Anthony Warner – alias blogger turned author the Angry Chef – is on a mission to confront the ‘alternative facts’ surrounding nutritional fads and mythsA few minutes into my encounter with the Angry Chef, I begin to wonder if his moniker might be ironic, like the big guy whose friends call him “Tiny”. On the basis of his excoriating blog – which exposes “lies, pretensions and stupidity in the world of food” – I had been expecting a bilious, splenetic man with wild eyes, his skin covered in tattoos. Instead, I’m sat across from a mild-mannered nerdy type with a tidy beard and black-framed spectacles. Unlike his writing, which is showered with profanities, he hasn’t sworn once. In fact, he picks his words very deliberately, as if there’s a legal and fact-checking team working overtime in his brain.
“I expected you to be a bit more … furious,” I finally say. “Do you have a temper?”
The Angry Chef, aka 44-year-old Anthony Warner, considers this, shakes his head. “Not at all,” he says. “People who know me and see the blog say, ‘You’re not angry at all!’ No, I was never one of the shouty, scary chefs. Perhaps slightly intimidating sometimes, but only in a quiet, I-don’t-know-what-he’s-going-to-do sort of way.”
“What about the swearing?” I ask.
“I can if you want,” Warner replies. “But no, I don’t rant, I don’t swear nearly as much in real life as I do on my blog.”
The Angry Chef’s first post on 30 December 2015 consisted of a few pointed thoughts on going sugar-free. He was anonymous back then and there were a couple of reasons for that. Warner liked the idea of writing in character: while he stands by everything he writes, the Angry Chef persona allows him to be more confrontational and unhinged. The other reason was that he wasn’t sure what his bosses would think of his new creation. After a decade as a “decent but unremarkable” chef in professional kitchens, Warner became a development cook for Premier Foods, a large commercial food manufacturer. He has spent the last 10 years creating recipes for the likes of Oxo, Mr Kipling, Loyd Grossman and Ambrosia.
This anonymity did not last long. The Angry Chef’s railing against the trend for clean-eating and wellness bloggers, his frustration at the miraculous properties assigned to kale and coconut oil quickly found an audience. The Sun asked Warner to contribute to an article about “Insta-gurus’ diet advice”, and Ben Goldacre, one of his anti-pseudoscience heroes, tweeted his approval. New Scientist commissioned Warner to write for them, a gratifying nod for a self-described “science geek” who has a degree in biochemistry from Manchester University.
Now a book, The Angry Chef: Bad Science and the Truth About Healthy Eating, is out next month. It is a systematic, densely footnoted, and often very funny takedown of pretty much every food fad that has taken hold in recent years: detox, alkaline, ash and paleo diets among them. If you believe superfoods exist, then Warner will have some strong words to make you reconsider. Likewise, if you’re convinced there’s no possible defence for sugar or processed food, then he wants you to take another look at the evidence.
In an age of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop, of “Deliciously Ella” Mills, and Hemsley and Hemsley, these somehow seem quite radical ideas. “A lot of the clean-eating people, I just think they have a broken relationship with the truth,” says Warner. “They’re selling something that is impossible to justify in the context of evidence-based medicine.
“I don’t think any of them are lying,” he goes on, “they are just stuck in this strange world of false belief, which is fascinating. How can you look at NHS guidelines on how to eat healthily and go, ‘Well, I know better than that’? Maybe if you were a professor of dietetics or nutrition, you might disagree with some stuff. But how as a 19-year-old blogger you can look at it and go, ‘No, that’s wrong. This is right,’ I don’t know.”
How did we arrive at a place where avocados outsell oranges, where coconut oil, a once-cheap saturated fat, is reborn as a super-ingredient with miraculous, health-giving properties? (Paltrow’s website Goop also proposes using it as a mouthwash and sexual lubricant, prompting Warner to joke, “Separately, I hope.”)
For Warner, part of the explanation is an adaptation of psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s theory that people are brilliant at creating a narrative from minimal evidence. Kahneman calls the brain “a machine for jumping to conclusions”.
“We really struggle with uncertainty,” explains Warner. “We really want to be able to say: ‘Is coffee good or bad for us?’ Well, it’s not good or bad for you, it just is. And we have to accept that; that’s what science says. So your brain goes, ‘I don’t like that level of uncertainty.’ Certainty is really appealing for a lot of people and that’s what a lot of these people are selling – certainly at the darker end.”
