Junk food for thought

This week’s episode of “No Shit, Sherlock” is brought to you by the consumer group Which?, whose analysis of the worthy-looking sandwiches and pasta salads we buy for our lunch indicates that they can can be as unhealthy as so-called junk food.

Today’s Guardian, in its analysis of the analysis, notes that “Caffè Nero’s brie and bacon panini was highlighted as having more calories (624) than a McDonald’s quarter-pounder with cheese (518)”.

All that surprises me about this is that we’re expected to find it surprising in the first place. Break down the two sandwiches into their constituent parts – bread, red meat and cheese – and there’s no meaningful difference. So what would possess anyone to imagine that the brie and bacon panini – or panino, for all you Italian grammar pedants out there – would be somehow healthier than a burger comprising much the same stuff?

Other findings reported in the Guardian article are similarly illuminating. Mayonnaise – a mixture of a little egg and vinegar and an awful lot of oil – is quite high in fat. Adding a packet of crisps and a bottle of Coke to your lunch will increase its calorie count.

The Which? report, and the fact that it appears to qualify as news, say little we didn’t already know about packaged food, but a great deal more about our relationship with brands. To be fair to Caffè Nero, I’m not sure they’ve ever advertised the offending panini as some kind of healthy option. But if you perceive McDonald’s as representing the very worst of everything, it’s only logical that you’d imagine anything with an M&S or Pret a Manger logo to be less bad for your physical and moral well-being.

The only problem with this is that it’s patent nonsense, and always has been. If we accept the vices and virtues of capitalism in all its other aspects, why would food be the exception? Everyone in the business of selling food, be it McDonald’s, Caffè Nero or your local kebab shop, wants you to buy their wares. Within the scope of the brands they’ve defined for themselves, they’ll try to sell you what you’re most likely to buy. And they don’t much care if you get fat, develop type 2 diabetes or die; unless, of course, their brands become widely associated with those things, which might affect their sales.

We overconsume certain types of food – meat, salt, fat, refined sugars and starches – because we like the way they taste. So it’s hardly surprising that our convenience foods, from the Big Mac to the mayo-laden chicken pasta salad, are packed with these food types. Any food vendor could change the composition of its products tomorrow to include less of any or all of them. But we’d enjoy them less, so we’d be less inclined to buy them; and so it would be commercial suicide.

Of course, the holy grail of food marketers is to convince us that we’re eating better when in fact we’re doing nothing of the sort. And if we really are willing to believe that one red meat and cheese sandwich is fundamentally healthier than another, it looks like they’re on to a winner. But if we pause for even a moment to assess what we’re about to eat, we can work out that the difference exists purely in our imagination.

Which? executive director Richard Lloyd has stated that he wants “all manufacturers to adopt traffic-light nutrition labelling […] so consumers can see exactly what products contain.” And who knows, maybe that would have some impact on what we buy; but I have my doubts. What I can say with rather more certainty is that the big vendors would do as they’ve done with all previous legislation to give us improved information about the food we buy: first, they’d resist it, then they’d circumvent it. (For a longer and more considered view on this particular topic, see this piece I published last year.)

Ultimately, if we genuinely do want to eat better – and I’m yet to be convinced we really do – the solution will be found not on food labels but through our senses, thoughts and actions. You don’t really need to be told that Subway bread is chock-full of sugar; you can taste it. (If you walk within a few yards of one of their outlets, you can even smell it.) Nor should you need a Which? report or Guardian article to tell you that most processed food contains a lot of not-so-good stuff; buying it will always represent an act of blind faith, even if the labels end up 90% covered in nutritional information.

As was always the case, the best way to be confident in what you’re eating is to buy unprocessed (or less processed) food and prepare it yourself. Your lunchtime pasta salad might contain almost anything; an orange, labelled or otherwise, is still an orange.

How much importance you place on all this is, of course, entirely up to you. Few of us have the time or inclination to eat the “right” thing all the time. And I’m certainly not averse to the odd double cheeseburger. But if you’re as surprised by today’s news as Which? seem to expect you to be, it might be time for a little more lateral thinking and a little less brand loyalty.

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With provenance to guide us

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Something Tikka Masala

Another week, another we’re-not-eating-quite-what-we-thought-we-were story. This time, it’s the news that 24 of 60 takeaway meals sampled by Which? contained meat other than the advertised lamb.

Of these, twelve included cheaper meats in addition to lamb; seven contained no lamb whatsoever; and five had been so heavily processed that the scientists were unable to identify what meat(s) they contained. In other words, we can decipher the human genome, but not the doner kebab.

Granted, none of this is very pleasant. It’s undoubtedly fraudulent. Depending on what the mystery meat turns out to be, it could be stomach-turning. (The Mail, with characteristic restraint, took the discovery of the “UNIDENTIFIED” meat as its cue to ask, “Is there rat in your kebab?”)

But is it surprising? Hardly.

As long as there are humans, there will be fraud. And while we tend to think of fraud in purely financial terms, it occurs in relation to any tradeable commodity, from fine art to fishcakes. As such, every government devotes resources to combating it.

