Labelled with Lies

99% meaning free

By the way, if anyone here is in advertising or marketing…kill yourselves.

I don’t take quite such a hard line as Bill Hicks on marketing and advertising – like it or not, any product demands some degree of marketing, even if it’s as basic and innocent as telling a few friends about the existence of your blog – but I do have a certain sympathy with some aspects of his rant, if not with the ruthlessness of his solution.

So perhaps it’s a kindness of sorts that Hicks died so tragically young; because in the twenty years since his passing, marketers and advertisers have assumed an ever-growing and increasingly intrusive role in our lives.

TV commercial breaks have got longer, just as the bits of programming in between the ads have been opened up to legitimised product placement. Facebook and Google, among many others, tailor their advertising based on the information we’ve consciously or unwittingly provided about ourselves.

And on a less obviously sinister note, the continuing trend towards packaged food has created millions of additional canvases, all ready to receive the varyingly sophisticated daubings of the latest generation of marketers.

These range from the endearingly gormless – I recently saw a pack of fresh mint that extolled the product’s virtues as “an essential ingredient in mint sauce” – to more blatantly cynical spin around the relative healthiness of foodstuffs.

We’d all like to imagine we’re too smart to fall for the old “99% fat-free” trick, but if we were, no company would bother doing it. In practice, we tend to gloss over the second digit of the percentage figure, meaning that we don’t perceive much difference between products that are labelled as 99% and 95% fat free, even though one contains five times as much fat as the other. (And as this piece on the BS Health website points out – albeit rather shoutily – we’re even less likely to realise that if a food contains 5% fat by weight, that doesn’t equate to 5% of its calorific value: the true calories-from-fat percentage is more than twice that.)

Moreover, products that have been largely stripped of fat will often contain higher levels of salt and/or sugar, by way of taste compensation. This is why you’ll often read claims about processed foods being low in fat or sugar or salt; but rarely more than one of those, and almost never all three. (Professor Sandra Jones, of the University of Wollongong, usefully demystifies this and other food labelling tricks here.)

Similar examples of selective labelling are there to see on every supermarket shelf; but we only really notice the more amateurish and desperate efforts. A packet of crisps carries the boast of “no artificial colours”; but on brief reflection, we could have guessed at that – because they’re crisps, and they aren’t blue. There’s no equivalent claim around artificial flavours, and with extremely good reason.

Perhaps most insidious are the vices presented as virtues. The large majority of steaks now sold in supermarkets are vacuum packed soon after slaughter, thus minimising weight and water loss before sale and maximising profits for the retailer. They’ll still shed that excess water eventually, but not until you cook them; so ultimately you get less meat for your money.

Sitting in a bath of their own moisture, the steaks will still tenderise somewhat over time, but will be less tender and tasty than properly hung meat, because the tenderising effect of the meat’s natural enzymes is arrested by the vac-packing, and there’s no moisture loss to concentrate the flavours.

Nonetheless, because we’ve (correctly) come to perceive aged beef as good beef, the packaging will still carry the boast that the meat is “21 day matured”. The only problem is that most of those 21 days have been spent not hanging in a well-aired cooler, but sitting in an airless plastic wrap on the shelf of a fridge. It’s only marginally more appealing than the idea of 21 day matured milk.

Should we wish to buy properly aged beef – “dry-aged”, to use the new vernacular – we’ll pay heftily for the privilege. It’s almost certainly worth it; but it’s still galling to see a centuries-old method of meat preparation being presented to us as a luxury.

When you finally come to fry the steaks, there’s one last opportunity for misinformation: the cooking instructions on the packet. These take me back into my favourite “no recipe” territory; because if you allow a standardised prescription to take precedence over your own senses and judgement, you’re almost certainly destined for a disappointing meal.

Here are the cooking instructions for a Tesco fillet steak (source here):

Remove all packaging. Allow the meat to sit at room temperature for 10 minutes. Lightly brush each side of the steak with oil and season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Fry in a very hot dry heavy based pan over a high heat for 2 minutes on each side to seal in the juices. Reduce to a medium heat and continue to cook for a further 9-11 minutes (rare), 11-13 minutes (medium) or 15-17 minutes (well done), turning once. Remove the steak from the pan and allow to rest in a warm place for 3-5 minutes. Add a knob of butter to the pan and allow to melt. Pour the cooking juices and butter over the steak and serve immediately.

