‘What is a little worrying that when asked, more than half of consumers didn’t know that sodium chloride was salt. We shouldn’t be surprised that consumers don’t understand a lot of the ingredients on the back of the pack but that doesn’t make them bad ingredients… It’s a complicated area. I wouldn’t expect consumers to understand the ingredients or I wouldn’t expect them to understand the regulatory framework but I would expect them to trust the people that are making the food for them because that’s what they do.’
Alice Cadman: Leatherhead Food Research
Some time ago I listened to a discussion regarding the processing of orange juice labelled as ‘not from concentrate’. Although I don’t drink juice, I did drink it before Paleo and naively assumed that ‘not from concentrate’ juices were made from freshly squeezed oranges and nothing else. I had no idea about flavour packs that are added to the juice (which is heated, stripped of flavour and sits in vats for up to a year) and the chemicals they contain, expertly adjusted in the laboratory to mimic the taste of fresh orange juice as closely as possible.
Of course this is only the tip of the iceberg. The ability to manipulate words to suggest a ‘natural’ product is rife within food manufacturing and I am sure that we are all aware of it, but the recent edition of the Radio 4 Food Programme ‘The Clean Label Question’ was still an eye-opener as to what goes on behind the scenes.
Avoiding processed foods is a major part of adopting Paleo but the addition of chemicals to even the most basic packaged foods without having to label them (for instance to a tub of fruit salad or pack of frozen vegetables), means that it is becoming increasingly difficult to make informed judgements on the quality of the food that we are buying. Joanna Blythman’s new book Swallow This: Serving Up the Food Industry’s Darkest Secrets lifts the lid on processes that the food industry employs to convince consumers that what they are buying is ‘natural’. Termed ‘clean labelling’ it is an advertising method that ensures big profits for food companies at the expense of unsuspecting consumers looking to make healthier choices.
Joanna assumed a false identity and went ‘undercover’ in the food industry to attend some of the big trade shows where such chemicals and manufacturing processes are showcased. She admitted that her book merely scrapes the surface of what is going on in the production of our food.
Of course, when reading the list of ingredients for many processed foods we are taken aback by the sheer number of them; many of which do not sound like food at all. Using the example of a cherry bakewell cake which should really only have a handful of ingredients, Joanna listed the contents of the processed version which included 4 types of sugar, modified maze starch, vegetable oil, emulsifiers, cornflour, flavouring, acidity regulators, fruit and vegetable extract (radish) used as colouring. She explained that the issue is primarily one of cost. Since the traditional ingredients of a cherry bakewell are so expensive, the food economist seeks to replicate these flavours through the use of chemicals and creates a cheaper product for the consumer.The same with vanilla beans; Joanna explained how it is much cheaper to use synthetic vanilla flavouring which replaces the flavour lost in processing and masks off the unpleasant tastes produced in the factory process. Through such additives, cheap, ‘tasty’ food can be brought to those who may otherwise be unable to afford it. But is that really the full story?
‘All sorts of bad things are done to food in the name of feeding poor people’ Joanna Blythman
We can maybe argue that this is a question of choice. If foods contain chemical additives and the consumer chooses to ignore this and buy them anyway what’s the problem? Perhaps they like the taste. Shouldn’t we be free to choose? Joanna points out that the issue is one of deception. Many consumers want ‘natural’ foods and go out of their way to make the right decisions but the ‘clean label’ methods used by the manufacturers are deliberately obscuring the true extent of food additives and confusing the consumer.
The presenter asked Alice Cadman, Director of Marketing at Leatherhead Food Research about the addition of chemicals to our food, first brought to widespread attention by Maurice Hanssen’s bestselling book E for Additives (1987). Ms Cadman noted the irony over the panic about E numbers as they ‘…were created to assure consumers that additives had been tested and approved.’ She went on to issue what sounded like a veiled threat: ‘…when you remove additives that are there to keep food safe, you have to be aware of the consequences.’
There was also a very interesting conversation with John Forbes Global Support Manager at Treat in Bury St. Edmunds (a company specialising in citrus flavours). John described how scientists (which he likened to artists) create synthetic versions of natural essences by analysing the key substances that tell us it is (for instance) an orange flavour. These key molecules are then reproduced in synthetic form to produce a convincing flavour. Artistic merits aside, Mr Forbes explains how the primary issue is always cost; it is much cheaper to use a non-natural material.
