Tuesday, 20 November 2012

nutritional recession hits the UK

On the front page of the Guardian yesterday there was the headline Britain in nutritional recession as rising prices toke toll on diet. The sub-heading was Low-income households shun fresh fruit and veg for processed foods.

The first paragraph of the article said this:-
Austerity Britain is experiencing a nutritional recession, with rising food prices and shrinking incomes driving up the consumption of fatty foods, reducing the amount of fruit and vegetables we buy, and condemning people on the lowest incomes to an increasingly unhealthy diet.
I don't doubt that poorer people are eating more high-fat and processed foods, and fruit and vegetable consumption has dropped. Readers of this blog will know that I dispute the idea that high-fat and processed foods are cheap. This isn't my opinion, anyone can look at the facts. It is easy to calculate the number of calories per penny for a number of foods.

The Guardian has made the claim that poor people can't afford healthy food several times over the years. The mistake they are making is setting up a false dichotomy between fruit and vegetables on the one hand and high-fat processed foods on the other hand. The most important type of food for poorer people should be the starchy staples eg rice, pasta, bread, porridge. These should provide the bulk of the calories consumed. These are by far the cheapest type of food. A kilo of long-grain rice costs 40p. A bowl of rice costs 4 or 5p to make. This type of food isn't even mentioned in the Guardian.

The other thing that is wrong is that, even if you consider vegetables on a calories per penny basis, they are not more expensive than high-fat and processed foods. Sainsbury's sell a bag of mixed vegetables that work out around 4 calories per penny. A Mac Donald's cheeseburger is around 3.5 calories per penny and a Big Mac around 2.5. Frozen vegetables are just as nutritious and more convenient to use than fresh. If you are eating vegetables you don't need fruit as well.

Monday, 15 October 2012

more madness to do with our food supply

A recent edition of the BBC Radio 4 programme (11 September) Costing the Earth is most enlightening. The Chinese used to buy vast amounts of farmed salmon from Norway. When the Nobel peace prize was given to jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese government retaliated by putting up trade barriers that resulted in Norwgian salmon rotting in warehouses. Scotland could be the beneficiaries of this.

This is an example of the way that politicians play around with the world's food supply. It is quite disgusting that this should happen. The same thing could happen to Scotland.

Later on in this programme Andrew Robertson has a company Fish From and is hoping to start salmon farming. He said this:-

"You have to understand that in the next 18 years, the United Nations have identified that there is going to be a huge shortfall in aquaculture-produced food. And unless it grows by 60 million tonnes there is going to be absolutely a shortfall of nutrition. Now in 2050 when there's 9 billion people or so on the planet there isn't going to be a way of feeding these people without innovative ways of growing high-quality nutrition. And that's really one of the most sentient points of what we're trying to achive here."

This is exactly the sort of nonsensical justification of fish farming and factory farming that we have heard many times before. Pretending that we need their technology in order to 'feed the world' but in reality they are making it worse. If you feed salmon or pigs on anchovies, soya or maize then you are wasting both protein and calories. People can eat anchovies, soya and maize, and by feeding these to farmed fish or farm animals you are removing the food supply of poor people to feed the affluent of the world. Fish farming and factory farming are part of the problem of world hunger and are not part of the solution.

I didn't realize that a lot of seabass is farmed. Supermarkets want their seabass almost perfectly plate sized, but these are immature fish. It is supposed to be illegal to catch seabass under 32 inches in the wild. But I have seen seabass recently in a fishmonger's that looks smaller than that and was labeled 'wild seabass'.

The New Economics Foundation have produced a report that says if we stopped fishing for a few years, fish stocks would improve so much that we could make a much bigger profit in the long term. Barry Deas - chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations (NFFO) - has argued against the proposal though. He said we are already moving towards maximum sustainable yields. Aniol Esteban, who co-authored the NEF report, said that was like saying "that instead of driving a car over a cliff at 100mph we are driving it at 90mph". He also said "Overfishing is not being tackled for the majority of affected stocks, or at a fast enough pace".

The next edition of Costing the Earth mentioned that vast numbers of farm animals are being slaughtered because animal feed has become more expensive. I think what they mean is that farm animals that are slaughtered are not being replaced; vast numbers of farm animals are being slaughtered every day. This Guardian article has more to say about it. Meat prices are set to increase, but I think that is a good thing.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

changes in food supply due to climate change

Drought in the US has wiped out 45% of the maize and 35% of the soya bean crop in the worst harvest since 1988. Pig farmers are using more anchovies because maize is now too expensive. Salmon farmers are using more anchovies because warmer seas mean the salmon are growing faster. Anchovies are increasing in price because pig and salmon farmers want more of them, but also because of storms, Peruvian government quotas, and organic farmers wanting more fish meal as fertiliser. Anchovies should not be used for animal feed, let alone fertiliser; it is a complete waste.

