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   Mar 05

Read this and you’ll never eat a ready meal again

More than three billion ready meals were eaten in Britain in 2012

They make up the biggest sector of the UK’s £70 billion a year food budget

Food manufacturers carry out little or no preparation of raw ingredients

They buy treated ingredients, mainly frozen or dried, from other companies

Meat, fish and vegetables are kept at sub-zero temperatures for months
But when the food is thawed and cooked it can be marketed as ‘fresh’

A ready-meal factory can churn out 250,000 portions a day using 70 different ingredients

When I was a child, I was desperate to try a ready meal.

At home, my mother and grandmother cooked just about everything from scratch, with no convenience foods; the way most British people ate in the Sixties.

But at six years old, I was captivated by the TV advert for a Vesta chicken curry.

With its beautiful sari-clad dancing girls and Arabian Nights exoticism, the ad made this early packaged meal seem a magical food.

Processed food and ready meals are everywhere, despite numerous news stories warning of the dangers

My pestering won. Grandma bought one of these expensive, ready-cooked meals for me and heated it in the oven, while I gazed at the packaging showing a bejewelled beauty with a generous plateful of glossy curry on a bed of pearly rice.

The gloop I got looked like dog food and tasted even worse. I was so shocked that I have detested and distrusted instant meals ever since.

Finding out the truth about what we are really eating eventually became my career, as a food journalist.

Most people love ready meals, however; three billion were eaten in Britain in 2012 and they make up the biggest sector of the country’s £70 billion annual retail food budget.

Processed food is everywhere, despite numerous news stories warning of the dangers.

In the past few days headlines, taken from my book, highlighted the risks of eating bagged salad: the greenery can be as much as ten days old and have been submerged up to eight hours in tap water heavy with chlorine, to inhibit bacteria.

Citric, tartaric and other fruit acids are also painted on to the leaves to keep them looking fresh. It sounds revolting but it does not stop millions from buying bagged leaves.

Three billion ready meals were eaten in Britain in 2012 and they make up the biggest sector of the country’s £70 billion annual retail food budget – pictured is a baked potato production line at a ready meal factory

The key to the success of processed food is simple: it is not only quick and simple but reliable.

As one ‘food technology executive’ or ready-meal scientist told me: ‘Our objective is to see that the consumer gets the same taste experience every time.’

This means the ingredients must be identical and that demands mass production; food preparation on an industrial scale, so that it barely looks like food at all.

In fact, food manufacturers, the companies that supply ready meals to supermarkets, carry out little or no preparation of raw ingredients.

Instead, they buy treated ingredients, mainly frozen or dried, from a range of other companies and cook them.

The convenience food chain that supplies the consumer is made up of many links, which often cross continents.

The supermarkets sub-contract work to the food manufacturers, who get various food processing plants to do the work for them.

Those processors are often thousands of miles away from the farmers and growers.

Most of the meat, vegetables and fish in our convenience food has been transported and stored while frozen.Typically, it is kept at sub-zero temperatures for months, even years, but when it is thawed and cooked, it can be marketed as ‘fresh’

As in any automated industry, the manufacturers break down all the production stages into component parts, carried out by separate teams on different assembly lines.

When an ITV investigation on the Tonight programme analysed a typical supermarket ‘British lamb hotpot’ ready meal, it discovered the ingredients were from ten countries and included New Zealand lamb, Israeli carrots, Argentine beef bones and Majorcan potatoes.

Irish authorities were equally shocked to discover that a pizza bearing the label ‘country of origin Ireland’ in fact contained 35 ingredients that had passed through 60 countries during preparation and packaging.

Most of the meat, vegetables and fish in our convenience food has been transported and stored while frozen.

Typically, it is kept at sub-zero temperatures for months, even years, but when it is thawed and cooked, it can be marketed as ‘fresh’.

Eggs are supplied to food manufacturers in many forms but almost never in their shells.

Instead, they come as powders, with added sugar, as products made just from albumen (egg white) or they come hard-boiled in a long cylinder so that, when cut, every slice of egg is identical.

This is ideal for packed sandwiches, as the manufacturers don’t have to deal with the rounded ends. They also come as liquid, concentrated, dried, crystalised and quick-frozen.

There is always the cheaper option of so-called ‘egg-replacers’ which are made from whey protein, which has a shelf-life of 18 months.

Don’t be fooled either if you see any food with a label boasting ‘made with butter’.

Rather than butter, this means the product could include a much cheaper, pale yellow powder that is made using a technique called ‘spray-drying’, during which nearly all the water is removed from a mixture of butter, milk proteins and starch.

The companies that make ready meals keep a low profile. They operate from vast anonymous warehouses on industrial estates with bland, innocuous names.

