Food Inglorious Food


Posted by in January's Magazine

It was with excitement that I informed Mr Editor of my proposed article outline for winter. I would present a two-part piece about the evils of the modern food industry. The hope was that you would be so impressed by my research that you would instantly turn to eating porridge, lentils and other healthy food. I was excited but ready for it, then I started doing some serious reading and discovered that it’s rather a massive subject. So here goes…

A few years ago I devoured food writer Joanna Blythman’s excellent book Shopped: The Shocking Power of British Supermarkets, which I still believe to be the best and easiest read on the subject. From Blythman I learnt about supermarket ready meals being a ploy by the big guys to ‘value add’ products and earn more dosh. That is, the more a food is processed, or pre-prepared for you, the greater the profit margin for the supermarket (and the less nutrition for you). There’s not much profit to be made from potatoes, but if you process them in some way, turn them into oven chips for instance, you not only make more money, but as a side effect, much of the goodness and nutrition of the potato is removed. I’m not for one second implying that the primary aim of ready meals is to deny you valuable nutrients, but it is a side effect of having a machine mush up substandard ingredients into a ready meal.

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Cardboard cereals
As ready meals are mechanically processed, it means that the human body needs to do less processing to digest them. This means that processed foods tend to be higher on the Glycaemic Index (how long it takes the body to turn food into energy), as the body doesn’t need to do so much ‘processing’ of the food itself. Compare ready-made soups to homemade soups – which one to do you think will give you better nutrition and satisfy you more?

The more sophisticated our society gets and the more complicated our food gets, the more removed from actual ‘food’ it is. Our digestive systems haven’t evolved in the last fifty years, but it is truly mind boggling how much our food has. We’ve seen a massive shift from producing food ourselves to multinational corporations manufacturing it for us. The emphasis has gone from eating what was nutritious and available locally, to buying foodstuffs that taste nice with the least amount of effort. It’s also interesting to note the prevalence of modern (and largely Western) digestive health conditions that are also on the increase, such as IBS, gluten intolerance and food allergies in general. That’s without getting into eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia nervosa or even touching on diabetes.

With all our labour saving devices, is it really true that we no longer have time to feed ourselves properly? Large producers certainly want us to think that. Breakfast cereals are a good example of an original ready meal – just add milk. They can make a much bigger profit by taking raw products (i.e. corn) and processing them, then chemically adding fortifying vitamins and minerals that have been processed from the raw state (i.e. corn flakes). Before cereal, most British households had a cooked breakfast. With more women joining the workforce, and the advent of television advertising, breakfast cereals found their niche in the nation’s psyche. This is despite the fact that most cereals are as nutritious as the cardboard box they come in. The traditional Scottish meal of porridge has become trendy again for good reason.

Freaky biscuits
If you’re a regular Leither reader, you’ll remember The End of Overeating by David A. Kessler being highly lauded in my column. If you’ve ever been at the mercy of a packet of digestive biscuits and scoffed the lot, this is the book for you. You are normal, the biscuits are freaky. McVities have perfected the flavour balance that makes them remarkably enjoyable to eat, and therefore you buy more. Major food producers are aware of the irresistibility of the salt/fat/sugar combo. If there’s any food you find yourself eating compulsively, it is likely to be high in these. Think of buttered toast (Mmmmmm), which is basically fat on salt/sugar added bread. We have lost connection with what our body needs, namely nutrients, sacrificed for foods that our brains tell us we like (salt/sugar/fat).

Michael Pollan’s The Omnivores Dilemma sums it up nicely: “Add fat or sugar to anything and it’s going to taste better on the tongue of an animal that natural selection has hard wired to seek out energy-dense foods. Animal studies prove the point: rats presented with solutions of pure sucrose or tubs of pure lard – goodies they seldom encounter in nature – will gorge themselves sick.”

Pollan’s In Defence of Food was the last book on the subject I read, aptly finishing it on Christmas day. He puts it in a nutshell with his Eater’s Manifesto. “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
If only I’d read that first.

Next time we examine the economics of the food industry.

Illustration: Ian Kinghorn

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