Kathy Gyngell: Old-style home cooking is the answer to the obesity crisis not a sugar tax

Pure, white and deadly. Those were the words of the British Professor, John Yudkin, back in 1972. Such was the nation’s addiction to sugar that he was ignored and his prophecy killed off his career.

People still don’t want to listen, not if the public’s response to Public Health England’s edict is anything to go by. Sugar must rate as comfort food number one. No wonder the resistance.

Taxing sugar sounds like a no brainer given that a third of British children are obese. Health gurus know their continuing craving will be enough to give the NHS its final cardiac arrest. Sugar, they worry, will be the death of our publicly funded health system - already bowing under the strain of the nation’s self indulgence.

No wonder the left-leaning Public Health England quango is piling the pressure on David Cameron to give in – knowing that the up and coming generations of fatties will be the death of their precious NHS.

The Tories, however, have an instinctive distaste for modifying behaviour through taxation. They doubt whether it will prove the answer. The trouble is they don’t seem to have a clue as to what that better answer might be.

I can tell them. It is called a maternal revolution: home cooking and warm and happy homes. Let’s come out with it. In the same week as we were regaled with the shock horror obesity/ sugar tax story, Michel Roux, who runs Le Gavroche, the Michelin starred restaurant launched by his father and uncle, broke with political correctness and announced that Britain’s culinary troubles are thanks to mothers entering the workplace.

Hurrah. He said it.

Britain’s culinary troubles have to be the cause of the nation's obesity. Women, Roux noted, started going out to work and “supermarket convenience food” arrived to enable them. Dependence on this, fast food and snacking meals surely are more the cause of rising obesity as the one of their ingredients.

The problem, Roux identifies, is that: “There have been at least two generations of mothers no longer cooking at home and no longer passing on their basic cooking knowledge”.

He is not the only one to sound this warning – other celebrity chefs have warned that too many children, as well as their parents, are living on a diet of ready meals and it this that has helped to fuel the rise in childhood obesity and diet-related diabetes.

“We should be teaching our children how to eat properly,” Roux said. “We should be spending more time in the kitchen, even if it’s only once or twice a week. There are major health issues out there.”

Cultural changes are the root of the problem. Progress is not always progress – it can be regression as in the case of the loss of home cooking and the transmission of home cooking skills. Progress will be the day when public health do-gooders or laid back Tories accept this.

Why? It means taking on the feminists, saying that it is not just time to stop, as Emily Hill writes in The Spectator this week, but to understand how destructive it has been.

How two generations of working women have created cold homes, with no warm hearth or cooking smells for children to return to after school. How two generations of working mums have abandoned children to the mercy of breakfast clubs and after school clubs and any knowledge of what their children are eating. How this is a relinquishment of a mother’s most primal responsibility - to feed her children.

The sadness too is the loss of satisfaction to mothers and the loss of a key aspect of mother love for children. No wonder they crave sugar. Cooking and mothering are interrelated arts, while feeding your family is the ultimate act of love.

Modern day women are trapped on the treadmill of work and their families are deprived of their care and attention. It is a tragedy that a sugar tax will do nothing to ameliorate. It will not save NHS either.

Kathy Gyngell

  • Groan

    It is instructive to look at the obesity rates across Europe and the world. The problem is most acute in the big Anglophone countries in the world and Europe. The patterns do suggest culture is at the root. Its one thing to correctly identify where the problem arises another to come up with solutions. One is the culture of cheap easy food replacing any idea of home cookery. The other is deeper and that is an aversion to children, or rather to the tough bits in “nurture” with what were once rarely given “treats” now routine pacifiers and bribes.
    Interesting isn’t it that the often quoted Mediterranean diet is combined with extended families and other derided “old fashioned” approaches to nurture. For all its problems Italy does so much better than the UK on childhood obesity could we learn something? After all Italy also tops the league on equal pay , is high on gender diversity in job roles, low on teenage pregnancy . There may be lessons to be learned from them and others such as Poland and Malta that combine many high measures on gender equality without the eye watering stats on the downside of the individualism of the UK USA etc. Obesity and sugar is very much a symptom of something bigger than just less sugar in Coke. How is it these other countries combine modern economies with more nurture? No easy solutions but I think we look the wrong ways for solutions.

    • Mez

      Teenage pregnancy isn’t generally considered a problem unless it’s teenage pregnancy outside of marriage. Italy socially stigmatises pregnancy outside of marriage. The Vatican cities age of consent was raised from 12 to 18 in 2013, (it’s 18 in Ireland and several states in the US). The Maries Stopes clinic says a lot of abortion would be avoided by better contraception advise, but the big issue is that since the ‘permissive society’ of the 1960’s, the UK has stopped stigmatising completely single mothers, we reward them.