Don’t be fooled if you see any food with a label boasting ‘made with butter’. Rather than butter, this means the product could include a much cheaper, yellow powder that is made using a technique called ‘spray-drying’

Their thousands of employees work long, demanding shifts of 12 hours or more, behind walls with no windows

We are told that is to guard the secret recipes from industrial espionage, but if you could peep in, you might understand the immense economies of scale: half a million kebabs processed in one day, or ten tons of chicken tikka, is nothing unusual for a busy plant.

The workers tend to be young. They have to be, to withstand the conditions in these usually bone-chillingly cold factories.

Typically, 90 per cent of the workers come from Eastern Europe and the Baltic states. There is no chat or camaraderie in these places: to protect their hearing from the din of the gargantuan machinery, they must wear earplugs.

The smells are nauseating; a stench of fat in the snack factories, the pungent reek of flesh in the meat plants.

The facilities for microwave meals are worse; the air thick with the scent of tomato sauce and the starchy, sticky béchamel (white sauce) with its fragrance of regurgitated baby milk.

A ready-meal factory can be churning out 250,000 portions a day, using 60 or 70 different ingredients, combining ten assembly lines.

That means that when problems arise, millions of packets on the supermarket shelves could be affected.

After Tesco was warned about a batch of mouldy rice, eight different ranges had to be recalled, from ‘beef in black bean sauce’ to ‘balti vegetable curry’.

Even when you buy food that is promoted as being freshly made on site, the components could have been mass produced in these windowless warehouses.

Take a stroll round a Marks & Spencer bakery, where the captivating aroma of loaves and tray-bakes surrounds you like a comfort blanket, and ask yourself where the ingredients come from for the bread ‘fresh-baked in the store’.

Everything on sale is displayed unwrapped in rustic wicker baskets resting on wooden crates or jute sacks, to conjure an informal, artisan appeal.

This is what the marketing team calls ‘creating theatre’ and ‘driving purchases’ in the food hall but taking a look behind the scenes in this theatre is not a simple matter.

All baked goods that are not made in-store must display a list of every ingredient and additive in the mix but that rule does not apply to food cooked on the premises.

So, M&S provides details of the ‘nutritional content’ — how much fat, protein, salt, calories and so on are in each bun and loaf — but despite repeated inquiries to the chain’s press department, I could not discover what actually went into these ‘freshly baked’ products.

Finally, I managed to see a copy of the manual kept under the counter at one M&S bakery.

It destroyed the cosy notion that its products are created from scratch in-house. On the contrary, many lines are bought made, frozen and ready to be baked in the shop’s ovens.

The Real Bread Campaign described in-store bakeries as ‘tanning salons’ for products made in factories

Take the M&S jam doughnut. The ready-mixed dough, deep-fried in vegetable oil and injected with raspberry jam filling, arrives frozen at the store. It can be stored for up to nine months before staff heat the mixture on setting No 7 (eight minutes at 120c, followed by three minutes at 100c) and then apply one-tenth of an ounce of sugar to each ring.

Voila! ‘Fresh’ doughnuts! No wonder the Real Bread Campaign has described in-store bakeries as ‘tanning salons’ for products made in industrial plants.

Those doughnuts became even less appetising when I located the ingredients list.

Whereas home-made raspberry jam needs only two ingredients (raspberries and sugar), the filling injected into the dough was an amalgam of sugar syrup, raspberry puree, the gelling agent pectin, citric acid and calcium chloride (also known as additive E509), which acts as preservative and firming agent.

One thing all of us know about processed food is that E numbers are bad. We might not understand what carboxymethylcellulose is, or what diacetyl tartaric esters of fatty acid diglycerides are, but we know we should not eat them.

The supermarkets understand this. As one food industry commentator put it: ‘E numbers have a very high ‘label polluting’ effect. ‘Chemicals’ is seen as a nasty word.

Consumers want a return to familiar ingredients and, in recent years, terms such as ‘natural’, ‘authentic’, ‘preservative-free’ and ‘additive-free’ have proliferated on the packaging of food products.’

For producers, this is a major headache. They have long relied on the flavourings and sweeteners that replace the natural tastes which industrial processing destroys.

They have come to depend on fake colours to make overprocessed, beige food look appetising and they need antioxidants (chemicals that stop food from going off by reacting with oxygen) and emulsifiers (to prevent ingredients separating) to maximise the shelf-life of their ready meals.

Under pressure to clean up their act, many manufacturers have latched on to the concept of ‘clean label’ foods with all food additives removed or replaced by ingredients that do not sound chemical or artificial, yet perform the same function.

The result is ingredients that sound traditional, even tasty, but which are simply included as replacements for E numbers.

