Anthony Worral Thompson: Without a bit of nannying, we'll never eat properly

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The Independent Online

I hate the nanny state, but the Government's proposals to cut the scandalous amount of advertising of junk food to which our children are subjected doesn't go nearly far enough. The Independent on Sunday reports today that the Government wants the big food companies to come to a voluntary agreement to cut the amount of advertising of junk food aimed at children.

I hate the nanny state, but the Government's proposals to cut the scandalous amount of advertising of junk food to which our children are subjected doesn't go nearly far enough. The Independent on Sunday reports today that the Government wants the big food companies to come to a voluntary agreement to cut the amount of advertising of junk food aimed at children.

But left to themselves, they will only scratch the surface.

The quality of our food simply isn't the issue it ought to be in this country. We haven't woken up to the damage we are doing to ourselves. I suppose I should applaud the fact that the Government is putting the issue on the agenda at all, but it needs to be tougher.

The three countries with the most liberal food advertising laws are the US, Australia and the UK, and those are the three with the worst obesity problems. We also have higher rates of Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, cancer and heart attacks than previous generations, yet we are still bleating on ignorantly about people's freedom to eat what they want. A hundred years ago, we ate about 4lb of sugar per person, in a year. Nowadays, we eat a staggering 140lb, not because we sit about shovelling Tate & Lyle down our throats, but because of the hidden sugar in so many processed foods.

We deludedly tell ourselves that we have become more sophisticated and European, yet in France and Italy children are trained to eat at an early age. The idea of being "trained to eat" sounds faintly silly to us, but the French and Italians can't understand why we appear to be so happy in our ignorance. To them, it is an intrinsic part of growing up. Many British schoolchildren leave school knowing little about how to cook. One 30- year-old phoned me to say that, despite living on a farm, he didn't know how to boil an egg. I was a bit shocked, but told him to wash the muck off the egg, put it in a pan and boil it for four minutes. He phoned back later to say it hadn't worked. The egg had exploded. He had failed to put any water in the pan, because I had taken that as read.

An extreme case, maybe, but it tells a tale. Nowadays mothers are often out working but are still, rightly or wrongly, expected to provide the food when they get home. Understandably they are often flaked out, so fall back on convenience food. This means children are becoming less, not more, familiar with the preparation of food. Certainly they get little enough experience of it at school, where lunches are often provided, on the cheap, by catering companies sending giant bagfuls to be microwaved. I'm afraid I'm an opponent of choice in school meals. Invariably children choose the chips option, or unhealthy equivalent. Catering firms have little incentive to provide healthy food when the good stuff often goes in the bin.

Britain is getting better at food, but schools don't reflect this. If the Government made a commitment to providing a free school meal every day - and they could afford it, whatever they say, if they had the nerve to tax processed foods - then that, along with a promise to encourage more sports in schools, would make a huge contribution to improving the nation's health. Parents would welcome the knowledge that their children were having at least one healthy meal a day. Or does the Government think otherwise?

So why won't they do it? I don't want to get all conspiratorial, but when 12p in every pound that is spent in this country is spent in Tesco, you can see how powerful the supermarkets are in the face of a government terrified of offending anyone. It doesn't want to be accused of nanny stateism. It doesn't want to upset those who spend millions on lobbying and supporting it. But one day, one of the clever people in the Treasury will wake up and realise what all this junk foods is costing the NHS. Then we might get some real action. Until then, it'll be "voluntary codes of practice" and don't frighten the horses.

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