When I was at university, I used to snack on Kelloggs Elevenese Bars. At the time I thought they were quite nice, being moist and springy dark sponge cakes with a richness as if they were made from dark sugar and spices; and with a topping of sprinkled oats they looked quite nutritious. I remember, quite distinctly, years later deciding to buy a pack of Elevenese Bars on an occasion when I didn't have time to bake a cake. Things had changed in the intervening years and I was now an adept home cook and baked various cakes, biscuits and flapjacks weekly in order to satisfy snack or dessert cravings. It was a surprise to me (but maybe not to you) that when I bit into an Elevenese Bar I was somewhat disappointed with the flavour and couldn't help but wonder what the hell that taste was - because it certainly wasn't home cooking!
Recently, whilst reading the Good Food Magazine, I came across an advert for a book called, "Swallow This" by one of their regular columnists Joanna Blythman. In it, amongst other descriptions, it said that if you had ever wondered what it was that made processed food taste the way it does then you should read this book. As I had been wondering ever since the Elevenese Bar incident what on Earth it is that makes commercial bakes taste so screamingly unlike home baking, I was instantly hooked.
I have now finished reading the book and I'm left in this weird indecisive place, not knowing whether it is a book I would recommend that everyone should read or whether I would recommend no one read it. It is such an alarming and detailed dissection of the food industry that I would not wish that knowledge on anyone. It is, quite frankly, enough to put you off your food. But at the same time, it strikes me as wrong that the food industry can get away with misleading us and conning us into eating rubbish and that people should be better informed about their food. If more people knew what was going on there would be more consumer pressure on these large industrial companies to clean up their acts and present us with proper, nutritious food. It leaves no doubt in my mind what is causing the obesity crisis, the prevalence of cancer and the increase in allergies. Also, from the perspective of an artisan food producer, if people fully understood what happens to food when it is processed in a factory and dished out cheaply by supermarkets, they would understand why artisan food is worth the extra price asked for it and wouldn't glibly say, "I can buy that cheaper in the supermarket."
We are all used to food scandals hitting the headlines and we all, I'm sure, make choices about food based on a desire to avoid eating certain things. However, this book doesn't talk about the familiar topics such as animal welfare, contamination of the food chain, the spread of hideous diseases across livestock or even illegal immigrates being exploited and probably handling your salad without washing their hands! Instead this book looks at the stuff that is part of the every day production of food, the stuff that is legal, allowed and accepted. Despite the food standards and European Union regulations, these are the things that go into our food. Some of them even make it onto the label. This is perhaps what is most alarming - it's not about when things go wrong but about what we are eating when things are going right.
Chapter by chapter Joanna looks at the way food is processed to create the familiar foods we buy in the shops.
"Sweet" looks at the astonishing amount of sugar hidden in processed food, including apparently savoury foods. It also talks about the use of artificial sweeteners, how they make you crave more food and can ultimately make you put on weight. In addition, it details the other additives that are required to replace the sugar that is taken out to add bulk or preserving properties.
"Oily" talks about the issues around fats, the way it has been blamed for obesity issues for years, the battle of saturated against unsaturated fats and the confusion around healthy and unhealthy fats. It also outlines the alarming, industrial way oils are extracted from their vegetables and raises questions about their quality.
The chapters "Flavoured" and "Coloured", discuss added flavourings and colourings, pointing out how highly processed food loses it natural flavours and colours and that these need to be replaced with chemical additives, some of unsavory origin.
"Watery" opened my eyes on the full extent of added water to food and the processes that meat, particularly is subjected to to make them take on and retain added water.
"Starchy" explains the ubiquitous use of modified starches to food. An ingredient I wasn't previously too alarmed to find on a food label, I now feel less comfortable about its presence... and it seems to be everywhere.
"Tricky" looks at the use of hundreds of enzymes in the food industry and how they can be used without ever appearing on the label as they are considered to be processing aids rather than ingredients. Their health implications are unclear.
"Old" discusses the additives used to prolong shelf-life, along with storage and packaging techniques and raises questions over what the term "fresh" actually means.
And just when you think you can't take any more, "Packed" pulls apart the food packaging part of the industry and looks into the chemicals that end up in our food from the wrappers and containers it is put in.
There are several reasons why reading this book disturbed me and it wasn't just the unremitting bombardment of alarming disclosures and the, at times, emotive language she uses. The first is that I am a switched on, well educated individual who really cares about food and yet I was generally unaware of the stuff she mentions. The next is that I am cynical about advertising generally and claims made about products and yet I have been as duped about the food industry as the next person and have been sucked in by claims about "freshness" or the relative health benefits of a particular product. Yet, most disturbing is how so much of what goes on does not have to be disclosed on the label or that the label has been "cleaned" - that's to say that ingredients that ring alarm bells with consumers have been taken out of the product and replaced with something just as processed but that can be put on the a label with a name that sounds like something that belongs in your own food cupboard. This to me means that even with what I have learnt from reading this book, I cannot hope to avoid things that made me feel uncomfortable when I read about them because I simply cannot identify them in the foods I buy.
So, having read this book, what now? I feel more enlightened but I think it is necessary to take a realistic attitude towards the food I eat. Joanna herself says that she doesn't treat her body as a temple and she accepts she will eat factory produced food. This to me is clear. It just isn't possible in today's lifestyle to eat a wholly unprocessed diet. Even I, as someone who makes a lot of food from scratch, cannot avoid processed food. A cake, for example, will contain flour (a processed food), a fat (processed and factory produced), eggs and flavours (processed, however natural they may be). There are also highly processed food that I really enjoy eating and don't want to give up. And, at times, when I'm scrubbing the mud off a potato, I positively hanker over a frozen potato product!
I started reading this book in August and have only just finished reading it because I don't have many reading minutes in any give day. I'm pleased to say that this book is so rammed with information that it is hard to hold it in your head for long. Already I have forgotten a lot of the detail and in many ways I am glad about this. What I am left with is a general feeling that I want to eat less processed food. This is not really news and is the way I have been going for years anyway and this book has just confirmed that this is the right thing to do. Food made from recognisable ingredients (better still if they are home grown) taste so much better anyway. I'm also in control of what goes into the food and I know, without doubt, the salt, sugar and fat content because I put it there. I might not always make health food and I might sometimes indulge in a cream cake but at least I'm not conning myself about what I'm eating.
If you think you can stomach it, I urge you to read "Swallow This". At least then you will be more aware of what exactly you are eating and you can go some way to taking back control over the food that ends up inside you.