It might look inviting, but do you really know what goes into your food, where it’s come from, or how long it’s been on the shelf?

Source: Times Online UK

Jon Ungoed Thomas

The Ross 308, a breed of broiler chicken, is one of the stalwarts of modern food production. It comes with its own 20-page instruction manual and is one of the fastest-growing animals on the planet. Chicks are hatched in warehouse incubators, spat off conveyor belts into boxes and transported with thousands of others to huge artificially lit sheds. They will be at their kill weight of 4lb within five weeks.

The Ross 308 has been specifically bred to grow twice as fast as any chicken that could be found on a British farm two or three generations ago. Many of these birds suffer lameness or die from heart failure — and this is not just bad news for the chicken, it’s bad news for us. Such a short and unhealthy life means our chicken meat contains nearly three times more fat than it used to.

Welcome to modern food production. The forlorn tale of this £2 table chicken was highlighted by Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in a television campaign in 2008. The adverse publicity helped boost Freedom Foods, the RSPCA’s food-labelling scheme, which insists on producers using slower-growing breeds. As a result, this broiler chicken has become an emblem of all that is wrong with the modern food industry. It is cheap, plentiful and appetising, but when we discover the full story of the journey from warehouse to kitchen, we feel a bit queasy and not so certain we want to eat it any more.

Thanks to films such as Food Inc, which exposed some of the mass production techniques used in the food industry, and books such as Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser’s exposé of McDonald’s and other fast-food outlets, we are asking more questions than ever about the food on our plates. And so we should be. It is not merely the impact of mechanised production on animal welfare, but also on the environment and our own health. A salad plate may have produce that has travelled more than 2,000 miles and comes from five different countries. A ready meal may include half a dozen artificial additives, not to mention lashings of sugar and fat.

Over the past 25 years, Britain has witnessed a revolution in its food. From the sushi for our takeaway lunch to the organic meat in our favourite restaurants, there been a transformation in the range and quality of our food. Michel Roux Sr, who owns the Waterside Inn in Bray, Berkshire, said food was in the “dark ages” when he first arrived in the country almost 40 years ago. He remembers it as white bread, watery vegetables and overcooked fish. He applauds the change, but has contempt for much modern processed food. “It’s junk,” he says. “The government doesn’t do anything about it and people become obese. We restaurateurs are equally at fault, because it’s much better to buy a piece of fish and some fresh vegetables and cook it at home.are more than 300 EU-approved additives and 45 enzymes that can be added to processed foods. Just take a look at the label on a packet of sliced ham, for instance.

Not only are there ingredients that you thought might not be in there, such as added water and sugar, but there are others you’ve probably never heard of, such as E451, which helps meat retain water, and E250, an antibacterial agent. Even the flavour of the food may have been added separately. One of the world’s leading flavouring companies, International Flavors and Fragrances, which also works for the perfume industry and has offices in Britain, promises its laboratories can deliver “mouthfeel for every consumer preference”. In other words, if your supermarket product doesn’t taste that good, it soon will.

Staple products such as sugar, salt and fat are overused by many food manufacturers. Three slices of a supermarket loaf can contain as much fat as a Mars bar. Manufacturers use significantly higher levels than would be found in a home-made loaf to prolong shelf life and help speed up the baking process. Similarly, sugar and salt are ladled in huge quantities into processed products. A recent survey found a balti ready meal bought in Iceland was saltier than seawater. Another survey found that a helping of some breakfast cereals contains more sugar than a doughnut.

“People don’t expect to find high levels of sugar in savoury products, or high levels of salt in sweet products,” said Jane Landon, deputy chief executive of the National Heart Forum. “Sugar is widely used to add texture and bulk, because it is relatively cheap.well, you might think, that’s the downside of buying convenience foods. But even those consumers with the healthiest lifestyle will find it almost impossible to avoid foods blitzed with sugars, fats, salt and additives. That healthy Special K bar you have as a snack? Nearly 40% sugar — and it even has an artificial sweetener added. Those Sultana Bran flakes you had for breakfast — 30% sugar.

The attraction of these skilfully engineered foods can be seen in our expanding waistlines. More than half of the adult population is now overweight or obese. Earlier this month, it was reported that eating just one sausage a day could increase your risk of suffering from heart disease or diabetes. So, apart from simply not eating it, what can be done about our environmentally damaging and nutritionally dismal food? Supermarkets and manufacturers have tried to address growing public concerns, with a greater emphasis on local produce and efforts to curb carbon emissions. Kellogg’s and Heinz, among others, have reformulated their products to reduce levels of sugar and fat. There is more labelling on packaged food than ever before. Despite this, we are still not told enough about what is being done to our food. Which means one thing — we have to keep asking the questions.

THE REAL FOOD BADDIES

Confusion marketing

It may claim to be “light”, “low-fat” and “healthy”, but it could therefore contain more sugar than ice cream. Low-fat products often have more sugar than the regular version. Even salads can contain alarmingly high levels of fat. A supermarket chicken caesar pasta salad can contain as much as 41.3g of fat, the same as six Cadbury’s Creme Eggs.

Trans fats

One of the nasties of modern food, they occur when vegetable oils are hydrogenated to create a solid. Great news for the food-processing industry — they add bulk and texture and help food last longer — but bad news for your health, as they can raise the bad cholesterol. One study found they were linked to lower fertility. Avoid at all costs.

Long-haul fruit

Your piece of fruit may not merely have flown or been shipped more than 2,000 miles to be on your table, it may have been sitting in storage for several months. Some foreign fruit suppliers use a chemical in storage warehouses that inhibits the ripening agents and helps prolong their export season. It means some types of apple, such as Red Delicious, may have been in storage for six months or longer. When possible, buy food that’s in season.

Salty food

Your morning cereal and toast can provide as much as a third of your recommended daily intake of salt, which is linked to higher blood pressure. Many soups contain more salt than a packet of crisps.

Artificial additives

They may colour your food and preserve it for months, but they are not always beneficial. A Southampton University report in 2007 found that six additives used for colouring, including tartrazine and sunset yellow, could increase hyperactive behaviour in children. These are now being phased out.

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