      Wiki: In some countries, such as Italy and Spain, the low rate of adolescent pregnancy (6 births per 1,000 women aged 15–19 in 2002 in both countries)[5] may be attributed to traditional values[citation needed]and social stigmatization.[citation needed] These two countries also have low abortion rates (lower than Sweden and the other Nordic countries)[9] and their teenage pregnancy rates are among the lowest in Europe. Portugal, however, has a relatively high percentage of teenage pregnancy (17 births per 1,000 women aged 15–19 in 2002).[5]

      The U.K. has one of the highest teenage birth rates in Europe with a rate of 26.4 teenage births per 1,000 women aged 15–19 in 2006, down from 27.9 births in 2001.[13] The U.K. also has a higher rate of abortion than most European countries. Of young Britons reported engaging in sexual intercourse whilst in their teens, 80% said they did not use a form of contraception, although a half of those under 16, and one-third of those between 16 to 19, said they did not use a form of contraception during their first encounter. 10% of British teen mothers are married.[14] Adolescent pregnancy is viewed as a matter of concern by both the British government and the British press.

      • Groan

        As with obesity the response in this country is to search for “technical” solutions by health professions or others rather than face the deeper cultural questions. An interesting view expressed to me by a dutch friend is that in the Netherlands accidental pregnancy is still stigmatised as people are expected to use the information they are given to act responsibly. Perhaps an echo of its protestant ethic? Possibly not just Catholic or “reactionary” nations that have higher expectations of behaviour.
        As for cooking I very much doubt that there is any prospect of mothers leaving work to be full time cooking mothers (not least because of expensive housing) but there is some need to shift the debate to support for families even rhetorically including the extended family rather than a ridiculously pressured idea that mother and child is family. Frequently we appear to look at countries with much the same dismal record for solutions, rather than those that appear much better. I suspect because the latter course would be too challenging.

  • 5th column traitors

    Well said Kathy and Michel. Just another manifestation of the general decline of society as a whole. Don’t forget the Liberal Left (and all who sail in her) hate the “family” concept as it encourages free critical thinking rather than state dependency, and family mealtimes around home made food are the very embodiment of that.

    I remember always having packed lunches made from sandwiches and fruit and a bit of cheese and biscuits and coming home from school to a wholesome home made meal cooked by my mum from locally sourced ingredients that we all sat down to as a family, and had family time with conversations about each of our days and such. The only “fast food” we ever had was the occasional fish n chips as a treat when we went out.

    Myself and my wife carried this tradition on with our kids and we also made sure we always had home made meals (we shared/still share the cooking) that we all sat down to so we could be a family with them at least once a day. And that included a ban on mobile phones etc at the dinner table.

    I very much remember having their friends round sometimes and they all enjoyed tucking into a home made roast dinner or stew or whatever and often they would remark they wished their parents made them “stuff like that”

    Even now “fast food” (AKA junk) food is a no no in our house and our (Now adult) kids can’t stand the stuff. They also both know how to cook, and do, for our grand children.

  • Politically__Incorrect

    My wife spent a day working in a local nursery with young toddlers. She was horrified that the only thing they fed them all day was toast. No fruit, meat, or vegetables in any form. Poor kids, dumped in the care of strangers all day and getting no proper food – child abuse takes on many forms

    The sugar tax, like green taxes, is just another excuse to raise a bit more revenue while appearing to care about topical issues. It won’t solve anything, just as green taxes don’t solve anything. As you say Kathy, sugar has become a substitute for motherly love, and is slowly killing the nations children.

    • 5th column traitors

      There’s nothing “slow” about it. The incidents of children with Type 2 Diabetes (which is entirely caused by lifestyle – e.g. sugar and processed carb laden diet) is steadily growing.

      The diet our youngsters (and many adults) now eat is the “American Diet” of heavily processed junk made from nutritionally light, calorie dense, processed carbs, carbonated sugary drinks and sugar laden crap. And the youngest recorded person in America with type 2 diabetes is now three years old.

      If you want to really dig into this I suggest looking into the rise of High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) as a diet staple, modified starches and GMO nasties like soy as a starter for 10.

      • William Gruff

        You Luddite you.

        • 5th column traitors

          I know I know….all this new fangled stuff. It ain’t right ya know.

    • Mez

      The Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) announced that it has asked the School Food Trust to review the rules for nursery food in 2010.


      • Phil R

        “While the campaign to improve school dinners – and health – has been a success, our youngest children have been left behind”

        Having visited a state school and tasted the junk they call lunch, they still have a long way to go. Most kids ate chips, chicken or fish nuggets, backed beans and piece of cake for pudding. Salad and fruit was available but as far as I could see, for 90% not selected.

    • sammy gravano

      Green taxes do more than not solving anything.

