A while ago I read Joanna Blythman’s book ‘Swallow This’ – scary stuff! To the extent that she was able to penetrate the fig leaves of weasel words, marketing meaningless and ‘commercially sensitive information’ she reveals how far many of the things on shop shelves have traveled from real food. ‘Baked in store’ may indeed mean ‘our staff got up at silly o’clock to mix dough, let it rise, shaped it and baked it ready for you by 9’. Or it could mean ‘they rocked up at 8, got part baked stuff that had been made in a factory using goodness only knows what (we don’t), read the instructions on the label and bunged it in the oven to finish off. And that ‘goodness only knows what’ can include all sorts of ‘processing aids’ which do not need to be declared on the ingredients list even if they are enzymes from animal sources used in vegan products or pig products used in things like bread which could well be bought by practicing jews or muslims.
It seems that unless we make all our food from scratch using only ingredients we have grown or reared ourselves or bought from trusted suppliers who produced it as we would have done, we are taking risks. Even ‘organic’ is no guarantee. ‘Organic Greek style bio-live yoghurt’ (style is the give-away term) is thickened with ‘modified starch’ – much cheaper than straining off the whey, but the starch gives an unpleasant taste so it is masked by sweetening and flavouring. That is why you never see a plain version! The milk was organic, the starch, etc may have been too but I still prefer to leave it on the shelf!
Apparently even tins or the lids of home made jam may leach hazardous chemicals into the food they contain. If it is packaged in anything fancier than a plain paper bag it is potentially bad for you.
Of course there is nothing new about food manufacturers, caterers or home cooks trying to reduce their costs by substituting cheaper ingredients like margarine for dearer ones like butter. Nor is it only recently that people have made their buying choices based on cost rather than quality. And the result has been ‘food like substances’ for a very long time. What is new is the ingenuity of manufacturers of all the preservatives, flavourings and so on the effects of which on the human body over the long term are unknown. They may indeed, as claimed, be harmless but I prefer to stick to the tried and tested food we have eaten safely for hundreds of years.
Now life is full of risks and all most of us can do is make educated choices about the ones we are prepared to take. As those of you who read ‘squirreling away’ (find it here Squirreling away) will know I am fortunate enough to have access to a garden to grow at least a proportion of my own fruit and veg, local market gardens to make up the shortfall, a choice of ‘proper’ butchers and friends who rear animals for meat, and sufficient funds to buy organic staples. Plus I have learned the skills to cook and bake and preserve.
However food does not exist in isolation from other issues. I can grow food because |I have a large garden. If everyone is to have the choice to do the same that means planners must ensure land is allocated for gardens, allotments or community gardens. Which has a knock on effect on housing density and therefore housing costs. I can cook but it has gone way down the educational system’s priority list so there are many people who would struggle to feed themselves from basic ingredients and without instructions on the label. I can grow food because I am fit enough. What about those who are too frail or infirm (physically or mentally)? If hospitals, care homes, day care centres, or meals -on-wheels are to provide real food that has budget and staffing implications. For them to be able to buy truly fresh produce means having farms, smallholdings and market gardens nearby – another planning issue. This issue has become very meaningful for me since I broke my wrist and have had to rely on people to take me shopping, which has meant using supermarkets and convenience foods – I have bought mince pies for the first time ever. ‘Rubbing in’ and rolling out were not possible so I looked for ready rolled shortcrust pastry but the only one I could find was made with palm oil so I decided that ready made ‘all butter’ pies were the least worst solution.
And then there are all those things I cannot produce for myself – milk, flour, sugar (yes I do need some to make my gooseberries palatable!) are more expensive if organically produced so a bigger proportion of pay would have to go on food meaning less to spend in other sectors of the economy. Probably pensions and benefits would have to go up since we regularly read of old people having to choose between heating and eating or parents going hungry to feed their children.
Of course if everyone grew up healthy and stayed well for as much of their lives as possible there would be savings in the long term. But holistic, joined up thinking that invests for a return beyond the next election is not what politicians are renowned for! So it seems that for the foreseeable future it will be down to each one of us to do the best we can and hope that by refusing to spend our money on ‘food like substances’ whenever possible we may be able to make a difference.