The Big Questions: Why do we love chocolate? Should Prince Charles’s letters be published?

This week's questions are answered by Chocolat author Joanne Harris

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The Independent Online

To celebrate 15 years since the publication of your bestselling novel Chocolat, you have put together a book of 50 chocolate-related recipes from Quetzalcoatl’s cake to chilli-chocolate shots. What is it about chocolate that fascinates so many of us?

Chocolate has been part of our culture in various forms since the 16th century. We have come to associate it with comfort, celebration (and just a little naughtiness). Its chemistry is still something of a mystery, but it does contain mood-altering chemicals that affect our serotonin levels. Plus it is endlessly versatile, subtle, delicious, suitable for all kinds of sweet and savoury dishes, and with a history going back thousands of years, filled with legends and stories.

Britain’s chief medical officer recently warned that a sugar tax may be needed to curb obesity rates. Is this a sensible approach to the problem?

I really don’t think so. The solution is education, rather than taxation, and perhaps an investigation into the unnecessary sugar, salt and additives that companies are putting into cheap processed food to make it seem more palatable. Sugar is addictive. We tend to buy what our addiction craves. Many of us have come to rely on ready-made processed food, partly because it’s cheap to buy, and partly because, since home economics was taken off the school curriculum, people don’t always have the confidence to prepare food from scratch. A sugar tax might just become yet another tax on the poor. I don’t see that being helpful at all.

Sheryl Sandberg, Beyoncé and Condoleezza Rice have signed up to campaign to ban the word “bossy” being applied to women. Are they right?

As an author I don’t believe in banning words. But I’m all for fighting inequality, and the idea that a strong woman must be “bossy”, whereas a strong man has “leadership skills”, is just one of the many instances of how women are viewed differently in a society that claims gender equality. There’s still so much gender stereotyping (for men as well as women) that I would like to see abolished. I don’t think drawing up lists of words to ban is the way to do it.

Walking through the toy aisle of any supermarket, it’s clear the lines between pink and blue are growing ever more pronounced. Sexism sells. Perhaps it shouldn’t.

Nick Clegg has come under fire this week for a free school meals promise that critics claim is ill-considered and impractical. Should it be scrapped?

The idea of free school meals is wonderful. But with all the cuts and changes to our educational system, it should come as no surprise to anyone (except maybe to the politicians who cooked up this scheme) that a single wonderful idea cannot exist in isolation: the logistics need to be in place. There are more pressing needs in education at present – to begin with, more books!

Diplomatic efforts to resolve the situation in Crimea appear to be running into the sand. Is the West right to impose sanctions on Russia?

I think so. The violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity has to be addressed. If diplomacy has failed, then economic sanctions must follow. However, sanctions on the oligarchs themselves and their foreign possessions would probably have more of an immediate impact than simple trade sanctions. Freezing bank accounts abroad may present legal difficulties, but might have a more powerful effect.

Ed Miliband is the latest political leader to pronounce on the question of a referendum on EU membership. In your view, are we better off in or out?

Definitely in. Ed Miliband’s response is honest and mature. We don’t need a referendum, unless further powers are to be given. We need to remain in the EU. We cannot risk being isolated economically. Besides, if David Cameron really wanted a referendum, why wait till 2017?

The inaugural Folio Prize was awarded this week. Did Britain need another literary prize?

Anything that highlights the importance of books is a good thing for the world of literature. On the other hand, I’m sometimes concerned that the reading public has become increasingly suspicious of literary prize-winners, considering literary fiction to be difficult and irrelevant, and the Folio Prize – created as a response to the “growing popularism” of the Booker Prize – will, I’m sure, add to this prejudice. Sneering at popular fiction is not the way to promote literature. I’d like our literary prizes to encourage dialogue between readers and writers, rather than promote the message that literature is for the elite.

Should Prince Charles’s letters to government ministers be published?

Yes, I think so. Although the letters were written on the understanding that their content would not be made public, such a promise should not have been made. For the sake of democracy, when unelected individuals try to exert political influence, the people should always be informed.

‘The Little Book of Chocolat: Fifty Recipes Celebrating the Bestselling Novel Chocolat’ by Joanne Harris and Fran Warde is published by Doubleday at £12.99

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