This is a disturbing and scary book. In it Joanna Blythman lifts the lid (or should that be pulls back the inner wrapper?) on how the modern food industry produces our processed and chilled food. From a food fair with no food on view, to postings on industry-only forums, Blythman tells us about the secretive world of additives and processing ingredients that food manufacturers don’t talk about because they don’t have to.
In Part One of the book, Blythman tells us how the processed food system works. How a handful of companies make most of the ready-meals you can buy. How truly industrialised it all is. How the bad old E-numbers have disappeared from food labels to be replaced by more natural sounding additives – Clean Labelling. And a visit to a food industry exhibition where little to no food was on display – only stalls selling processing agents and the latest additives and coating gels.
Part Two investigates these additives and processing agents in more detail with chapters looking at the defining characteristics of processed food – Oily, Flavoured, Coloured, Watery, Starchy, Tricky, Old and Packed.
Part of me really wants to dislike this book. Half of that is the bit that says ‘Just because it’s got chemicals in it doesn’t mean it’s bad. Everything has got chemicals in it. Water is dihydrogen monoxide, for freak’s sake!’ And the author shoots herself in the foot occasionally. Ms Blythman, she tells us, was put off processed food for life after eating a Vesta curry at aged six. (She should have had a Findus Crispy Pancake, they were way better.) “Margarine spreads…” she sneers, “… leave a greasy coating on the roof of the mouth and taste of nothing pleasant.” Really, Ms Blythman? NOTHING pleasant?
She is on safer ground when she lets the food industry speak for itself. “Whether you are looking to replace oil, cream, milk solids, vegetables or egg, we can ensure premium quality and guilt-free indulgences at a competitive price.” This is from a starch company.
And it’s these kind of quotes that make this a book that everyone who cares about what they eat needs to read. There are ‘natural’ flavourings and colours that are a whole factory and chemistry set away from the original plants they came from. There are processing agents and enzymes that the food factory workers have to be protected from in the manufacture of the food that never appear on the labels because they don’t have to.
This, for me, is the book’s real importance. Clean Labelling. Not clean food, but how the food industry has removed the nasty E-number additives from our food and replaced with equally artificial additives that are opaque or non-existent on the food labels. This is information that is hidden from us and I hope this book can start a conversation about how we can be told more about what goes in our food.
As a vegetarian I watched the horse meat scandal unfold with a huge serving of schadenfreude. Now I’m looking into my own fridge at the soy milk, the soy ‘yoghurts’, the tofu sausages and wondering what’s really in them. How are they made? What am I not being told? Like, I said, this is a scary book.
Title: Swallow This: Serving Up the Food Industry’s Darkest Secrets
Author: Joanna Blythman
Publisher: Fourth Estate
Price: £10.49 paperback