Dispatches – Channel 4

Well, going by the Dispatches programme tonight on Channel 4, when ever you buy a low fat product – and by that they mean a product that is promoted as a low fat alternative to a normally high fat product.

Unsurprisingly, the low fat versions, although lower in fat, were often still high enough to qualify for a red traffic light. Well, when a product like cheese is made mostly from the fat part of milk, no one should really be surprised.

More revealingly was how inaccurate manufacturers are allowed to be with nutritional information – up to 30% is acceptable. It is noticeable that this 30% appears to be ABOVE what is quoted and not below!

But however horrifying the revelations on the programme might have been, it did leave out a far more important worry about the amount of fat, sugar, salt and so on that we consume and that is our growing reliance on manufacturers to come up with low fat (or low anything else) versions of our favourite morsel rather than using our own knowledge of food.

Years ago, the Daily Mail in one of their “we hate Prince Charles” campaigns, decided to pounce on the Duchy Original Organic Pasty and denounce it as an unhealthy food. SIX HUNDRED CALORIES they shouted from the rooftops with their jaws sticking out and best “disgusted of Tonbridge Wells” hat on.

But, of course, this was nonsense. Firstly, the product manufacturers never claimed this was either healthy or a diet product, simply that it was made from good quality organic ingredients. Secondly, it is a Cornish Pasty, a meal in a pastry designed for Cornish tin miners – it is MEANT to be a high calorie dish – not a snack!

And this is the point. If you want to eat mayonnaise, make a beautiful, home made one with best olive oil, but do not pretend that it is going to low fat, it is not. So, if you want it, don’t eat much of it.

If you want fried chicken, then accept it will be high fat – don’t have a bucket load, just have a couple of pieces with lots of salad and no fries.

If you want to reduce your fat intake. move to foods that are naturally lower in fats and cooking methods that do not add too much. Poach chicken breasts in wonderful stock with loads of vegetables till just done and still moist – it is gorgeous. Eat white fish steamed or grilled with mashed veg made with lots of black pepper and garlic.

And where you do want something fatty, get a really good NON low fat version, but just enjoy a little, rather than stuff your face.

Should we trust the manufacturers? NO WAY!

But we should not blame them either – we need to take responsibility for our diets, buy fresh, simple (and cheap), eat smaller portions of the right food for our needs, and go tell Big Food PR men to go and lie their bums off to someone else.

Yet again, the Buy One Get One Free (BOGOF) deals offered by supermarket chains have hit the news amid concerns about the huge amount of domestic food waste across the EU – Ninety MILLION Tons ever year. BBC News

In a report from the House of Lords (PDF) the European Union Committee says that supermarkets must take more responsibility for food waste and not just pass it onto the consumer disguised as great offers.

But of course, the story is far more complicated than that and goes back many years.

If you look at the amount that each of us eat on average every day, it has increased hugely over the last fifty years. We complain that food is expensive now, but we do not realise that your average chicken is not bigger than it was, we eat more potatoes, more of everything – our portion sized have increased and our expectation of portion sizes have increased.

The food industry has benefited from this greatly, but they are not an innocent bystander. Over the years, the food industry, especially through the supermarket chains, have encouraged us to buy larger and more often than ever before – 30% extra, buy one get one free, bigger bottles, tins, more oil, more sugar, more salt to make things moreish…

This is not about competition because you will often see the same offers repeated across many apparently competing chains. This has all been about increasing our expectations and desires and then fulfilling them by selling us yet more.

And the result?

We eat too much, get fat and want more.

And we waste vasts amounts.

We all do it – none of us are exempt. As a population we have simply walked into one huge trap, and the food industry has made enormous profits from it. As we get fatter, so do their bank accounts.

Many years ago there was a fad for huge vitamin C tablets – take one of these a day and you life would be transformed. What the adverts did not tell you was that these tablets contained far more than you needed and your body gets no advantage from extra vitamin C; indeed, it discards it.

Of course we are better educated on such matters now; or perhaps not. The new scam on the block is the protein drink. This is a spin off from the sports and body building world where athletes increase the amount of protein to help repair damaged and worn muscles after working out. Continue reading

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz In his keynote speech at the NRA Show in Chicago, Howard Schultz has said that large companies should be accountable to the communities in which they operate  But he managed to avoid mentioning whether they should pay as much tax as every one else.

Back in 2008 Starbucks was loosing focus with its customers – years of fast growth led the company to forget that though the company was vast, the actual restaurants were small. Schultz refocused the way the company employees connected with the customer – thinking small and individual rather than big and corporate. This is a good strategy for any company, especially in the service/catering sector, and it worked. Continue reading

oliver-bpiJamie Oliver, the celebrity chef who has campaigned long and hard for better, more healthy food in society, has been named in a lawsuit in the US.

