Saturday, 4 August 2012

It's all in the process

At a recent economics conference, Karel Williams, professor of accounting and political economy at Manchester Business School, revealed something that I had never remotely suspected: the biggest industry in the UK is food processing.

Given the bad rap that processed food has, it wasn't particularly heartening. Processed food is one of the things that is contributing to the rise of obesity and diabetes in the country.

So the fact that the very process of food processing is so important to the national economy leaves a slightly unpleasant taste in the mouth.

But it does raise the question of just what we mean when we talk about 'processed' food.

A couple of weeks ago, on a recent trip to Broadway Market for Saturday shopping, I spent some time engaged in a chatting with Trevor, who runs one of the cheese stalls.

The subject under discussion was processed food. I can’t recall precisely how the conversation had started, but start it had, somehow, as I took advantage of the bowls of cubed cheeses to try the full variety of his wares.

Trevor mans the stall that specialises in selling the full range of Mrs Bourne's Cheshire cheeses, which I have been enjoying since the market was created.

But in his past career, he spent 15 years working for a major supermarket chain as a cheese buyer. Trevor knows his cheese.

Most food are processed, we agreed. Even olive oil, which everyone knows is a healthy food. It's the antithesis of what we think of as being processed.

But at the most basic level, it has been through processes to turn it from the olive that is picked from the tree, to the grassy, green oil that is drizzled elegantly onto salad or pasta, or sits in a bowl, with a pool of equally processed Balsamico floating in the middle, awaiting the arrival of good, crusty bread.

Bacon is processed too – not just the stuff that has been pumped full of water and antibiotics and hormones – but the bacon that has been cured in a traditional manner; that sizzles so teasingly from beneath the grill, rind crisping, before you slap it on a plate and greedily wipe out the pan with bread, making sure not a molecule of taste is lost.

Frozen peas are processed – albeit this is processing at pretty much its most simple. And, as mentioned in previous posts, jolly good they are too – particularly as a welcome relief in the darkest, coldest months of the year.

Cheese, of course is processed – and not just the floppy sheets of plastic that are draped like shrouds over burgers in fast food outlets the world over.

But there is processing – and there is processing.

Trevor told me that the most popular smoked cheese in the UK is applewood-smoked Cheddar.

Which sounds pretty decent. Until he explains how it’s made - having visited the factory to see it done in his previous job.

They take grade two Cheddar and, in effect, mince it.

To this, they pour ‘smoked flavour’ from a bottle.

Then they press it all together again to make it look like a solid cheese, and sprinkle paprika on the top to make it appear as though it has been smoked.

Is it only me that goes: 'Yuk!'?

The real smoked cheese - and I bought some from Trevor today - is, well, it's smoked. You can tell that from the colouring – and the way that's so uneven.

He explained that even when Wensleydale has cranberries added, the cheese is not totally minced before the fruit is added. And let's face it, it's fruit being added - not something from a bottle of 'smoke flavour'.

Look for the ingredients, incidentally, of that applewood 'smoked' Cheddar and you'll simply find 'smoke flavour' listed: they don't tell you what is used to make that flavour.

But even within processed foods, there are big differences. This morning, I picked up a pork pie from another stall. A processed item, obviously. Ingredients: "outdoor-reared British pork, wheat flour, lard, water, sea salt and pepper".

Now let's take a Melton Mowbray pork pie from Waitrose - in other words, a quality pie from a quality retailer.

Ingredients: "filling - pork, potato starch, rusk, gelling agent, pork gelatine, salt, spices". Pastry - "wheat flour, lard, water, animal fat and vegetable oil, including hydrogenated vegetable oil (with emulsifier mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids), salt egg".

I had to do a bit further research on some of this. Diglycerides are glycerides "consisting of two fatty acid chains covalently bonded to a glycerole molecule through ester linkages".

You any clearer? Neither was I.

Apparently, they're used as food additives to help blend together ingredients - such as oil and water - that would not usually mix well.

Perhaps such unnatural combinations are required because they help increase shelf life? I really don't know.

I do know, however, that the pork pie that I bought, and ate part of as part of a late lunch, was quite delicious.

And I do also know that, although a relative pie-making novice, I've never needed an additive like that to make unhappy partnerships of ingredients bind together.

But there you go.

Processed food is obviously not bad, per se. Like so much else in life, there's processed food; and there's processed food.

There are people who believe that you shouldn't eat any processed foods at all - I remember such a food Puritan suggesting, in an internet discussion, that one should, for instance, never out butter on a baked potato or in mash.

He observed that you would 'get used to' the dryness. Possibly. But why would you want to?

Not all processed food is bad - but the more I read labels on what I am contemplating buying, and the more I learn, the more I find myself trying to simplify what I select and eat.

And setting aside even the question of what constitutes healthy food or not, I'd suggest that, as in so much, the real deal in smoked cheese is far tastier than the one that had 'smoke' added from a bottle.

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