Book review / Opinion: “Swallow This – Serving Up the Food Industry’s Darkest Secrets”
I recently read an interesting book about everything that’s wrong with the food industry and wanted to share my book review as well as my unpolished opinion on the issues at hand.
Even when I was still working in market research I couldn’t stop bragging about the stuff I do in my kitchen. Of course all my colleagues are aware of the two books that I have written, so one of my colleague’s told me about a book she had that is all about the food ingredients and additives that we eat on a day-to-day basis. It’s called “Swallow this – Serving up the Food Industry’s darkest secrets” by Joanna Blythman. By the name of the book you can already guess how the content is framed.
About the author
The author describes herself as: “Joanna Blythman is an award-winning investigative journalist, the author of seven landmark books on food issues, and one of the most authoritative, influential commentators on the British food chain” (excerpt from her website www.JoannaBlythmanWriting.com)
About the topic and the concerns
Joanna’s book is truly fascinating! It shows how meals are cunningly made delicious. I had no idea about the actual scale of artificial flavorings, additives and number of processes that happen in today’s massive food production machinery. The author covers all the things that are wrong in food production and raises some serious questions about the overall health impact today’s foods have on us. Topics in the book range from preservatives, cheap fillers, flavorings and fragrances, to misleading labeling and the materials in packaging. Ultimately, everything comes down to being able to produce food cheaper and make it last longer on the shelves.
We as a society choose to buy the most flavorful and colorful products that are out there. These products have nothing to do with the foods and ingredients that you can find in nature. Of course we are all genetically hard-wired to love certain combinations of flavors and ingredients. Take for example the combination of fat, sugar and salt. Andrew Zimmern -my favorite celebrity chef- once said: “When in doubt, use a touch of fat, sugar and salt. These ingredients have become the sex lube of our culinary generation. It’s kind of awful. But I’m not entirely opposed to the sugar-fat-salt trick; I just think it needs to be used very, very prudently”.
If you want to make something tasty, just add a little pinch of sugar fat or salt. The end result will always be delicious, because we are biologically hard-wired to crave this combination. I have also covered this in my last book Flavor Math. The food industry of course knows this as well… In most of the highly processed foods you will find this combination to a certain degree. We basically get hooked on these products and desire them more and more. On top, the food industry consequently tries to replace high quality ingredients with cheap fillers and then have to add a lot of artificial flavorings to make them kinda taste like the real deal again. They have to use a lot of aromas to mask the unpleasant taste that foods accumulate when produced in a state-of-the-art factory. And if you expect that your convenience product will still be edible after lying in the supermarket shelves for 5 weeks, you must probably take for granted that certain measures had to be put in place to give it this shelf-life in the first place. I knew that certain foods get gassed while packaging to remove oxygen and postpone oxidation. However, I was blissfully unaware of all the coatings that go onto salad leaves to make sure they stay crunchy fresh for literally weeks. As a cook and food enthusiast I learned to trust my eyes and nose when it comes to checking if food is still good. I guess technology evolved a lot quicker than our bodily senses.
While it is obviously true that there are a lot of f***** up things happening in the food industry, I personally think that it is wrong to blame the industry for this. We as the consumers vote with our wallets every single day of the week. If we choose to buy crap, it is very hypocrite of us to blame the industry for selling us this crap. We as consumers choose to rely more and more on processed and heavily artificial foods – because they make our lives so much quicker and easier! If we would all buy freshly farmed local vegetables and prepare every single meal from scratch, we wouldn’t have to deal with all the additives and fillings that are in the highly processed foods in the first place. But then again, we are all pressured for time and therefore choose use a lot of pre-fabricated products being it either sauces, condiments or full-fledged pre-prepared meals. When you are buying a pre-packaged lasagna for €2 in the supermarket, it should not actually surprised you there are a lot of fillers and artificial flavorings in this product. If you would prepare this dish from scratch you would pay three or four times the amount and it would take you considerably more time to make it. Don’t get me wrong – I think it is obviously misleading and deceitful to use low quality meat or even meat scraps (remember the horse meat scandal a few years back?) and enhance them with artificial flavorings to give consumers the impression that they are eating high quality meat. But if you’re honestly thinking about the products that you are buying, it’s unrealistic to expect high quality ingredients when buying a private-label €2 lasagna in the first place.
About the science backing it up
If you look at the sources in the back of the book, you see that there is most certainly a substantial amount of scientific articles cited. However, a lot of sources for facts are actually website items, often coming from attention grabbing news sites. And I know for a fact that these don’t give a damn about the accuracy of the scientific sources they often name as reference. More often than not, the authors of these items have either not read the entire scientific article at all but merely the short abstract summary. Or they have (deliberately) misinterpreted findings for catchy headlines, picking individual lines from the discussion part and cite them as facts, while they were actually meant as food for thought or hypothesis for further research. Let’s omit the discussion about publication bias for now, shall we…?
Joanna Blythman often refers to individual chemicals and rants that these are normally used in other very different ‘non food related contexts’. That’s a pretty cheap shortcut to make them sound bad. The easiest examples are probably ethanol, acetone and MSG.
The author refers to ethanol as ‘petrol replacer’ and while it is true that it can be used as rocket fuel, it is much more common as a solving agent, disinfectant and in particular alcohol. Yes, it is the stuff that makes beer so lovely. Another compound is acetone, while this may be a “flammable pungent fluid that dissolves nail varnish”, it also naturally occurs in the human body – especially when you follow a ketogenic diet (check out my personal experience with it!). Third example is the evil sounding glutamic acid from which shunned additive MSG is derived. Though MSG had made a lot of headlines with the ‘Chinese restaurant syndrome’, most scientific studies didn’t find and health effects of MSG. And while MSG can be derived artificially, it is also very ubiquitous in nature and you will commonly find it in everything that tastes hearty and has a lot of umami flavor.