      Inter alia they cause the collapse of energy-hungry industry.

      Not like a green nut to see an unintended consequence tho’.

  • Mez

    Cooking skills are really the problem. It’s far cheaper to batch prepare and freeze, than buy ready made, and just as convenient.

  • This just in…raise taxes on sugar? Well, we’ve had a ridiculously high tariff on imported sugar here in the States for more or less ever, cronyism run rampant. What do we have, lousy processed stuff, including what we call soft drinks (Coke and such). Why? it’s now made with corn syrup instead of sugar. Just as harmful, and lousy taste to go with it. Bad way to go, and you know better.

    • I’ve long wondered why, if they can claim that corn syrup isn’t sugar, why don’t they mark all their products as “sugar free.” 🙂

      Over here, some drinks and preserves like to market themselves as “no added sugar.” Look on the ingredients, and you’ll probably see it contains grape or apple juice. It’s still got all the calories. It’ll still put a diabetic in hospital. But the sugar is all fructose contained within the juice, so it doesn’t count.

      Besides, we already have a heavy tax on sugar. Most food and drink is exempt from Value Added Tax, but soft drinks, chocolate and candy are subject to 20 percent VAT. What’s being proposed is a separate duty to be added to the price, and then the VAT added on top of that. Which makes VAT a tax on tax.

      On a tangent … what do you think would happen in America if a state tried raising sales tax to 20 percent?

      • I don’t have one handy, but I seem to recall it still has some sugar, sugar-free is available, of course, and even worse.

        Yep, same with ours, it’s still sweetened, but usually with corn fructose, well we make everything out of corn, food to fuel, and even some plastics. 🙂

        Your government sounds even more greedy than ours! What would happen? A lot of smuggling. New York’s cigarette taxes are instructive, it’s not uncommon to read arrest reports of people smuggling carloads of cigarettes in. In addition, I suspect we’d have some unemployed politicians, not that their replacements would repeal it, they’re all addicted to “other people money” after all.

        We have a few of those taxes on tax as well, the most common is paying sales tax on motor fuel taxes, which supposedly keeps our roads working, but mostly subsidized airports and uneconomic rail routes (which would be most of them).

      • sammy gravano

        It depresses me when I see a Mumsnet alumnus going full shriek when she discovers fruit juice has … yer know… fruit sugar in it.

        In the entire history of the world no-one ever got fat on apples.

        Stop howling and take ice cream of your menu.

        • sfin

          Aw c’mon Mr Bull! (an allusion to your user name and not your opinion).

          The lad pens a decent recipe and his crusade was an admirable one…

          …although I’m with you on the fact that his TV personality is best taken in small doses. And I detest parliament’s current obsession with “celebrity” – Russell Brand addressing a select committee was a particular low…

          • sammy gravano

            Could have been wore.

            Another couple of million votes for Labour at the GE and Wookie would have been anointed Deputy PM.

      • ButcombeMan

        You raise a good point about VAT. The UK has not properly applied VAT to food as have other EU countries. Maybe the only way to “nudge” the population back to eating healthier meals made from raw basic ingredients,would be to put VAT on all food that is not raw and unprepared. After all the French have TVA on food yet typically eat better and no more expensively than the British.

        • You want to tax food?

          • ButcombeMan

            Some food is already taxed. In EU Countries food is generally taxed. Many people eat far too much. Of the wrong things. There is currently an imbalance between taxed food eaten outside the home and food eaten at home which undermines the hospitality industry . Why should there be no tax on caviar?

          • I’m well aware that food is often taxed elsewhere. That’s not a reason for us to do likewise.

          • ButcombeMan

            Us? I thought you claimed to live in the US.

            The UK rules on VAT on food are anomalous and distort what is eaten and where it is eaten. It would be possible to make implementation neutral for poorer households yet ensure richer households paid more. It could also be framed so as to encourage the hospitality industry and raise more overall taxes.

          • No, I live in Wales, but I attended an American university as an undergrad.

            More overall taxes are not a good thing. Citizens are not milch cows to be squeezed for the last drop. Besides, government expenditure is typically wasteful.

            And people are entitled to eat what they want. The only role for the government in all this is education. If, aware of the potential consequences, private citizens choose to make their own decisions and ignore whatever some bureaucrat thinks, that’s their lookout. It’s not for the government to treat grown adults like children.

          • ButcombeMan

            I am with you on taxes but the UK anomalies on VAT distort. VAT works best as a simple relatively low tax across everything not as we have now with zero rating on some goods. It is an accident of history. It was never intended to be like this in the original Green Paper. 20% VAT as Osborne has imposed is just inflating the black economy and other taxes are then lost not just VAT.

  • sfin

    Part of the problem has been our over indulgence of children.

