Think you eat only healthy, unprocessed foods? Think again. Joanna Blythman went undercover and discovered that even your fruit salad is not what it seems
- Joanna will be online to answer your questions at lunchtime on Thursday 26 February. Leave your questions here
On a bright, cold day in late November 2013, I found myself in the dark, eerie, indoor expanses of Frankfurt’s Blade Runner-like Festhalle Messe. I was there undercover, to attend an annual trade show called Food Ingredients. This three-day exhibition hosts the world’s most important gathering of ingredients suppliers, distributors and buyers. In 2011, when it was held in Paris, more than 23,000 visitors attended from 154 countries, collectively representing a buying power of €4bn (£2.97bn). Think of it as the food manufacturers’ equivalent of an arms fair. It is not open to the public. Anyone who tries to register has to show that they work in food manufacturing; I used a fake ID.
While exhibitors at most food exhibitions are often keen for you to taste their products, few standholders here had anything instantly edible to offer. Those that did weren’t all that they seemed. Canapé-style cubes of white cheese dusted with herbs and spices sat under a bistro-style blackboard that nonchalantly read “Feta, with Glucono-Delta-Lactone” (a “cyclic ester of gluconic acid” that prolongs shelf life).
A pastry chef in gleaming whites rounded off his live demonstration by offering sample petits fours to the buyers who had gathered. His dainty heart- and diamond-shaped cakes were dead ringers for those neat layers of sponge, glossy fruit jelly, cream and chocolate you see in the windows of upmarket patisseries, but were made entirely without eggs, butter or cream, thanks to the substitution of potato protein isolate. This revolutionary ingredient provides the “volume, texture, stability and mouthfeel” we look for in cakes baked with traditional ingredients – and it just happens to be cheaper.
This is the goal of the wares on show, something the marketing messages make clear. The strapline for a product called Butter Buds®, described by its makers as “an enzyme-modified encapsulated butter flavour that has as much as 400 times the flavour intensity of butter”, sums it up in six words: “When technology meets nature, you save.”
Exhibitors’ stands were arranged like art installations. Gleaming glass shelves were back-lit to show off a rainbow of super-sized phials of liquids so bright with colouring, they might be neon. Plates of various powders, shaped into pyramids, were stacked on elegant Perspex stands bearing enigmatic labels – “texturised soy protein: minced ham colour,” read one.
Manufacturers who need their tomato sauce to be thick enough not to leak out of its plastic carton – and just a little bit glossy, so that it doesn’t look matt and old after several days in the fridge – were sold the advantages of Microlys®, a “cost-effective” speciality starch that gives “shiny, smooth surface and high viscosity”, or Pulpiz™, Tate & Lyle’s tomato “pulp extender”. Based on modified starch, it gives the same pulpy visual appeal as an all-tomato sauce, while using 25% less tomato paste.
The broad business portfolio of the companies exhibiting at Food Ingredients was disconcerting. Omya, based in Hamburg, described itself as “a leading global chemical distributor and producer of industrial minerals”, supplying markets in food, pet food, oleochemicals, cosmetics, detergents, cleaners, papers, adhesives, construction, plastics and industrial chemicals. At Frankfurt, Omya was selling granular onion powder, monosodium glutamate and phosphoric acid. For big companies such as this, food processing is just another revenue stream. They experience no cognitive dissonance in providing components not only for your meal, but also for your fly spray, scratch-resistant car coating, paint or glue. The conference was the domain of people whose natural environment is the laboratory and the factory, not the kitchen, the farm or the field; people who share the assumption that everything nature can do, man can do so much better, and more profitably.
Tired after hours of walking round the fair, and, uncharacteristically, not feeling hungry, I sought refuge at a stand displaying cut-up fruits and vegetables; it felt good to see something natural, something instantly recognisable as food. But why did the fruit have dates, several weeks past, beside them? A salesman for Agricoat told me that they had been dipped in one of its solutions, NatureSeal, which, because it contains citric acid along with other unnamed ingredients, adds 21 days to their shelf life. Treated in this way, carrots don’t develop that telltale white that makes them look old, cut apples don’t turn brown, pears don’t become translucent, melons don’t ooze and kiwis don’t collapse into a jellied mush; a dip in NatureSeal leaves salads “appearing fresh and natural”.
For the salesman, this preparation was a technical triumph, a boon to caterers who would otherwise waste unsold food. There was a further benefit: NatureSeal is classed as a processing aid, not an ingredient, so there’s no need to declare it on the label, no obligation to tell consumers that their “fresh” fruit salad is weeks old.
Somehow, I couldn’t share the salesman’s enthusiasm. Had I eaten “fresh” fruit salads treated in this way? Maybe I had bought a tub on a station platform or at a hotel buffet breakfast? It dawned on me that, while I never knowingly eat food with ingredients I don’t recognise, I had probably consumed many of the “wonder products” on show here. Over recent years, they have been introduced slowly and artfully into foods that many of us eat every day – in canteens, cafeterias, pubs, hotels, restaurants and takeaways.
