What's the yardstick?

The pervasive power of mass-produced food


This week I have been reading Swallow This. Serving up the Food Industry's Darkest Secrets by investigative food journalist Joanna Blythman. (you can find an excerpt in this article)

It is the gripping tale of her undercover forays into the food industry and the eye-opening secrets she uncovered in the process, from invisible coatings and factory-made oils to never-natural flavourings and the technology race to replace sugar. I thought I was quite aware of the machinations of the food (processing) industry but this book makes for eye-popping, jaw-dropping reading.


The implications of the all-pervasive power of the food corporations go far beyond just the actual food we eat. A chance conversation in the shop about making hummus at home, brought this into sharp perspective: Someone asked me for a better hummus recipe. What's wrong with yours? was my question back. Turns out the result tastes fine but the texture isn't 'right' because it's 'never like the stuff we buy'.


Maybe it was because I happen to be reading this book, or maybe because writing this blog makes me think about processed food even more than before, but this completely reasonable statement gave me a jolt. What yardstick do we measure the food we eat with? Why is it that we expect our home-cooked food to taste and look and feel like the factory made counterparts, and not the other way around? How come that factory made food has become how we expect things should taste and look?


We want bright red apples and spotless potatoes. We want the croissants buttery (but preferably without too much butter), our pork lean and pale, and our bread soft and fluffy (and to stay that way). We all want quality food - and these are the signs of quality, right?

Not surprisingly we do get quite a few of comments in our shop about our non-standard organic produce. Most of us are so used to even sized, even coloured, pressure washed and beautified 'products' - even those grown from the earth - that we can be genuinely baffled by how very small or big the cabbages can be, and how muddy the parsnips, that avocados are never 'ready to eat' out of the box, and that the tastiest variety of apricots looks small and spotty.


We should all be aware that all this standardisation and beautification comes at a huge cost: from the shocking waste of wonky veg to the overkill of chemicals that cause apples to ripen at the same time, oranges to stay shiny, boxed up salad to keep crisp and pre-made hummus to be oh so silky. And much of these treatments don't even have to be declared on the label (or are allowed to appear in harmless-sounding disguise).


My suggestion: Avoid factory-made food wherever possible. Cook at home as often as possible. And when your mind wants to compare the rough with the shiny call out the trickery. Not that is it easy: factory-made food lurks everywhere - and so do the glossy adverts. One way to tell: it most often comes in packets. It is also especially prevalent where huge sales require huge companies and an industrial scale of output (as well as input) to keep up with the demand.

Instead shop local and support independent small businesses (like your greengrocer, butcher, deli, bakery, fishmonger and wholefood shop**) and buy direct from the producer as much as possible. Support these last standing purveyors of real food - it is now they need it more than ever or they'll be soon swallowed up by the incessant and greedy strive of 'progress'.


And do read that book.

** Full disclosure: I run one of these small independent local shops. I'm sure there are similar ones near to where you live!



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