Standing at the chopping board in her Cambridge kitchen, Bee Wilson loves nothing more than making something delicious for her family to eat together. “Inhaling the garlic clove, feeling that sizzle of the spices and the oil in the pan; that feeds me at some deeper level and I think that’s really necessary in a digital age,” says food writer and historian Wilson, who admits that juggling a busy career with three children sometimes makes it more difficult to plan meals, shop for ingredients and enjoy the preparation of a meal. “When I have time to cook properly from scratch, it’s magical and grounding – your hands are crafting something, and even if it doesn’t look Instagram-worthy, it can still be an incredible sense of achievement.”
But all is not well in the world. The leading cause of mortality worldwide is diet according to the Global Burden of Disease Study and diseases like Type 2 diabetes are no longer Western problems. “Food is meant to nourish us and keep us alive, and on the one hand there’s this excitement about different cuisines, but on the other hand it’s making so many people terribly unwell; that’s a huge contradiction,” says Wilson, whose latest book, The Way We Eat Now, provides a snapshot of global food cultures.
From Cape Town to Mumbai to San Sebastián in Spain, Wilson has travelled to places at various stages of what is known as the ‘nutrition transition’. This shift from hunger to obesity coincides with economic changes as developing countries move from traditionally high-in-fibre cereal-based diets to more Western-style diets, high in sugars, fats and animal protein. Copenhagen, she explains, offers a vision of the future because it went through these stages of nutrition transition a generation ago and is now rebuilding its food culture, but Wilson finds the global picture overwhelming: “Brazil, Mexico, and China – it’s just vertiginous how fast it is changing and how wonderful – it’s shocking to think that just a generation ago, hunger and famine were the number one things people were worrying about.”
Nowadays, the choice of cheap, heavily-marketed processed foods is endless, and snack bars and imitation meats don’t necessarily deserve the ‘health halo’ they are tagged with. “For decades, we have been bamboozled by quantity and have paid too little attention to the quality of what we eat, but choice doesn’t always set us free.” To Wilson, it’s abundantly clear that “the way most of us eat is not sustainable – either for the planet or for human health. We are being pushed to overconsume refined carbohydrates and ultra-processed foods that are demonstrably harming us and our children,” she warns.
But there are glimmers of hope. Here in the UK, the Veg Power advertising campaign shows kids eating carrots, celery and sprouts in a fun, engaging way. The Chilean government has put the world’s most radical food laws into place, banning cartoon characters on cereal packets, while water is the only drink permitted within schools in Amsterdam. “A government has a duty to keep its citizens safe,” says Wilson, who recently founded the TastED charity, a transformative way to teach food and flavour via the five senses.
TastED uses the Sapere method of sensory food education – sapere means to taste and to know in Latin – which has been successfully used in schools in Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands and France for many years. “People mostly eat what they like and they like what they know, so it can be scary for a child to put something new in their mouth,” explains Wilson. “We place far too much emphasis on tasting something when somebody might not be ready to taste, so we use the other four senses and suddenly they want to try because they have been told they don’t have to.”
A class might listen to the crunchy or squelchy sounds raw veg make, explore slippery or spiky fruit through touch, or talk about the colours and shapes of tomatoes. “Children start free associating and by describing a tomato as a lightbulb or a rugby ball, they get closer to wanting to try because they have made it familiar to themselves. If you do this enough, you can shift somebody’s preference and that’s part of the solution,” she says. This process broadens someone’s exposure to different foods while respecting their likes and dislikes, hopefully resulting in a confident relationship with food, without fear or guilt.
In the UK, Wilson is working closely with headteacher Jason O’Rourke, who integrates food education into the school day at Washingborough Academy in Lincolnshire. “Food isn’t perfect; it is messy and joyous and wonderful,” declares Wilson, who is rolling out TastED into schools in Warwickshire, Cambridge and London, and hopes that the Department for Education will make it a part of the curriculum. “TastED is partly my response to Brexit – I needed to do something productive and positive in the world and it has been the most exciting thing I have ever done.”
Wilson says her favourite tweet by TastED so far has been a video of a girl at Washingborough try a plum for the first time after nervously asking ‘will it hurt me?’ “It makes me see all over again why food is important and feels like quite a privilege,” she adds. And no doubt a catalyst for change within the classroom and beyond.
The Way We Eat Now by Bee Wilson is published 21 March 2019 by 4th Estate (£12.99).