Interview: Joanna Blythman

Categories: Features

Joanna Blythman on misleading ingredients lists, terrifying technologies and immortal cake

Words: Sybil Kapoor

After reading Joanna Blythman’s latest book Swallow This, I’ve found myself looking at the world in a new way. My attention has become sharply focused on tracking all the mass-produced food around me.

Do people know what they are eating as they tuck into their ready-made sandwiches? Do I know what I am eating at home? Were my baby spinach leaves washed in chlorine or fruit acid baths? And what exactly is carrot extract doing in my Twiglets?

I have known Joanna for many years and I’ve always admired her courage in tackling tough issues, such as whether we should accept genetically modified ingredients into our food chain. Slight and softly spoken, it’s hard to imagine her taking on big industry.

Fairly and squarely
But while she may have a gentle manner, Joanna is never afraid to put tough questions fairly and squarely in front of us. Now, in her latest book, she’s “serving up the food industry’s darkest secrets”.

“It started with an incident four years ago,” she explains. “I was catching a train and hadn’t had time for lunch, so I decided to buy two small pots of vegetarian, grainy-style salads from M&S. When I started to eat them that I realised there was something really weird about the taste. Worse still, it lingered in my mouth for long after I’d eaten. I decided to get to the bottom of it.”

Joanna is not a woman to do things by halves. The resulting book covers every aspect of processed food: from its sourcing, creation and distribution, to packaging and shelf-life. “I realised I’d spent a lot of time writing about how food is produced from field to farm gate, but that I knew very little about factory production.”

An unrecognisable breast
The more you read, the more you realise how manufactured food has not only infiltrated every part of our lives, but how it has transmogrified into an unrecognisable beast. A seemingly innocent cafe-bought pastry, for example, might contain pectin, isomalt (a sugar alcohol), whey protein, flavouring, a gelling agent, an acidity regulator, a preservative, and mixed carotenes for colouring.

“The latter additive is derived from plants or algae obtained by fermentation of a fungus, blakeslea trispora”—not the sort of ingredients you’d expect to find in a domestic recipe. Even fresh produce might be sprayed with an edible coating, both pre and post-harvest, to slow down the ripening process.

“When I started I had no idea how complex the subject was or the level of scientific knowledge I was going to need,” Joanna confesses. “By the time I’d finished, I realised there’s a huge gulf between consumer comprehension and the reality. What’s more, there is so much scope for research into our food production.”

Vesta chicken
As a small child in the 1960s, like many others, Joanna was seduced by a Vesta chicken curry ad on telly and persuaded her mother to let her eat one, only to discover that she hated it. “Most of us follow what everyone else is doing, so if everyone is eating supermarket ready-meals and that’s all you’ve ever known, you think it must be normal and that food should taste like that,” she says.

From my own research into how taste works, I know that she is right. The more sweetness you consume, no matter whether it’s aspartame or sucrose, the less sweetness you can taste; conversely, the less you consume, the more you can taste.

The same is true of salt. If you radically cut either taste out of your diet for two or three weeks, you will change your perception of taste. It’s hard initially, but you quickly adapt and find intense pleasure in the sweetness of a fresh peach or the saltiness of parmesan sprinkled on to pasta.

New ingredients
The first half of Joanna’s book describes the secretive world of food production. She explains how new ingredients are developed to cope with the rigours of industrial manufacturing and the demands to prolong shelf life and keep costs low. Cooking as we understand it simply doesn’t exist in the manufactured food world.

When you’re cooking on an industrial scale, the rules we’re all taught in domestic cooking such as browning, stewing or whisking have to go out the window, as bulk quantities behave in a different way. And that’s before you take into account the cheap, highly processed ingredients that are added to food, such as frozen purees, dried powders and liquid additives.

Much work has been done by food manufacturers to make ingredients appear more natural on the label. Monosodium glutamate, for example, is often now replaced by ‘yeast extract’, which can come in a wide range of flavours, from meaty roast chicken to boiled beef. In reality, yeast extract has a high concentration of the amino acid glutamate, from which MSG is derived.

Fruit acid solution
Another surprising revelation is that anything in the production that is not deemed to be an ingredient or an additive does not need to be listed. Thus, it won’t say on your packet of salad leaves whether it has been washed in a fruit acid solution to inhibit the growth of bacteria and prolong the leaves’ life.

“I would like my book to be a wake-up call for people,” says Joanna. “My worst fear is that if we don’t realise what’s already being done, new technologies that are waiting in the wings will find their way into our food.”

Joanna describes an industry which is dominated by the need to produce cheap food and make money. “We need to wake up and realise that big corporations are placing a weak regulatory system under impossible pressure and as a result, are mainly getting their way.”

Food technology
So should children be taught more about what happens to food in school? To my surprise, Joanna’s reply is no. “The drift of food education in recent years has been towards food technology. They’re not teaching children to cook anymore. There is an attitude that if you tell people exactly what is in something or how it is made, you are dissing an industry which is creating jobs for people.”

The solution is to teach children to cook. “It’s very empowering and it allows you to realise the difference between eating home-made and factory food,” she continues. “For me, the concept of ‘healthy’ eating and dieting is redundant. If people prepared their own food, many of the food-related problems would go away.” Clearly, change is going to have to come via consumer pressure.

Finally, I ask Joanna about her much tweeted-about experiment with a supermarket-bought walnut cake, which she left in its packaging to see how it would alter over time. A real cake would be inedibly stale in fairly short order, then rapidly turn into a jungle of colourful mould.

At the time of interview, three months after its best before date, the only sign of age on this particular sweet treat was some sinkage. “Sue Lawrence, the food writer, has bravely offered to try it with me,” laughs Joanna. “But we’ve got to decide how long we’re going to leave it before testing.”