Inside the Food Industry
The surprising truth about what you eat and what you should know.
For those of us who have wondered about things such as “Why are there more than twenty five ingredients in a chicken nugget?” or “How can commercially prepared sandwiches have a shelf life of two weeks?” an article in The Guardian (the UK newspaper) is truly enlightening.
The article chronicles a visit to the annual Food Ingredients trade show which describes itself as ‘the world’s most important gathering of ingredients suppliers, distributors and buyers’. This show is not open to the public. Anyone who tries to register has to show that they work in food manufacturing; the reporter used a fake ID.
The following are excerpts; a link to the complete article is at the end:
The conference was the domain of people whose natural environment is the laboratory and the factory, not the kitchen, the farm or the field; people who share the assumption that everything nature can do, man can do so much better, and more profitably.
Making it cheaper is the goal of the wares on show, something the marketing messages make clear. The strapline for a product called Butter Buds®, described by its makers as “an enzyme-modified encapsulated butter flavour that has as much as 400 times the flavour intensity of butter”, sums it up in six words: “When technology meets nature, you save.”
Manufacturers who need their tomato sauce to be thick enough not to leak out of its plastic carton – and just a little bit glossy, so that it doesn’t look matt and old after several days in the fridge – were sold the advantages of Microlys®, a “cost-effective” speciality starch that gives “shiny, smooth surface and high viscosity”, or Pulpiz™, Tate & Lyle’s tomato “pulp extender”. Based on modified starch, it gives the same pulpy visual appeal as an all-tomato sauce, while using 25% less tomato paste.
The broad business portfolio of the companies exhibiting at Food Ingredients was disconcerting. Omya, based in Hamburg, described itself as “a leading global chemical distributor and producer of industrial minerals”, supplying markets in food, pet food, oleochemicals, cosmetics, detergents, cleaners, papers, adhesives, construction, plastics and industrial chemicals. At the show, Omya was selling granular onion powder, monosodium glutamate and phosphoric acid. For big companies such as this, food processing is just another revenue stream. They experience no cognitive dissonance in providing components not only for your meal, but also for your fly spray, scratch-resistant car coating, paint or glue.
I sought refuge at a stand displaying cut-up fruits and vegetables; it felt good to see something natural, something instantly recognisable as food. But why did the fruit have dates, several weeks past, beside them? A salesman for Agricoat told me that they had been dipped in one of its solutions, NatureSeal, which, because it contains citric acid along with other unnamed ingredients, adds 21 days to their shelf life. Treated in this way, carrots don’t develop that telltale white that makes them look old, cut apples don’t turn brown, pears don’t become translucent, melons don’t ooze and kiwis don’t collapse into a jellied mush; a dip in NatureSeal leaves salads “appearing fresh and natural”. There was a further benefit: NatureSeal is classed as a processing aid, not an ingredient, so there’s no need to declare it on the label, no obligation to tell consumers that their “fresh” fruit salad is weeks old.
Anything that comes in a box, tin, bag, carton or bottle has to bear a label listing its contents, and many of us have become experts at reading these labels. But many of the additives and ingredients that once jumped out as fake and unfathomable have quietly disappeared. Does this mean that their contents have improved? In some cases, yes, but there is an alternative explanation. Over the past few years, the food industry has embarked on an operation it dubs “clean label”, with the goal of removing the most glaring industrial ingredients and additives, replacing them with substitutes that sound altogether more benign. Some companies have reformulated their products in a genuine, wholehearted way, replacing ingredients with substitutes that are less problematic. Others, unconvinced that they can pass the cost on to retailers and consumers, have turned to a novel range of cheaper substances that allow them to present a scrubbed and rosy face to the public.
Imagine you are standing in the supermarket. Maybe you usually buy some cured meat for an antipasti. Picking up a salami, even the most guarded shopper might relax when they see rosemary extract on the ingredients list – but rosemary extracts are actually “clean-label” substitutes for the old guard of techie-sounding antioxidants (E300-21), such as butylhydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylhydroxytoluene (BHT). Food manufacturers use them to slow down the rate at which foods go rancid, so extending their shelf life.
Rosemary extracts don’t always have to carry an E number (E392), but the more poetic addition of “extract of rosemary” makes it sound like a lovingly made ingredient – especially if that salami is also labelled as natural or organic. And the extract does have something to do with the herb, usually in its dried form. The herb’s antioxidant chemicals are isolated in an extraction procedure that “deodorises” them, removing any rosemary taste and smell. Extraction is done by using either carbon dioxide or chemical solvents – hexane (derived from the fractional distillation of petroleum), ethanol and acetone. Neutral-tasting rosemary extract is then sold to manufacturers, usually in the form of a brownish powder. Its connection with the freshly cut, green and pungent herb we know and love is fairly remote.
And, finally, a look at baking and cooking from the industrial perspective:
A factory kitchen looks nothing like yours. When the home cook decides to make a Bakewell tart, she or he puts together a lineup of familiar ingredients: raspberry jam, flour, butter, whole eggs, almonds, butter and sugar. The factory food technologist, on the other hand, approaches the tart from a totally different angle: what alternative ingredients can we use to create a Bakewell tart-style product, while replacing or reducing expensive ingredients – those costly nuts, butter and berries? How can we cut the amount of butter, yet boost that buttery flavour, while disguising the addition of cheaper fats? What sweeteners can we add to lower the tart’s blatant sugar content and justify a “reduced calorie” label? How many times can we reuse the pastry left over from each production run in subsequent ones? What antioxidants could we throw into the mix to prolong the tart’s shelf life? Which enzyme would keep the almond sponge layer moist for longer? Might we use a long-life raspberry purée and gel mixture instead of conventional jam? What about coating the almond sponge layer with an invisible edible film that would keep the almonds crunchy for weeks? Could we substitute some starch for a proportion of the flour to give a more voluminously risen result? And so on.
The complete article can be found at: