BSUFN are currently hosting an informal series of discussions on the topic of ‘how much has food research changed in the past 40 years?‘ For each discussion a reading is suggested by one of BSUFN’s members. The second of the discussion groups will meet on Monday the 18th of January, from 12:30 to 14:00 at the University of Sussex, Fulton Building room 111.
The suggested reading for the upcoming discussion group is from: Joanna Blythman (2015) Swallow This: Serving up the food industry’s darkest secrets, Fourth Estate, London. Part I, Chapters 1 to 5 are recommended as reading to inform discussion, although the reading is not essential to join the discussion group, come along regardless of your background knowledge or prior preparation.
Peter Senker, one of BSUFN’s members and a member of the steering group, has prepared some notes based on his thoughts having read Joanna Blythman’s Swallow This. He presents a review of some key points about food manufacturing and processing from the book before making some suggestions for policy implications. Peter’s thoughts will be shared in two posts over the next two weeks prior to the discussion group meeting on the 18th of January. The first of these posts is shared below and considers the goals of food manufacturers.
Some Notes on the Policy Implications following Review of Joanna Blythman’s Swallow This: Serving Up the Food Industry’s Darkest Secrets
Joanna Blythman’s book “Swallow This” is a study of the quality of the food produced by food manufacturers. Extensive detailed research led her to conclude that “the defining characteristics of this industry’s products” are “food and drink that is sweet, oily, .old, flavoured, coloured, watery, tricky and packed” …. And “we are led to believe that what goes on in food factories is essentially the same as home cooking only scaled up” ( page 10). She suggests that her book provides extensive evidence that any such perception is self-serving and misleading. Because more people are continually increasing consumption of foods mass-produced in factories “A growing number of us are simultaneously overfed and undernourished” (page 12). Food manufacturers combine sugar, processed fat and salt in their most quickly digested forms, and this combination may well be addictive. These foods contain chemicals with known toxic properties, and the industry has a long history of defending its use of controversial ingredients such as partially hydrogenated oils. There is substantial evidence that consumption of processed food could be a significant cause use of obesity, chronic disease and the rise in reported food allergies (page 13).
The public policy implications of this book are very important. So first I outline the goals of the companies which dominate the industry. I then outline the principal problems they face in attaining those goals. To secure those goals, they have to sell huge quantities of their products, so I outline their strategies for achieving this. I follow this with a discussion of the priority which food processing companies assign to the production of nutritious tasty food relative to the priorities assigned to other goals. I conclude by assessing the extent to which pressures on food manufacturers to improve the quality of the food they produce are likely to be successful in the future.
These companies and corporations comply with energy, intelligence and enthusiasm to the principal legislative framework which applies to them. In particular, company legislation insists that their principal aim should be to increase the revenue which accrues to their shareholders. In addition, they are highly successful in meeting the principal norms for companies and corporations set by the electorate and politicians, insofar as they make substantial contributions to economic growth, and to innovation.
PRINCIPAL PROBLEMS FACED BY COMPANIES IN SECURING THEIR GOALS
Producing large quantities of packaged food at low cost
In order to secure large profits, the companies need to have a large quantity of products to sell, each item having cost them the minimum amount to produce, package and distribute to customers. Cost minimisation involves processes such as frying at high temperatures using oils which will cope with such temperatures and which can be used as many times as possible without breaking down. (Page 127). Various sorts of additives are used to economise on oil use. The extreme heat and length of time needed to fry some popular foods creates health hazards.
Selling large quantities of packaged food
Food deteriorates the longer it takes between the time when it is picked or harvested and the time when the consumer eats it. Lengthening shelf life is a major goal of packaged food companies because it can take a time to sell large quantities of packaged foods to consumers spread over wide geographical areas.
The drive to make and sell large quantities of products quickly and cheaply and to keep these products “fresh” for a long time are only some of the factors which make packaged food producers continue to use new cheap ingredients which can help them to fulfil such objectives. They are aided in these endeavours by numerous suppliers of a wide variety of ingredients, few of which are used in domestic cookery.
The use of new ingredients presents packaged food producers with a number of problems, of which I only have space in these notes to consider a few. Changes in ingredients affect the taste, nutritional and health qualities of food and its texture. And through their own testing procedures , and from outside advice and sometimes legislation, food manufacturers often reach the conclusion that many of these changes are either adverse or likely to be adverse. Their responses to such information are often to continually take some ingredients out of the food they manufacture, and/or to add or substitute other new ingredients. The rate of innovation (if it could be measured) is indeed most impressive. But, as Blythman suggests, the net result of these change quality of the food which is ingested by its consumers is generally poor or unknown, in terms of taste, texture, nutritional qualities, health and safety.
The quality of packaged food
A central problem in considering the quality of food is that it is multi-dimensional. It includes taste and texture which are both matters of individual tastes and preferences; and also nutritional qualities which can, in principle, be measured more objectively, but are often extremely difficult to measure. Just as important, the science of nutrition is developing continually. As science develops, assessment of the nutritional value (or harm) caused by various food ingredients change. For example, developments in nutritional and allied sciences have led to important changes in scientific knowledge about the relative damage to human health caused by eating various types of fats; and to the extent of damage to health caused by ingesting various type of sugar. Food manufacturers have to try to cope with such developments in scientific knowledge. After food manufacturers have incorporates new ingredients into their products, they often have to cope with the effects of the diffusion of the rapidly developing and changing scientific knowledge about the nutritional qualities of all the ingredients they use.
The second post from Peter Senker in this series of thoughts about the policy implcations of food manufacturing and Joanna Blythman’s book Swallow This will be shared next week on Monday the 11th of January 206.