The research carried out by Zoe Harcombe on the conflicts of interest of those set up to advise on changes to the ‘eatwell plate’ (what we should eat to have a well-balanced diet) is very revealing http://www.zoeharcombe.com/2016/03/eatwell-guide-conflicts-of-interest/
By analysing the other interests of the group’s members she shows how determined the supermarkets and food industry are to control over any decisions that restrict what they put in our food.
Her research also reminds us to be sceptical about all those organisations – not just in the food industry – with soft friendly sounding names which disguise the reality that they are lobbies for commercial interests.
In my blogs over the last year, I have highlighted when alarm bells should ring.
Here are a couple of examples.
First the wonderful phrase that one hears so often: “We have commissioned independent research.” If you commission something, its reports cannot be independent. Have you ever seen this sort of research producing results that embarrass the sponsor?
Secondly the people I call secret allies https://deceivingus.wordpress.com/2015/03/02/the-secret-allies/
These are a mix of academics, consultants, research institutes. Always double check to see if academics have a private commercial business whose interests are helped by their research: also whether consultants have commercial clients whose interests their research endorses; and check who is funding the research institutes. https://deceivingus.wordpress.com/2015/03/19/is-academic-research-exactly-what-it-seems/
Thirdly – and this brings us back to the food industry, but does apply elsewhere – distrust any organisation with a name that oozes integrity – it probably supports the exact opposite of what the name implies.
And the classic example of this is the way food products are made to sound nicer and friendlier. Take the fascinating research by Joanna Blythman into the way E numbers have been replaced by wholesome-sounding ingredients. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/foodanddrinkadvice/11458409/From-rosemary-extract-to-sugar-syrup-the-new-food-label-nasties.html
And, most recently, look at the Guardian’s analysis of the decision by supermarkets to launch 76 lines with fictitious farm names. http://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/mar/21/tesco-revamps-own-label-range-fight-discounters-aldi-lidl
(How weird it is that supermarkets are creating mythical places for the origins of our food at the very time consumers want to know more about where their food comes from)
How are all these organisations – particularly the supermarkets and those in the food industry – able to get away with this?
The main reason is surely that while they claim to be in competition, their strategies are all variations on a similar theme. They want us to buy products rather than ingredients; and they do so by delivering a clear message that their products are healthier, cheaper, easier to prepare and tastier than anything we make ourselves.
In contrast to this coherent strategy there is what appears to me, as an outsider, as a disunity of purpose.
I don’t want for one moment to understate the skill and often personal bravery of those who expose what the food industry does. But they sometimes seem more focused on their own area of expertise, whether it is labelling, salt, sugar etc.
The power of the supermarkets and food industry can’t be beaten until every analysis of what they do challenges their core marketing strategy.
Healthier: food scientists rightly call for better labelling. But shouldn’t they also add that the best way to know what you are eating is to cook with your own ingredients.
Cheaper: I doubt if supermarkets would focus on marketing products if they could make a similar margin by selling ingredients. But, perhaps those columns comparing the merits of products sold by the different supermarkets could include the home-made equivalent.
Easier to prepare: why don’t more recipe books follow the example of Mary Berry who, in one recipe book, includes notes on what to prepare in advance and what you can freeze.
Tastier: Would supermarkets invent the names of farms etc if they felt their products could stand judgement on taste?
Of course most people eat food products from time to time – and there are some products which are hard for journeyman cooks like me – like ravioli – to replicate. And I am not offering to smoke my own fish.
But no-one should be conned into buying a ragu sauce when it can, if necessary, be prepared in advance and frozen.
Surely the way ahead is to persuade to ask this question when they go to the supermarket: if I made this myself, would it be cheaper, healthier, tastier and easier to prepare.
It is to reclaim the phrase “convenience food” from the industrial producers.
We should all endorse Joanna Blythman’s message that there is always time to cook. https://twitter.com/JoannaBlythman/status/712292965763440640