Salmon prices have dropped dramatically. Fish oil, used as a nutritional supplement, will increase in price. Burgers will increase in price. Mackerel are being overfished because warmer waters mean that they're moving further north into Icelandic and Faroese waters. All this I have learned from this Guardian article Anchovy price leap causes food industry chain reaction. Elsewhere I have learned that the price of lobsters has plummeted because of warmer seas.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

more on sugar in savoury foods

Since writing a post about the unfortunate addition of sugar to savoury foods by manufacturers, I have found another example of it. This is in a food that is marketed as being healthy. I was in Waitrose yesterday and I bought a Chilli Bean Wrap, 'packed full of vegetables and wholesome beans'. The pack also stated 'selected by our nutritionists and chefs to give you tasty and nutritionally balanced food to fall in love with'. It sounded good to me so I bought it. If you have been reading this blog you will know that I believe a combination of grains, pulses and vegetables is cheap and healthy and tastes good.

When I started eating it I thought it tasted like it had sugar in it. I looked on the label and there is sugar in the chilli sauce and also in the wrap. One of the reasons I bought it was that I try to eat foods with a low Glycemic Index (GI). This means that the carbohydrate in the food will be digested more slowly so that you don't get a lot of glucose entering the bloodstream all in one go. If you eat more low-GI foods you are less likely to get diabetes and heart disease. A combination of grains and pulses is good for that, but sugar is not.

I feel that I have been conned by Waitrose. I feel that we are all being manipulated by manufacturers and retailers. They want to climb on the healthy food bandwagon to make more money for themselves while confusing their customers and contributing to ill health. Who are these 'nutritionists' anyway? Why would a nutritionist say it's just fine to add sugar to an otherwise healthy food? They're not doing their job properly.

this is how it's supposed to be

Monday, 13 August 2012


The issue of hunger has been prominent on our TV screens recently. Yesterday was David Cameron's world-hunger summit. The main purpose of the summit is to is to highlight child malnutrition and its resulting physical stunting as the main problem in world development. There will be discussion of how the worst drought in 60 years in the US mid-west is pushing up global food prices and increasing hunger in Africa. Wheat prices rose by 19% on international markets last month alone.

On Friday there was the first in a three part series of documentaries on ITV1 London about rising food prices in Britain and the effect on poor people. The documentary series is called Tonight: The Food We Eat and part 1 is called The Hunger Shame. It showed a mother who said that she couldn't afford to feed herself until she was able to go to a food bank. I have every sympathy with her but it confirmed what I already believed, that people spend their money on rubbish food that isn't that cheap.

What seemed to be happening with her is that she was cooking her family sausages and buttery mashed potato, and then when she ran out of money she went to the food bank to stock up on tins of frankfurters and packets of biscuits. It isn't surprising that she is overweight. The sorts of food that she is eating are not the cheapest and are full of saturated fat and sugar, as well as salt.

If you believe Michael Mosley's documentary last Monday you might think that this mother's hunger might have done her some good. Horizon: Eat, Fast and Live Longer on BBC2 started by discussing what we already know, that restricting calories can make people live longer. It showed a man in America who eats only 1,600 calories a day.

Then we were told about research into how intermittent fasting may be just as good as continuous calorie restriction. There are different ways that this can be achieved. You could occasionally have a 3-day and 4-night fast where you eat nothing. You could reduce the amount of protein that you eat. You could fast one day and eat normally the next. Or you could eat normally 5 days a week and then fast for 2, although you can have 600 calories per day on your fast days.

What this seems to do is to reduce the amount of Insulin-like Growth Factor 1 (IGF-1) that your body produces. You will age slower and will be less likely to develop cancer. There will also be inprovements in blood pressure, blood glucose and cholesterol.

I'm not going to be doing any fasting. I already try not to eat too much food and I shall continue to do so especially as I had my BMI measured recently and it was on the upper limit of what is healthy. My waist measurement is a couple of inches over what it should be. Mosley said that restricting protein is one way to bring down the level of IGF-1. I already eat considerably less protein than most people. Current estimates of how much we need each day are 55g whereas what we British eat is 85g. So we eat just over one and a half times as much protein as we need.

