Should we fear the multi-coloured caterpillar?

You may have spotted that, in-between running around in an endless attempt to keep myself fit, my current quest is to try to untangle the complicated and confusing web of information that has been spun around the food we eat. Because I think that it is important, and because I think that I ought to know more about what I am eating. And because I worry that there are some important choices that I ought to be making; choices where I do not yet know the questions, let alone the answers.

And I also want to know how easy it is for someone like me, an ordinary consumer armed with curiosity and access to the internet, to find out this information. It is still early days, but I already have an answer to that one: it’s really bloody difficult.

I start to delve into a particular question and the internet opens up in front of me, a yawning chasm that sucks you in, spins you around and chews you up. One link leads to another, leads to another, leads to another. It’s a labyrinth and my ball of string has become tangled. If I’m lucky then I crawl out the other side with a vague sense of accomplishment and, usually, a long list of further links to check out later.

It was when I was reading back one of those lists that I spotted a scribbled question and a website address. “Should we fear the multi-coloured caterpillar?” it read. What was that all about? Nothing else for it, I had to click on the link…

The Atlas of Risk. Sounds fun doesn’t it? A light-hearted geographical jaunt.

It is actually a tool on the NHS website that tells you how you’re going to die. Like a state-funded Nostradamus, but without the jokes. You tell it your sex, age and location, and it tells you what might kill you. And it looks a lot like a multi-coloured caterpillar. Here’s mine:



It would seem that the likely causes of my demise match the country’s, certainly in terms of the number one killer: heart and circulatory disorders. Being a man doesn’t change the picture too drastically, but selecting an age certainly does. Cancer and respiratory disorders (big circles on the UK caterpillar) are relatively far down the pecking order for someone of my age. Being in the South West doesn’t seem to affect things too much. All of that clotted cream must be wrapped up in the heart disorders.

My risk-factors are explained on the second tab, like something from the caterpillar of commandments. Dost thou wish not to die of heart disorder, then thou shall not smoke. Sage advice, Mr Caterpillar.

Caterpillar - risk

While this does seem a little disheartening, the point of this tool is neatly explained on the third tab. We all get told to worry about too many things; if you’re going to worry about anything, worry about the things that will do you the most harm.

“Every day we are told of lethal new threats to our health and lives…In this blizzard of health warnings it’s easy to lose perspective and worry about small or insignificant risks while ignoring, or being unaware of, the major threats… [The tool] has been designed to help put health threats into perspective.”

You can find the creepy caterpillar here. It is actually well-worth a look.