I've been building up to this post for awhile now. It started with a vague conscientiousness many years ago when I decided to become a vegetarian. I hated the thought of live animals being transported across countries in cramped conditions, of huge factory farms filled with chickens that barely had room to breath, and of dirty pigs being treated as such.
That crusade lasted 15 years before I slowly felt my body and family needed more than what they were being provided with, and I just didn't have the time (or funnily enough the energy) to delve into what was missing from our diets and where else it could be found. So first the fish returned, then the chicken, then the mince and finally a big fat juicy steak.
And I have to say I wasn't sorry.
I did continue to buy free range chickens, but for the rest I just couldn't justify the cost, so instead buried my head in the sand in order to justify my choices.
Apart from all that I've always been a food label reader. My parents were ahead of the curve on healthy eating and we would routinely roll our eyes at the latest research they would impart to us.
"Did you know The China Study shows that we can reverse our cholesterol levels on a whole-food, plant based diet?!"
Or what their own parents used to say about certain foodstuffs -
"My father always called white sugar the white death. It'll kill you and your teeth"
But anyway, some of it must have sunk in because for as long as I can remember I've been inspecting labels, and have tried to avoid too many E numbers or packets containing ingredients I can't pronounce.
But sometimes I get lazy and grab the carrot cake without seeing that it is packed with hydrogenated fat, or buy the Pringles for the Saturday night treat, or throw the sugar packed museli bars in the trolley and tell myself they are healthy because they have oats in them.
Because sometimes it's just easier to kid ourselves.
But do Pringles actually contain any real food at all? And did you know that Nature Valley Granola Bars contain as much sugar as a bowl of fruit loops? And we would never let our kids eat those now would we..?
And then I read this article in the Guardian - Inside the Food Industry. The surprising truth about what you eat. It's a fascinating piece and I urge you to read it for yourself - but here's a very brief summary if you don't have time:
The writer, Joanna Blythman, who goes undercover at an annual food trade show says:
"While exhibitors at most food exhibitions are often keen for you to taste their products, few standholders here had anything instantly edible to offer. Those that did weren’t all that they seemed. Canapé-style cubes of white cheese dusted with herbs and spices sat under a bistro-style blackboard that nonchalantly read “Feta, with Glucono-Delta-Lactone” (a “cyclic ester of gluconic acid” that prolongs shelf life)."
Basically the entire food fair is about using science and technology to create cheaper alternatives to real foodstuffs.
"Manufacturers who need their tomato sauce to be thick enough not to leak out of its plastic carton – and just a little bit glossy, so that it doesn’t look matt and old after several days in the fridge – were sold the advantages of Microlys®, a “cost-effective” speciality starch that gives “shiny, smooth surface and high viscosity”.
Or how about Butter Buds®,
"described by its makers as “an enzyme-modified encapsulated butter flavour that has as much as 400 times the flavour intensity of butter”
Anyone else find this scary?
Now many of us have been label reading for years and have come to know some of the things to avoid and also some of the dirty tricks manufacturers play to trick us into thinking foods are healthier than they actually are. Just because something says 'Natural' doesn't mean it is. 'Low fat' is often packed with sugar. And 'sugar' on a label is often divided up into glucose, fructose, sucrose and probably a host of other 'oses' I know nothing about.
But things are getting worse. What was entirely new to me was that many of the old identifiably 'bad' ingredients are disappearing. 'Great!' you might think. But unfortunately it's not quite as simple as that. The food industry now knows what we want, and what we want is less additives and more 'real' food and so that is what it is giving us - on the label if not in the actual product.
As Joanna says -
"Picking up a salami, even the most guarded shopper might relax when they see rosemary extract on the ingredients list – but rosemary extracts are actually “clean-label” substitutes for the old guard of techie-sounding antioxidants (E300-21), such as butylhydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylhydroxytoluene (BHT). Food manufacturers use them to slow down the rate at which foods go rancid, so extending their shelf life."
And that of course is just the tip of the iceberg. Really - go read the article.
Last month The Sunday Times published an piece on how our takeaway sandwiches are made. It describes thousands and thousands of ham and cheese, prawn cocktail and egg mayonnaise sandwiches being made by hand (no gloves) and by machine in huge factories before being shipped off to petrol stations, cafes and supermarkets to be eaten by us. Although I'm sure there is nothing particularly bad about the ingredients being used, or how the factories are run - the photos of men and women in hairnets placing limp ham onto a slice of bread that someone earlier down the line had buttered really made my stomach turn.
But then again seeing anything on a massive factory scale is offputting.
And then of course there's the transportation issue.
We are well used to getting our bananas from Brazil and our pineapples from Costa Rica, but did you know that countries all over the world are importing and exporting almost identical quantities of food stuffs:
How can this even be a real thing?!
If you want to learn a little bit more watch this:
About 2 minutes in to this video you will hear Zac Goldsmith describe just how wasteful this model is - with English apples being exported all the way to South Africa to be waxed and then transported all the way back to England to be sold. It's hard to believe.
In all honesty this makes me feel a little bit hopeless, but I'm pretty sure if you have a chat to your local greengrocer or butcher they will have a fair idea about what comes from where and hopefully will be promoting some local farms. So we do what we can there I guess - and 'every little helps' as they say...
What to do
Massive factory farming, sandwiches created on conveyor belts, food made in a science lab - it's just not very appealing when you think about it is it? And whilst we can't all grow our own food in our back garden, we can think about how real and local it is when we are making food choices for our family.
I know from experience it can all be a bit much when faced with the information and the changes we want to make, but I've started thinking about what I can do rather than what I can't.
So more and more I am choosing 'real' food. Cakes can be made, muesli bars can be created, sandwiches can be thrown together at home, and easy dinners can be cooked from scratch from actual vegetables and 'happy' meat.
If you want to make some changes but don't know where to start how about this life changing raw brownie from Emily at The Nest - grain, dairy and sugar free it ticks all the wholesome boxes if not the local ones, and proves that healthy treats can be delicious. Tried and test on my hugely fussy 6 year old who absolutely loves them (and obviously doesn't know what's in them).
And there's plenty more where that came from. I've also started a Real Food recipe board on Pinterest if you want to join me for the ride.
So sorry kids, but it looks like I'm passing you on the family baton.