Picture the scene: You’ve had to power through a tough day at work. It’s been relentless. So much so, you had to skip lunch. On the way home, you pass your local supermarket in all its glory – shiny aisles, pristine-white floors and fathomless fridges.
Ugh, it’s been such a long day. And cooking from scratch seems like such a chore. The idea of a quick dinner – maybe even that dependable ready-to-bake beef lasagna you have from time to time – suddenly appeals. You can almost taste it, warm and comforting on your lips. You peer inside the supermarket. Do you go in?
What Really Goes into Your Supermarket Ready Meal?
If you knew more about that that beef lasagna, perhaps you’d think twice.
In the factory where these convenience meals are made, traditional meal preparation doesn’t happen. In fact, for the food manufacturers who make these ready meals, cooking as we know it is a tremendous inconvenience and looks nothing like the process of combining ingredients you’re used to at home.
Swallow This, a book by investigative food journalist Joanna Blythman, goes under the skin of the commercial food industry. That partly concerns supermarkets, and the methods of production involved in the food they stock.
She compares the process behind supermarket ready meals, where the breaking down and processing of ingredients – as they could be loosely named – is much like an industrial assembly line. Still hungry?
Though ‘locally sourced’ and ‘ethical’ are now mainstream (if somewhat unreliable) guidelines for sourcing good food, they don’t seem to enter the minds of food manufacturers for a moment.
In her book, Joanna writes: ‘When an ITV Tonight investigation, Food Facts and Fiction, commissioned a UK food technologist with extensive experience of food manufacturing to make a very traditional British-sounding lamb hotpot ready meal of the type commonly sold at supermarkets, he came up with a product made with 16 ingredients, sourced from ten different countries, including New Zealand lamb, Israeli carrots, Argentinian beef bones, and Majorcan carrots.’
On the factory floor, profit margins are a big deal, and manufacturers cut corners where they can to create bigger profits. As a result, not only is the essence of food lost, but the language, too.
Joanna report that spices and seasonings are known as ‘flavour delivery systems’ in the factories. Marinades are ‘cuisine pastes’ and batters are ‘reliable coating systems’. None of this sounds like food you’d prepare at home. If you’ve ever tucked into a ready meal, you’ll know the results aren’t either.
Why Freshness is Scarce in Supermarket Foods
Joanna talks about a food expo, Food Ingredients, which is reserved for manufacturers and those in the industry. It’s terribly exclusive, and feels a bit hush-hush (she needs a fake ID to get in). While there, ‘food’ was displayed to showcase how manufacturers augment foods to extend their shelf life, change their colour or enhance their flavour.
For example, a feta cheese was marketed ‘with “Glucono–Delta–Lactone”, a curious ingredient which is a “‘cyclic ester of gluconic acid’ that acts as an acidifier, prolonging shelf life.” Sounds delicious.
Companies making this ‘food’ are often involved in producing all sorts of other products with no connection to food whatsoever. A Swiss company, named DKSH, has ‘business interests [which] span “speciality chemicals, food and beverage industry, pharmaceutical industry, and the personal care industry.”’
Another, from Hamburg, ‘reeled off its list of markets as “food, pet food, oleo chemicals, cosmetics, personal care, detergents, cleaners, papers, adhesives, construction, plastics, and industrial chemicals.”’
If we’re contemplating the future of food, you’d better hope this isn’t it.
In affording a sincere behind-the-curtain perspective on how food is made, Swallow This could seriously put you off ever buying processed food again.
Food processing has meant scientists and engineers have well and truly replaced cooks and chefs in certain areas of food production. The only way we can get around that at the moment is by being more mindful in and around the shops.
So, if you want to know the things the food industry would rather keep secret, tuck into a copy of Swallow This and unwrap the truth about how the food you buy is really made.