The “truth” about food

I need to stop watching TV that makes
me shout at the screen; it can’t be good for the blood pressure.
Watching tonight’s Dispatches, The Truth About Food, I had to make a
grab for a notebook to make sure I remembered all the things that
infuriated me.

Let’s get one thing clear – food
labelling and advice is a disaster. It’s too confusing, with schemes
varying from one store to another, and labels giving simplified
figures without going into background detail. You almost need a
degree in biochemistry to understand the implications. So when a show
like this comes along, banging its one-sided drum, it really doesn’t
help.

For a start, they were just talking
about “fat”. No mention of different types of fats, or which are
considered worse than others, and no mention that we actually need a
certain amount of fat, and certain types of fat, to be healthy. It’s
just the blanket assumption that fat=bad. So comparing the fat count
from an M&S product to an economy one isn’t a fair comparison, as
M&S has removed all hydrogenated fats from its foods (they’re,
like, rilly rilly bad).

The ‘comparison’ of a Waitrose chicken
and mushroom parcel to various types of junk food also wasn’t a fair
test. The Waitrose product may have had more fat per 100g (again no
mention of the type of fat) than the fish and chips, the kebab or the
Big Mac, but you’d eat a bigger portion of the fish and chips (therefore getting
more fat) and you also wouldn’t eat the kebab with a nice side of
steamed veggies. The comparison of the foods as entire meals is
completely misleading.

Two types of macaroni cheese were mentioned in passing. The economy version had less fat. Now, I can’t
remember which two brands were compared so let’s do a quick check with
Waitrose and Sainsburys Basics. Waitrose says it contains 9.2 grams of
fat per 100g. Sainsburys doesn’t give the nutritional value on its
website. But while I was watching the show I had a hunch that the extra fat would be a result of using extra cheese – which, you know, contains fat – in the product. And what do you know? Waitrose contains not only more cheese, but cream and milk in its sauce. And the Sainsburys item contains "milk powder", hydrogenated fats, modified maize starch, "mono and diglycerides of fatty acids" (whatever the hell they are), flavouring, colours, and various extracts. Yet it was implied that the economy product was better for you.

I’m not leaving fat alone just yet. I was quite surprised to discover the wriggle-room between the amount of fat that can be stated on the label and the amount that really can be in the food. But then, I had a thought. If this is a meat product, surely we should expect some variation? Depending on the animal, the season? Surely animals’ fat content isn’t always a fixed constant? And the shocking figure that a chocolate pudding had 45% more fat in reality than was shown the label! 45%! That’s a massive number! Never mind that the amount of fat on the label was 1.4%, so an extra 45% only brings us up to 2.03% fat…

Shall we move on to sugar? Oh, alright then. It’s ridiculous and dangerous to compare fruit juices to carbonated soft drinks. The acid in them might do the same damage to teeth but at least fruit juices have nutritional value, unlike soft drinks which are just empty sugar. I don’t think the programme mentioned that, offering up the implication that you shouldn’t let your children drink fruit juice.

And then there was the cereals in sugar section. Apparently a Dorset Cereals muesli has more sugar than an economy brand. Well, yes, because Dorset Cereals contains more dried fruit, which the programme did admit. What they didn’t then go on to say was that maybe, just maybe, it’s better to eat dry fruit which also contains vitamins and minerals, as well as natural sugars, and contributes to your five a day. Mmm? Maybe? Just throwing it out there.

And don’t even get me started on the bit where she compared the fat in a bowl of cereal – containing fruit, nuts and seeds – to sausages. That’s really comparing like for like.

The problem is, there are real points to be made here about the lack of information about the types of fats, about the ‘hidden’ ingredients (what does ‘flavouring’ cover, exactly?), about the quality and provenance of food. Processed food shouldn’t be eaten all the time (particularly not every meal for a month, as shown in one of those televisually popular but pointless experiments) but now and again they won’t kill you. People need to stop being afraid of their food and empowered to make informed decisions about balanced diets. But Dispatches wasn’t educating, it was scare mongering and misinformation. And it makes me angry to think of such a missed opportunity.

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4 responses to “The “truth” about food

  1. Will January 11, 2008 at 7:43 pm

    This is precisely the reason why I don’t watch shows like Dispatches, Panorama, etc. It’s not investigative journalism any more, it’s lazily playing up to the public’s fears to get ratings. What’s the point? As you say, it’s just makes people angry that someone bothered to waste their time putting this crap together.
    If someone thinks a pork pie is better for you than a bowl of cereal because it’s got a lower fat or sugar content then they want shooting. Or just a massive heart attack in their thirties.

  2. Will January 11, 2008 at 7:47 pm

    Oh, and just wanted to say, even though it’s not relevant to this, that I recently had a McDonalds. Now, I try to avoid processed food and takeaways, in particular McDonalds. It must have been about a year since I last had one.
    But it was absolutely delicious. Quarter pounder with cheese. Mmmmm. I’m still thinking how lovely it was 3 weeks later… It’s a danger though because now I remember how tasty crap food can be.
    I’m not sure if I had a point there.

  3. Rachel January 12, 2008 at 7:10 pm

    The point is, perhaps, that the occasional piece of crap food won’t kill you. The odd MSG-laden Chinese takeaway is glorious. The heart-attack-in-a-box (if eaten every day) pizza from Dominos is veh tasty if you just really really fancy one.
    Though, if you’ve ever read Fast Food Nation you’ll never eat at fast food joints again. Not from a health pov, just from knowing what goes on behind the scenes (*goes off to vomit*)

  4. kate January 12, 2008 at 9:54 pm

    yeah what will said, about docu-crap, i mean. not about maccy d’s.

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