Friday, 15 April 2016

The best food advice is simple – make it yourself

Authentic carbonara. Honest
In a surprise move today, Mars Food announced that it was going to add new labels to its foods to indicate what should only be eaten once a week and what could be eaten on a daily basis.

This is largely a response to the government’s recently-unveiled sugar tax, and products would be in the once-a-week category because they contained high levels of sugar salt or fat.

So it’s probably fairly safe to assume that “a Mars a day” will no longer be recommended as the ideal way to “help you work, rest and play”.

Setting aside for the sake of this post the fact that increasing evidence is helping to topple the myth that fat, per se, is bad for you, one is left wondering just how much sugar and salt is in some of the Mars products.

The two brands mentioned are Uncle Ben’s and Dolmio, and Mars Foods claims that “some foods were higher in salt, sugar or fat to maintain the “authentic” taste of products”. So let’s take a little look.

A 500g jar of Dolmio bolognese original pasta sauce apparently serves four people and provides one portion of your fruit and veg for the day. The usual price at Ocado is £1.79.

It contains: Tomatoes (76%), Tomato Paste (11%), Onions, Sugar, Cornflour, Lemon Juice, Salt, Sunflower Oil, Basil (0.3%), Garlic, Parsley, Herbs, Spices.

A jar of Dolmio’s bolognese low fat sauce (same weight and price) contains exactly the same ingredients. Presumably, since no percentages are given below 11%, the percentages on oil and sugar change a little as it claims to be a low fat version.

The same company’s lasagna “creamy pasta sauce” (470g jar for £1.80) has a rather more complex ingredient list: “Water, Sunflower Oil, Modified Maize Starch, Butter Fat (from Milk), Sugar, Fat Powder (Palm Fat, Lactose, Milk Protein), Natural Flavouring (contains Celery), Lactose, Broth Powder (Sugar, Flavourings, Yeast Extract, Dried Glucose Syrup, Salt, Coconut Fat, Sunflower Oil, Smoke Flavouring, Milk Protein), Salt, Acid (Lactic Acid), Stabiliser (Xanthan Gum), Milk Proteins, Antioxidant (Rosemary Extract)”.

Dolmio’s “lasagne meal kit original” (807g for £3.99) contains: “Tomato Sauce for Lasagne: Tomatoes (67%), Tomato Paste (19%), Lemon Juice, Onions, Cornflour, Sugar, Salt, Basil, Garlic, Herbs, Spices, Creamy Sauce for Lasagne: Water, Cream (20%) (from Milk), Modified Maize Starch, Fat Powder (Palm Fat, Lactose, Milk Protein), Salt, Garlic, Milk Proteins, Sugar, Onion Powder, Spices, 9 Lasagne Sheets: Durum Wheat Semolina”.

The company’s carbonara microwave sauce (150g for £1.40) “serves one”) contains: “Water, Cream (from Milk) (14%), Ham (5.9%) (Pork, Water, Brine Mix (Dextrose, Stabiliser: Triphosphate, Flavouring, Antioxidant: Sodium Ascorbate), Salt, Preservative: Sodium Nitrite), Modified Maize Starch, Cheddar Cheese (from Milk) (2.0%), Broth Powder (Sugar, Flavourings, Yeast Extract, Dried Glucose Syrup, Salt, Coconut Fat, Sunflower Oil, Smoke Flavouring, Milk Protein), Milk Proteins, Salt, Garlic (0.2%), Yeast Extract (contains Barley), Spices, Sugar”.

Uncle Ben’s chilli con carne medium sauce (450g for £1.79) contains: “Tomatoes (51%), Lemon Juice, Red Peppers (7%), Red Kidney Beans (7%), Onions, Tomato Paste (6%), Pinto Beans (5%), Sugar, Cornflour, Spices (of which Cumin, Jalapeño Powder), Salt, Parsley, Coriander, Onion Powder, Cocoa Powder, Herbs, Colour (Paprika Extract)”.

