Being on 'Masterchef' taught me about Britain's food paradox

The health of much of the nation is being destroyed by poor eating habits
Wood-owen grilled vegetables and Sultan Ibrahim, a locally caught fish, and asparagus, all seasoned with olive oil and lemon juice only, are served at the #healthyliving cooking experience, organized by The National, on Saturday, Mar. 28, 2015, at the Le Royal Meridian hotel in downtown Abu Dhabi. (Silvia Razgova / The National)  (Usage: undated, #healthyliving Section: Healthy living mag, Reporter: Stacie Johnson) *** Local Caption ***  SR-150328-cooking58.jpg

When I was asked to appear on this year’s BBC series of Celebrity Masterchef I thought it might be a joke. Masterchef? Me? I only ever cook for family and friends, have never baked anything in my life and don’t like desserts. How could I cook for highly critical food experts on a programme where real chefs with real talent compete in the kitchen and are tested to destruction? But my family are Masterchef fans and persuaded me it would be a laugh. (For them, probably.) It turned out to be great fun. I can’t reveal much because the programmes will be transmitted next month, but I learnt a lot.

First, that long days in a hot kitchen are very hard work. I found myself thinking about food all the time but I was never hungry, which was a strange combination. I also noticed that none of the food experts were overweight and all of them were committed to fresh food cooked from scratch. But when I walk down any British high street the opposite is the case. Junk food businesses constantly feed the British epidemic of obesity. We all know that being seriously overweight is a significant health risk, linked to heart disease, type 2 diabetes and many other conditions.

Statistical research on the pandemic suggests obesity can also be a complicating factor with coronavirus. And here’s the paradox. British TV viewers are obsessed with popular TV programmes on cooking, baking and healthy diets. We buy loads of cookery books written by British culinary superstars – yet the health of much of our nation is being destroyed by poor eating habits. The human cost is compounded by the cost to the taxpayer through increased demands on the National Health Service (NHS).

That led the British government to commission an independent report into our eating habits under the guidance of Henry Dimbleby, the co-founder of the Leon restaurant chain. His report has now been made public and the restaurateur says the core problem is the British addiction to ultra-processed junk food, fatty foods full of salt, sugar and other chemicals, which might taste good but generally have limited nutritional value, or worse.

Mr Dimbleby’s findings are stark. Poor eating habits contribute to an extra 64,000 deaths a year in the UK. Type 2 diabetes puts an enormous extra burden on the NHS. The solutions he suggested are equally eye-catching.

Mr Dimbleby wants a £3 a kilo levy on sugar and £6 a kilo levy on salt sold wholesale for use in processed food, restaurants and catering. This is predicted to raise £3.4 billion a year but it would inevitably also raise the price of everything from potato crisps to chocolate bars. Companies whose profits are based on ultra-processed food products have protested. One of their arguments is that these new levies are essentially a tax on the poor. It’s an interesting argument since the junk food producers appear therefore to be conceding that their products are poisoning poor people more than the wealthy. And that’s what the research shows.

In the US, poorer states like Alabama and Mississippi, have much more serious obesity problems than richer states like Connecticut. Right wing think tanks, politicians and journalists sometimes describe themselves as “libertarians” and they tend to oppose tax rises in general. These groups have also condemned Mr Dimbleby’s modest taxes on salt and sugar. But these are the same ideologues who oppose tax rises, especially on income tax, because tax rises act as a disincentive for people to work hard. That means they accept tax rises change behaviour – which is precisely Mr Dimbleby’s point. He wants rises on those products that in the long term damage health coupled with more access for poorer people to cheaper and healthier fruits and vegetables.

A modest British sugar tax on soft drinks has already cut consumption. Consumers – and manufacturers – have switched to low-sugar or sugar free brands. So called “sin” taxes, on cigarettes and alcohol, also work and would work on junk food too.

The anti-tax argument has one further flaw: the UK’s national health care system is based on income based taxes paid by the entire community. Raising taxes on those who profit from selling junk food could be used to subsidise the National Health Service or to provide better, healthier school meals for poorer children.

Mr Dimbleby thinks the bonus for public spending could be £3.4 billion a year. After my spell on Masterchef I started to look closely at the packaging on processed foods. Typically manufacturers say that eating junk food is fine “in moderation as part of a balanced diet”. But junk food addicts do not eat in moderation nor do they have balanced diets. What they put in their bodies can eventually kill them.

I learnt a great deal on Masterchef, including that chefs and kitchen staff are extremely hard working, dedicated people. But I also learnt that no one would put junk petrol in their car. So why would anyone fuel their body with junk food if they can be encouraged to switch to something better?

Published: July 20th 2021, 8:30 AM
Updated: July 21st 2021, 9:18 AM
Gavin Esler

Gavin Esler

Gavin Esler is a broadcaster and UK columnist for The National