First came the hunter-gatherer diet: wild plants and wild meat; then agriculture gave us grains; next we began to eat more vegetables and preserved foods; and now we are at stage four, an era – in affluent countries, at least – of huge choice, yet one in which we prefer to ignore that choice. Just 30 of the world’s 7,000 edible crops provide 95% of our food. Not so much one size fits all, as one diet fits all.
If this sounds depressing, for Bee Wilson – food journalist, author and, according to one critic, all-round ‘kitchen oracle’ – it is: “Our free and comfortable lifestyles are undermined by the fact that our food is killing us, not through lack of it but through its abundance – a hollow kind of abundance,” she wrote in a newspaper article earlier this year. Latest figures bear out her pessimism: in 2017, while tobacco was associated with 8 million deaths, 11 million deaths were linked with poor diet.
Weaning ourselves off cheap processed foods will not be easy, argues Wilson, but it can be done: in Amsterdam, a city once plagued by childhood obesity, children’s parties are now celebrated not with cake but with olives.