Healthy eating 'must be learned' from an early age

The "Fooducation for the Future" forum in Hangzhou discussed the importance of food education in schools to encourage healthy eating. Child obesity is on the rise in China.

Li Ling is a mother of a 4-year-old. She is also a professional woman working five days a week. Every morning after sending her son to kindergarten, she rushes to office with breakfast in hand.

At lunchtime, she usually goes to the company cafeteria, but she orders takeaways more and more often. She barely eats dinner, but she cooks for her son. The boy’s father is teaching in Jinhua, a prefecture-level city 180 kilometers south of Hangzhou. He only comes home to eat with them during weekends.

Her tale came up at a forum in Hangzhou last Friday — “Fooducation for the Future.” The forum was organized by Food Talk, an entrepreneurial team founded in 2015 to focus on the relationship between food and people.

Over the past two years, Food Talk has invited 111 speakers to share their experiences and opinions on food with a live audience. Speakers include gourmets, growers, restaurant owners, designers, social entrepreneurs and traditional Chinese medicine doctors.

“We see ourselves as a vertical media platform on food,” said Wu Min, a former TED curator and founder of Food Talk.

“This year I have been thinking about what we can do for our next generation. That’s why we launched the food education campaign, to push forward its acceptance and inclusion in China’s education system.”

Food education, or Shokuiku, is a widespread concept in Japan. In 2005, the Basic Law on Shokuiku was enacted by the Japanese government and it is required to be developed by families and schools together.

Japan’s dietary guidelines cover a wide range of criteria on how to eat properly — from keeping regular hours for meals to avoiding too much salt to taking advantage of Japanese dietary culture and minimizing leftovers.

“There are presently over 6,000 teachers in charge of dietary nutrition in Japan’s primary and secondary schools. And Japan has the highest average life expectancy,” Katsuyoshi Nishinari, an honorary professor at Osaka City University and a promoter of Shokuiku told the forum.

An important concept highlighted at the forum is that eating well needs to be taught.

A sensory food education class is taught in a primary school affiliated to Zhejiang University.

Another speaker, Herbert Stone, an influential founder of sensory science in the US, told Shanghai Daily: “It’s hard to visualize anybody thinking about that unless they have a background, some kind of education in sciences and food.”

Food Talk has already partnered with a research team from Zhejiang Gongshang University, launching an experimental class at a local public school in September.

Students from third grade to sixth grade are free to join the class as part of their extracurricular activities. They are taught to use their senses to identify the five basic tastes in food: sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami.

So far, they have delivered six sessions, each with 20 students. Students are also told how to select healthier food: for example packaged fruit juice with 100 percent fruit rather than 20 percent.

“Our tongue is the main organ for reacting to food, so it is significant for food choices,” said Rao Pingfan, a professor in food science at Gongshang University and chief curriculum consultant in the food education project.

“Untrained tongues are wild and inefficient in picking out good food. By training our tongues we take back the autonomy in selecting food,” said Rao.

Although middle class families such as Li Ling’s are beginning to pay attention to the quality and balance of food at home, food education sometimes runs into difficulties because many pre-school children are cared for by their grandparents.

In a recent survey by Food Talk, 42.9 percent of families’ meals are arranged by grandparents. But elder people tend to either spoil their grandchildren, or feed them food that is not nutritious, especially in rural areas.

Rao said schools can play a key role.

“Grandparents do have respect to what happens in school,” said Rao. “When children learn something with their eyes and tongues, they bring back the knowledge to the home. That will be more convincing than just claiming protein is important.”

From left to right: Rao Pingfan, Herbet Stone and Katsuyoshi Nishinari, three food science experts, are presented with certificates of appreciation for the China Fooducation Advocacy Campaign.

Another issue for Chinese children is obesity: 7.3 percent children over seven are obese and the percentage is rising each year, according to a recent report released by the School of Public Health at Peking University and the Chinese Nutrition Society. 

In the United States, the rate is about 18 percent.

The advice from Nishinari and Stone is to chew food longer and eat less processed food.

Food Talk’s next step is to further develop a systematic curriculum on food education and integrate more hands-on practices such as growing food, cooking food and buying food in markets.

For Rao, the good news is that China already has a rich dietary culture and tradition.

For example, “drinking bone broth is believed to be health boosting in China and some other Asian cultures,” Rao said.

“A recent study by the Joint Center for Food and Nutrition Research in Hangzhou proved that the nano-particles in the soup actually have a direct effect on the immune system.”

We should have some respect for this traditional wisdom.”

Books on food at the "Fooducation for the Future" forum.

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