Dhaka, Bangladesh
As food is a great source of pleasure, so it is too harmful

As food is a great source of pleasure, so it is too harmful

By Bee Wilson

Another week, another alarming news story about eating and how we are frankly doing it all wrong. If you thought you were doing your bit towards a more sustainable diet with meat-free Mondays, think again. A report in the science journal Nature suggests that if we are to have any hope of lessening the impact of climate change by 2050 we need to be eating radically less meat. In Britain, we should be eating 90% less beef and pork. We also need to quadruple our nut intake. I don't doubt that the authors of this meticulously researched report know what they are talking about (although it's worth noting that in some terrains, such as the grassy hills of Wales, producing meat may be the most sustainable use of the land). The lead researcher, Marco Springmann, has said that even he was taken aback by the vast scale of changes to our diets needed to halt the deforestation and water shortages caused by our current food system. Among the report's other recommendations, British people should be eating five times as many beans and pulses. But has anyone stopped to ask why we eat so few beans and so much meat? It doesn't matter how many times we are told it is essential for us to eat more chickpeas if we don't actually like them. Most Britons still think that a juicy steak is a mouth-watering treat, whereas pulses, other than canned baked beans in a sugary sauce, are viewed as something austere and unappetising. "Lentil-weaving" is the insult used on the parenting website Mumsnet for anyone viewed as too righteously eco-conscious. The implication is that lentils could never be appetising. You only had to watch last week's episode of The Great British Bake Off to see how far some people in Britain are from regarding a lower-meat diet as something to enjoy. It was vegan week in the baking tent, which proved to be the nemesis of 47-year-old Jon Jenkins from Wales. Jenkins could hardly conceal his disgust at the prospect of baking savoury vegan tarts. I can't imagine he would appreciate being ordered to eat more pulses. It strikes me that the thing that never gets talked about in all these news stories about food is pleasure. This is a strange omission given that preference is a big part of why anyone eats anything. We are endlessly told what we should eat - whether for the planet or for our health - but nutrients only matter when someone chooses to pick something up and put it in their mouth. Instead of making us feel that we are wrong to love the foods that we do, it would make more sense for policymakers to try to help us to change our preferences for the better. Whatever our age, we don't take kindly to being told what to eat. This is part of why so many public health initiatives fail. Take five a day. The advice to eat five fruits and vegetables a day has been part of government advice for decades. Yet as of 2013, according to statistics from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, just 16% of UK children did in fact eat their five a day. What's more, one of the top sources of vegetables for children is pizza. We will only eat more lentils and less beef when lentils become an enjoyable option (as they are in India, where spicy dal in myriad forms is a beloved comfort food). Yet food policymakers tend to see human appetite as a nuisance rather than something that could become part of the solution. Corinna Hawkes is professor of food policy at City University. She told me recently that among the policymakers she meets, pleasure in eating is often talked about as a problem because the assumption is that the only foods humans are capable of loving are junk foods high in sugar, refined fats and salt. It is no wonder that most food policies to date have been so ineffective in changing our eating habits. A more fruitful approach would be to help populations to learn new preferences. From childhood, we learn our tastes from the world around us. We know that preference, give or take some genetic quirks, is mostly a function of what Robert Zajonc in 1968 called "mere exposure". Affection is triggered by familiarity. The trouble is that the single greatest educator of our palates in recent years has not been parents or even schools but the makers of ultraprocessed kids' foods; they have given many of today's children an extremely limited range of preferences centred on foods that are sweet, soft and chocolatey or else crispy, fatty and salty. But the good news is that it is absolutely possible to learn new tastes. This is why I am so excited to be involved in a new charity called Flavour School, which offers sensory food education to primary children and which is currently being trialled at schools in Lincolnshire, London and elsewhere. It's based on the Sapere method that has been used in Sweden and Norway, among other countries, for decades. You simply bring basic raw ingredients into the classroom and get children to interact with the food with all their senses: touch, smell, hearing and sight as well as taste. These are lessons in eating rather than cooking. The thought behind the method is that someone who has never been given a chance to taste cauliflower is unlikely to become a cauliflower lover as an adult. One of the lessons involves putting on noise- cancelling headphones and trying "loud" and "quiet" foods such as crunchy celery and soft, silent strawberries. You wouldn't believe how loud a stick of celery sounds when you have headphones on. Anyone too scared to put the celery in their mouth can just listen to it by snapping it. What teachers have found is that by removing the pressure to taste while exploring food with our other senses, children's natural curiosity will urge them to try things they thought they hated. In one session with five-year- olds, 11 children tasted sour lemon for the first time in their lives. One of them said: "It tastes like poison. I want to try it again." By themselves, such initiatives won't be enough to change a nation's preferences. But it's a better place to start than making us feel we are wrong to love the foods that we do. The stomach knows what it knows and you can't argue someone out of their tastes. The real change will come when "lentils for dinner" stops sounding like a threat and starts sounding like a promise.

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