Food science: Hard to stomach, and hard to swallow

Joanna Blythman’s new book, “Swallow This”, is packed with insights that make for salutary reading

There is a factory in the UK producing 10 tons of chicken tikka a day.Photograph: Thinkstock

There is a factory in the UK producing 10 tons of chicken tikka a day.Photograph: Thinkstock

 

Time and again, as you read through the pages of Joanna Blythman’s new book, Swallow This, your jaw simply drops.

Can there really be a factory in the UK that produces 10 tons of chicken tikka in a single day?

How could it be that a pizza analysed by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, which carried a “country of origin Ireland” label, came to be made with 35 different ingredients that had passed through 60 countries on five continents?

Who, you wonder, was the food science genius who devised a fritter batter that claims to offer a “cake-like interface”?

Who on earth actually eats the ready meals made by the company that boasts that it produces 2.5 million ready meals each week?

Can you believe that when the UK Food Safety Authority tasted fresh scallops, that some of them contained 54 per cent water? How do you actually get water into a fresh scallop?

And is there really such a thing as an “Arabian burger flavouring”? If there is, who would want to eat it?

Swallow This is packed with this sort of jaw-dropping, eye-opening investigative discovery, and it makes for salutary reading.

Thankfully, Blythman is alive to the absurdities she is uncovering, and it makes her wit roar: the smell of a sticky bechamel in a food factory has a “fragrance reminiscent of regurgitated baby milk”.

If you want to understand the annual three-day Food Ingredients trade show, she writes, then “think of it as the food manufacturer’s equivalent of an arms fair”.

Touring the trade fair – using a fake ID, because it’s not open to members of the public – Blythman comes across products with names like Superstab, Hydro-Fi, Meatshure and Ecoprol. The latter, she writes: “sounded like a truly original fisherman’s friend, because it ‘extends the shelf life of fish, especially in the processing and marketing phase’.”

And when she gets around to discussing the controversial modern use of nanoparticles in food packaging, Blythman reminds us: “Toxins, like bad luck and playground bullies, gang up, and when they do, the results aren’t pretty.”

Great line

Swallow This

Michelle Obama’s commitment to organic foods is well known but, in the modern world, it’s a love that dare not speak its name. As for Cameron: not a peep. In the US and the UK, disastrous agricultural and food policies continue unchecked, and public health suffers.

When I speak to her at her home in Edinburgh, Blythman outlines the nature of the problem: “Well, I think we all like to think that there’s some sort of silvery-haired, very scientific, sage regulators looking out for our best interests, and that we can rely on them.

“They wouldn’t allow anything into the food chain that would be bad for us, or dangerous, or not good for our health, or nutritionally questionable. And what I’ve realised from my researches is that really there is actually no such thing.”

As Blythman points out: “I believe that hell will freeze over before the state takes action to protect us from the damage caused by processed food. Why? This industry is just so damn profitable.”

The P-word (profit) conquers all other concerns in the modern world, so Blythman suggests that we have to find our own solutions: “The problem is that the regulatory authorities are lobbied very, very heavily by the big food multinational companies. Something like 20-30,000 lobbyists in Brussels alone, knocking doors in the European Commission and influencing MEPS. And often on the government committees there are experts who make decisions about levels of what is considered to be safe – a safe level for a chemical in our food. These are people who often in their day job are taking grants and getting money from companies that have a very vested interest in seeing their products commercialised.

“So, as a result, my idea is that we have to operate a personal precautionary principle [PPP].”

The thing about a PPP, of course, is that it also brings with it a PPS: a Powerful Political Statement: “These days, cooking is a powerful political statement, a small daily act of resistance that gives us significantly more control of our lives.”

Negative reaction

Swallow This

Blythman has been hearing those assurances since she wrote her first book, The Food We Eat, in 1996. For 20 years, through a series of brilliant books, she has remained steadfast in her clear-eyed critique of the murky side of the food business. Swallow This is not comfortable reading, but it is essential reading.

Swallow This is published by 4th Estate.

John McKenna is editor at guides.ie

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