Fifteen years ago, the Turkey Twizzler was the most talked about food in Britain. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver was intent on improving the quality of food served to school children and had ensured the spiralised strips of processed meat were an issue of national concern.
Oliver targeted the product, manufactured by the Norfolk-based turkey giant Bernard Matthews, on his Channel 4 show Jamie’s School Dinners. It wasn’t only Turkey Twizzlers – the likes of cheap burgers and slices of American-style pizza were commonplace in Britain’s state school system in 2005. But the tangly curls of glistening grey meat became the obvious pin-up for Oliver’s campaign.
Twizzlers were high in saturated fat, covered in a chemically enhanced crispy coating full of salt and sugar, and were fed to thousands of pupils every year. Two of the country’s biggest school catering firms, Scolarest and Sodexo, distributed them, while family packs were available in leading supermarkets. There was, before Oliver, an apparent indifference in school bodies and local authorities when considering the matter of quality.
A 2005 relic
Although Oliver appeared to have a genuine desire to see young people eating healthier meals, citing the increase in childhood obesity levels, there was a significant backlash, and the nation was divided. While many parents supported Oliver, others felt he was patronising – another young middle-class chef misunderstanding limited resources. Calls to discontinue the Turkey Twizzler was the nanny state intervening where it wasn’t wanted, others claimed.
“For about a year and a half while he was making the programme, we were operating under the radar – no-one really knew what we doing other than the Government,” said Peter Berry, Oliver’s publicist for 14 years who worked for him at the time.
“Then the programme came out and people started getting a bit unhappy. We never heard from Bernard Matthews directly, but we did try to contact them. The Twizzler was more a metaphor for the general shit that was served. It became the poster food, but it could’ve been anything. There was a lot of shaped processed meat back then,” he admitted.
Bernard Matthews reacted by cutting the fat content in its Twizzlers. The then managing director David Joll insisted at the time that the company had “been unfairly treated.”
“Turkey is the least fatty of all meats,” he said. “The new Twizzlers have only a third of the fat level of the average pork sausage, yet you don’t hear Jamie Oliver telling people not to eat sausages.”
Despite resistance, Oliver was successful. At one point, in seeking to demonstrate the popular foodstuff’s failings, he graphically pulped turkey meat in a blender before shaping it into tell-tale, elongated pig tails. Such dramatisation prompted revulsion and disgust. Twizzlers soon disappeared from school canteens and, subsequently, supermarket shelves.
A healthier option
All this work was part of a broader strategy. Then Prime Minister Tony Blair met the star chef in the garden at Number 10 and admitted things needed to change. “It was quite quickly that the Blair government threw some money at it,” said Green. “I think they spent about £240m to try to improve things in schools.”
Those in state education at the time will likely remember 50p plates of chips being replaced by bowls of tomato pasta, while vending machines full of chocolate and fizzy drinks were removed from squeaky-floored corridors.
Turkey Twizzlers, meanwhile, became legend, even folklore. An entire generation of millennials has long remembered the cheap meat they were sold and, in an arguably sinister sort of way, has often been a little protective of it. As recently as 2018 saw a petition to bring about Twizzlers’ return.
For those willing their comeback, Bernard Matthews has finally come good. On Monday, the brand announced it would be relaunching its famous Twizzlers, albeit in a new, “healthier” form. Instead of a meat product containing just 34 per cent turkey and more than 40 ingredients – controversial E-numbers, hydrogenated vegetable oil, and sweeteners among them – the food is now altogether less frightening.
The “original tomato” variety contains 67 per cent turkey and not an E-number in sight. Elsewhere, the “chilli cheese” version contains cheddar and jalapeno peppers alongside “natural flavourings” and an actual, real life herb: sage. Gone is turkey skin, pork fat, and colourings. These have made way for the likes of gram flour, paprika extract and brown sugar.
“It’s been such a long time since they left us but the love for them never died down,” trumpeted a Bernard Matthews press release. The company even enlisted the help of a nutritionist, Dr Sarah Schenker, who said: “[Twizzlers are now] high in good quality protein and lower in fat, saturates, salt and sugar. You can create a balanced meal by teaming them with plenty of veg such as a corn on the cob and broccoli.”
Will they ever go back to school? A spokeswoman for the brand told me that right now the focus is seeing Twizzlers stocked on supermarket shelves, but as “people enjoy them more, they can look to get them back”.
I was lucky/unlucky enough to get hold of two packs of Twizzlers before their exclusive release in Iceland supermarkets (to begin with) on 20 August. I ignored the recipe cards I was given encouraging me to pair my spirals with sweet potato mash and sugar snap peas and cooked them on their own, all at once.
They smelled as they used to – pungent and salty – and the original tomato Twizzlers uncoiled as they once did in the hands of impressionable youths.
Perhaps, for people my age, there will be a nostalgic element. Memories of school time drifting, processed meat in hand, as break time folds into double science and grease-proof paper is lobbed into overflowing bins. I imagine a fair few adults will head to Iceland to see what’s what, but then the novelty will soon wear off. For me anyway, revisiting once was more than enough. As I write this, the formed turkey lingers.
In any case, we are no longer the intended market. It is the kids and parents of today that Bernard Matthews needs to convince. Except Britain’s moved on. Somehow, I don’t think these new-age Twizzlers will fly.
This content was originally published here.