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What's for Dinner?

By WLR Staff, by Pat Wilson

The UK food industry has dominated news headlines in recent weeks and prompted me to have a closer look at what's going on.

The first step in my research was to purchase 15 ‘healthy range’ food products from the major brands. Half way through writing this piece I chucked the 'healthy' snacks and dinners in the bin. I will not feed these foods to my daughter nor eat them myself.

To begin…

The illegal food dye, Sudan 1 has been found to be present in many products sold across the UK. Products that seem to have infiltrated most of our kitchens and have been fed to our families.

As well as this, Tesco, Britain’s biggest supermarket chain is being accused of misleading customers over the nutritional and health benefits of a series of products in stores throughout the country.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised about these food scares. It has, once again emphasised the importance of food traceability in the UK. Too many reports and news stories have shown us that our food production system can be blighted with problems and many of our foods are routinely adulterated (see Not on the Label). How did Sudan 1 find its way into food production?

It has also shown a real need for a clear and understandable system for the labelling of foods. The listing of ingredients needs to be in clear, understandable English and any claims about the contents need to be stringently verified.

As consumers, these headlines should be a bit of a ‘Wake Up’ call to each and every one of us. Yes, we are trying to become slimmer, healthier and fitter and watch what we eat. The paradox is that we are largely a nation of ‘convenience eaters’; we are dependent on processed, industrialised foods. We want quick to prepare meals at the right price to fit in with our busy lifestyles. In this respect we have what we want - but with some unwanted negative consequences. We will and do eat convenience foods laced with ingredients that we do not understand or are not even aware of. We wouldn’t buy a car or indeed any other product in these circumstances.

We need a change in our thinking about the foods we prepare and consume and our general eating habits.

It is commonly accepted that we don’t cook meals in the way our Grandmothers used to. From scratch, using good, not costly, ingredients; she always knew exactly what was in a dish and how it had been prepared.

We claim (and it’s probably true) that we don’t have the time to prepare and cook meals from scratch. Long working hours, family commitments and hectic social lives have fuelled the need for dinners that can be cooked in minutes; convenient ready meals. We also, with changing times, don’t all have the domestic know-how that Grandma had putting meals together.

The bottom line would appear to be we need to gain a little knowledge about what is in the foods we are eating. If we know what is included in the foods we eat we can then start to make decisions about our diet. Do we want to eat these foods or will we give them a miss?

How easy is it to acquire this knowledge? Looking at the different ‘healthy range’ products purchased and trying to decipher the ingredients listed brings home just how complex the food chain in the UK has become. My initial reaction being ‘You need a degree in Chemistry to understand.’

So what ingredients did the products contain which gave me cause for concern?

SPICES – Easy to understand but what spices? Not listed individually and spices could contain colourings and other additives not listed.

GLUCOSE SYRUP – This is sugar which is used to boost the flavouring of a product. All forms of concentrated sugar are fast-releasing causing a rapid increase in blood sugar levels. If this sugar is not required by the body it is put into storage, eventually emerging as fat.

GUAR GUM – Is an extract from a shrub and is used as an effective binder, stabiliser, disintegrator and thickener. Widely used in bakeries, dairies and in the production of processed meat, dressings and sauces. I need to find out more about this as it bothers me that Guar is also used in tobacco, leather, insecticides and pesticides, crayons and adhesives.

MONO- AND DIGLYCERIDES OF FATTY ACIDS - Manufactured from Glycerin and fatty acids these may be genetically modified. Known as the most commonly used emulsifier in the food processing industry this can be found in gateau, cakes, hot chocolate mixes, aerosol creams, quick custard mixes, packet desserts...

E124 – PONCEAU 4R, COCHINEAL RED A, BRILLIANT SCARLET 4R – A red synthetic coal tar or dye found in dressings, jelly, tinned fruit pie fillings, cheesecakes, soups and trifles. Banned in Norway and the US.

AMMONIA CARAMEL – Colourings which comprise the most widely used group of colours used in food production. What can’t they be found in??

MALIC ACID – Can be found naturally but is commercially synthesised. Included in tinned fruit, jams, jelly, frozen vegetables and fruit squash.

The list of ingredients used, and from the few shown, is fairly complex but what it should bring home is that many of our convenience foods are laced with ingredients we do not understand; mostly additives to enhance their flavours and preserve them for a longer shelf life. Clearly some need a little more investigation; I am on the case!

Have we forgotten how to flavour our foods? If we were using basic, good ingredients would we need all these additives?

So where do we go from here?

Be knowledgeable about the different ingredients in foods or at least be aware they are in the food. Learn about how dishes are put together and take a little time to think about what you want to eat yourself and feed your families.

The answer cannot be that you are happy to eat foods packed with processed fat and sugar and a list of ingredients you don’t understand which are basically additives and some colourings (already banned in use in several other countries).

The answer has to be using fresh, raw ingredients to put healthy, balanced meals together. Go back to basics and know what is in the food you eat. Change will come when ordinary people use their buying power.

Lecture over now but before you go I should let you know something. I am not any kind of domestic goddess and my cooking skills, as my daughter will testify, are non-existent. If I can be shocked by ‘Sausage & Mash’ ready meals (who would buy this and not think to make their own?) and can put a meal, from scratch, on the table anybody can!

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You can use the food diary and database tools in WLR to make sure your diet is healthy, balanced and contains the right amount of fat and calories. Try it free for 24 hours.

Take our FREE trial »

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