Uncle Ben’s sweet and sour original sauce (450g for £1.79) contains: “Water, Tomatoes (17%), Sugar, Onions, Pineapple (6%), Vinegar, Carrots (5%), Cornflour, Red Peppers (3%), Celery, Green Peppers (3%), Bamboo Shoots (2%), Tamarind Juice, Salt, Colour (Paprika Extract), Spices”.

In some cases there’s no much obviously wrong with the ingredient lists. Although who puts cornflower in a basic tomato sauce?

A basic tomato sauce requires finely-chopped onion, softened in some olive oil, with either skinned, fresh tomatoes or a tin of good-quality ones added, a squeeze of purée, then a pinch of salt and maybe a tablespoon of milk to cut the acidity, a little time and a few gentle stirs. Rocket science is is not.

Cornflower doesn’t come into it. Nor does sugar. And it’s a fair bet “sunflower oil” isn’t an “authentic” ingredient in Italy.

And once you get to the lasagna or carbonara – go on: hands up who looks at those ingredient lists and actually wants to eat that?

There’s one very simple way to avoid the crap and the inauthentic ingredients in these products – eat fresh food rather than processed.

The prices can make it appear that this is the affordable way to eat: that £1.79 for a jar of sauce might look very cheap, but as illustrated above, you don’t need much to make a decent tomato sauce. Oil, purée, seasoning and milk are store cupboard ingredients. Tomatoes and onions – well, you’ll be able to make more than £250g per person for your money and, by doing it that way, you’ll get two portions of veg.

To clarify further: you can get a 400g tin of high-quality, organic tomatoes from Ocado for 89p. A portion of veg is classed as 80g (or a handful), so that’s a portion per person for four. A couple of onions gives you a second portion – large brown onions at Ocado are 24p each. So that’s £1.37 for tomatoes and two onions. The other 42p will probably cover your store cupboard ingredients. And, as with the jar of sauce, you still need to add meat and pasta to make your Bolognese.

Of course, if you were really trying to be “authentic”, you’d need some celery and carrot too, plus red wine, garlic and bay leaves – and that’s before you get to the meats (pancetta and minced beef), the pasta – tagliatelle, NOT spaghetti – and Parmesan cheese to serve.

I shiver at the thought of that carbonara being “authentic”. But then again, part of the trick of Big Food is to work on the basis that most people won’t know that’s it’s wrong and won’t question such a statement, so they’ll get away with it.

By the way, carbonara is simple.

Dice some good pancetta (or top-quality, unsmoked streaky bacon) and cook gently in a little olive oil.

Cook your spaghetti. When it’s done, drain and mix in the bacon.

Stir grated Parmesan into a bowl with a beaten egg or two and then, with the pasta off the heat, gently fold the eggy mix over to coat the pasta – and serve.

Or if you want to be a little different, try the Perpignan way – the best I’ve ever had and which I replicated here.

Whatever you do, you do not want it scrambled – just a silky egg coating on the pasta.

So … no water, no cream, no modified maize starch, no cheddar cheese (what planet are these people on?), no “broth powder”, no sugar, no yeast extract, no glucose syrup, no coconut fat (WTF?), no sunflower oil, no smoke flavouring, no garlic …

And I would confidently assert that my version is a damned sight more “authentic” than anything that has a Dolmio label on it.

* All ingredients lists reproduced as they appear online.


  1. I like carbonara with or without cream, and I've eaten it both ways in Italy (admittedly in Rome it was without cream, in a backstreet trat off the main tourist drag and frequented chiefly by locals). I cannot stand the packet mixes/jars in the shops, I've made the mistake of trying a couple and learned from my mistakes. The other thing I cannot stand is when restaurants add random filler like peas and mushrooms, that's not carbonara, the beauty of carbonara (like a lot of Italian cooking) is that it is simple, you don't need to pad it with random crap no matter how well intentioned or 'innovative' the cook thinks they are being!

    I'd be interested to know what your Perpignan version is. An Italian friend of my wife told her to add add a little bit of milk to the egg and cheese, it's a good tip, not as stodgy as using cream, but gives that little bit of creaminess that is missing the purist 'Roman' way.

    1. Hi M – thanks for the comment. The Perpignan way was pasta, the bacon and egg yolk that you stir in yourself. I've actually done it – and detailed it here: