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Why Researchers Are Spending £177,088 and Three Years Studying Deep-Fried Mars Bars

Headed up by The Wellcome Project and researchers at the University of Edinburgh, the study investigates the “history of the current stereotype of the Scottish diet”—namely, the deep-fried Mars bar.
Phoebe Hurst
London, GB

Here we are, in 2015—Scotland's official "Year of Food and Drink," in fact—with Scottish chefs bossing the London food scene and Scottish beer making it in LA. We've all moved on from the unappetising stereotypes that pass for Scottish cuisine by now, right?

Not quite. Despite Scotland's naturally abundant food scene, mention "Scottish food" to anyone and it's likely they'll default to Irn Bru, haggis, and that greasy albatross around the neck of any Scottish food purveyor: the deep-fried Mars bar.

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These dishes continue to shape how many of us view Scottish diet and nutrition but with a new £177,088 research project from global charitable foundation The Wellcome Trust, this could be about to change.

READ MORE: Scottish Takeaways Want You to Stop Asking for Deep-Fried Mars Bars

Headed up by Dr Christine Knight, senior research fellow at the Trust and University of Edinburgh nutritionist, the three-year study investigates "the history of the current stereotype of the Scottish diet, which is often associated with unhealthy, deep-fried foods, including the notorious deep-fried Mars bar." Using government policies, food advertising, and recipe books, "Stalking the Deep-Fried Mars Bar" hopes to analyse how Scottish diet is portrayed by the media both in Scotland and the rest of the UK.

Speaking to The Scotsman, Knight explained: "The more I looked into it, the more I realised the deep-fried Mars bar is actually the flashpoint to talk about national stereotypes in the UK. Historically these things about food surface a bit more when there are political tensions. Food historians said this happened during the Jacobite rebellions and the Act of Union when there was satire about food like haggis."

Thought to have been invented 20 years ago by the owner of a chip shop in Scotland's north east, the deep-fried Mars bar was held up by the media as emblematic of Scotland's poor public health for much of the 90s. Last year, a researchers at the University of Glasgow warned that eating one could "trigger a stroke within minutes," due to its high fat content.

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While a 2004 NHS study of Scottish takeaways branded the deep-fried Mars as little more than a myth, The Wellcome Trust project aims to uncover how the snack has influenced English attitudes towards Scotland and whether this has any sway over government health policies.

Knight said: "While many stereotypes have a grain of truth, the deep-fried Mars bar myth is used as lazy shorthand and does not necessarily go about the business of unpacking the real socio-economic problems of inequalities which are a factor in diet. Whenever we make a moral judgment there's an element of class."

READ MORE: Can Americans Learn to Love Scottish Food?

Much of Scotland's food and drink industry would agree with this. Many Scottish takeaways don't even feature the Mars bar on their menu and culinary research projects like Ben Reade's Edinburgh Food Studio work to champion authentic Scottish cuisine by focusing on seasonal ingredients.

Also speaking to The Scotsman, Nick Nairn, the youngest Scottish chef to win a Michelin star said: "We have a kind of paradox here where we have one of the greatest larders on our doorstep with the greatest fisheries, wonderful agriculture, wild game, and venison, but are known for the cursed deep-fried Mars bar."

If three years and £177,088 is what it takes for people to move away from the deep fat frier and into Scotland's natural larder, the research may well be worth it.