It's a strange world we live in. Millions of people eat more food than is good for them. Millions of others could eat well on the money they have but have lost the knowledge of what normal food is. They try to continue to eat lots of processed foods high in fat and sugar. Millions have their height stunted by lack of food. The poor can't afford to buy the grains and pulses that could keep them healthy, but the affluent can afford to feed grains and pulses to billions of farm animals so that they can continue their unhealthy high-fat way of eating.

Friday, 10 August 2012

sugar in savoury products

Yesterday I was in a supermarket and I saw some tins of bouillabaisse soup. I have had this soup many times before and it's delicious. If you like seafood then you'll like bouillabaisse. I don't have it often because it's expensive. I've never had the authentic bouillabaisse from the south of France and I've no idea if the tinned stuff tastes anything like the real thing.

When I ate it I thought that it tasted as if there was sugar in it. So I looked on the label and sure enough sugar was on there. I was annoyed because I really don't have a sweet tooth and I don't like the taste. Also, they've turned what should be a healthy food into something different. I've been trying to avoid lots of fat, sugar and salt. I know that it has always contained 'modified starch' (whatever that is) but adding sugar is something recent.

A few weeks ago I started buying sushi from Sainsbury's. It was cheap and seemed quite healthy. Then I thought it tasted as if it had sugar in it and looking on the label I could see that it did. I have known for some time that cooked pasta in tomato and herb sauce from supermarkets often contains sugar. I know that chefs sometimes add a small amount of sugar to savoury dishes, often in surprising ways. Sugar can be used as a flavour enhancer to bring out flavours, but this is different. I really don't like the taste of soup, sushi or pasta with sugar in it. It's not in the original recipe and it doesn't improve the flavour.

It could be that the amount of sugar in these savoury foods is small. Or it could be a lot of sugar, people are surprised by the amount of sugar that goes into processed foods. Often there's lots of sugar in something but you can't taste it, it might not taste sweet or unbearably sweet. This seems to be a trend that has come from America. The problem is that as the population gets used to savoury foods tasting sweet then people will get a taste for it and manufacturers will add more and more over time. We should be having less and less sugar and instead we are having more and more, even if we want to avoid it. Obesity and tooth decay are big problems, especially in children, and the more this trend continues the more ill health we will have.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

why some people think healthy food is expensive

I have written two posts contradicting people who think that healthy food is expensive and that poor people can't afford healthy food, poor people can't afford to eat healthy food? and more about poverty and food. I have also compiled a table comparing the cheapness of foods in terms of calories per penny. This is an important issue because unemployment is very high now. People need to know how they can best spend their money.

Just recently I have been looking at a web forum where people have been discussing this issue. I can see why some people believe that healthy foods are more expensive. I can see where they are going wrong. Eating healthy food doesn't mean you have to buy organic food or eat wholegrains or any of the expensive stuff.

Let's take one food as an example. White rice. People ask 'What is the healthy alternative to white rice?'. The answer? - brown rice. And brown rice is more expensive than white rice. Therefore the healthy food is more expensive than the unhealthy food. But white rice is the healthier alternative to processed foods. Both brown and white rice are healthier - and both cheaper - than burgers or crisps. So, it's not true to say that healthy foods are more expensive. Here are more points, usually in response to what people wrote on the forum.

  • fresh or organic vegetables are more expensive than frozen vegetables, but frozen vegetables are just as good or nearly just as good
  • organic foods are more expensive than non-organic foods but you don't need them, if they are healthier then they're not much healthier
  • fancy breads are more expensive than a cheap white loaf, but the cheapest form of bread is in the form of chapattis you make at home
  • free-range or organic chicken is more expensive than cheap chicken, but not if you eat a smaller amount; people eat far more protein than they need
  • free-range or organic eggs are more expensive than cheap eggs, but cheap eggs aren't that much less nutritious, if at all
  • cheap cheddar from the supermarket or cheese triangles are cheaper than fancy cheeses from a farmers' market, but all cheeses are much the same in terms of nutrients, cheap cheese isn't less healthy
  • tofu may be more expensive than cheap chicken, but you don't need that much protein and the cheapest form of protein will always be beans, peas and lentils
  • blueberries and other 'superfoods' are more expensive than more common fruit but you don't need them; you can get most of your vitamins and minerals from vegetables
  • fish is often more expensive than meat, but you don't need either
  • soya milk is more expensive than cow's milk, but soya milk isn't much healthier than skimmed cow's milk
  • fruit juice is more expensive than soft drinks; do what I do and drink water from the tap
Another thing is, you have to ask yourself why is brown rice more expensive than white rice. After all, they don't have to process it so much, and processing costs money, so you would think it would be cheaper. The only thing I can think of is economies of scale. People buy so much white rice that it's produced on a much bigger scale, and people aren't going to buy overpriced rice. If more people bought brown rice then it would be as cheap, or maybe even cheaper, than white rice. Having said that, brown rice can still be cheaper than processed foods, as my comparison table shows. So, I think I am justified in saying that even poor people can buy brown rice.

