“If people cooked for themselves more, then there wouldn’t be this obesity problem,” was the sentence that I have overheard, many times, in the past few months. The recent furore over the amount of added, or free, sugars in ready meals, smoothies, fruit juice drinks, fizzy drinks and a host of other foodstuffs has got the department of health rushing to its policy-makers and there are talks about taxes on sugary foods, banning 2 for 1 offers on sugary products, removing super-sized drinks from menus, placing taxes on people caught stirring sugar into their tea – okay I made the last one up, but you get the picture.
And it is true that many things that we guzzle down on a daily basis are high in sugar content. The Public Health Authority has dropped the recommended sugar intake down to the equivalent of 11 cubes of sugar a day for adults, which is about 24 grammes. As one can of a well-known fizzy drink contains 36 grammes of free sugars, this is going to be a tough target to meet.
But the blithe assumption that so many smug, if well-meaning, members of the population make is that everyone has the time, knowledge and energy to prepare and eat healthy meals. Cookery, or Home Economics is no longer a statutory subject on the national curriculum, if kids are taught to cook, it is generally in a one-off lesson or as part of a non-core activity programme.
The last generation to have cookery lessons are now reaching their 40s and 50s, the next generation of mums and even grandmothers may not have had a cookery lesson in their life. Lessons in cake making with granny or mum are a thing of the past as the knowledge is no longer there to be passed down.
Then there is the time factor. There is no getting away from it, we do spend longer at work, or getting to work. If you have to commute to Cambridge, Norwich or London, you are probably leaving home at seven in the morning and getting back at seven at night. Who on earth wants to peel potatoes, measure ingredients or grease tins at that time, when a ready made lasagne needs less than two minutes of prep time – remove packaging and stick in the oven.
Finally there is cost. A family that is struggling to make a monthly income last a month will not want to spend £4.50 on a bunch of asparagus or £6 on a outdoor reared, organic chicken. Value for money is what so many people seek, and in the low-cost supermarkets that is what they can get. Time, convenience and cost – the three main reasons we are becoming a nation of sugar-sodden fatties.
Is there an answer? Not really. There is no single easy solution such as “cook at home more”. Like everything that is a social issue, there are a host of reasons and solutions, but for starters, the government must look at the giant food and drink producers and ask them to take some level of responsibility with what actually goes into their products. But one thing is clear, weaning us off the white stuff is going to need a monumental effort from all sides.