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Voltaire famously said that England was a land of 60 religions and one sauce: and while this has changed decisively for the better-off and more educated, the Voltairean proposition remains essentially true (if you replace religions by TV channels) for a large proportion of the population. Our bad food never caused people to become fat before.

It is rather in social changes that the explanation, or at least an important part of it, is to be sought.

It is also sometimes alleged that people buy prepared foods because they are cheap. In fact, if you go to areas inhabited by poor Indian or Pakistani families you will find stores that sell an astonishing range of vegetables at equally astonishing prices.

I used to shop in one such store, at a time when I did not have to concern myself too much over the price of food; I could hardly carry all that I could buy for a few pounds.

But I never saw any poor whites shopping there: they went straight to the pie and pizza shops, without so much as a glance at the okra and aubergine.

In other words, food desertification and the supposed cheapness of industrially prepared foods is a consequence, not a cause of, the food habits I have described.

Another contributory factor to the obesity epidemic is the control or authority now given to children over what they eat.

Children are asked (and given) what they want by their solicitous mothers, not as a treat but as a matter of course; and what they choose is what is most immediately attractive to them.

Grossly obese people, who have always existed, were once regarded almost as curiosities, but were well-off rather than poor.It is not the combination of poverty and the easy availability of fattening food that has produced the epidemic of obesity: rather it is a sense in these circumstances of meaninglessness, that nothing much matters.More than 30 years ago I visited an island in the Central Pacific called Nauru. Half of them became diabetic and their life expectancy was low (despite the general rule that rich people are healthy). The result was that children became foragers or hunter-gatherers in their own homes, going to the fridge whenever they felt like it and grazing on prepared foods – high, of course, in the evil fructose.Not coincidentally, these households were also the least likely to have what would once have been considered the normal family structure.

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When a government minister says something that is not only true but also profoundly discomfiting we are surprised and even shocked, so cynical have we become about the intellectual probity of our political class.

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