Fat, salt, sugar and miscellaneous junk kill a great many more of us than ciggies do. Besides this, people generally decide for themselves whether to smoke – while our dietary habits are prescribed for us in childhood. So the government’s white paper proposing a ban on junk food ads on toddlers’ TV, hard on the heels of its plans to reform school dinners (ever so slightly), is welcome.
But congratulations are not in order. Things are as bad as they are only because of cynicism and stupidity in high places. Over the past half-century a succession of governments, the corporations to whom they have ceded power, and their monstrous regiment of scientific and economic “experts”, have laid claim to the entire food supply chain and in so doing have overridden the principles of good eating. By now, with all the wealth and know-how in the world, we should be eating like gladiators – high off the hog, but healthily with it. We should not need to rescue ourselves and our children from disaster.
The solution to the world’s food problems – both the malnutrition and starvation on the one hand and the diseases of excess on the other – is nothing more nor less than traditional cooking. Traditional cooking is geared to what grows locally, it is tasty (how else could it have evolved?) and, with a few exotic exceptions, it is geared perfectly to nutritional need.
Cook what the peasants cook – in Italy, Provence, the Middle East, India and China – and everyone will feel good and no one need go hungry, or be fat. To be sure, north European food can veer towards the heavy. But the traditional daily fare of Germany, Poland and, indeed, Britain was as tasty and healthy as any. Even Scottish food, now caricatured as the fried Mars bar, was once excellent: oats, herring, kale; brilliant use of small amounts of meat (of the kind that the supermarkets reject) in haggis; and neeps and tatties (at least after the 18th century). Gastronomically and nutritionally, it was perfect. Even the English admired the physiques of the Highlanders they so decisively laid waste to at Culloden.
Traditional cuisines are astonishingly various. Yet they all have the same basic structure, which corresponds exactly to what nutritionists now recommend. All are high in staples: mainly cereals (notably wheat and rice); beans and peas; potatoes, cassava and other tubers; and a mixed bag that includes coconuts. All are high in fruit and vegetables – the ones that grow locally and in season, which usually means a wide variety. All make only sparing, but ingenious, use of meat, which, except on feast days, is generally deployed as garnish, for flavour and texture. All are spicy and herby, even traditional British cuisine, at least before the industrial revolution.
Thus they are high in unrefined carbohydrate, low in fat, adequate in protein and biochemically varied – providing all the vitamins and minerals (and the much-vaunted “nutraceuticals”) in passing. There was little frying in the past because fat was too expensive, except where olives or sunflowers grew – and such plant oils are nutritionally fine. Stews and casseroles were the thing. Potatoes were boiled, not made into greasy chips.
People who have access to traditional diets of any kind, anywhere, are not malnourished, not hungry, not fat, and only the most unfortunate (those with extreme genetic predisposition) suffer heart disease and diabetes.
The absolute correspondence of great gastronomy with unimpeachable nutrition is not just happy chance. Human beings, along with pigs and cockroaches, are among the world’s most accomplished omnivores. We evolved to eat everything that is not irredeemably toxic – in effect to browse the entire wild environment. Wild environments inevitably include many more plants than animals, since it takes a lot of plants to support one animal.
Traditional farming reflected the natural balance, as it had to before fertilisers and pesticides, and traditional cooking evol- ved to make use of it. The ingredients vary worldwide and so, therefore, does the cuisine. But with small variations the balance is always the same, and always exactly in line with what people need.
Where did it all go wrong? Industrialisation is at the root of it – now exacerbated by a modern, obsessive form of capitalism (unknown to Adam Smith) that maximises output, cuts costs and adds “value”. Production is maximised by turning grain into meat and encouraging people to eat more and more of it. Costs are cut by throwing farmers out of work and by legalised scams, such as feeding bits of cows to other cows. “Value” is added (the price is put up) by packaging and processing. Reconstituted turkey shaped like dinosaurs is dispensed to schoolchildren. Beans, high in protein and fibre and low in fat, are served mainly or exclusively from tins, thickly laced with sugar and salt. In traditional form, beans and peas were healthy foodstuffs – and the source of delights from dhal, falafels and hummus to the endless variety of cassoulets. But now small children, plonked in front of the box, are being told every ten minutes that they should eat what is in effect rubbish. In a sane world such coercion would be seen as criminal assault. As things are: that’s business.
Millions of people still know how to cook. Some work in restaurants. Some of the most ingenious I have met were on the streets of Bombay, preparing meals for their extended family in a pyramid of brass pots over a single burner.
If we really want to wean children off junk food, we could start by getting some of the world’s proper cooks into schools, before modernity kills them off.
Colin Tudge’s So Shall We Reap, is now out in paperback from Penguin, £8.99