Health

Tuesday 30 September 2014

Cooking shows: recipe for disaster?

TV viewers are more likely to eat snacks while watching celeb cookery shows

seductive snacking: Nigella Lawson's show, 'Nigellissima', airs on BBC Two

Finding a chef, putting him into a kitchen and asking him to prepare his dish in front of a TV camera ought to have been a recipe for failure but, far from this, it has become a phenomenon that has been studied by academics and commentators.

A decade ago, cooking was a domestic chore necessary to sustain life. It was not a topic often discussed and it engendered boredom and dullness rather than enthusiasm and creativity.

That has all changed. TV is awash with niche food channels while chefs reach celebrity status with their own television shows and kitchenware products.

The expletives of Gordon Ramsay have gripped us all in his 'Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares' series while the personal problems of Ramsay and other chefs have been headline news, even in the broadsheets.

Because of the high profile of many celebrity chefs we can discuss their merits, styles and techniques with the same ease that we discuss football or the weather.

Cooking has progressed from drudgery to entertainment. It is an easy conversation starter and is never a stopper. It stimulates social interaction, even with total strangers. The enthusiasm for cookery shows isn't confined to the well-known celebrities like Michel Roux or Heston Blumenthal.

Even ordinary mortals, attempting to impress with their take on fine cuisine, get a look in; hence the huge viewership of innovative programmes like 'Come Dine With Me'.

In this show, four or five people dine together and the host prepares a three course meal for the participants.

A funny commentary is provided in the background, with the guests given free rein to wander round the host's home and examine any items they choose. So we see guests open chests of drawers, peer into en suite bathrooms or open bedside lockers while they sip their aperitif. Strangely, as our enthusiasm for watching food programmes has soared, so too have our waist lines.

It appears that watching television chefs and learning about food has become a proxy for healthy eating in parallel with greater use of fast foods.

There is no way of knowing if the rise in cookery show viewing is responsible for kick-starting a rise in obesity or why we want to learn about food but not prepare it.

Most viewers could probably count on one hand the number of times they have followed up by cooking the dishes they have seen prepared on screen.

As to why there has been such a growth in the popularity of these shows is still unclear. It may reflect a growth in popularity of lifestyle shows in general or a need for the aesthetic appeal that is central to food preparation.

A more radical view is that the enthusiasm for these shows is because they underscore the view that the glamour of celebrity cooking is attainable.

Thus they become tools that perpetuate social inequality in society. Others suggest that cook shows evoke feelings of comfort, warmth and homeliness, all leading to gratification.

Television chefs are not only the purveyors of great food but can influence what we eat. The Delia Effect refers to the overnight sell out of ingredients used in Delia Smyth's cookery shows, such as eggs or frozen mash.

There is also evidence that TV viewers are more likely to eat unhealthy, calorie rich snacks, if they are watching a cookery show.

So should TV food programmes come with a health warning? Possibly, but perhaps we should take responsibility for our dietary and TV habits ourselves.

I for one have no wish to see health warnings scrolling across the screen that is showing me how to prepare honey roasted duck.

Health & Living

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