WANTED: Volunteers prepared to reveal their most intimate fantasies. Men and women required. Confidentiality guaranteed.

WANTED: Volunteers prepared to reveal their most intimate fantasies. Men and women required. Confidentiality guaranteed.

It reads like a small ad in a top shelf adults-only magazine. In fact it's a serious search by academics at Bournemouth University for uninhibited men and women not afraid to discuss matters many of us would regard as personal - such as what one might like to do with a tub of liquid chocolate and a container of cream.

Like all good researchers they have a hypothesis that they want to test out. They think food has become the new pornography and suspect that the orgasmic images the volunteers summon up will be a heady mix of sexual fetishism and culinary anticipation.

This is not pure fantasy on their part - anecdotal studies indicate that the typical red-blooded male, and female, is as likely to fantasise over Delia's , or Rick's, or Jamie's latest creation as , well, you know what. Now they want to put the research on a proper scientific basis. Sean Beer, who lectures in agriculture at Bournemouth, believes we now "lust" after soft focus food shots in glossy magazines and "ogle" for hours at foodie television programmes presented by celebrity chefs. But, in true voyeuristic fashion, it's all in the mind - many people only get round to cooking about once a week.

The links between food and sex are as ancient as Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden. Our vocabulary is peppered with double entendres and the theme of intertwined primeval instincts is a popular one in literature and the arts.

However, according to Beer, this once "normal" relationship has been distorted by our increasing preoccupation with "instant gratification in a commodity obsessed society".

"Food has taken on the form of a pseudo-sexual fantasy, the process of cooking and eating has been made as minimal as possible and people now have virtually no connection with their food or where it comes from," he said.

"Magazines employ stylists to makeover dishes and supermarkets use lighting, particularly red over meat, to make their products more appealing.

"Couples used to go out to dinner to help their relationship develop; now eating out is so common it has become little more than another hobby."

The cultural commentator Dr Tony Thorne, of Kings College, London, sees the phenomenon as peculiarly British. "All these programmes about food reveal a real sense of consumer desperation because we are compensating for the fact that we still can't handle the sensuality of food," he said.

"We think about it and talk about it but we are not really getting better food because we have turned it into a kind of consumer porn that is a substitute for real sensation.

"Instead of developing a real understanding and enjoyment of food, we have become obsessive about the need for instant gratification."

Psychoanalysts believe that all appetites are interchangeable but, according to Andrew Samuels, professor of analytical psychology at Essex University, the way that food is displayed today in shops, restaurants and magazines verges on exhibitionism and titillation.

"Eating and sex are basic urges but the conventions, rituals and taboos we have built around them are very artificial.

"Any appetite will fit the bill for sensory deprivation - I had a patient who went to a health farm and after five days of fasting she started masturbating while fantasising about curry.

"Our perception of food is becoming increasingly distorted. Spending huge amounts of money in restaurants on food which we eat very quickly and then expel hours later is a bizarre phenomenon."

The tendency for consumers to buy foodie magazines and cookery books penned by celebrity chefs and filled with glamorous pictures is now labelled "gastro porn" by cultural commentators.

But Katie Hillier, the editor of Waitrose Illustrated Food, dubbed "the world's most beautiful food magazine", said the analogy of food and pornography was a cliché.

"We aim to create images that almost allow people to taste the food and that will inspire our readers as well as informing people about food issues."

This misses the point, suspect the Bournemouth researchers. They would not deny that readers may well be able to "taste" the food in the magazine - but what, they want to know, are they thinking about at the same time?

Volunteers should contact Sean Beer, University of Bournemouth, Department of Agriculture, Wareham, Bournemouth BH20 5QT.

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