The Problem with Takeaways

There are nearly 60,000 takeaways in Britain, and most of us eat fast food on average two days per week. What impact is this having on our health?

by Phoebe Hurst; illustrated by Mel Lou
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03 April 2018, 9:35am

They say that in London, you’re never more than six feet away from a rat. But a better way to surmise this population-dense, questionably managed city might be your proximity to a takeaway.

In the 150-metre radius from my flat, there are almost too many to count. Closest is the pizza place on the corner, then the kebab shop a few doors down that stays open until 2 AM and has a torso-sized pillar of rotating meat in its window. In the other direction, there is a Chinese restaurant, a Vietnamese spot, and a handful of chicken shops dotted in between.

Expand the radius, and the takeaways multiply like a swarm of neon-lit locusts. Tennessee Fried Chickens, Dixie Fried Chickens, and legions of Perfect Fried Chickens; each with their own variation of the chicken-and-chips combo deal; Indian eateries churning out ghee-soaked naan bread; and fish-and-chip shops whose paper-swaddled chips you hold to your chest like a newborn on the walk home, still warm.

The takeaway is inextricably woven into the fabric of the British city. According to 2017 data from the Centre for Diet and Activity Research at Cambridge University, the number of takeaway food outlets in England has risen by 4,000 since 2014, resulting in approximately 56,638 shops across the country. A disproportionately high number are located in northern cities and deprived areas of London.

Due to the sheer number of takeaways now occupying our high streets—and the competition this breeds between owners to offer the lowest possible price—takeaway food has morphed from an occasional treat to a daily meal fix. A BBC survey from 2016 found that most Brits ate fast food on average two days per week, with one in six 16- to 20-year-olds eating it twice a day. Other YouGov research shows that nearly half of Londoners eat a takeaway at least once a week.

Many fear that this is contributing to rising obesity rates in the UK. A report on inner-city childhood obesity published by Guy’s and St. Thomas’ Charity last month found that people living in urban areas are more likely to be overweight than their rural counterparts, describing London in particular as “an abnormal environment where our surroundings make it harder to follow a healthy lifestyle and maintain a healthy weight.”

It’s little surprise then, that depictions of takeaways in the media are almost always negative. They are the backdrop to a drunken scuffle or horrifying rodent infestation. They ply us with unidentified meat products and excess salt, until we become kitchen-phobic layabouts with no idea how to cook even basic recipes.

The problem is that the takeaway has become too good at what it does. The food is too cheap, too easily accessible, and too tasty. And now it might be too late to turn back.

Photo via Flickr user Nico Hogg.

How do we save ourselves from the takeaway? We could ban them, as some local councils began doing in 2010 by turning down applications for new openings within 400 metres of a school, park, or youth club. London mayor Sadiq Khan announced a similar initiative for the capital last year as a way to “tackle the ticking time bomb of childhood obesity and help us all lead healthier lives.”

An alternative to banning the takeaway is rethinking how it works. In recent years, there have been several attempts to open a new kind of fast food outlet—one that serves convenient and cheap meals, but uses healthier cooking methods and ingredients. Box Chicken, a street food van selling pots of chicken stew, was launched in 2013 by urban arts facilitator Create London and spent four weeks parked near schools in Newham, East London. Its aim was to lure pupils away from nearby chicken shops and onto the stew, which contained a portion of vegetables and less than 400 calories per serving.

Chicken Town opened two years later with a similar mission objective: serve something a bit like fried chicken but with less saturated fat and salt, and get kids to eat that instead of the Dixie down the road. Founder Ben Rymer and business partner Hadrian Garrard, who also worked on Box Chicken, opened the restaurant in an old fire station in Tottenham using £55,000 from a Kickstarter campaign and £300,000 of grants and loans from Haringey council. The chicken they served was free-range, and steamed before being lightly fried in rapeseed oil. School-age customers could buy a “junior special” meal for £2.

Chicken Town was also a social enterprise. It trained locals as staff and worked with schools and community groups to run cookery classes and healthy eating projects.

“Our three major things were keeping the cost of our product relatively low, paying our staff a London living wage, and the cooking processes that we used,” Dunya Kalantery tells me. She joined Chicken Town as an engagement producer shortly after it opened and went on to become one of its directors.

Chicken Town was hailed by the Evening Standard as “Britain’s healthiest chicken shop,” and many others welcomed the business it brought to Tottenham following the 2011 riots. But Chicken Town had trouble reaching the people it purported to help and never became a credible alternative to the nearby KFC. Its core customers ended up being young families looking for a change from Nando’s. Perhaps due to the fact that it was, as Kalantery describes, “a 40-seater restaurant, not a chicken shop-style” space, Chicken Town wasn’t popular with teenagers.

