Nigella Lawson cake recipe, or packet-and-egg ensemble.
Jean-Michel Cohen believes he has the cure for obesity. As I chatted to the French diet doctor recently in his large, modernist apartment on the outskirts of Paris, Cohen told me the answer was far simpler than anyone seemed to think.
If we want to lose weight, Cohen said, we should cook more meals. Cook more meals? And lose weight? Absolutely, said Cohen, whose book, The Parisian Diet, has sold more than two million copies. Societies that cook more meals are slimmer and healthier. Like the French, for instance. Only 16.9 per cent of the French population is obese, compared to 22.7 per cent of people in the UK, who cook far less than the French, and 33.9 per cent of Americans, who cook even less than us.
Of course, as Cohen points out, it helps if what you cook is healthy, with lots of fresh vegetables and high-quality protein. But what if cooking, in and of itself, promotes healthy eating? What if cooking, like a good recipe, adds up to more than the sum of its parts?
When you cook, you have to think about ingredients, buy them, chop them up, heat them, watch as they transform into a meal, and clean up afterwards. All the time, you are in control. Psychologically speaking, cooking from raw ingredients is nothing like eating fast food, or processed food; it's the opposite of eating sandwiches at your desk, or bagels on the train.
On another level, it's also the opposite of dieting. As Michael Pollan, the wholefood advocate and bestselling author of Cooked, puts it, cooking makes you a producer, rather than just a consumer. And this has profound consequences for your health.
And yet, we're doing less and less of it. According to Pollan, "the amount of time spent preparing meals in American households has fallen by half since the mid 60s" when it was just under an hour a day. Now it's 27 minutes. In the UK, we cook a bit more, but not much; in the same time frame, we've dropped from around 90 minutes to around 35. The French have come down from 90 minutes to just under an hour. And that extra cooking time is significant - it means the French snack less - only 10 per cent of their calories come from snacks, as opposed to 20 per cent of the calories consumed in the US. "The decline in home cooking," writes Pollan, "closely tracks the rise in obesity and all the chronic diseases linked to diet." Importantly, we're not passing cooking skills on to our children. In a 2008 UK survey, 49 per cent of 18-24 year-olds said they didn't know how long it takes to soft-boil an egg; 52 per cent didn't know how long it takes to cook bacon and 15 per cent were unable to even make a guess.
On the other hand, curiously, we're spending more time watching television programmes about cooking. These days, we settle down on the sofa, often with a ready meal, and watch Jamie or Gordon or Simon. Or Hugh or Nigella. Or the Hairy Bikers. Cooking, it seems, is still in our blood.
No wonder, if you believe the primatologist Richard Wrangham's theory. Staring into his fire one day, Wrangham, who had spent a lot of time observing chimpanzees in Africa, had a eureka moment.
Chimps, Wrangham told me, spend several hours every day engaged in one very specific activity - chewing. In the jungle, most of what's available to eat is tough, leathery plant matter. That's why chimps need such powerful jaws.
"I would sometimes go out on all-day observation," Wrangham said. "I would try to eat what they ate. You come back very hungry at the end of the day."
So how did these creatures evolve into us? Looking into his hearth, Wrangham believed he had his answer. They started to cook. Here's how it might have happened, millions of years ago: chimp-like creatures are foraging for fruit and nuts; occasionally they eat carrion. When they find a dead animal, they must compete with other predators - notably, sabre-toothed tigers. The only workable weapon to use against these big cats is a burning branch. But burning branches don't come along very often. So some apes learn to control fire.
As soon as Homo habilis - the apelike creature we evolved from - could control fire, putting food in it would have been a natural progression. Cooked food is easier to break down in the body. Many animals instinctively know this, says Wrangham; they seek out scorched rodents and roasted nuts after forest fires.
Now that food was more digestible, our simian ancestor didn't need such a big gut. Now that food was softer, he didn't need such powerful jaws. Now the campfire was ubiquitous, he didn't need fur to keep warm. Having a cooking fire helped ward off predators, too - so Homo habilis no longer needed to live in trees. Over time, Homo habilis evolved into Homo erectus.
In essence, cooking made us human. And for thousands of years, every advance in cooking made us healthier. But there was a point, says Pollan, when "cooking took its fatefully wrong turn: when civilisation began processing food in such a way as to make it less nutritious rather than more". So what, exactly, went wrong?
Cooking with fire certainly wasn't the problem. It unlocked calories to feed our bodies and brains. It killed toxins in certain tubers, such as cassava and potatoes. Nor was cooking with water. When people started cooking in pots, Pollan tells me from his home in San Francisco, the first cuisines emerged. Chopping up local ingredients, and mixing them together, gives you a local speciality - a nutritious mush that can be given to babies and old people whose teeth have gone. "Pots extend the human lifespan," says Pollan.
But then we stopped cooking for ourselves. We wanted to spend more time doing other things - like playing computer games and watching television. Of course somebody has to cook for us and that somebody is food corporations. As Pollan says: "Corporations cook very differently from how people do." Cooks want food to taste good. Corporations want it to be cheap, and easy to make, store and transport. Sugar is all of these things. As is refined flour. And hydrogenated fat. And rice syrup. And maize starch. When corporations cook for us, says Pollan, we're not eating food, but "edible food-like substances" dreamed up by executives.
