Sunday, 21 June 2015

How to buy 'clean' food. Q&A with award-winning food journalist Joanna Blythman

In my recent post Think you can eat clean by checking food labels? ... I wrote about the revelations in Joanna Blythman’s latest book SwallowThis about the processing aids, enzymes, additives and other substances that are added to our food.

The food manufacturers argue that we cannot make a definitive link between these processing techniques and health problems.  However, is this because there are no risks or because we haven’t had time to establish them yet?  It took decades for people to prove the link between tobacco and cancer, now pesticides are in the frame – WHO have declared Roundup a possible carcinogenic thirty years after its approval.  Lots of the products used in the food industry have not been around very long so how can we tell what the long term effects will be? Given we don’t know how often we are ingesting these additives, aids and enzymes how can the industry ensure our exposure is ‘low-level’ and non-problematic? 

The industry is not going to change anytime soon so what we can do to today, to try to eat clean?  

Joanna’s advice is simple -  we need to cook from scratch as often as we can and choose the best ingredients we can afford. I agree, however once you start reading about what the food industry are allowed to do with ‘whole’ foods such as meat, dairy, vegetables etc, buying food for a family can still seem like a minefield.  Add in cost and time pressure and it is very easy to feel overwhelmed. 

So I was keen to ask Joanna some further questions about how and where she shops and how we can make the best choices, whether we are in a supermarket or shopping online. 

Read her answers below for some great advice – and some surprising information about frozen and organic food!

Should families go shopping at Waitrose or Sainsbury’s instead of Asda or Aldi?  Is this about expensive versus cheap food?
Joanna: My policy is to avoid shopping in supermarkets as much as possible. That’s partly because I find supermarket shopping a soul-destroying experience, but also because I want to spend as much of my food costs as possible with independent traders: markets, farm shops, proper butchers/fishmongers, small bakeries and so on. I do shop in supermarkets some times, but I feel that nowadays, the thing is to shop around a bit. All the market signals suggest that the one-stop, once-a-week supermarket shopping expedition is last century’s shopping model. 

Are shoppers better off going to the cheese and meat counters in the supermarket rather than choosing items off a shelf?
Joanna: Basically they sell the same stuff. On the counters products are sold unwrapped, which looks different, but it’s the same stuff from the same suppliers. I particularly avoid the fish counters: everything looks so old. They can’t compare with a proper fishmonger.

Parents often buy frozen fruit and vegetables because they are a great back up and we are told they may even have more nutrients than fresh ones. Is there anything in the manufacturing process that we should be aware of?
Joanna: In general, I’m quite in favour of frozen food. I freeze a lot of fresh meat that I buy, and get through a vast amount of frozen raspberries and peas! What I have found out is that many fruits and vegetables are soaked in water containing enzymes before freezing to firm them up. This doesn’t appear on the label; yet another “processing aid”.

You discuss ‘ protective packaging’ and meat being filled with water. Is this an issue just with ‘processed meat’ such as ham and sausage or could it be an issue with any meat product bought off a supermarket shelf?
Joanna: More or less all supermarket meat is packed in MAP (modified atmosphere packaging) these days, whether a whole intact bit of meat, or processed. So it’s quite different from a traditional butcher. Imported chicken is often pre-injected with added water, sometimes with salt and starch in it. This is mainly used in processed ready meals, so check if your “chicken” has ingredients added by looking at the label.

Are there any issues with whole fruit and vegetables that one would buy from a supermarket grocery section or is it only pre-prepared items?
Joanna: Not really. Obviously, I always try to buy organic when it is affordable (things like potatoes, carrots, celery, lettuce and so on) as I try to avoid pesticide residues. Some fruits and vegetables, both organic and non-organic, are covered in wax to make them last longer, and on non-organic produce, these waxes can contain fungicides. So I always buy organic or unwaxed (eg citrus) if I’m going to use the zest. My last book What To Eat covers this in more depth.

In your book you talk about the use of enzymes to ‘mature’ food faster: is this only use to create flavourings or in whole foods as well?  For example is it just used to create mature cheddar cheese flavouring or in blocks of cheese too? 
Joanna: No, some GM enzymes are used in the production of whole cheeses, particularly vegetarian ones, and lots of salamis/charcuterie products use enzymes.

Is buying organic food the solution or can manufacturers still use ingredients / enzymes as processing aids and not declare them?
Joanna: Organic guarantees higher standards of animal welfare, no GM ingredients or animal feed, environmental and wildlife benefits, and fewer additives. But processing aids are indeed used behind the scenes to manufacture organic processed foods, and not declared on the label.

If you had a young family and were shopping at a supermarket what guidelines would you use when choosing food?
Joanna: Buy food in its whole, unprocessed form and cook it yourself from scratch. Bring your children up to eat the same as the adults, and sit down at the table together to eat meals. Don’t keep anything in the house that you don’t what the kids to eat. I don’t believe its good to use junk food as “treats”; it sends out the wrong message.

Sensible advice – it’s not about buying chia seeds or getting up at 6am to make acai berry smoothies every morning.  It’s about preparing proper meals, with real ingredients and trying to shop as locally as you can. It's about supporting our local fishmongers and butchers, (even more important following the revelations last week about MRSA in intensively reared pork). 

If we all use our (considerable) spending power wisely we can make changes for the better!

Read more of Joanna’s articles and get details of her books at

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