No Time To Cook Nation

21 Apr 2006

Albeit aimed at Slow Food’s Italian readers, Slowfood is a magazine that encompasses the world. Here we offer English-speaking readers a sample article from the latest issue, number 18.

Since the Sudan 1 scare in 2005, when an illegal toxic colouring was found to have contaminated hundreds of British supermarket foods, the exact composition of processed foods has been subjected to more intense public scrutiny than ever before. Several newspaper investigations pinpointed ready-meals from supermarkets that contain up to 70 different ingredients, many of them obscure additives that speak more of the science lab than the domestic kitchen.

Consumer anxiety about additives is now chronic in Britain, so leading retailers are trying to allay fears and limit bad publicity by making public declarations about how they are reducing the number of additives in their food. Walk into a British supermarket now and you will be assailed by labels that say ‘No artificial colours, flavours or preservatives’ and similar.

Marks & Spencer’s leads the pack. It has reformulated over 450 ready-meals to remove artificial colourings and flavourings and hydrogenated fats and has cut down on the number that contain preservatives. For example, its Shepherd’s Pie – a traditional minced lamb and mashed potato dish – used to contain 56 ingredients. Now it contains 25. Marks & Spencer has also removed all chemically-hardened, artery-clogging hydrogenated fats from its ready-meals. The UK’s number one food retailer, Tesco, has also launched a ‘kitchen cupboard’ declaration, guaranteeing that all its own-label ready meals contain only ingredients used in domestic kitchens.

This reaction represents progress for anti-additive campaigners, but only of a limited sort. Problem number one is that the supermarkets’ definition of what you might find in a home kitchen is highly questionable. How many domestic cooks use ingredients like xanthan gum, wheat starch, yeast ‘powder’, dextrose, tapioca starch, guar gum, wheat gluten, carageenan, or caramelysed sugar powder? And what exactly are spice or herb ‘extracts’? Not straight spices or herbs obviously, so how are they made and by what processes? Yet such ingredients still feature prominently in many products bearing additive-free logos.

Problem number two is that supermarkets have trumpeted their efforts to reduce additives in ready-meals to create a halo of naturalness and wholesomeness over their entire range. But peruse other categories of food on their shelves — desserts, cakes and confectionery, soft drinks, breads, filled pastas — and you will see that many are still stiff with the same old bad and unreconstructed additives. For example, many supermarkets sell a ready-made child’s lunchbox containing mini pork sausages (only 69 per cent pork mixed with pork fat, water, preservatives and flavouring), humid, spongiform airline-style white bread rolls (with 15 ingredients, mostly chemical additives), and something that has to be labelled ‘cheese food’, because it is only 80 per cent cheese with added water emulsifiers and preservatives, a sachet of tomato ketchup, and a low-fat strawberry-FLAVOUR yogurt with only three per cent ‘strawberry purée’ (a concoction of concentrated strawberry juice, sugar, artificial colour, flavours and preservatives). In other words, manufacturers, hand in hand with retailers, are highly selective as to where they put their anti-additive efforts. Look behind the limited ready-meal guarantees, and their efforts look paltry, given the sheer weight of additive-laden products they continue to sell.

Although it sounds as if supermarkets are taking a lead in additive reduction, at least in ready-meals, which ought to be a good thing, it is important to understand that they have a baser motivation for doing so. British supermarkets want to relax their consumers about buying factory-prepared foods that require no cooking, because they make far more money from profitable value-added processed foods than raw ingredients in their unprocessed form. There is a limit to how much you can charge for a bag of potatoes. But transform them into reheatable ‘silky, buttery deluxe mash’ and the sky’s the limit.

Supermarkets have a vested interest in encouraging the notion of ‘healthy’, additive-free processed meals because they relax consumers about buying something ready-made that they could make quite easily, and a lot more cheaply, at home. The subliminal message is ‘Don’t worry about not cooking. This product is as good as anything you could make at home’.

That false reassurance is marketing spin, of course. Factory-made industrial foods never have the savour of the real thing, made freshly at home. But nowadays Britain is turning into a ‘No Time To Cook’ country, where many people have so little experience of tasting home-cooked food any longer that they can no longer spot the difference.

Joanna Blythman is a British food and wine journalist and writer. Her latest book Bad Food Britain (Harper Perennial £7.99) will be published on June 5.

Illustration by Fabio Vettori

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