Warner accepts he faces a tough challenge convincing people with his “boring” message. We live in the so-called “post-truth world”: a time of Brexit, Trump and “alternative facts”. Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman has even written that “Deliciously Ella is the precursor to Donald Trump”. In the book, Warner admits that he sometimes feel like “a drunk in a pub car park, raging and swinging at the world”.
“When you go back 20 years it was Gillian McKeith,” says Warner. “Now it’s harder to fight. There’s not specific individuals, there’s a swarm of them in so many different places, on Instagram, on social media, things I don’t even understand as a middle-aged man.
“Facts are important,” he continues. “The rhetoric of a lot of politics at the moment is that there was this once-great world we need to return to. And it’s actually not true. In almost every single measure, we’re better off than we were 100 years ago, or even 50 years ago. We’ve wiped out smallpox and put someone on the moon with science, if you start rejecting that …”
Warner trails off, the closest he’s come to living up to his “angry” tag. Would he be interested in debating this subject with Ella Mills or the Hemsleys?
“From what I understand they’ll avoid me at all costs,” says Warner. “I’d find it fascinating, but people will perhaps be surprised. If I’m asked, ‘Is a particular food good or bad for you?’ I’m not going to give an answer. I don’t feel I have superior knowledge, I actually accept that I don’t. That’s the difference between me and them. So it might be a strange debate.”
This is true. Warner’s advice, boiled down, amounts to: eat a sensible and varied diet, not too much nor too little. If you have junk food every so often, don’t feel guilty; if you’re going full Morgan Spurlock, you’re probably overdoing it. Eat fish, especially oily ones such as salmon and mackerel, when you can. Don’t consume too much sugar, but equally don’t believe people who tell you it’s “toxic” and has “no nutritional value”.
“The rhetoric that sugar is poison, it’s killing us, has become completely accepted,” says Warner. “We’re told it’s just empty calories. Well, we kind of need calories to live. But a lot of people will read that and say, ‘He would say that. He works for a big cake manufacturer.’”
How would he respond to that then?
“Well, prove me wrong then – you can’t!” Warner shoots back. “I’m always going to be accused of being a shill for the food manufacturing industry. Within the job I do, you get very exposed to prejudice that people have against the manufacturers of food. And also you get very exposed to what’s involved in making manufactured food, and what you can and can’t say about something in terms of its health benefits. If I made a food product and I wanted to say ‘it detoxes you’, I absolutely couldn’t. There are really clear laws: I can’t say it in the advertising, I can’t say it on the pack, I can’t make any sort of claim that isn’t hugely backed in evidence.
“But if I wrote a recipe book, I can say what I want,” Warner continues. “If I went on telly, I could say, ‘This recipe is really detoxing.’ You can make stuff up, it doesn’t matter. But then you get to the ad break, people advertising can’t say those things because they’re covered by law. So why aren’t the people making the programmes covered by law?”
To be fair, Warner is pretty “angry” now. And he’s not exactly optimistic that what he says will make much difference to acolytes of clean eating. “I think fads will continue, often just a recycling of the low-carb Atkins-style dieting under different names like those ketogenic diets, high-fat diets,” he sighs.
“They’ll just change the name and the pseudoscientific justifications for it. So yeah, there will probably always be something to write about.” Warner smiles, “And that will make me angry.”
The Angry Chef on … five food myths
When people say, “I’m detoxing,” what they’re saying is, “I’m not eating for two days.” It’s just an extreme weight-loss diet, but you make up toxins that aren’t there and say, “I’m doing this to get rid of these toxins” – which your body will do naturally anyway. It creates fear around food.
Eat like a caveman
The paleo diet is just a low-carb diet given a pseudoscientific justification.We’ve been eating carbohydrates for a very long time, but they’ll just go, “Well, a caveman ate meat.” They have this idea from The Flintstones, but anyone who works in anthropology will say, “No, they’re obviously wrong.”
Home-cooked food is always best
It’s linked to wanting women to get back into the kitchen: “Natural home-cooked meals are the only way to be healthy … Things were better before women went to work.” Underlying the demonisation of convenience food, there is a lot of misogyny. “Things were better in our grandmother’s day” – were they?
Sugar is ‘toxic’
Sugar has an enormous amount of energy and is one of the most important building blocks for life. But they say, “It has no nutritional value.” That makes absolutely no sense.
Don’t eat processed food
People will have a ready-meal from Waitrose and say, “I’m busy.” Then they’ll say poor people should just stop buying fishfingers: “But I can go to M&S and buy my haddock goujons, that’s not bad for me, is it?”
The Angry Chef: Bad Science and the Truth About Healthy Eating (Oneworld, £12.99) is published on 6 July. To order a copy for £11.04, go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.
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