This week's big questions: Is obesity here to stay? Are family meals a thing of the past? Should we all be vegetarian?

This week's questions are answered by Michael Pollan, author of ‘Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation’


Food banks are dramatically on the rise, both in the US and the UK. What does this say about the societies we have created?

It says that in the midst of historically unprecedented food abundance – the world is producing 6,000 calories of food per day for every human on the planet – we are failing to share this bounty with everyone. Food security is a problem in the developed West as well as in places like Africa. In most cases, the problem is not the amount of food but access to it, and buying power.

When processed/fast food is cheaper than cooking from raw ingredients, can you blame people for going down that route?

I’m not sure your premise is correct. There may be a few cases where processed food is cheaper than the same food cooked yourself – as when, for example, a fast-food outlet sells hamburgers below the cost of production because they make so much profit on the soda or chips – but, in general, cooking is the most economical way to eat. It costs money to process food, and there have been experiments demonstrating that cooking even fast-food meals – burgers, French fries, etc – can be cheaper than buying the same food at a restaurant. Processed food may save us time, but it does not save us money.

Salford Council this week announced that it was planning to ban fast-food outlets from operating during school hours. A wise move?

I have no idea whether it will work, but It’s an experiment worth trying. We have a public health crisis related to food – soaring rates of obesity and type II diabetes threaten to bankrupt healthcare. So we need to be creative and experimental in our approach. For the same reason, we need to see if taxing sugar will reduce consumption or, as Mayor Bloomberg has tried in New York, to regulate the size of portions. Let’s see what works.

In the meantime, Birmingham Public Health is talking about a “zero-tolerance” approach to the obesity problem. But is obesity here to stay?

I’m a journalist, not a seer. But in the US, 75 per cent of healthcare costs go to treat preventable chronic diseases, and most of those can be prevented with a change of diet, so they’re right to be concerned. I just don’t know what zero tolerance means in practice. What do they propose to do?

Tesco, it emerged this week, is using its Clubcard information to make offers on healthy food to customers whose food purchases tend to the unhealthy. Do you approve of supermarkets trying to change people’s behaviour in this way?

Once again, this is an experiment – a “nudge” in the lingo of behavioural economics, creating subtle incentives or environmental cues to encourage some desirable behaviour. For the most part, companies like Tesco use these methods to sell us more processed food – for example, by putting sweet breakfast cereals at eye level, and the healthy stuff, such as plain oatmeal, low down. But the same techniques could presumably be used to guide us to make healthy choices. Let’s see if it works.

How do you view the huge success of TV cookery shows such as MasterChef and The Great British Bake Off?

The success of these shows points to a curious paradox: the less we cook ourselves, the more we watch others cook on television. There are now millions of us who spend more time watching other people cook on television than they spend cooking themselves. I don’t need to point out that the food you watch being cooked on television is not food you actually get to eat. I believe most of these shows discourage us from cooking by making it look incredibly difficult and scary – the flashing knives, fountains of flame, and the ticking clock makes cooking look like work best left to professionals. But it shows that, deep down, there’s something about cooking we love. Let’s hope we can bring it back in real life.

Are we becoming too food-conscious? No. Because for too long we have been insufficiently conscious of food – eating thoughtlessly without any knowledge of how the food was produced or what it does to our bodies. To become more conscious of the power and provenance of food is part of a process of restoring it to its proper place in our lives and demanding that the food industry and agriculture produce food with integrity. There are always people who will go overboard, and certainly the fetishising of food can get cloying, but these strike me as relatively harmless excesses, compared with the excesses that accompany other revolutions.

You’ve spoken about the importance of meals as shared family experiences. But are those days gone?

Let’s hope not. The family meal is one of the most important institutions of family life. I would argue that the family meal is, in fact, the nursery of democracy, where we teach our children how to share, how to take turns, how to argue without offending, how to participate in adult conversation. To let this go, in favour of eating alone and on the go, is to let go of so much of what we value about being social creatures.

Should we all be vegetarian?

There’s a place for meat eating, but it is a much smaller place than it now occupies. Most meat is produced in brutal and unsustainable ways, but not all. And eating too much red meat is, we know, bad for our health. But animal agriculture can play a critical role in sustainable agriculture – arguably, you need animals to complete the nutrient cycle on farms. But vegetarians and vegans deserve our respect; unlike most people, they have thought through the consequences of their food choices. This is something we all need to do, whether the result is getting off meat or simply eating with more care.

Michael Pollan is the author of ‘Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation’, published by Allen Lane, £20

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