Raymond Blanc: If we want to be healthy, we have to learn to cook

The British watch more cookery programmes than ever, but have never cooked less
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The Independent Online

Fifty years ago Britain made certain choices about the nature of its farming and the quality of its food chain. Now we are in need of a food revolution. If we fail to change, we will simply pile up more misery for the nation, its environment and its health.

Doctors and scientists are at last starting to calculate the true cost of Britain's love affair with cheap, over-processed junk food. Not only do we have soaring rates of obesity and cardiovascular disease, but new research has linked the increased consumption over the last 50 years of additives, pesticides and highly-processed foods to a significant rise in mental illness. Treating these illnesses is already costing the NHS £100bn annually, so the financial implications of failing to change our food policies now are clear.

As consumers, we have been seduced by "Buy One Get One Free" offers and slick advertising images. We have bought into the miracle of fast and supposedly cheap food. And it has blown up in our faces. I feel that many British people now want to reconnect with a genuine food culture because the link with health is at last being understood.

But the Government must do more to influence the pace of change. It should promote sustainable non-intensive farming. Why not subsidise British farmers to grow our own varieties of apples or pears? Not everything has to be organic. But somewhere between organic and pesticide-drenched factory farming there is space for food production that is ethical, seasonal, local and commercially viable.

We must replace the chemicals, additives and sweeteners in our foods. The rules are not tough enough. Colourings and sweeteners should be natural only. The natural alternatives exist, so why do we need artificial "stabilisers"? Advertising, especially when aimed at children, should be carefully regulated and manufacturers forced to tell us exactly what we are buying. You should not need a pair of glasses to read the labels.

Foods identified with potentially harmful additives or that contain excessive levels of salt, sugar, or hydrogenated fats should be singled out and taxed, in the same way as cigarettes. A tax on aviation fuel used to transport food to Britain from thousands of miles away would encourage us to develop a more sustainable domestic agriculture. The global economy means we can and will always import some food, but perhaps as individuals we should set our personal limits: like never buying a vegetable that takes more than a two-hour flight to reach Britain.

The British watch more food and cookery programmes than ever before, but as a nation, we have never cooked less. Perhaps its time for a TV series focused more on educating us about basic and healthy cooking techniques than on flattering the ego of the chef. You can still convey the sheer joy and fun of food. We all laughed at Delia Smith showing TV viewers how to boil an egg. But she was absolutely right.

It is true that the British will have to spend a little more as a percentage of their income on quality ingredients, and you may argue that families have mortgages to pay. But we have choices. The British place a high value on their next property or car, but don't always see the value in paying for higher quality food. Our priorities are wrong. Rather than buying our kids a new Play- Station or new Nike trainers, what about putting a few pounds more into the shopping basket?

In any case, you don't need to be rich to eat healthy meals. I was born into a working-class family in France, but we ate like kings. Equipped with basic cooking skills, anyone can turn cheaper cuts of meat into a delicious meal. A neck of lamb with potatoes and leeks simmered slowly while you go about your business need cost no more than £1.50 per person. Buy the vegetables locally - they will be cheaper and more flavoursome. It is simply not true that good, delicious food is incompatible with the busy lifestyles we lead. What could be quicker than a good sandwich using wholemeal bread, a quality soup or indeed an omelette and a glass of wine? Fast food does not have to be nasty.

Maybe the biggest issue of all in this debate is what kind of society we are creating. If a mum or a dad does not have time to sit down with their children over a home-cooked meal once or twice a week, instead of shoving a plastic bag in a microwave, something is terribly wrong. Sitting around a table with the people you love, to a visual feast that is nourishing as well, is one of the best things in the world.

Food connects to our health and to the environment. But it also connects to the way we live and the things we value. Eating well can help us to create a healthier, more sociable and happier society.

The writer runs Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in Oxfordshire

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