Experienced investigator and food writer Joanna Blythman explores the secret world of the processed food industry in her latest book Swallow This: Serving Up the Food Industry’s Darkest Secrets. The question is, would you swallow it if you really knew what went into making your processed food?
Published in London in 2015, what the book uncovers about the world of processed food is a little scary – secrecy, euphemistic language, hidden and unknown health effects, powerful global food-additive company lobbyists, and more.
Blythman’s book tells the story of both the process of her investigations and her findings:
1. She suggests that the food we eat has been changing for some time, with alarming consequences
The author quotes George Orwell who noticed the trend away from home-cooked, real food as early as 1937: “The number of people who prefer tinned peas and tinned fish to real peas and real fish must be increasing every year”. He attributed health issues in England at that time to ‘the modern industrial technique which provides you with cheap substitutes for everything’.
As Blythman says, “how prescient Orwell was. Nowadays a growing number of us are simultaneously overfed and undernourished, a crazy consequence of our reliance on food manufactured in an industrial setting.”
2. Blythman complains that food isn’t “real” anymore
She describes how looking at the old painting Still Life with Cheese by Floris Claesz van Dijck had a “potent contemporaneous effect” on her even though it was painted in 1615. The food in the painting, carefully reproduced so many years ago, looked so good that she felt hungry and could imagine eating the grapes or cheese.
Now imagine the artist looking at our modern day shopping trolleys “filled with elaborate edible constructions”. Blythman suggests the artist may “experience considerable difficulty finding something they recognised as food.” It certainly wouldn’t be as inspiring – “there is so little beauty in ingredients that have been designed by food technologists and industrially processed out of their natural state.”
(See the painting at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam)
3. Real food – food in its natural state – is inconvenient for packing, storage, transport and sale. This helps to explain why so much of our food is processed
“In food manufacturing the thinking [is] that natural, unprocessed food is just one big headache, loads of hassle and too much expense. Accept this premise, and it’s obvious that any financially prudent manufacturer needs customised adaptations of natural food, ‘functional’ components designed for their production process.”
The effect of processing itself then leads to the need for more additives in manufactured food, for example, added colour – “the industrial manufacturing process strips food of its pigments, spewing out lifeless, ashen, washed-out tones. If we saw it looking like this, we wouldn’t want to eat it.”
4. One of Blythman’s big concerns about the food industry is that it is secret, mysterious, even devious
A big problem for consumers is that we don’t always know what is in our food and how it is made, particularly the processing needed to make food look fresh and have a long shelf life. Even when consumers raise concerns, the reaction of the food companies is to seek more devious ways to pull their production secrets further into the shadows and off the labels.
As Blythman says, “the fact is that we are all eating prepared foods made using state-of-the-art-food manufacturing technology, and mainly doing so unwittingly, either because these food components and aids don’t need to be listed on the label, or because weasel words, such as ‘flour’ and ‘protein’, peppered with the liberal use of the adjective ‘natural’, do not give us the full flavour of the production method. What’s more, we don’t have a clue, and probably neither do many manufacturers, about what this novel diet might actually be doing to us.”
5. The author tries to uncover the secrets of this hidden world by giving us an insight into how the food industry works
The first part of the book sets the scene of how the hidden world of food and drink manufacturing operates, from the factory floor, to the supermarket sales floor and at food industry events. Blythman asks questions such as why it all tastes the same, where the factories get their “food” ingredients from, and who the big players are in the food world.
In the second part of the book she investigates different aspects of processed food. Blythman lays out what she considers the “defining characteristics of this industry’s products: food and drink that is sweet, oily, old, flavoured, coloured, watery, starchy, tricky and packed”, devoting a chapter of the book to each of those characteristics.
6. How big a problem is it? Part of the problem is that we don’t know
Can we lay a significant part of the blame for obesity, chronic disease and the dramatic rise in reported food allergies at the door of processed food? Blythman argues there are several grounds for “seriously examining this possibility.”
The author’s conclusion is that “there are already reasonable grounds to infer that a diet heavy in processed food is bad for us. We can wait for that contention to be ‘proven’ and the activities that sell unhealthy food to be restricted, or we can start operating our own personal precautionary principle by eating less of it, and cooking more of our own food from scratch.”
The book also challenges the prevailing dogma that “small doses of poison do us no harm”, used to justify an accommodating attitude to toxic compounds in our food chain and environment. What happens when those small doses add up? Blythman suggests we “consider the very real possibility that by activating, blocking, hijacking or otherwise messing with the normal functioning of our bodies, engineered chemicals are contributing to a wide range of human health problems. And if we do take this proposition seriously, then reducing our exposure by minimising the amount of packaged food and drink we consume is one obvious place to start.”
7. What do we do now?
I was a little concerned before I started that if I read the book I may never want to eat any processed food ever again. But, as she says: “this is not to say that there is no such thing as a healthy, wholesome manufactured food. I happily use many processed ingredients. . . eg tomato paste, soy sauce, sesame oil, . . olives, .. mustard.” “In short, I have absolutely no intention of becoming a food neurotic, or living in splendid isolation . . . Like most of us, I am not always in control of what I eat, so I have to settle for the best option in the circumstances. Sometimes, I might be organised enough to bring my own food on a long journey, knowing that it will be streets ahead of anything I buy, not to mention cheaper. But other times I still have to pick up lunch from a takeaway, trust my local delicatessen to make a reasonable quiche or sandwich, or politely eat a meal that I would never choose.” And her conclusion: “I do not beat myself up if I can’t meet my highest aspirations for eating good food on a daily basis”.
I’m happy to admit to a pragmatism of my own on that front. Sometimes convenience and/or cost wins, even when you know what is in it.
8. Should you read it?
One limitation of the book is a point which the author recognises – it is difficult to find out exactly what is going on in the hidden world of processed food. Even after the efforts of a seasoned investigator and food writer such as Blythman, I was left with the distinct impression that there is more to the story.
The slight (but understandable) cynicism and wry humour spotted throughout the book may not appeal to all readers.
Swallow This is not a light read, and certainly not a cheerful one. Don’t read it if you would rather not even think about what is in your food. Perhaps an easier entry point into finding out about where our food comes from is something like Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food. However, if you are keen to look further into the processed food industry, Blythman’s book is a fascinating read.
Blythman has done a commendable job of giving us a glimpse into the world of food manufacturing, enough to make us concerned and rethink that next processed food purchase.
You can read more about Blythman and her writing at her website.
Meet you at the farmers’ market next weekend?