SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 205 February 2017

Fodder for the masses

Swallow This: serving up the food industry’s darkest secrets

By Joanna Blythman

Published by Fourth Estate, 2015, £8.99

Reviewed by Iain Dalton

Available from Socialist Books

The horsemeat scandal a few years ago will have made more people question exactly what is going into our food. Finding out that minced beef in supermarket lasagne was actually 100% equine was among the more shocking revelations to emerge. This is not a new issue. Illegal food adulteration is as old as capitalism itself. It was a factor in the formation of the co-operative movement in the 19th century, when sawdust was used to pad out flour, or gypsum (widely used in fertiliser and wall plaster) used instead of sugar in boiled sweets.

Joanna Blythman’s concern, however, is not with the things added illegally to our food, but those legally put into processed foods. There are, she states, "6,000 food additives – flavourings, glazing agents, improvers, anti-caking agents, solvents, preservatives, colourings, acids, emulsifiers, releasing agents, antioxidants, thickeners, bleaching agents, sweeteners, chelators – and the undisclosed ‘processing aids’." These exist for one key purpose: to allow food processing companies to mass produce goods as cheaply as possible to boost their profits. Sometimes a secondary consideration is whether a certain ingredient can be removed to make a product seem healthier.

Generally, it is not just the case of substituting one product for another, but of one replacement product being supplemented by a number of others to cover the difference in taste and texture its introduction has created. Then there are use of enzymes, antioxidants and other things to lengthen the shelf-life of products.

Blythman takes the reader through how processed foods are mass produced in factories. It is a world away from traditional home cooking. Ingredients are prepared in one factory and sent for assembly in another. ‘Meat layers’, ‘sauce layers’ and other food-related jargon simply refer to those ingredients and additives being combined in a bowl, with the appropriate flavouring to suit the exact products.

Further chapters deal with the specifics of creating certain tastes when the traditional ingredients have been reduced or removed. Given the increased scrutiny of food labels, the phenomenon of ‘clean-labelling’ is explored. This is where ingredients for which concerns have been raised, or those that merely sound unhealthy, are either replaced or renamed – to ‘carrot extract’, for instance, or more wholesome sounding names – to make products appear more healthy and nutritious.

A considerable part of the book’s introduction is taken up with just how opaque these processes are. Companies hide behind commercial confidentiality, palming off inquisitive questions by referring to compliance with EU regulations among others. Journals that deal with the technical questions of what is going on are produced for the trade internally, and are accessible only at a substantial cost. If this book does anything, it is to hammer home that the priority for food processing companies is not to serve up healthy, tasty, nutritious food. Rather, it is to maximise their own bottom line by cutting out expensive ingredients and reaching the widest possible market.

However, Blythman’s only offer of a solution is to suggest that people cut out eating processed foods. But, for many, the reliance on processed foods is the result of a lack of time and other pressures on their lives. A reduced working week, giving time for people to prepare food themselves, and an expansion of good quality workplace, school, college and university canteens could make freshly prepared food available regularly to much wider layers of the population.

The power over what goes into the food we consume should not be left in the hands of multinational corporations. The major food producers, distributors and retailers should be brought into public ownership under democratic workers' control and management. Then ordinary people could scrutinise democratically what goes into our food and how it finds its way to us.

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