Processed food is having a sinister effect on our taste buds

    27 January 2016

    Two reports today cast a grim light on our eating habits. One, based on a University of Nottingham study, claims that a diet of over-engineered food is distorting the ability of children to recognise and enjoy the taste of ‘real’ foods. The other, released by the Food Foundation, points out how difficult it is for consumers to avoid this stuff, as it is not only much cheaper per calorie but also heavily promoted with discounts and advertising.

    The first study, commissioned by the children’s food company Organix, reports that the boundary between what is ‘real’ food and what is ‘artificial’ is beginning to blur, with a new ‘zone of artifice’ poised somewhere between the two. In this zone foods may have no artificial colouring or flavours but will still contain ingredients with no traditional role to play in the recipe. They are there just to engineer an enhanced eating experience.

    So a chicken nugget may bear the claim ‘100 per cent chicken breast’ — but the chicken will actually be one of 14 different ingredients, and contain almost half the daily salt recommendation for a toddler.

    Does this artifice matter? Well, as the Organix report points out, flavour in ‘real’ foods — fruit and vegetables, say, or fresh meat — builds from the front of the mouth to the middle, the rewards growing over time and then fading, gradually, towards the back of the mouth. Engineered flavour, on the other hand, offers immediate gratification and disappears just as fast, leaving you wanting more. As engineered foods become more ubiquitous, they say, children may be losing the ability and desire to devote the time and effort required to get enjoyment from real food.

    Their claim chimes with the argument of food writer Bee Wilson, laid out in her book First Bite, that the sugar-laden convenience foods fed to kids are now producing adults with increasingly infantile palettes. 

    The Food Foundation thinks only the government can counter this trend, given that unhealthy food is up to three times cheaper, per calorie, than healthier choices. Issues like labelling are immaterial, the report says, until this price balance is fixed.

    An introduction of a sugar tax would help, along with subsidies encouraging the fruit and veg sector. Nothing less, it argues, will change the eating habits of an increasingly weighty population. There are simply too many competing factors pushing us in the wrong direction: away from the banana and towards the buy-one-get-one-free Bounty bars.

    Provoked by the same concerns, in my own lab (my kitchen), with my fellow researcher (friend and professional cook Hattie Rhodes) and lab rats, (my children, aged two and five), I am in the initial phases of a research project of my own, provisionally entitled: ‘Can this family of four cut out refined sugar and convenience foods for a year without starving or imploding?’

    Over the course of the year, we will be testing, tasting and trying again to recreate easy, cheap and healthy alternatives to the most ubiquitous convenience foods. Here are a couple of our recipes — alternatives, (with significantly fewer ingredients), to two of the ‘worst offenders’ singled out in the report. Here’s hoping they help you escape the ominous ‘zone of artifice’.

    Chicken nuggets

    200g cooked chicken leftovers, any scraps will do
    1 egg
    Pinch of salt

    Flour, lightly seasoned with salt and pepper
    2 eggs, mixed together with a fork
    Bread, whizzed in a blender to make breadcrumbs


    Pre-heat your oven to 200 degrees. In a blender, whizz your cooked chicken until it resembles breadcrumbs. Mix with the egg and a pinch of salt to make a thick paste, then use your hands to shape small nuggets.

    Coat these in the flour, then the egg, and finally the breadcrumbs. Place them on tin foil on a baking tray and cook in the oven for 15 minutes or till piping hot all the way through. Serve with sweet potato chips.

Apple cereal bars

    Our version is an apple and pear breakfast bar…

    2 pears, peeled and roughly chopped
    50g butter
    1 apple, peeled and finely chopped
    50g ground almonds
    50g flour
    50g oats
    1tsp baking powder
    1tps cinnamon

    Preheat the oven to 180 degrees, then grease and line a square baking tin.

    Put the butter and pears into a small saucepan and cook over a low heat, with the lid on, until the pears are soft and cooked through, stirring occasionally.

    Allow them to cool, then whizz them in a blender to make a puree.

    Mix the pear sauce with the rest of the ingredients and pour into the tin. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes, or until golden brown.

    Cool on a wire rack before cutting into bars. These will keep in Tupperware in the fridge for up to a week.

    You can follow the two Hatties’ experiment and find more of their recipes on Twitter and Instagram

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