Apart from ob­sess­ing about turn­ing his kitchen into a science lab, chef He­ston Blu­men­thal says that eat­ing right is all in the mind.

La­belling and tax are not the only an­swers, says science-lov­ing chef He­ston Blu­men­thal – we must be smarter if we are to tackle the obe­sity crisis

Friday - - Contents -

Our ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing hu­man starts with food. It’s cen­tral to the jour­ney that our species took to get here. As we evolved, we be­gan to use tools that were as­so­ci­ated with food; ei­ther the killing of it, or the cut­ting it up of it in or­der to eat it. Then we dis­cov­ered fire, and started cook­ing on it, be­gin­ning a process that saw our brains tre­ble in size. Eat­ing like this also brought us to­gether as a group around a fire, and our lower jaw shrank, as we no longer had to tear through raw car­ti­lage.

To eat cooked food, then, is to be hu­man – it de­ter­mines who we are. So it’s no won­der that chang­ing what we eat has proved so prob­lem­atic for pub­lic health ex­perts. Al­ter­ing our re­la­tion­ship with food re­quires us to re-en­gi­neer our most fun­da­men­tal be­hav­iour pat­terns. It’s pos­si­ble, but not easy and it’s why so many New Year’s di­etary res­o­lu­tions are des­tined to fail by Fe­bru­ary.

We think we un­der­stand eat­ing as a func­tional process that moves from flavour per­cep­tion to swal­low­ing, from di­ges­tion to nu­tri­tion. But it is more than that. Diet in­flu­ences not only our phys­i­cal health, but also our men­tal state, our in­tel­li­gence, our char­ac­ter and con­fi­dence.

We are only be­gin­ning to un­der­stand this jour­ney. But we do know it starts be­fore birth. A huge amount is learnt in the womb. The flavours of the foods a mother eats, for ex­am­ple, find their way to the un­born child through the am­ni­otic fluid, and af­ter birth those flavours are pre­ferred.

Many ex­per­i­ments have been car­ried out to as­sess flavour learn­ing and in one, a set of moth­ers reg­u­larly drank car­rot juice when preg­nant, while an­other set drank wa­ter.

Six months later, all the ba­bies were of­fered ce­real flavoured with car­rots, and the chil­dren of the car­rot-juice-drink­ing moth­ers no­tice­ably pre­ferred it.

In an­other ver­sion, French ba­bies whose moth­ers had con­sumed anis dur­ing preg­nancy liked the taste im­me­di­ately af­ter birth, while other ba­bies ac­tively dis­liked it. Even in the womb, a child is be­ing in­tro­duced to the cul­ture and en­vi­ron­ment into which it will be born. Sim­i­larly, a mother’s poor diet while preg­nant can have an ef­fect on the child later in life – but a dele­te­ri­ous one. These chil­dren are more likely to be­come obese, for ex­am­ple.

Sci­en­tists now be­lieve that the foe­tus ad­justs its me­tab­o­lism for the world it thinks it will have to face. So if it pre­pares for a world of scarcity, only to grow up with plenty, then obe­sity is in­evitable.

Af­ter birth, the jour­ney con­tin­ues. Chil­dren soon dis­cover that their most ef­fec­tive tool for con­trol­ling adults around them is by re­fus­ing or ac­cept­ing dif­fer­ent foods. And the food we are ex­posed to dur­ing the first two years of life de­ter­mines what we want to eat into adult­hood. It’s also the case that al­though it’s vi­tal to serve good food in schools, there sim­ply aren’t enough hours in the school day

Money has only so much im­pact in chang­ing our emo­tional re­la­tion­ship with hot choco­late

to counter a reg­u­lar evening diet of chicken and fries and ketchup.

So what can we do? As par­ents, both be­fore and af­ter the birth of our chil­dren, we can ex­pose them to as many and var­ied foods as pos­si­ble. We shouldn’t cut them off from sweet things, but hu­mans were not de­signed to eat too much sugar. Equally, some fats are fine, as long as they aren’t ex­ces­sive. Above all, we need pro­tein.

But for those al­ready hard-wired to ex­pect too much sugar or salt, a more in­tel­li­gent ap­proach is needed to change those habits. There is a role for la­belling, but when it comes to food, few of us are truly ra­tio­nal, so giv­ing us per­fect in­for­ma­tion won’t nec­es­sar­ily lead to per­fect de­ci­sions. There might be a role for tax­a­tion, but money has only so much im­pact in chang­ing our emo­tional re­la­tion­ship with hot choco­late.

We need to be smarter. We need to fool the brain into think­ing it is get­ting more of a par­tic­u­lar taste than it re­ally is. Imag­ine mak­ing a cup of cof­fee with one cof­fee bean; it would taste pretty in­sipid. But con­sider drink­ing a cup of hot wa­ter and then eat­ing a whole cof­fee bean; it would have far more im­pact. You can do the same with food, pack­ag­ing the re­lease of cer­tain flavours to max­imise im­pact.

There are, in fact, many sen­sory in­puts which af­fect how we taste some­thing. If you want to ac­cen­tu­ate the sweet­ness of a food item, imag­ine that you pick up the packet and it’s all soft and smooth, and then there’s a sat­is­fy­ing squidgy noise when you open the lid. It will make a dif­fer­ence.

As strange as it might sound, the whet­ting of any of our senses can dra­mat­i­cally in­crease the im­pact of a small amount of flavour. The weight of the glass you drink some­thing in can change how it tastes, the smell of what you’re eat­ing, the shape of the bowl and feel of the cut­lery you use. All of these will have a ma­jor im­pact. Even the lan­guage we use has power to al­ter per­cep­tion.

So in­stead of reg­u­lat­ing and tax­ing and dic­tat­ing, the way to change our eat­ing habits is to fool our brain into think­ing it is get­ting more of what we want than is ac­tu­ally the case.

This isn’t a ra­tio­nal ap­proach, it’s an emo­tional one, pre­cisely be­cause eat­ing is an in­stinc­tive and not a ra­tio­nal ac­tiv­ity. Set­ting aside the ra­tio­nal is a real chal­lenge for pol­icy mak­ers, but if they want us to be­come less obese as a world, they must re­alise that laws are of­ten the worst way to change hu­man be­hav­iour.

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