But not every form of fraud is pursued with equal vigour, or with equal success. Tax fraud might cost the UK 16 times as much as benefit fraud, but you’d hardly know it from reading the papers or listening to Government ministers. And food fraud, no matter that it has existed for as long as food trading, barely enters our consciousness until a particular scandal happens to capture the attention of the media and the public.

The inevitable consequence of such a scandal is that we get terribly worked up about one particular symptom, with no great attention paid to the others (let alone their causes). Such was the backlash to last year’s revelations, it’s unlikely we’ll find much horse in our burgers for the foreseeable future. But that’s no indication that the fraudsters have gone straight. And as public investment in food safety analysis continues to be cut, we’d be impossibly naïve to imagine that the situation is destined to improve.

But then, we are impossibly naïve; and what’s more, it suits us to remain that way, because our chief expectations around food are fundamentally incompatible.

We expect to take pleasure from the food we eat; but at the same time, we expect to pay as little as possible for the privilege. And achieving both of those things at once depends to a great extent on the questions we choose not to ask, and the truths we don’t much care to think about.

When we eat a £1.99 portion of fried chicken and chips, it doesn’t suit us to consider the conditions in which the birds lived, or the drugs with which they were pumped in order to survive them. Deep down, we might have a fair idea of the grim reality; but at the moment of consumption, the truth would impinge unacceptably on the pleasure.

So it is with our “lamb” curry. We choose to believe it’s full of good-quality diced lamb, of the kind we see in our local butcher’s or supermarket – though when we compare the price of fresh lamb with that of the curry, it’s hard to see where the takeaway is making its money. But anyway, the meat looks like lamb – though admittedly it’s taken on the colour of its surroundings – and even though its flavour is overwhelmed by the curry spices, we’re still reasonably certain it tastes like lamb. But as a few of the Guardian’s writers recently discovered, our palates and expectations frequently conspire to hoodwink us. And so the opportunities for substitution and dishonesty are far greater than we’d care to admit.

What allows us consistently to enjoy the cheap food we eat is the same thing that lets us engage with a far-fetched book or film: our capacity to suspend disbelief. Our empathy with the heroic space warrior, taking down alien after alien with his trusty plasma gun, is contingent on our suppressing what we know perfectly well: that the entire scenario is utterly implausible.

This suspension of disbelief doesn’t only apply to the ethics of the fried chicken meal or the authenticity of the lamb curry; it applies to every aspect of food processing, from farm, to factory, to retailer, to restaurant. Every time our food passes through a different pair of hands, another opportunity arises for fraud, adulteration or corner-cutting to take place. And at every stage, we take great pains not to think about it.

Even when the “fraud” is entirely inconsequential, we choose to pretend it doesn’t happen, then become indignant when confronted with the reality. Anything that compromises our fantasy of what goes on in a professional kitchen – for instance, the common and harmless practice of food being prepared off-site and heated up on the premises – is sufficient to provoke our largely directionless outrage.

This is ludicrous. Face it: everyone involved in your food’s journey from origin to plate needs to make a living, legitimately or otherwise. And the more steps this journey involves, the more people need to get paid. Even if the final product seems remarkably cheap, they all have to make their money somehow. So the only way you’ll make actual rather than perceived savings, while reassuring yourself that nothing untoward has gone on, is by taking the various jobs on yourself.

The trouble is, not many of us are in a position to grow our own vegetables, catch our own fish, raise our own animals or even cook all of our own meals. So what are the alternatives?

At one extreme, we have the option of saying “sod it”. Buy whatever’s cheap and tasty, and simply accept the fact that we could be eating almost anything. To a large extent, this is what most of us do already; but when we do, we should at least have the balls to admit it, and not get affronted when we find out that our 3am kebab might contain something other than prime lamb.

At the other end of the spectrum, we can go all out to establish the provenance of our food – if we have the time and money. The simplest way to do this is to go organic: not particularly because of any inherent superiority, but because organic producers are required to submit to a regime of scrutiny, testing and animal welfare that goes way beyond any Government-imposed standards. (Tacitly, we appear to believe organic food to be more trustworthy, judging by the way we feed our children: organic produce accounts for only around 2% of overall UK food and drink sales, but the figure for baby food is a startling 54%.)

Between these two extremes, of course, there’s a substantial middle ground: it isn’t a straight choice between doing everything or nothing.

The more we cook for ourselves using fresh, unprocessed (or, at least, less processed) ingredients, the less risk we run of eating something unsafe or unexpected. The broader the range of foods we learn to cook, the better placed we are to eat with the seasons, enjoying ingredients when they’re plentiful and inexpensive (ironically enough, lamb is cheap as chips at the moment…).

The more we learn to use up spare or leftover food creatively, the less food and money we waste, allowing us to spend the savings on better quality ingredients.

And the more pressure we put on our politicians to invest in food testing and supply chain monitoring, the more chance we have of actually finding lamb in our lamb curry.