Having said that, Joanna has a point when referring to the fact that a lot of substances were first considered safe by science, which eventually turned out to be quite nasty for human’s well-being. Science is continually evolving. Things that have been deemed safe in the past turned out to be detrimental to our health. Take asbestos for example. So many houses have been built with that stuff, but ultimately it turned out to be so unsafe that people even avoid breaking down these buildings, simply because of public hazard. The author names so many foods ingredients, enzymes and additives that happened to suffer the same fate. They were rated as safe in the past but turn out to cause cancer, allergies and chronic illnesses. For me personally, it seems unfair to blame this on the food industry, if they were following the guidelines that were in place at the time. However, continuing to do so and still using unsafe ingredients on the other hand is definitely malpractice and should be condemned at all costs!
Listing line after line with the names of chemical compounds from manufacturer brochures (that Joanna had illegally obtained) without giving the context is an easy way of fear mongering and filling pages. It does neither help to clear up how harmful substances are, nor to properly inform the reader in any useful way.
About the writing style
The thing that actually annoys me the most in this book is the leading writing style of the author. She is definitely more of a publicist and lobbyist than a scientific and objective writer. Having received my master’s degree and having published scientific articles, I know how much time and effort it takes do a proper scientific review of the facts and figures you base your story on. While the author clearly took a lot of time to do her research, the way she presents the facts is very leading and she does a good job forcing her subjective opinion onto the reader. Pretty much every chapter ends with either a rhetorical question or the author’s personal opinion that she presents as being the public’s consensus. It comes down to endless rows of “it SEEMS like”, “this MIGHT cause”, INDICATIONS here and SUGGESTIONS there.
Joanna’s writing offers a 360 degree angle on the big food questions of the day. (excerpt from her website www.JoannaBlythmanWriting.com)
I totally disagree with this statement.
About the solution
Finishing the book I felt a sense of utter dissatisfaction. This comes mainly from the point that the author is making: You as a consumer and reader of this book are utterly bad informed, dumb, naive, and ultimately let this happen to you. In short: It’s you own f****** fault that the industry is messing with you like this.
So now what?? I would have loved to get some clear instructions on how to better my life or at least receive some pointers on how to make better food choices in general! This is however completely missing from the book, leaving me as a reader with a very bad nasty feeling in my stomach. After having read all this, I still don’t know what to do and what to change in my daily routines. In that sense reading this book is opening Pandora’s Box but being handed a roll of sticky tape. Either, you can aim to completely ignore and neglect all processed foods in all of its forms – which is pretty much impossible. Or, just put some sticky tape on the Pandora’s Box and act like nothing happened and you didn’t read the book in the first place. Ultimately, the reader has the feeling that things are being controlled and decided on such a high level that you don’t have any influence whatsoever on the food choices that we make. So it might just be better to completely ignore the issues and continue with the way you have been acting in the last years all along.
My final thoughts and overall rating [3 out of 5]
Ultimately, I think it is wrong to blame the food industry for creating products that we as consumers choose to buy. If you are not willing to prepare foods from scratch, you are consciously or unconsciously taking for granted that someone just does this preparation for you in whatever way they find fitting. If you do expect that this product should also be as cheap as possible, you are giving freedom to the corporations to do whatever it takes to make this happen.
Still, I definitely agree with Joanna that cocktail effects for combinations of different compounds and aggregated amounts due to the multitude of exposures are widely overlooked in scientific tests and law making. This can and probably will have detrimental effects in the long run.
All in all, I would give the book a 3 star rating out of 5. “Swallow This” shows you the depths of the abyss when it comes to food manufacturing. If you read this book you will look at food very differently. However, the book is not actionable at all and the newly gathered knowledge is quickly forgotten as you can hardly use it. I learned a lot about the processes in professional food manufacturing. The content and issues described in the book are truly fascinating, even though I had my fair share of troubles with the leading writing style of Joanna Blythman – which is of course more of a personal issue. I would have probably enjoyed the content of this book a lot more if it would have been presented by a different writer and in a more objective fashion. If you do buy and read the book, you definitely need to interpret Joanna’s conclusions skeptically and take them with a grain of salt. (Sorry, I couldn’t let this bad pun slide)
About me and possible conflicts of interest
My views on this topic are certainly biased. I worked in market research for 5 years where a lot of companies the author is criticizing were actually my clients. I helped them to sell as much as possible of their existing products and investigating which new products have potential in the market. Most of these companies are FMCG companies. FMCG stands for Fast-Moving-Consumer-Goods – pretty much all products that are sold quickly at relatively low costs. Yes, these are exactly the highly processed foods the author is talking about! My job focused primarily on strategy, marketing and product experience – I was/am blissfully unaware what actually happens in their production facilities. On top of that, I have also worked in a tobacco industry for one year, which will let a lot of people think that my moral compass is definitely off anyway. Furthermore, I’m currently busy getting my HACCP license, which is the Dutch certificate to handle food security, which is mandatory if you want to work in a professional kitchen or the food industry.
Have you read this or another one of Joanna’s books? What is your personal opinion on the issue? Is there a way out of the highly processed food hole we dug ourselves? Let us know in the comments below!!