Bruce Smith was laid off by Beef Products Inc, who produce ghastly, processed beef generously labelled Pink Slime by Oliver. Also named in the case is US food blogger, Bettina Elias Siegel and broadcaster ABC. Coincidently, Smith appears to be promoting his book about Pink Slime and how it affected his job. I am not suggesting that there is any link between the two issues, of course.

As a writer who writes about the politics of food as well as writing recipes, I think it is essential that commentators should be able to make valid opinions about the food we eat – especially when it comes to the food we feed our children – without the risk of being sued by huge corporations. This is a modern business twist that has also effected the more commercial side of the science and pharmaceutical industries where companies try and shut up critics and writers by suing them.

Despite living longer than our ancestors, we are not, often, healthier. This is as much to do with the huge quantities we eat (and waste) as the more popular complaint of the low quality of many food stuffs.

We need to educate ourselves to eat less and educate the food industry to only supply us with healthy, good quality food.

That means that we should be able to point to and identify the rubbish.

The manufacturers complain that their methods are needed to keep the price down for consumers – but then they undermine that argument by pushing the consumer to buy far more than they need.

Bettina Elias writes on her blog: “For the time being, I’ll have no further comment except to say that I’m confident the First Amendment protects the rights of all Americans, including bloggers like myself, against meritless attempts at censorship like this one.  I will vigorously defend my right, and the rights of all of us, to speak out on matters of public importance and to petition the federal government, as I did through Change.org, to change any policy with which we disagree.

If a company produces low grade, poor quality, food stuffs that has little nutritional value, then they should expect those that actually CARE for the health of the nation to stand up and complain.

It is called the” marketplace” and there will be losers and winners. We want the winners to be the ones that produce food that society can be proud of.

Now, which part of that should be gagged by a legal process?

the wonderful roquefort cheese
Wonderful Roquefort cheese

A charity called Consensus Action on Salt & Health (CASH), have released a report which they say reveals the scandalous amounts of salt “hidden” in cheese.

Salt in our diets has the potential to be a problem. Human beings are adept at using salt within our systems which is a good thing as it naturally occurs in a lot of what we eat.  We seem to thrive on small amounts of salt, but too much can be detrimental to our health, though the exact nature of the issues of strokes and cardiovascular disease remain contentious.

When we process food (not just modern methods, but ancient methods too), salt is invaluable. It works to preserve food like cheeses and hams and has been used as such for over six thousand years. Salt will also improve the flavour of many foods and has a distinctive flavour of its own.

So, it is not a bad thing that campaigning groups like CASH highlight levels of salt in our food, especially as the increase in highly manufactured foods has produced products where the salt level is not always evident by taste alone.

In good cheeses, however, this is quite idiotic.

Salt in cheese is essential, not just for technical production reasons and health & safety, but because it is part of the character of cheese. Cheese lovers will describe cheese by its salt level. Roquefort, for instance, a regulated cheese that can only be produced to a set recipe in a certain area of France, is known for its unique, salty flavour – that is what the cheese is all about.

So, why in publicising their report did CASH decide to announce, “The biggest survey of its kind reveals the alarming amounts of salt hidden in cheese?”

Hidden? Since when has salt been hidden in cheese? It has been part of its manufacturing process for THOUSANDS of years. The whole point of cheese is that you press and salt curdled milk – that is what cheese is. And many cheese will have very high levels of salt – especially beautifully crafted artisan cheeses.

There are two problems here, I suspect.

Firstly a complete ignorance of what cheese is by the writers of the report. Secondly, an assumption that when you buy a wonderful cheese that you eat great big slabs of it at a sitting.

Neither is excusable, but both are probably very common in our modern UK culture where we have become so lamely ignorant of what food is and how it is to be enjoyed.

In promoting this report, the people at CASH would have been far more helpful if they were to announce that perhaps we eat too much cheese at a sitting. That we should abandon cheep nasty versions and stick to the wonderful examples from round our country and round the world, and eat sensible amounts of them, enjoying them to the full without spending a fortune.

That would have been helpful. It would have promoted great food, good dietary practice and a sensible health message.

Instead, they decide to scandalise a 6000 year old product.

I am all for good health information, but when it is couched in such terms as the promotion for this report (bearing in mind that few will read the report itself), it does not inform, it does not help and it just sounds ignorant. I can guarantee that the French government and the licensed producers of Roquefort, a cheese whose origins date back to AD79, will be less than impressed with this report.

I would give you a link to the report, but on their site, the link is going to the wrong document. Sorry. You might try the BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-20524931