The previous programmes looked at how we have ended up so fat. In the third part the subject was so called healthy foods. Health foods have been around a long time, but they really took off in the nineties when a series of health scares over food eroded people’s confidence in the mainstream food industry. There was salmonella in eggs. Beef was afflicted with mad cow disease. It wasn’t mentioned on the show, but I think I remember that there was something supposed to be wrong with caviar. Mad sturgeon disease I think it was.
With all the suspicions around and growing, the supermarkets spotted an opportunity. They started selling organic food. This proved to be particularly profitable. Not only did the organic option command a higher price, it turned out that organic consumers were also quite keen on splashing out at the deli counter and also spent heavily on booze. So organic developed into quite a money spinner for the retailers both directly and indirectly.
It is interesting that supposedly health conscious consumers are also big drinkers. It seems a bit of a contradiction. But it seems to be the case that when we have done something virtuous like buy organic we feel able to treat ourselves to something naughty as a reward. We also aren’t very good at distinguishing what it is that makes a food healthy. For instance, the only claim that serious practitioners make about organic food is that it is free of supposedly harmful pesticide residues and is richer in nutrients. The Soil Association and similar groups have never suggested that organic food is less fattening. Nonetheless, that is what a lot of people who eat the stuff think.
Here’s a good example – fruit smoothies have more calories than a can of coke. The calorific value of 250ml of Coca-Cola is 105, an Innocent Drinks Strawberry and Banana Smoothie comes in at 136. (I should commend both companies for publicising the data on their websites.) I don’t think this means that the smoothie is less healthy, it is just more fattening. Smoothies are just as much processed food as much else that we eat. The thing that makes them seem innocuous is that we all know what the ingredients are and how they are processed. But the processing still enables us to get an unnaturally large amount of calories down our throats very quickly.
With the exception of smoothies, the processing of food makes it hard to work out exactly what it is we are eating. And making processed foods with natural ingredients doesn’t help much. Sunny Delight achieved its virulent orange colour by using a very natural ingredient – beta carotene. But a little girl in Britain who drank a litre and a half of it a day found herself turning orange. This probably didn’t do her any harm and indeed may have saved spending money on fake tan later in life. But it was still a bit of an alarming story.
Marketeers are not slow to spot an opportunity and lose no time in emphasising the health benefits of their products by highlighting the good stuff and downplaying the less appealing bits (i.e., sugar, salt and fat). Packaging is a lot easier to change than formulations. And the great thing about making products look healthier is that it gives them a sort of halo so that people attribute all sorts of good properties to them even when the manufacturers don’t make many specific claims for them.
Would it be a good idea for the government to require clearer labelling on processed food so consumers can make a better informed decision about what they are eating? I think it would, but I wouldn’t expect it any time soon. The food industry deployed a a two billion pound campaign to oppose, successfully, a proposal for better labelling tabled in the European parliament.
All in all this was an interesting and thought provoking programme. Like the previous two, I thought it was a bit long for the amount of information in it. But it is an important subject so it is worth exercising a bit of patience to get through it.
I have also reviewed the previous episodes