remember with absolute clarity. We would be sitting on the top of some hill, gazing out over lush Dovedale, and carefully picking the shells off our hard-boiled eggs.

This was Isaac Walton country – the River Dove was his favourite river when he was writing The Compleat Angler – and I will wager that some 300 years earlier, Old Isaac enjoyed exactly the same pleasure. For a hard-boiled egg, accompanied by a slice of good fresh bread, is and was the ultimate meal for the river bank – or indeed, for anyone enjoying hard work or exercise in the open air.

30 years too late: the egg exonerated
30 years too late: the egg exonerated

It is light, easy to pack, full of nutrition and it had fuelled farmers and fishermen, quarrymen and potholers, miners and cattle drovers for centuries. It will be impossible for anyone under the age of fifty to accept this but in those childhood days on mine, six or seven years after the war, it was still considered a luxury: eggs had been strictly rationed, not only during the wartime years but for several peacetime years too.

Then came the spoilsports. As prosperity returned and rationing disappeared, people began to get fat. By the late 1950s, diets were becoming the rage and, for the first time, scientists began to study the national diet.

Horror of horrors: in the 1970s they eventually came up with the alarming “discovery” that eggs were bad for you: they contained too much cholesterol and this is, of course, a prime cause of heart disease.

This came as a shock to me because, by that time, I had had become an obsessive fly fisherman and a hard-boiled egg was the standard centrepiece of my river bank lunch: that, a mug of coffee and a pipe of tobacco – sometimes, I admit, followed by a short nap in the sun (I had started my day with the morning rise at, say, 4.30 am!).

So the egg had to go, shortly followed by the pipe for the health fascists had got at smoking too, albeit with much more justification. And for the past three decades, my day on the river had never been quite the same – in fact, I now rarely fish more than a two or three hours and go home for lunch.

Now this sad tale had a twist this week which left me both angry (about the past) and happy (for the future). The egg has been exonerated (see News, Wednesday). Those 1970s scientists, who spoiled my angling lunch but also did enormous financial harm to thousands of British farmers, had got it wrong: eggs are in fact low in cholesterol and you can eat as many as you like without risking a heart attack.

Could these people get their facts right in future before scaring the pants off us

This was the result of new research at Surrey University by nutrition scientists Juliet Gray and Bruce Griffin, who reported in the scientific journal Nutrition Bulletin that the 1970s scientists who first condemned the egg had simply got it wrong: their controversial findings had been based on incorrect data.

Far more dangerous, they said, was the saturated fats that came from the other ingredients in the great British fry-up, the bacon and sausages. Letting me and millions more off the hook, Prof. Griffin said there was no need to limit consumption “because eggs are one of nature’s most nutritionally dense foods.”

Now they tell us! My wife and I have been restricting ourselves to one egg (free-range, of course) a week for years – yet she makes one of the most perfect omelettes I have ever had, and that includes many consumed in France during holidays when we felt we were allowed to “let ourselves go.”

For some years, I have complained in this column about the conflicting advice on food, medicines and exercise which seem to be issued and contradicted virtually on a daily basis by the food fascists.

But this is perhaps the biggest blunder of the lot – and it lasted 30 years. I feel like suing someone for my lost river bank lunches – but my problems are nowt compared to the thousands of egg producers this cock-up put out of business. Could these people get their facts right in future before scaring the pants off us – or in these hard times, depriving us of some of life’s simpler pleasures.

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