Joanna Blythman is the leading investigative food journalist on the British food chain who has written extensively on such subjects as salmon farming, supermarkets, intensive pineapple production, bird flu, and the causes of obesity. She is an award-winning author of five books, including What to Eat and Bad Food Britain.
Her latest book, Swallow This: Serving Up the Food Industry’s Darkest Secrets, exposes the truth about the food we eat. Part one describes how food and drink manufacturers operate. In the second, she details the industry’s ‘defining characteristics’ in its products: sweet, oily, old, flavoured, coloured, watery, starchy, tricky, and packed.
This is part one in a two part series of my interview with Joanna. In this interview, we explore her work and the impact of the food industry.
Philip: What prompted you to write Swallow This?
Joanna: Unanswered, or only partially answered, questions about the food we consume each day nagged away at the back of my mind. How ‘natural’ is the process for making a ‘natural’ flavouring? What, exactly, is modified starch, and why is this ingredient in so many foods? What is done to pitta bread to make it stay ‘fresh’ for six months, or to make a sausage stick together? Why, when I eat a supermarket salad, does the taste linger in my mouth for several hours after? Slowly but surely, I realised just how little information about food production methods is in the public realm, despite the best efforts of those of us who interrogate the inner workings of the industry.
My sense of not quite getting to the bottom of the story was less to do with illegal activities in the food chain (such as Horsegate) than the perfectly legal activities that go on every day behind the scenes. I’m not talking about primary food producers, farmers and growers; what happens down on the farm and out in the fields. This link in our food chain is passably well policed and transparent. And CIWF has done important work here, detailing animal husbandry practices. Nor am I talking about the abattoir, where, once again, there are regular, if inadequate, inspections, even the occasional undercover reporter from a vigilant animal welfare group, armed with a video camera. My growing preoccupation was just how pathetically little we really knew about processed food, the food that sits on supermarket shelves in boxes, cartons, and bottles, everything that comes wrapped or packed in some way, food that has had something done to it to make it more convenient and ready-to-eat.
Philip: You write that there are ‘already reasonable grounds to infer that a diet heavy in processed food is bad for us.’ (p. 14) Why is this? What role has industrial agriculture played?
Joanna: When he wrote The Road To Wigan Pier in 1937, George Orwell warned in no uncertain terms where the move away from home cooked, real food might lead us: ‘We may find in the long run that tinned food [the main type of processed food available then] is a deadlier weapon than the machine gun’. Orwell was really prescient. Nowadays, the expression of our ongoing embrace of factory food in its myriad processed forms is rather different than in the 1930s, with an irony that would not be lost on him. A growing number of us are simultaneously overfed and undernourished, a crazy consequence of our reliance on food manufactured in an industrial setting. Whereas Orwell linked processed food consumption with excessive skinniness, today’s six foot-tall man, like most other citizens, will most likely be carrying a good few kilos of excess weight. These days, a disturbing 60 percent of the U.K. population is overweight; a quarter of us are obese.
Are we leaping to an unjustified conclusion when we lay a significant part of the blame for obesity, chronic disease, and the dramatic rise in reported food allergies, at the door of processed food? There are several a priori grounds for seriously examining this possibility. Firstly, food manufacturers combine ingredients that do not occur in natural food, notably the trilogy of sugar, processed fat, and salt, in their most quickly digested, highly refined, nutrient-depleted forms. Might these modern constructions be addictive? That proposition is gaining airtime. Secondly, manufactured foods often contain chemicals with known toxic properties; although we are reassured that at low levels, this is not a cause for concern. Thirdly, the processed food industry has an ignoble history of actively defending its use of controversial ingredients, such as partially hydrogenated oils, long after well-documented, subsequently validated, suspicions have been aired.
Finally, factory farming has encouraged the ‘diseases of intensification’ (e.g., campylobacter, e-coli, pathogenic strains of bird flu), which are easily transferred from farm animals to humans. Now we’re seeing that the routine use of antibiotics on intensive farms in a vain attempt to keep a lid on these diseases is producing antibiotic resistant strains of pathogens, and generally compromising the efficacy of these vital families of drugs in both animal and human medicine. This is very serious.
Philip: How has the processed food industry reacted to your book?
Joanna: I have not (yet) been challenged directly by any food company. They are keeping their heads down and hoping that the issues raised in my book will go away. In general, I think food manufacturers have been disconcerted by the fact that I have exposed their ‘clean labels’ for what they are: slightly different formulations of chemicals and additives that sound better on the label. For instance, rosemary extract sounds delicious, like a lovingly made Slow Food ingredient made in Tuscany or something, much more attractive-sounding than an E number, but actually it’s just an antioxidant, basically a preservative to make processed food seem ‘fresh’ for longer.
The main defence from the food industry is that consumers ‘demand’ cheap food, and using an arsenal of hi-tech ingredients and chemical additives is the only way to supply that. I don’t accept that argument. Most consumers have been encouraged to believe that whether it’s a cheap burger or a pizza, the methods used in food processing to keep costs down don’t pose a risk to human health. People think they are eating cheap, healthy, safe food, not cheap, unhealthy, unsafe food. If someone offered you a cheap car, you’d be suspicious and wonder what is wrong with it. Food should be no different.
Philip: Thank you!