Other issues that came up in the forum were availability of healthy food and the amount of time needed to prepare healthier foods. These are different issues from affordability, but they're not big problems. I have lived in different parts of London and different parts of England and I have never had a problem with availability. I have lived on council estates. Supermarkets and street markets have always been nearby. I'm sure that if you're a journalist and you can spare the time then you could find a housing estate in Britain where there aren't any supermarkets or street markets nearby, but to pretend that this is representative of how the majority of poor people live is wrong.

As for preparation time, I don't spend hours in the kitchen. I don't soak beans, but although it takes hours for them to soak, you don't need to stand over them while they're soaking. It takes only 15 minutes to cook rice or pasta. Same with lentils or frozen vegetables. You put them in a saucepan, pour on boiling water from the kettle, bring them to the boil and simmer. Pasta sauce and other sauces from a jar are cheap and aren't going to push up the cost of the meal a lot.

People tend to be cash rich and time poor, or time rich and cash poor. Either way you can eat healthy food. If you are cash poor and time poor then you've got a big problem. You have to work out for yourself what you're going to do about that one. But buying burgers and crisps is not the answer. Not only will you be making yourself ill, but you will be wasting your money.

If you wanted to cook elaborate dishes like macaroni cheese then it would take more time, but I don't bother with the complicated and less healthy stuff. If someone buys a cheap macaroni cheese from Iceland, they might think that it would cost more to buy a marginally more healthy one from Marks & Spencer. So what? They might think it would cost more to make one from scratch at home in their kitchen using marginally healthier ingredients, and take a lot more time. So what?

Pasta doesn't need to have cheese added to it. You can get a kilo of pasta for about 60p. It doesn't take much more money to make it palatable. A tomato-based pasta sauce is cheap and healthy. If you think about that then the £1 macaroni cheese doesn't seem so cheap.

If people insist on eating rich food full of cheese and butter and cream then they can do so. Or they can think about what poor people all over the world have been eating for thousands of years, a starchy staple with some pulses and lots of vegetables, flavoured with herbs and some spice. It's cheap, tasty and nutritious, and it doesn't result in ecological or animal welfare problems.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

the problem with super farms

There was an interesting article in The Guardian on the 5th of June. Super farms are needed in UK, says leader of National Farmers Union Britain urged to ape countries such as the US and Saudi Arabia and build farms housing tens of thousands of cows or pigs.

 The article states that concerns about large-scale animal farming fall into four categories
  1. animal welfare
  2. super units destroying small farms and rural communities
  3. farms straining soil and water resources and requiring mass transport of chemicals, generating more greenhouse gas pollution
  4. such units being unsightly and emitting foul smells
I am concerned with these four things too, but there is something of even greater concern to me. That is that these super farms are a wasteful use of agricultural resources. It might seem like a good idea if British farmers produced more home-grown pork. Currently Britain is 40% self-sufficient in pork. However, for every kilo of pork we produce in Britain, we would need to import several kilos of maize and soya from across the Atlantic.

There are a billion pigs on the planet, compared to 7 billion people, and pigs are fed on a high calorie and high protein diet consisting mostly of maize and soya. These two crops are grown in vast quantitities in America (where they are subsidised), Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina. If we had more pigs in Britain we would need to have more ships crossing the Atlantic full of maize and soya. That is not what I call self sufficiency.

It would be much better if the global population of pigs and chickens was cut to, let's say, 10% of what it is today. That would enable us to do three things.

  1. It would free up vast quantities of maize and soya for human consumption. Maize and soya can be made very palatable; people have been eating them in different forms for thousands of years.
  2. We would be able to grow other grains and other pulses because we wouldn't need so much land for maize and soya.
  3. We could have a less intensive form of agriculture that protects topsoil better and requires fewer expensive agricultural inputs such as high nitrogen fertilizer. One simple way of putting the problem is that we have so many farm animals we have to farm them more intensively than we would want, and they eat so much food that we have to grow crops more intensively than we would want.
Another way of putting it is that factory farming is a way of converting a large amount of healthy food (maize, soya, wheat, barley) into a smaller amount of unhealthy food (meat and cheese), and making it more expensive. If you think of a factory farm as a system with inputs and outputs, you get out of it fewer calories and less protein than what you put in. Meat can never be cheap protein, it is soya that is the cheap protein, and we are wasting it.

