During his or her time at school, a child is expected to learn many things. All being well, he or she will learn to read or write, to master various equations, to reel off historical facts and foreign verbs. Yet there is currently no expectation in the British education system that a child will learn to love fresh, healthy food. This might be because it is widely believed that a child’s dislike of green vegetables is impervious to change, or even natural.
A couple of years ago, Disney Pixar released a hugely successful animated movie for kids called Inside Out. The movie is about the competing emotions inside a little girl’s head: anger, joy, sadness, fear, disgust, anger. The thing that triggers the emotion of disgust in the little girl is broccoli. The assumption – which millions of people in the audience both in the United States and beyond must have shared – is that it’s a universal fact that children don’t like broccoli.
In fact, there is nothing innately disgusting about broccoli. For Japanese audiences, the Pixar animation team had to change all the images of broccoli to green peppers because for Japanese children, as a rule, broccoli is seen as something delicious. Contrary to popular opinion, there is no such thing as a food that will be universally disliked by children. Given the chance, a child may discover a hankering for strong tasting olives, for aromatic pears, for sour lemons and crunchy carrots. The problem is, that in a world of heavily marketed ‘kids food’, many children no longer get the chance to explore and expand their own tastes beyond a very simple palate of foods that are sugary, salty and fatty.
You don’t need me to tell you that we are living through an unprecedented crisis in human nutrition. Around the world, obesity, malnutrition and hunger now coexist, sometimes in the same household. We can no longer rely on much of what’s for sale as food in our shops to do the job of feeding us, in the sense of supplying our bodies with the nutrients we require, and not harming us. Poor diets – high in refined sugars and low in vegetables, nuts and milk – have become the leading cause of premature disease and death in the world, ahead of tobacco and alcohol.
But there’s a missing part of the story of modern nutrition, which is preference. Governments around the world have expended a lot of energy informing us about what we should eat. In the UK the ‘Change 4 Life’ website (part of Public Health England) urges us to count out 20 raspberries or two spears of broccoli towards our daily tally of fruits and vegetables. But much of this ‘five a day’ information is at best useless and at worst counter-productive, because humans do not generally take kindly to being told what to eat. Instead of telling us to eat the broccoli, it would be a better policy approach to help us like the broccoli and give us the skills and resources to buy and cook it.
We won’t build a more diverse food system until we help people develop more diverse preferences. At the moment, our food system is suffering from lack of diversity both at the level of supply and of demand. Around the world, there has been a startling shift away from multiple traditional diets towards a single modern one, with the same sweet-salty flavours and the same core ingredients of processed grains, sugar, refined oils and meat. Food diversity has to happen at the level of individual food choice, as well as in agricultural production and supply. Indeed, the two are intertwined because as humans, we mostly eat what we like, and we like what we know.
In the past, our hunter-gatherer ancestors knew – and therefore loved – a much wider range of ingredients than most of us do today. I recently met a chef called Jock Zonfrillo from Australia. He runs The Orana Foundation, which seeks to recognise and log the incredibly diverse range of foods still eaten by indigenous Australians, from mangrove worms that taste like delicious clams to wild herbs with the flavour of lime leaves. Zonfrillo is working with researchers who believe that there may be as many as 50,000 native Australian ingredients, each with their own distinct flavours, textures and nutritional properties. Yet the vast majority of Australians would not even recognise these treasures as food, let alone want to eat them.
Why do we now talk and act as if human tastes were so narrow and so fixed? The problem is partly that we have a food system that sells us an illusion of choice rather than a real diversity of ingredients. There are now around 4000 different varieties of snack bars for sale in the US but most of them are composed of much the same variation of sugars, oils, cereals and nuts. So much of what we are now sold as food has become uniform both in taste and nutrition. Around half of all food in British shopping baskets is now ‘ultra-processed’, a category which covers everything from mass-produced breads and chicken nuggets to packet soups and shelf-stable ready meals. Our world contains around seven thousand edible crops, yet 95% of what we eat comes from just 30 of them. Around half of the calories consumed by the average person in the world consist of just six ingredients. These are: animal foods, wheat, rice, sugar, corn and soybeans. Out of these basic raw materials, food manufacturers can make legions of different ultra-processed products.
As a result, the main educator of a child’s palate in today’s world may no longer be a parent but a series of multinational food companies. A couple of years ago researchers looking into the causes of child obesity noticed a self-reinforcing cycle. Modern children increasingly gravitated towards foods high in sugar, fat and salt (SFS foods). Manufacturers in turn produced and marketed more of these foods to meet demand. The increased availability of these foods – combined with clever advertising – then stimulated children to crave them even more. Repeated exposures to SFS foods early in life may teach us that this is how all food should taste.
If we want to break this cycle and reverse the tide of child obesity, we urgently need to help children have new food experiences and learn to love a range of foods that will enable them to grow up healthy. This is why I am so excited about TastEd – short for Taste Education – a new organization which I have set up along with head teacher Jason O’Rourke at Washingborough Academy in Lincolnshire and former teacher Abby Scott. We were inspired by Sapere, a system of food education that has been used in Finland, Sweden and France, among other countries, for decades. TastEd does not offer lessons in cooking, but lessons in eating. The basic idea is very simple: teachers bring fresh produce into the classroom and allow children to interact with the food with all their senses, before tasting it.
What we have seen is that given the right atmosphere, surrounded by peers, a child is capable of learning new tastes very quickly. During one TastEd session with Reception children in Cambridge, eleven children out of a class of thirty took their very first taste of plum. Some of them found it too soft or too slippery, but most of them liked the plums and went back for a second taste, and then a third, and suddenly all the plums were gone and some of them were begging for more. Each session focuses on a different sense. The two golden rules of TastEd are ‘no one has to try’ and ‘no one has to like’. We have found that this setup makes children feel free to explore food with all their senses, without fear of judgment. And the liking part usually does follow. At Washingborough Academy, where TastEd is taught every week, the teachers have found that it unlocks a child’s natural sense of curiosity. There has been a positive knock-on effect on the food choices children make in the canteen, with them gravitating more to vegetables and salad.
We want to give the current generation of British children the opportunity to develop the diverse tastes that will help them grow up healthy. Often, when a child says ‘I don’t like it’, what he or she really means is ‘I’ve never tried it’. I once did a sensory food session with some five-year-olds, bringing in flat peaches. We felt the soft fuzziness of the peach’s skin. One boy said, “I’ve tasted peach flavoured medicine before but never a real peach.” This felt like a parable of how so many of us relate to food now. How can you desire something if you don’t even know what it tastes like? We recently piloted TastEd at a secondary school for the first time and discovered, to our surprise, that four of the 11-12-year-olds in the class had never in their lives tasted a raw tomato.
Our long-term goal is for TastEd to become a basic part of every child’s education in the UK, just as Sapere is in Finland. Campaigners in Scotland are currently calling for the ‘right to food’ to be enshrined in law because no child should be deprived of access to the nourishing food that he or she needs. We agree. But access to healthy food is not enough if a person doesn’t want to eat it. Alongside the right to food, we want every child to be given an opportunity to learn to like the diverse tastes that can give them a lifetime of both health and pleasure.
To find out more about TastEd, see www.tasteeducation.com.
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Photograph: Sarah Felicity