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26th Oct 2018

When you are as much of a foodie as I am, and when you earn part of your living through writing about food and drink, inevitably your reading choices are affected.  I tend to devour the food and drink pages of every newspaper I can find, I follow far too many food blogs, and my Twitter feed is dominated by the topic.

Once upon a time this would have guaranteed me a joyful experience.  Food writing has traditionally been about the happiness that eating and drinking well can bring all of us, and its tone was celebratory.  Reading the food pages made you salivate.

I have noticed that in recent months this is no longer the case, and I think it is indicative of a sea-change in our relationship with food – a change which is damaging our physical, emotional and mental health.  In short, food seems to be becoming an issue, rather than a joy.

Instead of celebrating one of the most basic and visceral pleasures in life, the food pages of our national newspapers are increasingly full of doom and gloom: food safety scandals, health scares, dire warnings about our growing obesity problem or the seemingly relentless march of eating disorders.  It’s enough to put you off your breakfast.

The latest media hectoring comes after a report in the respected scientific journal Nature which said that we should be eating radically less meat if we are to have any hope of reducing the impact of food production on climate change. 

And I don’t just mean having one meat-free day a week – according to the climate boffins, we should be cutting our beef and pork intake by 90 per cent.  To compensate, apparently we need to be eating five times as many beans and pulses.

These are fine words, but they ignore one vital fact: most of us don’t just eat because we have to in order to stay alive.  Food is a massive part of pleasure.  That is why many of us will salivate over the thought of a juicy steak and chips, whilst feeling rather less enthusiastic about an equally nutritious, certainly more worthy, but ultimately rather dull bowl of lentils and vegetables.

It is why we will happily – and I use that word carefully – tuck into an indulgent chocolate pudding which we know will end up with us putting on weight.  Or drink that delicious glass of chilled Sauvignon Blanc rather than slating our thirst with tap water.

It is also why the biggest compliments given by Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith on The Great British Bake-Off’s vegan week was that the more successful dishes tasted as if they were made with butter and eggs. 

You have to ask: if you like the taste of butter and eggs, isn’t the best way of achieving that to use butter and eggs?  I suspect most in the nation cheered Welshman Jon’s plea, “When are we going to have kebab week?”

Of course issues about obesity, the environment and food safety are important.  But so are issues surrounding eating disorders, stress and unhappiness.  And the joy of food and drink, coupled with the increased social interaction which they bring about, should be a big part of the solution, not contributing to the problem.

It doesn’t matter how much we are told that we need to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, or that our predilection for roast beef is killing the planet.  The policymakers who come up with all this hectoring are ignoring the basic fact that we eat because we enjoy it.  In fact, many of them actively view the love of food as a problem; it’s hardly surprising how little they have managed to change our habits.

Instead, they should be embracing the joy of food, and harnessing it to help alter our behaviour.  These people shouldn’t just roll their eyes and tut when they learn that takeaways are one of the very few growth areas on our high streets.  Instead they should show us how different eating habits can be just as pleasurable.

The fact is that people who are really into food tend to eat more healthily, take more care about where their food comes from, and think about the impact the food they are eating is having on the wider environment. 

Real food joy doesn’t come from bingeing on fat-laden takeaways, sugary sweets or junk foods which are high in refined fats, however much short term pleasure they might give us.  If we can rediscover the true pleasure of sharing our table with others, cooking good quality ingredients and eating really well (not necessarily expensively), then many of these other issues will be solved.  It’s time to rediscover the joy of food.

This article was first published in the Norwich Evening News and the Eastern Daily Press.