“Let them eat cake” is what Queen Marie Antoinette was supposed to have said on being told that the poor peasants of France had no bread to eat. From what is known about her kindly nature she probably did n0t say it, but even if she did, she would have been motivated by ignorance and royal remoteness from the realities of poverty and famine.
No such excuse applies to one of the greatest powers of today, namely the Food Industry. According to a recent report in The Guardian, “Half of all the food bought by families in Britain is now ‘ultra-processed’, made in a factory with industrial ingredients and additives invented by food technologists and bearing little resemblance to the fruit, vegetables, meat or fish used to cook a fresh meal at home.”
Wow. So now it’s official. “The Food Industry makes us sick,” says a weary doctor friend of mine, “then passes us on to Big Pharma which extends our lifespan, allowing us to eat more junk food.” He is exceptional in realizing the food-health link: medical training spends scandalously little time on teaching the subject. Hence the vagueness of otherwise excellent doctors when asked about dietary matters. “Try eating a good balanced diet”, they say ; the rest is silence.
Having spent half my adult life studying the connection between food and health, viz. ill-health, I can’t fault my doctor friend’s diagnosis. Ultra-processed foods look good, taste reasonable and smell authentic, thanks to some 3000 “food cosmetics” used Europe-wide to produce the taste, looks and smell of emasculated foods that have been stripped of their own natural characteristics. Or even of their substance, like fake noodles that consist of oils, starch and additives…
So if half of all the food bought by families in Britain belongs to this ultra-processed variety, it’s time to look at the cause-and-effect side of the story. Psychologists tell us that children understand the link between cause and effect from the age of seven; can it be that some adults, including decision-makers, don’t? Yes, we all want the NHS to be properly funded and able to function at its best, but no amount of funding will be sufficient while people methodically eat themselves sick and obese.
What’s the answer? Not official guidance from above; as a rule that sparks off immediate resistance in suspicious citizens, with shouts of “No nanny state!” as a soundtrack. My answer is a new brand of food populism, a recognition and use of consumer power which is often obscured by brilliant advertising and avalanches of special offers. Yet we consumers have the power of choice, of saying yes to some products and a resounding no to others.
This food populism has already started at grassroots level, led by an – as yet – small minority of rebellious consumers. They buy fresh organic produce wherever they can find it, cut down on red meat and cut out sugary snacks and soft drinks. Some club together and arrange with an organic farmer to grow the foods they require, against guaranteed payment. Others subscribe to a weekly box scheme.And no, this needn’t be the “niche” indulgence of the well-off: the money you save by boycotting non-foods and spending it on the real stuff leaves you well within your budget.
One of my informal rules is to avoid any food that has a long list of ingredients, many of them positively alarming. Again thanks to the Guardian, I now know that a Mr Kipling Angel Slice, a top national favourite. has 22 ingredients, including red colour derived from insects. Compare this to a tin where under ingredients I find “Organic Red Kidney Beans and Water. And that’s it!” Rather endearing.
Lots more to say, but the long and the short of it is that we have choice in matters of what we eat and we have only ourselves to blame if we don’t use it.
We don’t have to eat plastic. Honestly.