Monday, 16 January 2017

Eat and be merry – but at your own peril?

This piece comes from "The Pilot" in 1978, where Edith Gott seems to have been a prolific contributor of rather nice "filler" pieces. Here is a rather interesting one about food in the 1970s which highlights the lack of seasonality which had already crept in, and also the propensity of food additives. 

Eat and be merry – but at your own peril?
By Edith Gott

The ninety days which have elapsed since January 1 will be remembered, not so much as the winter of our discontent (though this has been around too), as the Winter of the Mercurial Orange.

But Press and Pranksters notwithstanding, an unequivocal lesson can be learnt from the fall and rise of the jaffa. How many of us really know what we are eating? How many read the small print on the labels of processed food? Would we know, if asked, what a small amount of butylated hydroxyanisole does to a biscuit?

(Actually it keeps the shortening sweet - but who's to know that?)

With our ever-diminishing farmland and ever-growing population, farmers everywhere must use pesticides, weed killers and chemical fertilizers to keep abreast of the ever-increasing demand for both fresh, and processed, foodstuff.

That some of the suspect ingredients from these chemicals will seep into the root, leaf, ear, and pod of garden plants seems to be inevitable, sooner or later. The prospect of even the ubiquitous wild blackberry being contaminated by insect spray is a favourite target for the scare-monger

Processed food is handled so many times before it reaches the shelves of the supermarkets in its appropriate containers that one marvels at the expediency of preserving  it at all, let alone the possibility of contamination en route.

For example, consider the case of a certain jam-manufacturer in County Cork, "a daecent man, t' be sure, though he comes from across the wather." He imported fruit pulp from Holland; it came in huge drums looking for all the world like drums of printer's ink. On arrival in Ireland it was divided into three parts. One was infused with strawberry flavouring (synthetic), another with raspberry flavouring (ditto), and the third flavoured with something  else (of dubious origin). These mashes were appropriately bottled, with the addition of wooden pips for the raspberry variety, and again sent back across the Irish Sea. It turned up in the supermarkets of Lancashire.


Which brings us to the subject of preservatives and colouring. Both of these, in food, can be questionable, if not downright dangerous. It is a known fact that in this country laws governing the purity of food, and the advertising of same, leave much to be desired. On the label it is not obligatory to mention the amount of preservative used, or the specific colouring agent. Sufficient unto the day are such evasive descriptions as "tested Preventative" and "vegetable Colouring".

Now all preservatives destroy something - it might be an enzyme or it might be the lining of your stomach. As for "vegetable colouring" not all vegetables are nutritious, to wit, the cassava root. Edible it is -after the poisonous juice has been extracted.

Mouth-watering delicacies which once appeared seasonally have all but disappeared - that is, in their pristine state, because they are with us always, in season and out, thanks to the Frozen Food industry. Sweet corn in January, summer fruit for the thawing, river fish at the seaside, and game all twelve months of the year. The freezer provides all things for all appetites..  instant gastronomic gratification.

Yet, are its delights unmitigated?


Frozen foods are only as good as their brand names. The well-known firms are first class, if directions are observed.

Even the frozen-in freshness of such products (notably fish) will last for only so long; hence there is a time limit chart on every packet of commercially frozen food - how many housewives buying hurriedly in the supermarket, and storing it even more hurriedly at home, ever read this fine print?

For those who "freeze their own", handling is even more important. How many people know, and scrupulously observe, the fact that meat should never be re-frozen after it has been the least bit thawed - a fact which even some butchers disregard? Does every housewife know that only prime quality vegetables and fruit should be frozen, that even one damaged pea in the pack can contaminate its fellows? In short, how many of us have "freezer fingers"?

Far from giving away any secrets of the advertising copy writers' profession, it might be relevant to mention how difficult it is to know for certain what is contained in any processed food. Our laws do protect us to the extent that suda-ash cannot masquerade as flour nor poppy seed as pepper.

But is it well known that cinnamon in its purest form (in the Middle Ages the Arabs used spice, not oil, to hold us to raricom) is practically unobtainable, and what passes for the real thing is cassia-hark? To convince potential customers that one product is superior to all others is the raison d’être of the professional advertiser. Even employing modern hyperbole it would be difficult to pass off chalk as cheese, but it is possible to bamboozle the public into buying the soya bean in any number of guises.

For instance, a sausage made of soya beans could be described as a "meaty-flavoured, protein-packed all-in-one meal. laced with aromatic spices to tease-the-taste -buds and enhance its true food value".

Moral: never judge a sausage by its overcoat.

Soft words butter no parsnips, and for too long the soft-pedalled ethics of our food advertising have been suspect. In the case of the mercurial orange, it can be said that justice has been done, the orange is re-instated and the jaffa is an honest fruit.

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