How much do you really know about the food you’re putting in your mouth? How does it get from farm to shelf? What has been done to it to make it taste like that? How come it’s so… orange?
In his new book, Food Unwrapped, food writer Daniel Tapper set out to answer some of the questions people have about mass produced food, where it comes from and what’s in it. Inspired by the Channel 4 series of the same name, it’s an entertaining blend of science, history and a hefty dose of common sense.
“Most people swallow food facts hook, line and sinker,” says Tapper, “so this was a really interesting project to work on. I wanted to write an accessible guide for everyone - not just foodies - on how our food is produced.”
Tapper stresses that the book is not intended to be a scaremongering exercise - and nothing he discovered would make him think twice about eating certain foods. “I thought I knew a lot about food - but I was certainly shocked by a couple of things I discovered,” he laughs. “But if anything, it only made me want to eat things more - I think it’s so much more interesting knowing where foods come from. A lot of people are alienated by modern production methods - this takes the mystery out of it.”
The healthy eating trends of 2015
The healthy eating trends of 2015
1/10 Acai bowls are the new green juice
Who ever thought we’d have been ok with adding spinach to our smoothies? Yet even virtuous green juices started to get something of a bad rep, as the ‘juice fast’ backlash grew and it turned out that some shop-bought juices contained as much sugar as a can of fizzy drink. Bring on Acai bowls, the new darlings of Instagram. Like a gloopier smoothie, these are made with antioxidant-rich acai berries (they are hard to come by - search for powdered or dried berries or frozen puree), which are said to aid weight loss. Blend with frozen bananas, berries and a little nut milk and top with whatever you like - seeds, nuts, cacao nibs, goji berries. A picture-perfect purple powerhouse for breakfast.
Ella Grace Denton, www.weneedtolivemore.com
2/10 Bone broth is the new Miso soup
Remember back in the day when the word ‘broth’ would conjure up visions of Dickensian orphanages? Then miso came along, Gwyneth embraced it, and we all followed suit, lauding how filling and protein rich with little wonder broth was. We’ve come full circle now, as bone broth is back on the radar. The glowing-with-health Hemsley sisters seem to use bone broth in most of their recipes, and rave about its nutritional benefits. “Bone broth is a nourishing all rounder packed with vitamins, minerals, collagen and keratin which makes it amazing for skin – including the dreaded cellulite! The healthy fats in the broth help you to assimilate important vitamins including Vit D.” There you go, something to stew over...
Food Loves Writing, Flickr
3/10 Bee pollen is the new Manuka honey
Every health hipster has a jar of manuka honey on their shelves - if they can afford it that is, a jar can cost about £15. But many claim it is worth its weight in gold, due to its unique antibacterial properties. Traditionally it was used on wounds, but many also claim that it performs miracles combatting cholesterol, diabetes, cancer and digestive problems (although the science is limited). Now bee pollen is the latest ‘superfood’ out there - thought to ward off colds, limit food cravings, improve skin tone, ward off allergies like hay fever (although some caution that it may exacerbate them) and, of course, fight cancer. Again, the science behind these claims is dubious - but it certainly adds a nice sweetness to your morning porridge.
4/10 Kelp is the new kale
Last year saw the emergence of an unassuming green leaf that was previously barely used beyond cattle feed. Now, we have kale chips in Pret, kale juices, ‘massaged’ kale salads - it’s even on the menu in fine dining restaurants. Yawn. Introducing kelp. This seaweed is high in iodine, which is said to improve thyroid function and control metabolism. It is also thought to have anti-aging properties for skin and hair. Try it in salads or add to asian-style soups.
5/10 Matcha is the new green tea
Yes, yes, yes, green tea, weightloss, yadda yadda yadda, boosts metabolism, etc etc. For 2015, though, it’s not about just any old green tea - this is matcha green tea. Made from finely milled high-grade matcha leaves, which are grown in the shade, matcha boasts 130 times more anti-oxidants than your bog standard green tea and is supposed to boost energy levels, lower stress, improve your mood and aid metabolism. It can be consumed as a regular tea, added to steamed milk for a matcha latte or even used to add a pleasant green shade and flavour to ice-cream.
6/10 Whole 30 is the new Paleo diet
Thought you were a culinary champ with your caveman-style eating plan? Well, think again, paleo is for wimps! Ok, not quite, but while people on the paleo plan cut out grains, legumes, sugar and processed foods, there is an increasing trend to paleo-fy your treats, with almond-flour pancakes, banana bread and a lot of brownies. The Whole 30 plan is a purer, stricter version of Paleo and really takes you back to basics when it comes to eating natural foods. The 30-day plan bans scales as well as sugar and alcohol, so that you can concentrate on nourishment rather than weight.
7/10 Fermenting is the new sprouting
Just when we thought we were ahead of the game by starting to sprout our own seeds and with sprouted flours creeping on to the market, the health set had to kick it up a notch. Now it’s all about making your own kombucha (fermented tea), sauerkraut or kimchi (both kinds of pickled cabbage). Fermented foods are said to aid digestion thanks to the creation of enzymes and probiotics in the process. Plus they tend to be high in B-vitamins and Omega-3 fatty acids. Think of it as the new jam-making, and break out those mason jars.
8/10 Banana flour is the new coconut flour
Coconut flour was one of the coolest baking ingredients of the year, beloved by Paleo fans. Its highly absorbent qualities mean you only need a tiny bit for baking, keeping your creations low carb but resulting in the odd dry-crumbly-mess baking fail. Banana flour is the next flour to experiment with. Made from green bananas (and no, not banana-flavoured), it is gluten free and light in texture, so ideal for baking. High in resistant starch, which is effective against colon cancer, obesity, and diabetes, it is already being lauded for its nutritional benefits in Africa and South America, and will surely start to become much more visible on health-food shop shelves in the near future.
