Not on the Label: What Really Goes into the Food on Your Plate

by Felicity Lawrence

This book is written by a British author, and while I have read plenty of books about the sad state of our food industry: unsustainable industrial farming, farm animal abuse, illegal immigrant workers, harmful addictives, obesity crisis, food mileage, and so forth, I figure it would be interesting to read about the same issues from a different perspective.

In some way, you can call it “comforting” to know that we Americans don’t face these problems alone. Nonetheless, in some way I have, like many Americans, a more picturesque image of Europe. We think of the French, the Italian and the Spanish cuisine when we hear the word gourmet… excellent wine from vineyards older than our country, homemade dishes prepared for hours by loving matriachs, farmers markets selling the freshest pick of the season, rustic bread from brick ovens, lunch and dinner enjoyed at a leisurely pace. It is therefore, a sad and rude awakening to know that the pasture is not that much greener on the other side of the pond.

This book is however much better than I thought, and I gleamed a lot of new knowledge. When it started out with the meat processing plant and undocumented labor, I was like, oh yeah, I read that ten million times already (though American’s labor is from South America, not Eastern Europe and Middle East), but after that it was one eye-opener after the next. For example:

Chicken meat can be “beefed up” with hydrolyzed beef protein (make from cow waste) so it can hold up to 50% water in weight, though latest technology can break up the bovine protein so much that DNA testing may not reveal its presence. Some chicken nuggets were found to be made up of as little as 16% chicken, and a good portion of that from chicken skin and mechanically recovered meat.

In prepacked salad leaves using modified atmosphere packaging to increase shelf life, the chemcial used to disinfect the leaves may cause cancer, not to mention that a study found that people who eat these salad leaves show no increase in antioxidants in their blood sample, compare to a control group who ate regular lettuce leaves.

In 2002 the British grocery retailers accounted for nearly 1 billion kilometers of food transportation. And England is no bigger than a small state in size! It’s too mind boggling to even begin to do the math for the United States. No wonder it’s said that eating local helps save the environment a lot more than driving less.

Traditional bread baking requires the dough to be left to ferment and prove over extended periods. In industrial baking, they incorporate air and water into the dough with intense energy at high speed, and by adding chemical oxidants (to get the gas in), higher level of salt (as there is no time to develop flavor as in traditional dough fermentation) and hydrogenated fat (to provide structure) they save time, labor, and have higher yield (usually it contains 8% more water than bread made from traditional method). It is however found that the traditional fermentation allows the wheat to become digestible, and modern methods of baking bread may be the cuplit for increased cases of gluten allergies.

In the chapter titled Apples and Bananas, the book mentioned how fruits and vegetables are not selected for their flavors. An apple has to go through a “beauty parade”. A machine has cameras to take up t seventy pictures of each apple as it passe along a conveyor belt to grade it by size and color. If the specs call for 15-17% blush red on green, an apple that is 18% or 14% red will be rejected, and end up either as fruit juice or just go to waste. Another machine, the penetrometer, will measure the firmness of the fruit. A buyer told a farmer that while his apples taste great, they don’t pass the test, and so the fruits are rejected. To measure up to the ripeness requirement will mean fruits that are picked too early.

The narrow specifications also mean that plenty of food go to waste if they don’t measure up to the standards. For every 30 tonnes of carrots harvested, just 10 tonnes are used. Only 35% of green beans meet the supermarket grade: they may be curved, too long, too short, too thick, or too thin. The high cosmetic standards also require heavy use of chemicals to achieve.

The part about coffee planters make me especially sad. The farmer kept thinking that the translator made a mistake as he couldn’t fathom how a product he sells for 200 Ugandan shillings a kilo can end up in a London cafe for 5000 shillings a cup. Meanwhile, he couldn’t pay the 5000 shillings needed for medicines for his children with malaria, and his children have to drop out of school when he couldn’t pay tuition, dashing any hope that the next generation can get educated and move out of poverty.

I kept reading it to my hubby till he complained that his appetite was totally ruined. I read it to several coworkers (during lunch time no less)… Really a good book worth sharing.

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Published in: on September 20, 2009 at 5:11 pm  Comments (1)