Hidden food and the nanny state in the kitchen

My mother tells a story of her childhood dislike of sprouts and my grandmother’s feeble attempts to disguise them as cabbage through a hastily conducted mashing-up process. Any parent can attest to the various culinary tricks, techniques and fables that routinely have to be deployed in order to encourage/force their children to eat more healthily: I, for example, am still waiting for my improved eye-sight and curly hair as just reward for my assiduous consumption of carrots and crusts!

pizza by wendalicious@flikrBut what was once an exercise in shrewd parental food repackaging is now becoming an arena of corporate action and state policy. On the 12th of May this year (2009) the British Food Standards Agency (FSA), in partnership with a range of popular high street restaurant chains, launched a new scheme for promoting healthy eating among Britain’s young consumers. The FSA’s ‘health through stealth’ approach to eating involves putting less salt in dishes, using lower-fat cheeses in pizza, and inserting ‘hidden vegetables’ in a range of menu options for children (FSA, 2009). Involving 400 companies and in excess of 2,000 restaurants (including Pizza Express, Pizza Hut, Frankie and Benny’s and Bella Italia outlets), the British government sees this new initiative as a significant act in public health improvement.

While the FSA’s ‘health through stealth’ approach to childhood nutrition reflects a broader series of attempts to restructure the ‘choice architectures’ that frame the consumption patterns of young people (including re-thinking school canteen provisions, the re-positioning of alco-pops in bars, and the movement of cigarette packs below the shop counter) there also appears to be something else going on here. Changing the hidden content of food appears to be less about making it easier for young people to choose to eat healthily, and more about making them do so without them realizing it. The choice here is all with the parents, in as much as they can decide to dine at Pizza Hut rather than McDonald’s, or Frankie and Benny’s as opposed to TGI Friday.

As a thoroughly paternalist policy then certain issues arise out of the hidden food agenda. While celebrated by government as a corporate commitment to public health, there is a danger that such policies could be self-defeating. So for example, despite improving the content of the food they offer is eating at Frankie and Benny’s really a healthy option? To what extent is a pizza really a healthy choice? My point is that this scheme could also be interpreted as a stealthy marketing ploy by partner companies to recast their image in the wake of the revolution in organic, slow and nutritious food? (Note for example that this scheme has coincided with the renaming of Pizza Hut as the much more nutritionally appealing Pasta Hut – whatever next, TGI’s becomes Thank God It’s Humus?)

Furthermore this policy initiative could also be counterproductive to the extent that rather than trying to educate children about the benefits of a healthy and balanced diet, it aspires to enable them to eat more healthy food in a completely unconscious way. This is hardly the “recipe” for developing a more culinary aware citizenry (and possibly contradicts the FSA’s own commitment to develop nutritional competencies among young people). While ‘health through stealth’ may not have people rushing for barricades in order to defend the gastronomic liberties of young people, it may thus prove to be an ineffective policy on its owns terms: my mother was never fooled by those sprouts you see, and she has never let us forget how she saw through the attempted dupe!



One response to “Hidden food and the nanny state in the kitchen

  1. Dr Graham Gardner

    Some very interesting and pertinent points on tensions and inconsistencies in soft paternalist policies. Promoting ‘health through stealth’, as with any form of ‘choice architecture’ that shapes decisions in unconscious / pre-conscious ways, is hardly likely to help citizens become more enlightened and ‘competent’. On the contrary, if it works at all, it is likely to foster infantilization.

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