Of course, people will say that not everybody wants to eat soya. We have to make our minds up what it is that we are trying to achieve. If we don't we will achieve nothing. What is totally unacceptable is for people to say we need GM to 'feed the world', and when we suggest perfectly practical methods of feeding the world (unlike GM which is pie in the sky), the priorities suddenly switch.

One argument that I heard went something like this. Anchovies are caught in vast numbers (overfished in fact) and used to feed farmed salmon. The obvious thing is for people to eat more anchovies and less farmed salmon. That is a practical method of feeding the world that we could start putting into practice right now. But what was the response? I like to have anchovy of my pizza but I am unable to persuade my family likewise, so why not give people what they want?

We can't pretend that our priority is the needs of the poor when really our priority is the whims of the affluent. There are reasons why affluent people tend to want to eat lots of meat, cheese and farmed salmon. It's partly do do with fashion, possibly what Delia said last night on the telly. It's partly to do with the mistaken idea that people need more protein than they actually do. It's partly to do with people wanting to be modern and westernized. It's also because only added value products get advertized.

A starchy staple such as rice or pasta, together with beans and vegetables, and flavoured with herbs and spices, is cheap, tasty and nutritious. These things should be kept cheap whereas meat and cheese should be regarded as luxury items and have VAT put on them. Planning permission for factory farms should be refused. These are practical methods to help feed the world. If we don't do this, nothing will change. GM crops, even if eventually we get one that is more productive, won't change anything. All it will mean is that there will be even more farm animals.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

why Joanna Blythman and Michael Pollan are wrong

This morning I listened to Woman's Hour on BBC Radio 4. The food writer Joanna Blythman was talking about her ideas of what we should eat. Her views seem to be similar to Michael Pollan in that she thinks that traditional food must be the best. When asked if she thought that red meat is unhealthy, as recent research has shown, she replied that scientists don't know what they are talking about and that you should go ahead and continue to eat it.

She said that scientists had said in the past that eggs are unhealthy, and they were wrong about that. So why shouldn't they be wrong about red meat too? She doesn't seem to understand how science works. As scientists discover more and more about a subject, their understanding becomes more and more accurate. Scientists don't just believe things and then change their minds and believe something different for no apparent reason. Sometimes there are radical shifts in opinion, but usually scientific ideas progress over time.

Pollan said something similar when he said that scientists used to be concerned about fibre but are no longer. Actually, they are. Soluble fibre, as in oats, are regarded as quite important. Roughage is still regarded as important.

Blythman said that our recent ancestors eat lot of red meat and they seem to have survived. People in the past died earlier, and there was a lot of heart disease. We should let science be the guide as to what traditions are healthy and unhealthy. I will continue to eat red meat sometimes, but I would not eat as much meat as the average British person. I certainly am not going to eat butter in large quantities, which people like Pollan and Blythman think must be OK because it is traditional. I think they have got it wrong about heart disease and saturated fat.

There is nothing more traditional than eating toast with butter and marmalade for breakfast, and a piece of cake with tea or coffee mid-morning. These things will contribute towards obesity, the medical problems that come with obesity, and possibly heart disease too. People don't need to be frightened of food, but they need to think about what they are eating.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

can cheap olive oil really be Extra Virgin?

I have mentioned several times in this blog that Extra Virgin olive oil can be cheap. Cheaper than butter in fact. There are two low cost supermarkets, Lidl and Aldi, that have brands of Extra Virgin olive oil that came joint first in a taste test done by Which magazine. The brands are Primadonna from Lidl and EVOO from Aldi.

However, a couple of recent articles in this month's Guardian and a book review cast doubt on whether a cheap olive oil could ever be genuinely Extra Virgin.

Olive oil food fraud: pressing truths Not everything labelled 'extra virgin' is immaculately conceived; it seems there are some very slippery customers in the olive oil trade, and the problem is spreading
How to tell if your olive oil is the real thing Adulterated and even fake olive oil is widespread, according to studies. Just how big is the problem, and how can you avoid being caught out?

The book review is Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil by Tom Mueller.

I also found an interesting web page about olive oils. It mentions Lidl and Aldi, but not the Primadonna and EVOO brands specifically. I still think that the Lidl and Aldi olive oils are good, even if strictly speaking they are not Extra Virgin. They might have had some kind of heat treatment, but this doesn't alter their health benefits.