“Some people were like really welcoming to it and were really happy that there was a clean, healthy, relatively affordable place in the local area,” she says, but notes: “For a lot of people, it was completely out of their price range, even though we were keeping our prices as low as we could.”

In December last year, after two years of struggling to find a sustainable business model, Chicken Town closed. A statement published on its website read: “It was always Chicken Town’s central goal to become financially independent, while serving delicious and healthy food to young people. Due to economic pressures, this has not been possible.”

Kalantery doesn’t seem surprised that Chicken Town found it impossible to compete with traditional fried chicken shops.

“The reason those things [chicken shops and takeaways] continue to function and work so well, the reason that they are able to provide for low income customers, is because they keep their costs down,” she says. “The heart of the problem of them is that in order to keep their costs down, that means that the food’s unhealthy.”

Aside from cost, something both Chicken Town and Box Chicken failed to account for in their vision for a new takeaway is what existing establishments represent. As Bridget Minamore wrote in her MUNCHIES piece on London chicken shop culture last year, the Sam’s or Morley’s on your road is more than a place to eat, it “symbolises everything from your ends to the people in your community.” This is especially true for young people. The Guy’s and St. Thomas’ Charity report noted that as youth clubs close, young people “choose to socialise in places where their friends go, it’s warm and dry, and they can access free Wi-Fi.” Takeaways tick all of these boxes, with bonus points if they offer the largest serving of fried food for the least amount of money. Even with council backing and large funds, it is hard to replicate this kind of community space from scratch.

Photo by Chris Bethell.

If reinventing the takeaway is the wrong approach, can existing fast food outlets be persuaded to offer healthier options?

London-based product design charity Shift explored this question last year with the “Better Everyday Takeaway” project. Researchers spent six months working with a chicken shop, kebab shop, and two greasy spoons in the borough of Tower Hamlets to trial a range of promotions that nudged customers towards meals with less salt and fat. These included posters advertising grilled chicken wraps, a redesigned takeaway box that held fewer chips, and icons displayed on the menu next to lower-calorie dishes.

While sales of healthy meal options had increased by the end of the project, some of the takeaway owners were reluctant to implement the promotions in the long term. The grilled chicken meals received a mixed response from customers, and many were unhappy with the reduced chip portion sizes. And for takeaway owners, customer satisfaction is paramount.

“The real challenge is that [takeaways] are people’s livelihoods, these are the things that pay mortgages every month,” explains Chris Holmes, MD of Shift’s Healthy Food Programme. “[Takeaway owners] are very fearful of change that might undermine their businesses. About 70 to 80 percent of their revenue normally is reliant on regular customers and the last thing they want to do is to annoy those customers. Anything that they feel presents a risk to that, they will shy away from.”

Photo via Flickr user Alan Stanton.

Shift’s research proves that even minor changes to takeaway food offerings can have a big impact—the redesigned chip box alone achieved a 15-percent reduction in calories compared to the standard box. The difficulty is rolling these kind initiatives out on a wider scale, given takeaway owners’ fear of losing business, but also the fragmented nature of the fast food sector. Holmes notes that many of the UK’s fast food outlets are independently owned, which makes it harder to instigate the across-board shift towards promoting healthy choices that we have seen in other areas of the food industry.

“When you think about what’s gone on in the development of food across retailers like Tesco and Sainsbury’s in, let’s say the last ten years since the first conversations about traffic light labelling, they’ve invested a huge amount of energy in research and development and reformulation of food,” he says. “If you look at the fast food sector, it’s pretty much unchanged in the last 25 years.”

He adds: “Twenty percent of those fast food outlets border on financially sustainable. Where are they going to find the time energy and the money to invest and try offering different foods? They’re just not.”

Public health initiatives like the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health’s Healthier Catering Commitment try to establish an industry standard for healthier takeaways. The voluntary scheme sees London food business owners pledge to reduce saturated fat and salt levels in the dishes they sell, as well as offer healthier options and smaller portion sizes on request. Businesses that commit to this and pass food hygiene inspections are listed online and given “Healthier Catering Commitment” stickers to display to customers.

“When you say, ‘You should eat more healthily,’ in a weird way, for some, you’re saying, ‘You shouldn’t be you.'"

The Healthier Catering Commitment is active in 20 boroughs and has backing from the Mayor of London, but Holmes wonders whether the “healthier” part is off-putting to some customers.

