The perfect Christmas present for eaters: #SwallowThis by Joanna Blythman

 

Writing this post gave me writers block, only because it’s so packed full of information that I didn’t quite know where to start with it.

We’re lucky to have investigative journalists, like Joanna, with the tenacity to go behind the scenes in food industry. As she outlines, it’s actually very difficult to investigate this secretive industry.

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The book covers everything from ingredients, processes, nutrients and packaging. It’s also a great read.

Clean label

In recent years, many of the additives and colours the food industry use have been given a bad name and savvy consumers want to avoid E numbers and things they wouldn’t find in their Granny’s larder. So manufacturers have been looking for ways to produce clean labels. This means removing suspect ingredients or using enzyme/processing aids. The latter don’t have to be declared on ingredients lists because they are not in the end product.

They have also altered the names of some additives to sound more natural. Ones that consumers will vaguely recognise, like starch. However, the processing techniques used to create these ingredients are far removed from any home-based food production we would recognise.

While these enzymes and processing aids aren’t in the final product, traces of them can still remain, and can result in allergic reactions. In fact it’s a well-documented occupational hazard for people working in the baking industries.

Manufacturers are even using genetic modification to create processing enzymes. While GM foods would have to be labelled on the ingredients list, again, because enzymes are not found in the end product, they don’t have to be declared on the label.

Motivation

So what’s the motivation behind the food industry using weird additives and enzymes? Food processors and ingredients manufactures will tell us it’s all about bringing us innovation, new flavours and safe food.

To me the reasons are pretty clear: it’s about increasing profit margins. They do this by using cheaper ingredients, speeding up the production process, and extending shelf life (slowing down and reducing spoilage). These are not mutually exclusive and ultimately they result in more profit.

Culturally, providing food/meals is an act of giving. Because of this, I think we have been lulled into trusting the food industry as a benign food provider and we’ve forgotten that they are a businesses, and they need to make a profit. It’s just that some want to make more and at the expense of quality.

Scaremongering?

There was a great episode of Radio 4’s Food Programme earlier this year when Joanna was interviewed about her investigation. Representatives from the food industry were also interviewed, including Alice Cadman from Leatherhead Research. If you don’t work in the food industry you may not know this company. They develop ingredients and food processing methods for their food industry members. In her interview, Alice said she recognised that consumers stated that natural was of great importance when talking about ingredients. She went on to say that she found it worrying that more than half consumers didn’t know that sodium chloride was salt and therefore suggested that consumers don’t understand ingredients. She also said she didn’t expect consumers to understand ingredients but she did expect them to trust the food that’s made for them. Firstly, this statement was condescending. Secondly, having read Swallow This, it’s clear that such trust is in many cases misplaced.

Some in the food industry will argue that this book scaremongers. But if you read it you will become better informed about the food you buy. It’s a great reference book. Joanna doesn’t preach or expect us to avoid buying processed foods, instead she challenges us to demand more accountability, transparency and higher standards from our food industry.

So there it is, highly recommended reading for anyone that eats food really. And if you can’t think of someone to buy it for for Christmas, buy it for yourself either from Hive (the ethical alternative to Amazon) or your local independent book seller.

 

 

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If you buy one book for your kitchen, make it Joanna Blythman’s What to Eat…

We are bombarded daily with messages about the food we eat. Newspapers, TV and the internet telling us about the latest “superfood”, miracle ingredient or diet or health scares. Then there’s health claims on packaging, supermarket promotions and advice from celebrity chef’s or experts. All of this can create a constant background noise of conflicting, confusing information and mis-information.

Against this background, Joanna Blythman has thrown us a lifeline: a no-nonsense reference book with independent advice on What to Eat.

The book opens with 20 principles of eating made simple, with headings such as “practice vegetable-centric eating” and “adopt a ‘closest to home’ buying policy”.

There is a section on how how to keep to your ethics without breaking the bank. With rising food prices there are some tricks that can help reduce your weekly food spend. For instance, taking time to look for alternatives to supermarkets.

The book is then divided into different food group chapters, from vegetables through to larder staples. For each type of food Joanna gives extensive and comprehensive guidance – a lot of work has gone into this book. Even providing inspiration on ways to prepare each food, she answers the questions you ask yourself when you’re shopping or looking through the ingredient’s list in a recipe : Is it good for me? How is it grown? Is it a green choice? When and where can I buy it? and Will it break the bank?

Something very likeable about the approach of the book is that Joanna doesn’t harangue her reader for not adhering to idealistic food rules and isn’t critical. Instead, she lays out the ethics and encourages the reader to follow them.

Nutrition is described as a science that is “work in progress” – so true. You only have to think back to the nineties when sunflower margerines were touted as healthier than butter. Joanna was one of the few dissenting voices warning us of the dangers of hydrogenated fats and the transfats they produce.

I read Joanna Blythman’s The Food We Eat when it was published in 1996. At the time I was looking into studying nutrition and working at a company, whose clients included NutraSweet. The Food We Eat answered a lot of the questions I was asking about food. Just to put it into context, the internet was just starting up. Sixteen years later (eek) with with all that background noise, What to Eat provides clarity. By informing readers, it equips them with the knowledge they need to make ethical food choices.

If you have a local independent bookshop buy a copy of What to eat there. I bought mine from the lovely Bookends in Christchurch, or buy it online at Waterstones.