Sure You Know What’s Really In Your Food? Think Again...

  • From: Think.
  • Published: September 23, 2013
what's in7.jpgEvery now and then, as sure as lunch follows breakfast, a food scandal hits the front pages. In each instance consumers are left reeling, shocked at the possibility that the food industry could put people at risk from contamination or disease, or even subject them to plain and simple fraud. The latter was the case with Britain’s recent horse burger disgrace, when it was found that vast quantities of beef products contained horse DNA.

The UK has been the subject of several embarrassments over the past two decades, with BSE (mad cow disease) the most shameful. When in 1996 a link was found between sick cattle and a human form of the illness in people who had eaten infected beef, the trust between those who produce food and the millions who eat it was blown apart.

But such instances are all too common worldwide. In 2008, more than 300,000 children in China were affected by contaminated formula milk, with six dying and more than 54,000 hospitalized. The ensuing prosecutions led to two people being executed. In the USA the greater food scandal is not so much to do with a particular incident or incidents but a culture of adult and childhood obesity, directly linked to the overconsumption of processed convenience food. People of 'Fast Food Nations' – and to an extent these now include European countries – are known to nutritionists as the overfed and undernourished or, simply, the 'walking wounded'.

If it follows that something good can come from something bad, the outcome of any food scandal should be positive change – change that restores trust. And this does happen. Since BSE, 'traceability' in the UK meat industry has become mandatory and, paradoxically, the episode triggered a revolution in artisanal food production and a revival in consumer curiosity about what lies behind the label.

That is not to say the food chain is now 'clean'. No one would accuse the food industry of intentionally putting consumers at risk, yet labels still do not reveal all. Those that produce our food are not averse to a little liberality with the truth about what is in the pack, even if for the most part (notwithstanding 'Horsegate') they stay within the law. Indeed, the authorities and regulators, who ought to be aware of the shrewd and canny practices of some of the world’s most powerful companies, are quite accepting, if not complicit, in their reluctance to deter such behavior.

So it is left to shoppers to educate themselves and sniff out the wiles and ways of producers, particularly those supplying convenience food. Next time you buy a ready-made meal – perhaps a pasta dish or casserole – check the ingredients on the pack. These are named in order of quantity and you may (or may not) be surprised in the case of, say, a beef curry, to learn how often water is listed above the meat. An interesting experiment can be to remove all pieces of meat from a ready meal and weigh it. In poor-quality products the content can be shockingly low. Bulking out food is not a health issue but it is most certainly a swindle.
Ten Hidden Ingredients
- Enzyme processing aids – some derived from meat, used to extend the shelf life of bread and to thicken oil to make “spreads”

- Hair – an allowable quantity of (accidentally added) animal and/or human hair is permitted in food

- Pesticides – permitted residues of pest and weed killing spray are found on vegetable and grain crops

- Isinglass – a substance derived from the swim bladders of fish, used to clarify soft drinks

- Plaster – gypsum, used as a wall covering, is also used to thicken low-grade tofu

- Caustic soda – used to clear drains but also in the industrial peeling of soft fruit such as peaches

- Sawdust – or cellulose, used as an anti-clumping agent in packs of grated cheese

- Shellac – derived from insect secretions, used as a glaze in confectionery

- Meat gelatin – often used in chewy sweets and desserts

- GMOs – meat derived from animals fed genetically modified grain can be sold in places where GM crops are banned, such as in the European Union.
Shelf life is the grail of the fresh food producer. Who needs that old fashioned bread that went hard and crusty in a day when you can have a loaf whose crumb stays just-baked soft for nearly a week? Food technologists have developed state-of-the-art additives called enzyme processing aids, which are added to the dough before baking. Because they are destroyed in the cooking process, however, they do not have to be listed on the label.

This should not necessarily be cause for concern – after all, enzymes are traditionally used in cheese production and have been for centuries. But some experts fear that some may be allergens. Andrew Whitley, author of Bread Matters, The State of Modern Bread and a Definitive Guide to Baking Your Own, writes that enzyme processing aids are “modern bread’s big secret”. He adds that the safety of bakery enzymes has been “radically challenged by the discovery that the enzyme transglutaminase, used to make dough stretchier… may turn part of the wheat protein toxic to people with severe gluten intolerance.”

Other enzymes added to bread include those that make loaves lighter, enhance crust flavor and increase volume. Some may be from animal sources, including pork (phospholipase) – a particular cause for concern for those following halal or kosher diets.

Seasoned Practice
One additive many shoppers are aware they must watch for is salt, and they will find it listed on packs, helping them calculate their daily allowance. At least that is the idea. Salt level on labels can, however, be very misleading. Some producers, typically ready meal, sauce and bread manufacturers, list only the sodium level. One gram of sodium is equal to 2.5 grams of salt – half an adult’s daily allowance – and, when put in those terms, there are many products shoppers might find less appealing.

Labels are very clear about additives, yet sometimes we worry about the wrong ones. Many mothers will insist they do not want to feed their children food containing 'E numbers', but it is worth pointing out that (in the case of European produced food) E numbered additives have at least been passed as approved by the authorities. These include preservatives and colorings but not flavorings. The latter term sounds pleasant, but be in no doubt these are manufactured chemicals – the equivalent to the naturally occurring flavor molecules in food – and known in the industry as “nature identical”.

Lovely word, 'nature' – it doesn’t sound connected to the laboratory at all – yet it is one of many used in the language of food labeling that is laughably euphemistic. Heat treated, deodorised cooking oil will often be sold as vegetable oil. To many, vegetables mean good, fresh things such as carrots or runner beans. But the produce in such oils are seeds. These oils, including rapeseed and palm, should correctly be classified as fruit oils. The main point to be aware of is that seed oils are highly processed and contain unhealthy transfats – a fact appetising labeling can easily mask.

Neutral terms are also applied to encourage a sense of comfort to shoppers – 'farmhouse', 'country fare', 'cottage' and 'barn' – but don’t believe a word of it. The vast majority of what we eat is processed in state-of-the-art plants, not dear little thatched cottages.

A cynically raised eyebrow – or at the least shopping with a pair of reading glasses – can go a long way toward not being fooled by food firms, yet what happens when there is no information to hand? The retail sector is positively saintly compared to the catering industry. Menus are not labels, and unless the caterer (be it restaurant, hospital, school, office or event planner) voluntarily offers information about the source of the food they serve, we are none the wiser. This is the area now most in need of reform. The fast-food chains do list ingredients on their websites, but not on the tables.

Ultimately consumers have to demand information, however difficult that may be. It is not the only solution, though, as more and more people are discovering. If you really want to know exactly what it is you are eating, there is only one thing to do. Cook.

Rose Prince is a columnist for The Daily Telegraph, a broadcaster, cook and the author of the acclaimed The New English Kitchen: Changing the way you Shop, Cook and Eat. Her next book, The Pocket Bakery, is published in November.

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