9/10 Bulletproof coffee is the new soy latte
Nowadays it is possible to walk into almost any cafe and order a soy latte without being eyeballed as a lunatic by the person behind the counter. But would you have the guts to request a stick of butter in your morning brew? Well, some coffee shops are offering exactly that. Bulletproof coffee is a paleo-friendly invention which involves a black coffee with a dollop of coconut oil or butter. Bleurgh. But advocates say it gives you more slow-release energy, sharpens your brain and helps you to focus - and even that it is delicious. Now the theory has been expanded into a whole ‘Bulletproof’ diet plan, rich in fat. Who wants to bet on when Starbucks will give it a shot?
10/10 Tiger nuts are the new almonds
2014 was a good year for almonds. Gym-goers and raw foodists alike carried around a stash for healthy, protein-rich snacking, almond-milk lattes were quaffed, and almond flour featured in so many paleo and gluten-free treats. Now tiger nuts, or ‘earth almonds’ (yes, really), are about to vie for snacking superiority. Tiger nuts are not nuts, but the tubers of the sedge plant. Originally a key food source for Paleolithic Indians, they have until recently been used as animal feed or a side dish in South America, Africa and the Middle East, or in Hispanic companies made into a sweet, milky drink called horchata. But now the hipsters have got their hands on it, drying, roasting and flavouring with the likes of sweet chilli for an on-the-go snack. High in healthy fats, protein and natural sugar, it is rich in energy content, and thought to help prevent heart disease and improve circulation.
The book certainly does that - dispelling myths about detoxing and ‘lite’ foods - as well as seeing if there’s any truth behind certain old wives tales.
“I’m quite nerdy and I love finding out how things work,” says Tapper. “I can’t imagine a better day than going into a factory and seeing how food is made.”
This is not a drab scientific text; it’s got plenty of fun facts for sparkling dinner party conversation (although, on second thoughts, perhaps some facts shouldn’t be enjoyed with food...).
There is as little as 10 per cent cheese in some processed ‘cheeses’
Cheese singles, those rubbery little things that make you oddly nostalgic for your childhood lunches, thankfully do not actually contain rubber. But they might contain, according to Tapper, water (which can account for about half the product), vegetable oil, potato starch, milk proteins, whey powder, emulsifying salts, corn syrup, dextrose, colourings, preservatives and flavourings.
There's possibly no cream at all in your ice cream
Legally in the UK, there doesn’t have to be any milk at all in it, or if it’s “dairy” ice cream, it must contain 2.5 per cent milk protein and 5 per cent fat. Instead you’ll find palm oil, palm kernel oil or coconut oil. “These are not necessarily worse for you,” says Tapper, “But it does come as surprise - this is the stuff I grew up on and it isn't actually 'cream' at all."
You have one man to thank for many of your probiotics…
And no, it isn’t Mr Yakult. Do you down a daily probiotic yoghurt, brimming with good bacteria? If you’re squeamish look away now. Did you ever think about where they get all that bacteria? Well, a lot of it from one person. The faeces of one person, to be precise. The Finnish company Valio makes probiotic yoghurt for hundreds of brands around the globe. It uses a strain of bacteria called Lactobacillus rhamnosus, which was discovered in 1983 when it was isolated from the faeces of a healthy American. Since then laboratories have been reproducing the bacteria from this original sample, and it is one of the most widely consumed probiotics in the world.
… and lots of pigs to thank for one slice of formed ham
Aw, did you think that slice of ham in your sarnie was sawn off the leg of a particularly juicy sow? Well, sorry. Formed, pre-sliced ham is separated from the bone, washed, injected with preservatives, salt and water, then treated with potassium nitrate (otherwise known as saltpetre - the stuff in gunpowder), sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite - which all help to preserve it and maintain the pink colour. Then the bits are churned up into a kind of ‘meat soup’ and poured into plastic bags - “which, ingeniously, are the shape of a leg of ham,” Tapper adds. Then it’s cooked, sliced and wrapped.
Black and green olives are not as different as you think
Did you think black and green olives were different species, like red and green grapes? Or perhaps that black olives are riper than green? Well, the second statement is partly true. If olives are left on the vine long enough they will eventually shrivel slightly and darken. But that isn’t the most efficient method for mass production, so they are normally all harvested when young, green and at their largest, then treated. Black olives are treated with caustic soda (drain unblocker, but here the quantities used are safe for consumption) and then spun in oxidised water to speed up the ripening process, turning the fruit a shiny black. A black substance, Ferrous gluconate, is then added to stop the colour from fading.
Artificial flavourings are not as bad as they seem
So we’re all savvy enough by now to know that there may not be any strawberries in that strawberry-flavoured sweet. But is that such a bad thing? “A lot of the things we think are unnatural - made with ‘man-made’ additives - are not actually that bad for you,” says Tapper. He argues that whether the ‘aroma’ compounds that give food its flavour are made in a lab or by nature doesn’t make a bit of difference - they are both formed of the same basic chemicals. Plus, ‘synthetic’ flavourings will be bound by strict regulations on dangerous or toxic substances - whereas nature has no such restriction.
Food Unwrapped: Lifting the Lid On How Our Food is Really Produced, by Daniel Tapper, is published by Bantam, £14.99Reuse content