The deceptive ‘clean label’

The deceptive clean label: how safe is your food?

Over the last decade or so manufacturers have appeared to be ‘tidying up’ foods in the UK with less E-numbers and healthier ingredients.  I like to cook all my food from scratch but I work 6 days a week, often till quite late, and so at times have to rely on the ‘healthy’ end of the processed food spectrum.  But I was shocked this week listening to the BBC radio 4 ‘Food Program’ looking at the ‘clean label’.  It appears that food manufacturers have not so much tidied up their food offerings as to have simply been more astute in how they label.

Clean Label

The clean label is a description of how manufacturers now like to list the ingredients of prepared foods in such a way as to appear attractive to consumers concerned about their health and nutrition.  According to the show notes for this episode of the Food Programme:

For over a decade consumers have become finely attuned to E-numbers, flavourings, colourings and additives in our food. Food manufacturers have changed the way they do things in pursuit of ‘clean label’ – a more natural sounding ingredients list. But do we fully understand the new processes involved, the terms used and how safe they really are?

Sheila Dillon talks to Joanna Blythman, in her first broadcast interview about her new book ‘Swallow This’ in which she investigates some of the processes involved in making products taste and look good and last longer and her concerns about the ingredients and the secrecy that often surrounds them. We hear reports from food development teams about how they find new ways to produce food and ask the regulators if we can be sure they’re safe.

You can reach the show by clicking here.

I’ve prided myself as being more astute than most consumers having read food campaigners such as Michael Pollen but this documentary came as a shock to me.  I have a feeling that Swallow This: Serving Up the Food Industry’s Darkest Secrets will be a game changer:

Even with 25 years experience as a journalist and investigator of the food chain, Joanna Blythman still felt she had unanswered questions about the food we consume every day. How ‘natural’ is the process for making a ‘natural’ flavouring? What, exactly, is modified starch, and why is it an ingredient in so many foods? What is done to pitta bread to make it stay ‘fresh’ for six months? And why, when you eat a supermarket salad, does the taste linger in your mouth for several hours after?

Swallow This is a fascinating exploration of the food processing industry and its products – not just the more obvious ready meals, chicken nuggets and tinned soups, but the less overtly industrial – washed salads, smoothies, yoghurts, cereal bars, bread, fruit juice, prepared vegetables. Forget illegal, horse-meat-scandal processes, every step in the production of these is legal, but practised by a strange and inaccessible industry, with methods a world-away from our idea of domestic food preparation, and obscured by technical speak, unintelligible ingredients manuals, and clever labelling practices.

Determined to get to the bottom of the impact the industry has on our food, Joanna Blythman has gained unprecedented access to factories, suppliers and industry insiders, to give an utterly eye-opening account of what we’re really swallowing.

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