Swallow This is the latest book from Britain’s leading investigative food journalist, Joanna Blythman. It uncovers the darkest processing secrets of the food we consume every day. Our Chief Executive, Patrick Holden, met up with Joanna to discuss the new book and her philosophy of how we should eat in this age of processed food.
Patrick: I would like to start by asking you why you wrote the book?
Joanna: Well, I realised after being in this business for a good 20 years that we all know quite a lot now about food production at the level of the farm – we’ve seen enough investigations of the way poultry are reared, for example. So I thought, we know a lot about chicken but we don’t know anything about how a chicken kiev is produced in a factory.
We actually don’t know very much about processed food at all and it always used to puzzle me. I try to avoid processed food but on the few occasions I have had to eat it, I think, why is it so different from homemade food? For instance, why is the blueberry muffin that I make at home fluffy and light and fruity and the ones that I buy are sort of heavy, doughy and don’t taste of fruit? I wanted to find out what was going on, what accounted for this disparity.
Patrick: I’ve always had a deep suspicion of processing aids and food additives but I don’t know a great deal about them, so it’s fascinating that you’ve made a study of this and have literally and metaphorically taken the wraps off!
Joanna: It was very frustrating because the food processing industry and the food manufacturers don’t have what you might call ‘open-doors days’. We’re not encouraged into the factory or to know anything about their secret recipes, which are covered by commercial confidentiality. They’ve used this for decades to keep us in the dark about what they’re doing to the ingredients. I had a hunch that there was a lot going on and I was absolutely right.
It was interesting, for example, to find out all the things that are done to eggs: they can be pasteurised and, if they lose their colour, they can be treated with an enzyme; you can do things to make them whip more or last longer; you can make them into tubular 300g cylinders that can be made easily into egg sandwiches. Every ingredient has been worked over, changed and subject to a lot of different processes, so when I managed to get behind the security wall of the food manufacturing industry – which wasn’t easy – there was a wealth of material there for me to write about.
Patrick: I related strongly to your memory of the Vesta chicken curry. It’s interesting how we all have these infatuations, which is, of course, exactly what the advertiser is aiming at – despite our better knowledge, we are somehow pulled towards it. It was also interesting to read that the intention of these flavourists is to produce a consistency in the food we eat, which adds to our addiction to them. Would you say this was confirmed by what you studied?
Joanna: I think that’s right. If I were to pick up a ready meal, for instance a chicken tikka, it wouldn’t taste good to me because it doesn’t taste anything like the food I make at home or eat in a restaurant. But there are lots of people who don’t cook and therefore don’t have benchmarks amongst unprocessed flavours and tastes – these processed food flavours strike them as very normal. I think when you’re locked into that you seek it out.
In the second part of the book I tried to identify the defining characteristics of processed food. They all have certain things in common – flavours, colours, sugary, sweet, oily, watery, tricky, use of enzymes, old, kept for far too long, packed in swathes of plastic, bulked out with cheap starch. This is a kind of anatomy of the processed food market.
Patrick: You say that you’re very interested in doing things for yourself and having an authentic relationship with your food, but you’re not going to become a back-to-the-land smallholder. Having been on this journey of rather gruesome discovery what would you now say that we can eat?
Joanna: My philosophy of food is quite simple. First of all I should say that I love to eat, I’m obsessed with food. My basic philosophy is to avoid processed food and to cook.
As you point out quite accurately, I’m a townie and I love to eat sourdough bread but I’ve never made a loaf of it in my life. I’m very happy to support people who are baking and making a living from it, but I’m not going to grow wheat and mill it into flour.
I’m quite careful about what I buy and I read the label, where I look for a list of very simple ingredients that I understand. It’s become trickier now because the food industry has gone through this whole clean label strategy to try and make our food look better than it is by shooing away all of the polluting things like E numbers and replacing them with things that sound better. For example, you’ll often see extracts or concentrates that sound like something you’d have on a yoga retreat but actually they’re flavourings, colourings or sometimes stabilisers or emulsifiers.
Patrick: So, faced with all these deceptive descriptions of processing aids, is your book a guide to the perplexed? And will we emerge from it knowing what to eat and what not to eat?
Joanna: I’m so delighted that people have already said to me that reading the book has made them think, ‘I knew processed food wasn’t good, I had a gut instinct that I didn’t want to eat it and this has just confirmed all my prejudices.’ I’m not saying there are no problems when it comes to buying a cabbage or potatoes or a piece of meat – there are still issues about sourcing provenance – but the problems to do with food are reduced hugely when you’re not trying to pick your way through the minefield of processed ingredients.
Patrick: So your take-home message from the book is that you need to know about this stuff because you need to be shocked into realising that this era of processed food must come to an end and be replaced by something better.
Joanna: Yes. We’re always sold the line by the food industry and supermarkets that we don’t need to cook any longer – it’s not necessary, they’ve got rid of all those nasty E numbers. We’ve all got a bit relaxed about it and I’ve met people who have said, ‘Well, of course, I wouldn’t buy something like a turkey drummer but I do buy this or that.’ There’s a lot more going on in the food industry than we know. I feel that since Maurice Hanssen wrote E is for Additives back in the 1980s, there’s been no-one investigating food processing as opposed to food production.
Patrick: It’s very interesting that you should mention E is for Additives. It was around that time that I first started working for the Soil Association and of course my preoccupation for many years has been about what happens before the farm gate. I take my hat off to you for making this study of processing and processed foods because I think nobody until now has done that and it was really needed.
Joanna: Well, thank you. I do feel it was needed and I almost wrote this book to satisfy my own curiosity but I also felt that people needed to know this. I think it’s no coincidence that we knew so little because the food industry, food manufacturers and the chemical industry operate a form of apartheid: you’re either in the industry and you know about it or you’re outside and you’re kept in the dark.
I’ve had some comments along the lines of ‘How dare you talk about food processing, you’re not a scientist.’ I find this very curious – there’s this idea that no-one in society is allowed to know anything about food processing apart from the food technologists, food engineers and chemists who run it. I think there’s a democratic deficit where we’re asked to trust people, with no good reason to do so, and to believe that they have our best interests at heart when often they don’t.
Patrick: Is the conclusion that we just need to wean ourselves off all processed food? Do you have a list of processed foods, for example, bacon and charcuterie, that you think are okay?
Joanna: Yes, I’ve got lots of things in my house such as mustard, bread, oatcakes, yoghurt and so on. But actually the book I wrote before Swallow This, called What to Eat, addressed a more practical way of knowing the difference between a good chicken and a bad chicken. I think the two books are quite complimentary but my take-home message now is to avoid processed food and cook.
Patrick: So what we need to do is read Swallow This, which will shock us into a realisation to change the way we eat and cook, and then read What to Eat, which will guide us through how we take things forward.
Joanna: I hope so. The most important thing for me, setting aside the heaviness of what’s going on in the food industry, is that I love food. I love authentic food and the taste of real food, sharing it around a table with people I love. I don’t want to allow the food industry to hijack that. I think it’s important for ordinary people to keep their own food sovereignty, and avoiding processed food is one way to do that.
Patrick: Thank you very much on all our behalves and in particular for dedicating the book to Derek Cooper, who was certainly one of my all-time food heroes and I know yours as well.
Joanna: I always have a warm feeling in my heart and a lump in my throat when I remember Derek Cooper. He was such a mentor and an impressive person in my life and I think if anyone made me think about food it was Derek. So if he were with us today I think he would enjoy reading Swallow This.
Photograph: Michael Verhoef
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