Peter York On Ads: A corny ad for a baked tile - pass the Pringles
Sunday 21 May 2006
British food remains practically the worst in the universe. That's what Joanna Blythman's saying in her new book Bad Food Britain: How A Nation Ruined Its Appetite. Of course she's talking about what people actually eat at scale, not what Fay and Henrietta, Giles and Adrian write about, or what we get in the lovely Lidgate/Felicitous/Fromagerie world of Big London. She's on about industrial food, made in Liverpool or Swansea factories. Stuff from a conveyor with an interestingly long sell-by tolerance.
She means the groaning aisles of crisps and paracrisps in any big supermarket. And the acres of bulk sweets and chocolates in Woolworths. We're Europe's crisp champions by a mile - we eat more than the rest of Europe put together. The sweets contribute to another UK achievement - particularly in the Celtic fringe - we're top of the European edentulous league table with more toothless lads and lasses than anywhere. And then there's our world-beating rates of heart disease, with its contributory levels of obesity - we're Europe's fattest and challenging the next generation of Americans for the World Series.
The particular pleasure in all this, of course, is that we know it's all down to Vicky Pollard and the chavtastic world of the huge heaving underclass. The Mob; Hogarthians in hoodies. Shameless people who've never cooked with extra-virgin, never eaten one, let alone five, helpings of fruit and vegetables a day.
That's me. I've eaten festering industrial food for so long its amazing I'm alive. From the moment I could choose I went for anything with a melted cheese topping, or a strong blast of MSG (Killer Salt always was my favourite food). Kraft's glorious orange cheese slices were so obviously better than mature cheddar cut off a wheel. Tinned Chicken Supreme in white sauce poured over white rice never needed vegetables. While my friends argued for authentic everything, I followed each successive wave of fast food out and convenience stuff at home. Time was I lived on those tasty Marks and Spencer briquettes, 20 kinds of chicken in sauce with two veg, one of them pure carbo. All this while reading generations of middle-class food propaganda, eating concept-on-a-plate in new restaurants for 25 years and listening to my foodie friends (Foodies eat in a very particular grazing kind of way - "try this, I got it from a woman just outside Lyme Regis - she's 85. Does it all on a Calor Gas ring").
I'm price-sensitive too. I'll have the cheaper one thank you. Organic versus ordinary - it costs more than twice as much (and what if I'd got four children?). "Hand-made food" is incredibly expensive and potentially rather disgusting. You want a nice stainless-steel robot doing all that.
For every scare there's another explanation and - in every dream home a heartache - precisely the smart people who avoid convenient industrial white bread adore the free-form Art Bread in any restaurant with pretentions. Dip it in oil, ladle it with unsalted Normandy butter, and gloriously unpasteurised cheese and you've got pretty much the same high cholesterol, free carb' sort of mix you'd get with several tubes of Pringles.
I never know where all this leaves Ryvita. On the face of it Ryvita's a sort of saint. It's made from rye - one up from wheat they say. And it's wholegrain. So it's a high Glycaemic Index, slow release, complex calorie story. And yet - except for the multi-grain version - it's rather charmless. How's it made? They say they just add lovely salt and then bake it to bits, like a tile. (But what does the baking do? The Great Industrial Baking Scare said everything cooked at these massive temperatures is ultra-carcinogenic.) And it's creepy that it seems to last for ever.
Now Ryvita's moving towards silly-sounding brand extensions like the Goodness Bar. They're avoiding making an uncluttered simplicity and ingredients claim - I would've thought they had a bit of a competitive advantage there - in favour of an awful heavy-handed Rocky Horror Show Gothic kind of commercial I haven't seen for 20 years - long fingernails, women begging "spare me master", the whole corny lot. Buried in there are some claims - 62 calories, 3 per cent fat, no sugar - sounding so weaselly you want to trace every grain. They'd have been miles better off with a farmers' market.
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