He's right. I saw an ad the other day in which a woman opens a bag of powder, and chucks it in a pan with some meat, and serves the end result to her family. Her son says, "Mum's a genius." The point is, she's cooking. It made me think of the early days of cake mix. Marketers saw sales slump. Then they did some research. They discovered that cooks felt guilty when they had no preparation to do at all. So a new cake mix was invented; you had to add an egg. Sales increased.
Now even that minimal guilt is disappearing; one current ad for a fast-food service has creatures haranguing people with the slogan: "Don't cook - eat!" A corporate dream, stated in the bluntest possible terms.
But what of the man-made ingredients that are so often added to processed foods - Pollan's "food-like substances"? Are they really worse for us than the raw ingredients we might cook with ourselves? Take the example of the widely used and cheaply produced sweetener, high-fructose corn syrup, found in biscuits, soft drinks, yoghurts and bread. A Princeton study found the syrup caused rats to gain much more weight than those who were given table sugar with the same calorie intake. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that fructose itself - which occurs naturally in fresh fruit - is more pernicious than other sugars.
In 2008, a Californian study compared results when 33 overweight and obese adults were switched to a diet in which 25 per cent of their energy came from either fructose or glucose. Both groups put on weight by the same amount, gaining an average of 3lbs 8oz. But there was a key difference. In those given fructose there was also an increase in the amount of intra-abdominal fat, which surrounds internal organs, causes a potbelly and has been associated with an increased risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Even when processed food doesn't make us visibly fatter, it appears it could be worse for our health.
The trouble is, we've developed an appetite for it. Michael Moss, an investigative reporter at The New York Times and author of Fat, Sugar and Salt: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, has researched the history of processed food. Among those he interviewed was the food scientist Steven Witherly, the author of an industry report called Why Humans Like Junk Food. Witherly sang the praises of Cheetos, exactly the sort of ultra-processed food that people eat when they don't cook for themselves. "This is one of the most marvellously constructed foods on the planet, in terms of pure pleasure," said Witherly. The crucial factor? "It's called vanishing caloric density. If something melts down quickly in your mouth, your brain thinks there's no calories in it... you can just keep eating it forever." Reading this, food processing sounds like a battle for control - of your appetite, your wallet, your very character. In Western Europe alone, pounds 9.5billion-worth of ready meals are sold every year. The UK has the largest share of that market, spending pounds 2.5billion on ready meals annually.
Not everybody thinks that home cooking is healthier than eating processed food. Although research has shown that families who cook and eat together are healthier and less likely to overeat, some argue that this is a correlation, rather than a causal link. Others point out that processed food contains added vitamins and other nutrients, and that fast food outlets such as McDonald's are cleaning up their act.
In a recent, polemical article for The Atlantic magazine, in which he accused the "wholesome food movement" of demonising fast-food producers, the writer David H Freedman claimed that the scientific studies on processed foods are inconclusive: "The fact is, there is simply no clear, credible evidence that any aspect of food processing or storage makes a food uniquely unhealthy." Freedman even claimed that the fast-food giants could become our saviours, using industrial processes to make food healthier and cheaply available, if only the health-food lobby would let them.
Michael Pollan is having none of it. He believes the rot set in a century ago, when bread-making became industrialised. Steel mills found a way of removing the outer layer of bran and the endosperm - the bits that contain "the dietary fibre, the vitamin E, the folic acid, phytic acid, iron, zinc, manganese and magnesium". That was good for the food processors - the inert starch they were left with had many qualities they liked. It was stable, consistent, and it didn't go off. And people wanted more of it, because, when you ate it, this refined starch was swiftly turned into glucose in your blood - what we now call a blood-sugar spike. When the spike is followed by the inevitable crash, you want more white bread.
Food, in essence, was becoming overcooked. Indeed, according to a 2003 study by two epidemiologists at the University of Minnesota, David Jacobs and Lyn Steffen, even though people who eat whole grains are healthier than those who don't - you can't achieve the same health benefits by eating the nutrients from whole grains if they come from a different source. Why? They don't know. A whole grain is a seed. It's complex. If you break it down too much, as often happens in food processing, something essential is lost. Scientists don't yet understand exactly why, but the nutrients in whole grains seem to work best in synergy.
And yet cooking isn't just about the raw ingredients; it's about the act itself. When you cook, you spend time thinking about the food you eat. As a 2008 study by the University of Birmingham revealed, the very act of thinking about your food could have health benefits. The group of female students taking part in the study were told they were taking part in a biscuit taste test. Before the "test" began, half the women were asked to write a detailed description of their lunch, the others to describe their journey to the campus.
Three hours later, each woman was invited to eat her fill of the remaining biscuits. The result? Those women who had described their lunch in detail ate significantly less biscuits than those who hadn't. Simply being aware of what we're eating, it seems, might help us regulate our appetite.
But there are other more profound reasons to reclaim the act of cooking. As Jean-Michel Cohen told me, cooking is directly linked to the pleasure we take in eating. This is the happiness that comes from creating something delicious from scratch and more often than not, sharing it. "There's a tradition in France to enjoy food," Cohen added. "In many other countries, people just eat to fill themselves up."
The Sunday Telegraph