Like any bad recipe, this is a prime example of too little information being worse than no information at all. One steak might be significantly thicker than the next, meaning that it’ll take longer to cook through to the middle; but there’s no place for such nuances in these standardised directions. And without any definition of what “high” or “medium” heat represents, the cook is left to guess what is meant, and the timings become essentially meaningless. (That said, even a thick fillet steak, cooked for a total of 15 minutes, will be a long way from rare; but then, your litigation-fearing retailer would much rather you ate a “safe” steak than a pleasant one.)

Furthermore, doing the initial frying over a high heat doesn’t actually “seal in the juices”; instead, it produces a charred exterior that greatly enhances the flavour. So there’s absolutely no point in setting your kitchen timer and giving the steak precisely two minutes on each side at the high heat; instead, your aim should be to get the meat well browned on all surfaces, as quickly as you safely can.

Not everything about the instructions is wrong-headed. As I’ve said, the initial high-temperature cooking is a good thing – just not for the reason specified – as is giving the steaks time to come towards room temperature before cooking (though ten minutes won’t make a lot of difference). But anyone who’s tempted to use them as a definitive guide would be far better doing an internet search for “how to cook steaks”, spending ten minutes reading over the results, and never again having to bother with the directions on the packet.

(As a further option, you could buy one of those purpose-built contraptions that claim to “take the guesswork out of cooking steaks”. Better still, you could use a simpler, cheaper and more traditional cooking tool: your hand.)

In fairness to Tesco, it’s not as if they’re any worse than their competitors when it comes to ludicrous cooking instructions. And unlike the “21 day matured” label, this is an example of the inadequacies of recipes generally, not of cynical marketing.

But just occasionally, the worlds of shabby marketing and false prescriptions come together in perfect disharmony. The outstanding example I’ve seen – “the crowning turd in the water pipe”, to borrow from General Melchett – can be found on packs of Waitrose minced beef.

At least this particular instruction is nice and straightforward:

Simply pan-fry for just 24-26 minutes.

Many a tweeter would envy the sheer quantity of nonsense Waitrose have managed to pack into 37 characters there – or, should I say, into “just 36-38 characters”. So let’s subject it to a little analysis.

Maintaining the Blackadder theme, it’s rather like the Prince Regent‘s definition of the word “a”: “It doesn’t really mean anything, does it?”

It doesn’t tell us the form in which we should “simply pan-fry” the mince: in burgers (in which case, how thick?); as meatballs (how big?); in some other moulded shape; or as it comes. It doesn’t tell us how much heat to apply. It doesn’t tell us whether, or how, to season or otherwise flavour the meat. If we took the advice at face value, we’d be left with a plate of bland, chewy mince. So, while I’m all in favour of simplicity, I’m not sure this guidance will quite do the trick on its own.

Best of all is the direction to cook the meat for “24-26 minutes”. Presumably, Waitrose began by plucking an arbitrary cooking time – 25 minutes – out of thin air; then, in a token acceptance of the falseness of that premise, expanded it by a minute either way. If that’s supposed to encourage us to exercise discretion, it’s not inviting us to use very much of it.

In practice, depending on what you’re making with the mince, you might end up cooking it for anything from 5 minutes – for a thin burger, say – to 5 hours, after which a Bolognese sauce, simmered very gently, will have come to no harm at all. If you cooked these dishes for 24 minutes each – or 26 for that matter – the burger would be cremated, and you’d be chewing the Bolognese as a dog would a slipper.

So all the instructions really succeed in doing is offering essentially bad cooking advice, on false pretexts of simplicity and speed. They are, in the specifically Scottish sense of the word, pure mince.

But fear not; because just underneath, we find a second option.

Try Heston’s chilli con carne with spiced butter for a smooth finish.

That’s quite a logical leap, isn’t it? If the instruction to “pan-fry for 24-26 minutes” inexplicably fails to produce delicious results, you might as well give up trying to think for yourself and slavishly copy Heston Blumenthal’s recipe instead – which, I’d note in passing, stipulates rather less than 24 minutes’ “pan-frying” and upwards of an hour’s simmering – and which will improve your cooking as assuredly as using a Michelangelo-endorsed paintbrush will pep up your frescos.

Somewhere in between the two presented options, we might insert an alternative, far more meaningful set of cooking instructions:

Fry the meat until you’re happy with the colour. Add vegetables, aromatics, some appropriate liquid and whatever else you fancy, until you’re happy with the flavour. Simmer until you’re happy with the texture. Bask in the pleasure of having thought for yourself and invented your own dish. Eat and enjoy.

If there’s a moral to this story, it’s the same as the moral to most of my other stories: that the person best placed to decide what to buy, what to cook and how to cook it, is you. Not Heston; not some advertising executive; and certainly not a beleaguered supermarket staff writer charged with filling the space beneath the words “cooking instructions”.

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