Not on the Label: What really goes into the food on your plate (Felicity Lawrence, Penguin, 2004)
I'm about a third of the way into this book and I wanted to share 3 things that I've learnt so far that are disturbing:
i) Salad bags unmasked
You often hear that something is the symbol of our modern society, but I think that nothing represents the myth of twenty-first century Britain so well as the bagged salad. It is the ultimate consumer product for the cash-rich, time-poor shopper. It has caché - gone are the days of limp leaves or tasteless iceburg - the modern salad bag contains mixed leaves with exciting, often foreign-sounding names, like frisée, mizuna and radicchio. If you want to be even more adventurous, then why not try something with edamame beans or fresh pea shoots? A salad bag, weighing in the region of 85g will cost you at least £1, where you can still buy a head of lettuce for around 70p and it will weigh significantly more. The bagged salad rather than being compared to the often-derided ready meal, manages to be both convenient and aspirational. 'I'm so busy that I don't have time even to wash and chop some salad, so I will buy it from the 'chilled food' section where I can assume it is providing me with a healthy side dish - one of my recommended five-a-day.' (On an aside, is it just me that is driven mad at the moment by those adverts for tuna where apparently they've removed the 'fiddly bit' of having to drain the can? I mean, really, how difficult and time consuming it is to drain some water out of a can?!)
However, it wasn't until reading this book by Felicity Lawrence that I realised that ending up out of pocket was the least of the problem with bagged salads. If you are anything like me, you will, perhaps naively, have assumed that ready-to-eat salads and veg sold in the supermarkets are prepared as you or I would do it at home, albeit in an industrial setting. Peeled and cored where appropriate, then washed in water and chopped, ready for cooking (or in the case of salad leaves, washed - full stop). Well, you'd be wrong! Producers of ready-bagged salads will talk about refrigeration at every stage and special, breathable bags through which you can see the food to guarantee its freshness. Lawrence's book reveals that salad leaves are washed in a chlorine solution significantly stronger than that found in swimming pools, bagged in 'modified atmosphere packaging', where the levels of oxygen and CO2 are altered to keep the leaves from deteriorating, but that despite these precautions, incidences of food poisoning, including from E.coli, are still alarmingly high due to the long process chain the salads are subject to from field to plate. Even if you don't think that these arguments are convincing, the supermarkets demand an incredibly high cosmetic standard, which means that all food produced for them has been exposed to extremely high concentrations of pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. In order to have salads throughout the winter, we rely on crops flown in from Spain and North Africa, where their production is putting pressure on increasingly compromised water supplies, and finally buying fresh food in a bag is about as far divorced as you can possibly get from its source, and this alienation from where our food comes from is closely linked to rising levels of obesity and diabetes.
Friends of the Earth
Pesticide Action Network UK
And the other side of the argument
Bring on the salads
ii) I'd like some chicken with that
So we've all seen the recent flurry of documentaries where well-off celebrity chefs lecture us about chicken welfare and explain that any bird that costs £2.50 (2 for a fiver) cannot possibly have lived a healthy, happy life. We've watched, and been horrified, by the footage of veritable carpets of chickens, too fat to move even if they had the space, their legs bowing under the weight of their enormous breasts, cannibalising the remains of one of their even-less-fortunate fellows. The problem is, that as time blurs the memories and we're confronted with that painful pocket choice of cheap or not cheap, any ethical standpoint we might have wanted to take is often quietly filed under 'one more thing to feel guilty about'.
But that's when you think that what you're buying is chicken. Don't get me wrong - at least some of the meat will be chicken or the producers would be in trouble with the trading standards agency. However, did you know that your chicken breasts are also likely to contain quite a lot of water. Don't worry though, if its more than 5% water (and didn't you think you were paying for chicken) they have to declare it on the label (although if you're buying chicken breasts, why would you think to check what the ingredients were?) Water is included in order to keep the meat moist and looking fresh, but to retain the water, manufacturers also need some sort of additives, which can include salt, phosphates and animal proteins. These latter don't even have to be from a chicken - previous investigations by the FSA have discovered pork and even beef proteins being used instead of chicken. These proteins are extracted from waste meat from animals, meaning that it has often been skin, blood or bone to start with. Given that the practice has been standard with some manufacturers for years, it is even possible that beef tainted by BSE could have made its way into chicken you ate and it could even have been legal as long as the manufacturer had labelled the product correctly. Don't forget also, that these same producers often supply the restaurant and takeaway trades, where even the onus of checking the label is out of our hands. Definitely enough to put you off your nuggets!
Food Standards Agency
Food quality news
Not another acronym! This one stands for Chorleywood Bread Process. Any the wiser? Apparently this one process completely revolutionised the mass production of bread, making it cheaper and easier for manufacturers to bring a sliced loaf to the nation. Unfortunately, it also seems to have made it inedible. Literally. I don't just mean that supermarket bread all tastes the same, or that there are some disturbing stories about the production of wholemeal bread just being white bread with caramel food colouring added. I mean something even more fundamental about what used to be a staple in our diets.
The story of bread is more than 2,000 years old and for that period, up until the introduction of the CBP in the 1960s, bread was made with four main ingredients: flour, yeast, salt and water. These ingredients were allowed to ferment for at least four hours, during which time the flavour and texture that characterises 'real' bread develop. The CBP eliminated this time-consuming part of the process, by using high-speed mixers, more yeast and water, chemical improvers and hydrogenated fats. The mixers ensured that a high enough temperature is reached very quickly which causes the bread to rise. The first major criticism of the CBP is that the high speeds that smash apart the starches in the flour to speed up the fermentation process with the yeast also remove much of the nutritional value of the grains. The second is the corresponding rise in health problems relating to hydrogenated fats, excess salt and high levels of yeast in our diets from the 1960s. This is before you start to investigate the chemical improvers and their possible impact on our health. Making bread from scratch may be too daunting, but there a range of bread machines on the market that more than pay for themselves when you discover what bread can taste like. This may not be quite as good for you as true 'real' bread (recipes for breadmakers tend to include butter/oil and sugar/honey in addition to salt and yeast), but at least the ingredients list is simplified and controllable. Give us this day our daily bread, as long as it's not a pre-sliced and packaged chemically-enhanced loaf. Check out sustain's new campaign for real bread to find out more about why you should bake your own and/or support your local baker.
Campaign for Real Bread
Wikipedia explains CBP