We then hear about the ‘Southampton Six’ (Tartrazine (E102), Ponceau 4R (E124), Sunset Yellow (E110), Camoisine (E122), Quinoline Yellow (E104) and Allura Red (E129)); artificial colourings that were labelled with danger warnings after research found them to be linked to ADHD in children (see here.) I’m not sure how this fits in with Alice Cadman’s comment (above) but it is obvious that we do not know enough about the long-term effects of thousands of chemicals added to our food. Chemicals such as the Southampton Six were added to food first before knowing finding out the full consequences afterwards.
Joanna explained that with colourings there is no distinction between natural and synthetic. The methods used to produce each may be indistinguishable and even the food industry finds it hard to draw a distinction. Artisan packaging, together with language such as ‘extracts’, ‘essences’ and ‘concentrates’ obscure this even further. Yet Barbara Gallani, Director of Regulation of Science and Health at the Food and Drink Federation assured us that ‘labels have never been so clear and transparent as they are now.’ She added that information is also available on official/government websites and that consumers have hotlines to get specific information if they are concerned about additives. She also raised the issue of safety and appearance through storage and transport. There seemed to be a desire to swing the argument away from producing cheap food to one of chemical additives being essential for the safety of our food.
‘I just don’t think that people realise just how much sophisticated interference with their food is going on behind the scenes’. Joanna Blythman
The most surprising part of the programme for me was the discussion of enzymes (biological catalysts that speed up chemical reactions). The consumer does not need to be notified when food contains these and all processed food is thought to contain at least one ingredient that is treated with an enzyme. There are around 150 enzymes used in food processing and even foods such as tubs of fruit salad and frozen fruit and vegetables are treated with them to extend shelf life. We heard how enzymes are accorded the rather worrying status of GRAS ‘generally regarded as safe’ (my italics); thus insuring that manufacturers are covered should any future problems arise. There is evidence that enzymes are potentially allergenic (for instance bakery enzymes may cause respiratory problems and allergies).
George Cass, Professor of Toxicology at the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) based in Parma, Italy described the process in assessing the safety of various chemical compounds. Companies contact the Authority with information on the particular substance and then the compound is analysed to see whether it is safe for the consumer. There are currently 2700 flavouring compounds used in Europe and they are all being re-evaluated as there was no consistent evaluation process in the past (being left to individual states). We heard that the Authority is currently involved in checking the safety of enzymes – especially with regards to allergenicity. If any problems are identified, the Authority will inform EU.
As Joanna concluded the discussion by stressing the need for people to cook, there was a very interesting exchange over the issue of class. The presenter voiced concerns that any talk about the importance of learning to cook strayed into Baroness Jenkin territory: the Conservative peer who recently suggested that poor people don’t know how to cook (see here). Joanna agreed that the prevailing attitude here in the UK is that it is OK not to cook but emphatically denied that this is just about working class people, noting that Baroness Jenkin’s mistake was linking it to class (although the terms ‘poor’ and ‘working class’ seem to have been confused). She added that if we are discussing class, in many ways it is actually middle class people who are being conned the most as they are paying a premium for processed food that they think is ‘superior’ to the more obviously cheaper processed food.
Class distinctions aside, listening to all this is obviously disheartening. The onus is – as always – put on to the consumer to ferret out the information about the food they are buying. At what point did we think it normal to have to consult government websites and hotlines about the food we eat? Of course there is a danger of being completely overwhelmed by all this and just saying ‘to hell with it’, but food labelling is one of the tools we use to help us choose food that is healthy and safe. ‘Clean labelling’ is a deliberate attempt to confuse the artificial with the natural and makes these choices even harder.
By following a Paleo diet we attempt to simplify food choices to the essentials, avoiding processed food as much as we can (I still regard things like coffee and coconut milk as processed), and sticking to basics. Sometimes when I walk around a shop, service station or airport while travelling and without pre-prepared food I often toy with the question ‘What would a hunter-gatherer recognise as food here?’ It’s not a perfect test but it helps. In a sea of sandwiches, panini’s, pies, cakes and confectionary, a tub of fruit may look like the nearest thing to natural food but after listening to this programme I realise that I might be wrong. Then again, even if I choose a piece of fruit, what about the chemicals that may have been sprayed on it? Some would argue that we could we could drive ourselves crazy with all of this but I think that the key is mitigation. Choose real food as much as possible in its natural state without the packaging (meat, fish, veg, fruit, fats, nuts and seeds, herbs and spices) from sources you trust, try to avoid processed foods and anything with ingredients that sound more at home in the laboratory and when you see a label that screams ‘natural’, just don’t believe the hype.