Thursday, 13 September 2012

What's your dinner doing to you?

Standing at the bus stop one morning last week, it was impossible not to overhear a conversation between two other women.

“I’ve lost loads of weight in the last three weeks,” said one.

“Oh god! What have you done?” asked the other. What was this miracle diet?

“I’ve just stopped eating takeaways and processed food,” said the first one, by way of explanation.

Nothing else, apparently. No running a marathon every evening. No skipping meals – not even any of that calorie counting malarky.

Just cutting out processed and fast foods. And replacing them with fresh food.

I didn’t catch any more of the conversation at that point, but after my own Mars bar moment, I’m more than ever convinced that processed food is a big, big problem.

Later, in an Italian deli where I was getting breakfast, I was chatting with the owner as he made me a sandwich (egg mayo, made on the premises).

“I wouldn’t even have such things [Mars bars] in the shop if I could get away with it,” he said, after I’d told him how it had made me feel. “But it’s a business and people want them”.

He went on to tell me about a relative, whose young son was putting on weight – despite playing football seven days a week and eating an apparently sensible diet.

“I told his mother to stop giving him two cartons of Ribena a day, and sliced bread spread with margarine,” he said. “That’s all”.

His mother thought the Ribena healthy – and everyone knows that marg is better for you than butter.

She took action, though – and the boy’s weight problems were solved.

My egg may sandwich may have taken a world-record time to make, because with nobody else in the café at that time, it was perfect for conversation.

Not for the first time, we touched on organic foods. According to a study of many studies by Stanford University, it has been ‘proven’ to be of no greater health benefit to you than ‘conventional’ foods.

Well, perhaps: if you ignore the findings that organic foods will contain an average of 30% less pesticides than non-organic foods.

And less antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

And if you think that those things have no health implications.

But you can just forget those sort of things – as the headline writers did when covering the story.

Actually, we touched on something totally unmentioned too – taste. Buying organic food will get you better tasting food.

Now I’m not personally convinced that this is because the food is organic per se, but more because it’s not been grown in an artificial manner.

The celery and the cucumber I get from Broadway Market is not organic, although the farmer uses only the minimum of pesticides etc that he needs, but it’s growth is not forced or artificially sped up. And it has scent and taste.

Anecdotally, I’ve yet to find any supermarket celery that’s really worth paying out for – and to get cucumber that’s worth the effort, you have to look at organic, in my own experience.

Just as with fruits, they’re always going to taste much, much better if you only harvest them when they’re actually ripe and ready for eating.

Obviously that’s not easy for shops, but seasonality can help, as does eating regional produce. In other words, things don’t have as far to travel to the table – and don’t have top be picked so much earlier.

It’s not that supermarkets can’t grow, source or sell food that actually has a taste – they just tend to charge more for ‘flavoursome’ varieties; an acknowledgement that much of the rest is the antithesis of that.

I do wonder if part of my reaction to the Mars bar was because I’ve spent three weeks when I’ve eaten pretty much nothing that has been processed in the way that we use that phrase.

I don’t go to France with a plan to ‘only eat completely non-processed things’, it just happens.

It easier – not least because the bread from the boulangerie isn’t Chorleywood; stuffed full of extra yeast so that it can be produced quicker, and full of chemicals to keep it ‘fresh’ for days.

And when we eat all these things, what are we doing to ourselves – and what are we doing to our taste buds too?

It seems to me that there’s a catch 22 in operation too: people end up eating poor food that does nothing to give them pleasure, so they rather understandably then want to pay less for their fuel.

Or they buy food, stuffed with sugar and salt and artificial flavours, that gives an easy hit that they enjoy – and then seek again.

It’s perhaps no wonder that Britain’s favourite smoked cheese has it’s ‘flavour’ poured out of a bottle.

If you look at this, you’ll see that the organic smoked Cheddar – the one that’s naturally smoked over “Cornish oak chips” costs more than the one that has the flavour added from a bottle.

The Bavarian smoked cheese is probably a better product in terms of ingredients, but that’s not the cheapest.

Nope: the cheapest is the one with ingredients including: “Smoke Flavouring, Paprika.”

Which is rather depressing, really.

Three weeks in France, as reported in the blog, saw me regularly buying food in small local shops, at the market – and at the local supermarket, a Carrefour (one of the world’s big four).

On one occasion, I pointed out to The Other Half that, even in that Carrefour, there’s no aisle of potato snacks. You’ll hardly find any at all in the little alimentation I used most regularly – both because it was closest to where we were staying and because it was so good.

No shelves heaving with crisps – but a small deli/butcher counter.

I know which I prefer.

Huge amounts of the fresh produce came from France – most of the fruit was from the Roussillon, the region we were in.

Now obviously France is enormously fortunate geographically in terms of being half in the north of Europe – and half in the south, giving it an incredibly wide variety of indigenous foods and, in effect, longer growing and harvesting seasons than we have.

But it’s more than just that: it’s an attitude toward food and an attitude toward life.

It’s worth noting that, although I wasn’t counting, I suspect we spent less on food for eating in that we would have at home. Where I did make a fleeting mental note was in observing that fish and poultry were slightly less expensive than I’d get them for on Broadway Market.

And a little more food for thought too, via Joanna Blythman on Twitter: a scientist in Australia – backed by scientists in the UK – has found that a GM wheat variety could cause liver failure. (Story)

Think about the possibility that increases in various food intolerances are down to aspects of food processing. And then ask yourself in whose interest all this is being done.

BBC report on organic food and health.
Rebuttal of study and reporting of study.

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