Many consumers know that such old-school preservatives as sodium benzoate have been linked to attention deficit disorder, allergies, even cancer, but who could guess that ‘cultured vinegar’ or ‘cultured cane/corn syrup’ on the new, ‘clean’ label is, in fact, a fermented sugar, formulated to inhibit bacteria and act as a preservative?

In truth, the ‘clean label’ ploy is a superficial exercise with the embarrassing ingredients hidden rather than chucked out.

This sort of tactic in the industry is no accident. The ready-meal world is highly organised and intensely secretive.

As a journalist with 25 years’ experience in the industry, I still found myself unable to gain entry to its annual trade show.

This event is called Food Ingredients and it attracts more than 20,000 visitors from 150 countries; industry heavyweights with a combined ingredients budget of at least £3 billion.

When it comes to E numbers, we might not understand what carboxymethylcellulose is, or what diacetyl tartaric esters of fatty acid diglycerides are, but we know we should not eat them

How to develop healthy eating habits with real foods

The most important suppliers, distributors and buyers meet here. Think of it as the food manufacturers’ equivalent of an arms fair.

Using a fake ID, I managed to get in to Food Ingredients 2013 in the futuristic Festhalle Messe in Frankfurt.

The first thing that struck me was the absence of food. Very little was on display, in contrast to every other food event I had ever attended.

It occurred to me that this might be because the buyers knew exactly what went into the products, and did not much fancy eating them.

After a search, I did find a pastry-chef in gleaming whites, offering petit fours like those in the window of a patisserie but these were made without eggs, butter or cream, thanks to the crafty substitution of potato protein isolate.

I learned that this ‘revolutionary ingredient’ could be ‘tailored to the required functionality: foaming, emulsifying or gelling’ to provide ‘the volume, texture, stability and mouthfeel’ of real cakes.

Nearby I discovered vases containing glowing orange liquid, like lava lamps with ghostly threads of gossamer suspended inside.

These were ‘orange cells’; used to make cartons of diluted and pasteurised orange concentrate look as if they contained freshly squeezed juice.

Many exhibitors seemed to regard their wares as industrial chemical products rather than foodstuffs.

One, Omya of Hamburg, was calling itself ‘a leading global chemical distributor and producer of industrial minerals’. It was in Frankfurt to promote its granular onion powder, among many ranges.

But food is not Omya’s only market. It also targets pet foods, cosmetics, detergents, adhesives, plastics and construction, among others.

For companies such as these, the food on your plate is just another revenue stream.

They are happy to manufacture components for your meal, as well as fly-spray, air freshener and deodorant and the casing for your computer, the scratch-resistant paint on your car and a thousand other chemical innovations.

Whenever I tried to find out more, however, my questions were met with reticence. It was like questioning Ministry of Defence press officers: every answer about how our food is made was vague and evasive.

All they would say is: ‘It’s a special process.’

One of the scariest reasons for their reluctance to answer is because of the widespread use of genetic modification [GM]; so-called ‘Frankenfoods’.

Most of the meat, vegetables and fish in our convenience food has been transported and stored while frozen

Under European law, any food or drink that contains GM ingredients, engineered in the laboratory, must state this clearly on the label.

What most people do not realise is that the same law does not apply to enzymes, the basic proteins that occur naturally in all living organisms.

They have natural functions, such as helping us to digest food but if enzymes are artificially doctored, they can be made to do almost any job, from preserving food to speeding up chemical reactions.

Many food manufacturers are convinced that GM enzymes are the future of the industry, and that they have the potential to slash manufacturing costs and reduce energy consumption.

Enzymes are already used in the production of soft and alcoholic drinks.

The sweetener, high fructose corn syrup (once marketed as preferable to sugar but which has now been identified as a key driver of the obesity epidemic in the U.S.) is now made using artificial enzymes.

And enzyme-treated ingredients are the reason that breakfast bars stay soft and chewy in their wrappers for months.

Enzyme-treated chicken feeds mean factory farmers can give their poultry a diet that is lower in protein and consequently cheaper.

It is happening at fish farms, too: instead of traditional fish-meal, salmon and trout are given food containing processed feathers that are heated, dried and ground to powder. Enzymes make them digestible.

In fact, the food and drink industry now uses more than 150 GM enzymes, but you won’t see them listed on the labels.

The European Commission is aware of this, but has granted them ‘Generally Regarded As Safe’ status: one recent Euro report stated that GM ‘might lead to enzymes not present in nature so far’.

To the ready-meal scientists, this might sound like a recipe for cheaper foods and bigger profits. But to the people who are buying these products, unaware of what they are putting on their plates, it is more like the plot of a sci-fi horror movie.

Adapted from Swallow This: Serving Up The Food Industry’s Darkest Secrets by Joanna Blythman published by Fourth Estate at £14.99. To order a copy visit mailbookshop.co.uk, or call 0808 272 0808.`

Source: Daily Mail

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