    All children crave sugar and parents tend to offer what the children will eat, rather than what’s good for them. Restaurants are the same with their “children’s menus”.

    Does anyone remember the Jamie Oliver “school dinners” series? Utterly jaw dropping! Parents sneaking in McDonalds meals through the school fence because “…that’s all they will eat…” and others telling Mr Oliver not to mess around with “…the only full cooked meal our children get during the day…”

    • sammy gravano

      I missed ‘school dinners’ but I do remember seeing the National Village Idiot ‘wazzing up some bad boys’ once. Or ‘boiling potatoes’ as you and I would know it.

      And why the Mother of Parliaments had to add him to the list of halfwits it indulges, God alone knows.

      • Fircombe Hall

        Because the “Mother of Parliaments” is. these days, run by halfwits.

        • sammy gravano

          More than ‘these days’.

  • The other part of the answer is turning off the TV, limiting access to the PlayStation, and forcing the kids out to play in the garden.

  • William Gruff

    If the revolutionary idea of cooking at home with fresh ingredients actually catches on, the revenue lost when sugar sales collapse will have to be made up with licences to cook at home, with fines for those who cook without one. Eventually, of course, we’ll all have to collect ready cooked meals from distribution points, in the interests of our health and national food security.

    I don’t think the scenario is at all absurd.

  • When Jamie Oliver has finished crusading against sugar, perhaps he can turn against cooking with olive oil that he encourages people to ladle on in gallons.

    • cecile10

      Why? Olive oil is a healthy choice, even in the quantities Oliver uses it.

      • Now read up what happens to it when you cook/bake it. Oil is still oil and if you live a more sedentary lifestyle then it will give you the same end result.

  • Bernard from Bucks

    ‘Old style cooking has never left this household, but cooking style is only half the problem.
    Today’s problems are simply too much ‘energy’ in, too little ‘energy’ out.
    In my early days around the 40’s and 50’s, men including my Dad would cycle to work. They would work in real industrial industries. Real hard work – non of the ‘call-centre’ cr@p.
    Calories were burnt from dawn till dusk. Even weekends would find Dad and I up the allotment digging and hoeing. Us children all walked the mile or so, to and from school. Later we had bikes and cycled it twice a day – and many miles further after school for fun.
    Our mother hand washed, hand turned the mangle, hand pushed the Ewbank cleaner. She cleaned the grate, kept the fire ‘in’ and did all the ironing. She did all the shopping on foot and lugged back heavy bags from the Coop. Us lads went down to the greengrocers on our bikes and cycled back with 28lbs of potatoes. A 7lb bag on the left handle-bar – a 7lb bag on the right.
    Two bikes – 28lb.
    I never knew sugar or sweets as a kid. It was all on ration until I was ten.
    We balanced ‘energy’ in with ‘energy’ out in those days.
    I am constantly being told that we are all better off today and that no one would want to return to those days of the past.
    Adverts now persuade me to buy ‘instant’ this and ‘ready’ that. Home delivery. Home entertainment. Click for delivery, click for more calories, click for more cr@p.
    But I had a good start and a good upbringing and I know the good things in life.

    • 5th column traitors

      One of modern life’s great mysteries (to me anyway) is why so many people spend so much money on “labour saving” devices or other people to do their labour for them, then spend even more money going down the gym to try to “work off” all the excess calories they have eaten but not burnt off on a treadmill for hours on end. Just do the manual labour in the first place you lazy so-and-so’s!

      • Fircombe Hall

        I also am astounded (disappointed?) at the number of people going to gyms/keep fit classes etc (& PAYING serious amounts of money!!!). Why not volunteer to help out elderly/infirm people (neighbours…) instead? So much for the ‘Big Society’. Whinge over!

    • Gimme some fight’n room

      ‘Calories were burnt from dawn till dusk. ‘

      This is the crux of the problem – even as recently as the 1970’s and 1980’s (my era) as kids/teens we ate cakes, crisps and sweets and we took a bottle of lemonade or cola to the park with us but we were always out playing high energy games for hours on end – whether it was football in the park or playing Run Outs around the block (an old street game) we would be burning those calories every single day. We also walked EVERYWHERE. Unfortunately, what I witness today is a lot of kids stuck in front of a TV screen all day in their bedrooms playing computer games for hours on end only coming out for fast-food snacks and drinks to take back in their bedrooms again. Walk to school? You must be joking – I know mums who bus their kids to school in their 4×4’s when their kids could walk there in twenty minutes – as a kid I remember it taking me 40 minutes every day to walk to school.

      I could go on (and I probably would ;-))

      Shame really.

  • cecile10

    Bake off. Does it encourage home cooking (good) or the consumption of too much sugar and fat – all those cakes and pastries (bad)?