If any product captures the spirit of school lunch halls in the 1990s and early 2000s, it’s the Turkey Twizzler. These spirals of processed meat, produced by manufacturer Bernard Matthews, were a staple on canteen menus across the country until chef Jamie Oliver, along with his team of documentary makers, led a high-profile campaign that dubbed the products unhealthy and over-processed.
Aired in early 2005 on Channel 4, Jamie’s School Dinners set out to spark a “school dinner revolution” by examining the quality of school food (which largely stretched to chicken nuggets, deep-fried fish fingers and chips, and the troublesome Twizzlers), and uncovering some hard truths behind such nutritionally measly menus.
His findings were not taken lightly. In response, ministers swiftly set mandatory regulations for all schools, which were now expected to offer a predominantly fruit and vegetable based lunch with at least one wholegrain, while also introducing restrictions on juice portions and sugary snacks at lunchtime. Bernard Matthews ceased production of its iconic twists.
School children were gutted and the public outraged; even in 2018, some 13 years after the the product was pulled, a Change.org petition gained more than 27,700 signatures from fans calling for them to be reintroduced to supermarkets. That number creeps up every day.
And now their wish has come true, in a way. For, after some unsubtle hints from Bernard Matthews on social media, including a photo of a three-metre Twizzler statue erected at the company’s headquarters in Norfolk, the infamous Turkey Twizzlers are due to make what the brand is calling the "comeback of the century". Thanking consumer demand as the reason behind the revival, a new "healthy" version of the mealtime treat will be stocked in Iceland from Thursday.
Will they satisfy nostalgic cravings? It's unlikely. The new Twizzlers are being touted as a "much different product" by marketing director of Bernard Matthews, David Leigh. The originals, which contained just 34 per cent of turkey plumped with water, pork fat and E-numbers, have been replaced with a healthier recipe featuring lower levels of fat, salt and sugar, no additives, and a turkey meat content of between 60 and 67 per cent. The two flavours, Original Tangy Tomato and Chilli Cheese, score oranges and greens – not reds – on the traffic-light food labelling system.
"If you look at our product now and you compared, say, two pork sausages to two Twizzlers, there's 83 per cent more saturated fat in two average pork sausages compared to two Twizzlers," reasons Leigh. "So we have spent a lot of time making sure that we are delivering a significantly healthier product than it was before."
But not everyone is convinced. "The fact it’s taken Bernard Matthews 15 years to reformulate the Turkey Twizzler shows what a truly terrible product it used to be," says Barbara Crowther of the Children’s Food Campaign. "Doubling the turkey content still only takes it to 67-70 per cent meat content, and while it’s a healthier version of its former self, it remains an ultra-processed product."
While fans of the meaty spirals celebrate, experts are preaching caution. Bridget Benelam of the British Nutrition Foundation explains that "ready-made meat or poultry products can be high in saturates and salt, so it's a good idea to check nutrition labels and go for those with lower levels.
"These kinds of products don't have to be excluded from the diet, but it's a good idea to include a range of different protein sources, including plant-based protein foods and fish," she says. "School food standards in England suggest having manufactured meat products no more than once a week in primary schools and no more than twice a week in secondary schools."
Undeterred, Bernard Matthews has set its sights high: beyond the supermarket shelves, it hopes for a return to school canteens, the former stomping-grounds of this much-missed treat. "Obviously we'd like the product to go into schools," says Leigh. "But for the minute, we've focused on going into mass market retail."
Let's just hope Oliver has his boxing gloves ready.