Saturday, December 21, 2013

A Public Protector for food?

When I started studying chemical engineering, it was called "Applied and Industrial Chemistry."  Half way through the course, the name was changed to Chemical Engineering and that was how I started out in life.

The advantage of this was that I learned a lot of chemistry - we had to do virtually the full Honours course.  When I stayed on to do post-graduate work, we were still housed in the chemistry department, and had our tea each day with the chemists.  

The bookshelves of the tea room were lined with bound copies of chemical journals. One of the most fascinating was The Analyst. It started in 1876, and the early issues were largely devoted to identifying adulterants in food. There was chalk in the milk, mineral oil in the butter and limestone in the bread.  It was quite amazing how creative the early food producers were in flogging dirt as food.

Nothing has changed, except in many cases it has become legal. "Chicken" is mysteriously laced with a significant percentage of brine. I don't know what they add to "bacon" but I do know that as you grill it, it exudes white gunk and shrinks to less than half its size. I bought real bacon from the local German butcher just to prove to myself I wasn't imagining things - I wasn't!

Then there is the health story that fats are bad for you, and some fats are worse than others.  A recent investigation into the nutrition industry in the US concluded that "nutrition science" failed every test of being a science.  If you ever glance at a "health" magazine, you will see the result.  On page 1, there is a tale of the horror of salt; on page 11 there is "Salt - the most vital mineral."

This has spawned "lite" products. What "lite" means is "this product contains more water than the real thing" and sometimes the added water is as much as 50%.  Milk is the particular victim of this marketing ploy.  You pay just as much for "low-fat" milk as you pay for ordinary milk.  Either the producer has removed more of the fat to make butter, which he can then sell at a nice profit, or just watered down the product. The net result is a grey liquid.  The customer doesn't score, because you have to add twice as much to your coffee to get the same taste as you would with undiluted milk.

The latest scam of this kind to come my way is the watering-down of Marmite.  Now Marmite used to have a jelly-like consistency. It had to be spread on warm toast to get a nice even layer.  Now it is a thin gruel, and you need four times as much to get the real taste - and if you spread four times as much on warm toast, it melts and runs off to make everything sticky.

What I want for Christmas is a Public Protector for our food. Have a good one!