“When you say, ‘You should eat more healthily,’ in a weird way, for some, you’re saying, ‘You shouldn’t be you, you should be like these people over there,’ because ‘healthy food’ has been co-opted by a particular bit of the market and is therefore somehow different from ‘normal’ food,” he says. “It has separated ‘healthiness’ away from normal food, so people in the areas where we work, they say, ‘I don’t eat that sort of food, that’s for those people over there, I eat normal food.’ And so when you use the word ‘healthy’ or ‘healthier’ or ‘healthiness’ in relationship to food, it can be counterproductive.”

Jamie Oliver expressed similar thinking in an interview with The Times this month, arguing that lectures on healthy eating do not help low income families. Disadvantaged parents, he told the newspaper, “aren’t even thinking about five fruit and veg a day, they’re thinking about enough food for the day.” Kalantery, who is now working on a health and wellbeing project for primary school children, is also ambivalent about how we refer to “healthy” food.

“I have been involved in quite a few conversations around teen and childhood obesity and how to promote to healthier eating and it’s a really difficult thing to do, not least because ‘healthy’ and ‘healthier’ is really laden with …” she trails off, then adds: “It’s very political, I guess.”

Jim is a pensioner who lives in Hackney, East London. He knows that takeaway food is unhealthy but until a few years ago, he’d eat it several times a week.

“I’d basically have a takeaway every single day. Fish and chips, burger and chips, pizzas, Kentucky fried chicken, anything like that,” he tells me, adding that one place sold a seven-inch pizza with two chicken wings for £1.50.

Jim wasn’t going to takeaways because he was ignorant to the negative health impacts of fast food—it was because they offered a convenient and low cost way to eat. It’s hard to see how a healthy sticker in the shop window or a poster advertising a grilled chicken wrap instead of his usual burger and chips would have changed this.

“When you haven’t got money, it’s convenient to go and buy,” he says. “It’s ten minutes, I’m back and eating it with no washing up, no nothing. You get into a rut and once you get into that rut, it’s really hard to get out of it. You get into a set routine and you just forget about it and before you know it, a year’s passed by and two years and five years and eight years.”

Jim now rarely eats fast food, thanks to his involvement in Bags of Taste, a London-based nonprofit that runs free cookery classes with ingredients costing £1 per serving.

“I can cook a meal, sit down, knowing that I cooked it, did all the preparation, and put all the ingredients in it,” says Jim, who now volunteers with Bags of Taste. “Yes, I followed a recipe but I cooked it myself and I enjoyed it.”

Photo via Flickr user Aidan.

Jim may buy ingredients to cook from scratch these days, but he notes that his nearest large supermarket is a three-quarter mile walk away, which is difficult for someone who uses a walking stick as he does. In comparison, there are “about six or seven takeaway, chicken and chips, fish and chip places, and kebab shops” on his road.

Jonathan Pauling, chief executive of the Alexandra Rose Charity, an organisation that provides fruit and vegetable vouchers for families on low incomes, has found that such lack of access to healthy food in urban areas can force people to rely on takeaways or convenience food.

“Physical access is a problem in parts of the UK,” he says. “We work in Belle Vale in Liverpool and there are few places if any to buy fresh fruit and veg. There are plenty of places to buy frozen food, plenty of places to buy sugary drinks and chocolate and cigarettes and alcohol and other processed packaged food that can sit on a shelf and doesn’t go off, but there’s hardly anywhere to buy fresh food and vegetables.”

Indeed, Guy’s and St. Thomas’ Charity report describes London’s high streets as “saturated by unhealthy food and drink,” but Pauling argues that takeaways aren’t entirely to blame for this. The fact that fruit and vegetables are not only more difficult to come by in urban areas, but also more costly than going to the chip shop, contributes to the problem.

“If you’re on a low income, you can't experiment with a wide variety of fruit and veg to see what your kids like,” he says. “There’s a number of risks, one, it could go off in the fridge before you eat it so the money is lost, or the kids don't like it and eat it. These people aren’t bad parents, what every parent wants it to make their kid feel happy and full.”

He adds: “I think takeaways are a problematic but they're not the only part. They're not the only contributing factor to unhealthy diets in low income areas, they are part of the landscape and that means the wider food environment isn't as healthy as it should be.”

Until we change a food landscape that makes calorie-dense food easy and cheap—and “healthy” food inaccessible to some—takeaways will continue to be an attractive option for many. As Jim says, “it’s just easier to go along down the [takeaway] shop and pay £1.50 or two quid for a bit of fish or whatever.”

“It’s just so easy.”