You might find it all too easy to resist the lure of a turkey drummer, a ready meal, a “fruit” drink or a pappy loaf of standard white bread. You might check labels for E numbers and strange-sounding ingredients, boycotting the most obvious forms of processed food. And yet you will still find it hard to avoid the 6,000 food additives – flavourings, glazing agents, improvers, bleaching agents and more – that are routinely employed behind the scenes of contemporary food manufacture. That upmarket cured ham and salami, that “artisan” sourdough loaf, that “traditional” extra-mature cheddar, those luxurious Belgian chocolates, those speciality coffees and miraculous probiotic drinks, those apparently inoffensive bottles of cooking oil: many have had a more intimate relationship with food manufacturing than we appreciate.
When you try to dig deeper, you hit a wall of secrecy. For at least the past decade, the big manufacturing companies have kept a low profile, hiding behind the creed of commercial confidentiality, claiming they can’t reveal their recipes because of competition. Instead, they leave it to retailers to field any searching questions from journalists or consumers. In turn, retailers drown you in superfluous, mainly irrelevant material. The most persistent inquirers may be treated to an off-the-peg customer reply from corporate HQ, a bland, non-specific reassurance such as, “Every ingredient in this product conforms to quality assurance standards, EU regulations, additional protocols based on the tightest international requirements, and our own demanding specification standards.”
I spent years knocking on closed doors, and became frustrated by how little I knew about contemporary food production. What happens on the farm and out in the fields is passably well-policed and transparent. Abattoirs undergo regular inspections, including from the occasional undercover reporter from a vigilante animal welfare group, armed with a video camera. My growing preoccupation was instead just how little we really know about the food that sits on our supermarket shelves, in boxes, cartons and bottles – food that has had something done to it to make it more convenient and ready to eat.
Eventually, contacts within the industry provided me with a cover that allowed me to gain unprecedented access to manufacturing facilities, as well as to subscriber-only areas of company sites, private spaces where the chemical industry tells manufacturers how our food can be engineered. Even with 25 years of food chain investigations under my belt, it was an eye-opener.
Anything that comes in a box, tin, bag, carton or bottle has to bear a label listing its contents, and many of us have become experts at reading these labels. But many of the additives and ingredients that once jumped out as fake and unfathomable have quietly disappeared. Does this mean that their contents have improved? In some cases, yes, but there is an alternative explanation. Over the past few years, the food industry has embarked on an operation it dubs “clean label”, with the goal of removing the most glaring industrial ingredients and additives, replacing them with substitutes that sound altogether more benign. Some companies have reformulated their products in a genuine, wholehearted way, replacing ingredients with substitutes that are less problematic. Others, unconvinced that they can pass the cost on to retailers and consumers, have turned to a novel range of cheaper substances that allow them to present a scrubbed and rosy face to the public.
Imagine you are standing in the supermarket. Maybe you usually buy some cured meat for an antipasti. Picking up a salami, even the most guarded shopper might relax when they see rosemary extract on the ingredients list – but rosemary extracts are actually “clean-label” substitutes for the old guard of techie-sounding antioxidants (E300-21), such as butylhydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylhydroxytoluene (BHT). Food manufacturers use them to slow down the rate at which foods go rancid, so extending their shelf life.
Rosemary extracts don’t always have to carry an E number (E392), but the more poetic addition of “extract of rosemary” makes it sound like a lovingly made ingredient – especially if that salami is also labelled as natural or organic. And the extract does have something to do with the herb, usually in its dried form. The herb’s antioxidant chemicals are isolated in an extraction procedure that “deodorises” them, removing any rosemary taste and smell. Extraction is done by using either carbon dioxide or chemical solvents – hexane (derived from the fractional distillation of petroleum), ethanol and acetone. Neutral-tasting rosemary extract is then sold to manufacturers, usually in the form of a brownish powder. Its connection with the freshly cut, green and pungent herb we know and love is fairly remote.
Not sure what to have for dinner? How about a chicken noodle dish? If you noticed that it contained an amino acid such as L-cysteine E910, your enthusiasm might wane, especially if you happen to know that this additive can be derived from animal and human hair. But a range of new-wave yeast extracts is increasingly replacing E910. One supplier markets its wares as “a variety of pre-composed, ready-to-use products that provide the same intensity as our classical process flavours but are labelled as all-natural. Ingredients are available in chicken and beef flavour, with roasted or boiled varieties, as well as white meat and dark roast.” All can be labelled as “yeast extract” – a boon for manufacturers, because yeast extracts have a healthy image as a rich source of B vitamins. Less well known is the fact that yeast extract has a high concentration of the amino acid glutamate, from which monosodium glutamate – better known as MSG, one of the most shunned additives – is derived.
What else is in your basket? Suppose you are eyeing up a pot of something temptingly called a “chocolate cream dessert”. You read the ingredients: whole milk, sugar (well, there had to be some), cream, cocoa powder and dark chocolate. It all sounds quite upmarket, but then your urge to buy falters as you notice three feel-bad ingredients.
Read More : https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/feb/21/a-feast-of-engineering-whats-really-in-your-food?CMP=fb_gu