spoke to a man at the weekend who had worked for many years in the food industry. He had helped to develop and market starch as an ingredient. Whilst this sounds rather plain, it was fascinating to learn how a lot of our food is created in labs, with the colour, consistency and flavour being controlled by adding various ingredients and additives. Food manufacture is not simply a scaled up version of what I do in the kitchen. It is food alchemy. So, the crisps, yoghurt, chocolate bar, or custard that I eat has been heavily processed to reach that end product. Tinned custard does not even have milk in it! The milk ingredient is swapped out for water, milk powder (which was once milk, I admit), and protein. This is done so that the end flavour, consistency and colour can be controlled exactly. That tin of Ambrosia Custard is the same as the one you bought last week and that one that you'll buy in a month! In listening to this gentleman, I felt that I was listening to a lesson in food chemistry: this type of starch is a good substitute for gelatine in sweets, as it is able to hold its starch molecule together, like a jacket around a person. Whereas this other starch molecule has a lower thickening point, and so only needs to be heated to 43 degrees, as opposed to others which need 60+ degrees to thicken. This is good for instant soups. There are well over 200 different types of starch which are used by the food industry. So, these foods which appear 'normal' are actually highly processed. It feels fake.
Why has this happened? Customers, apparently, want to know that the ready meal that they bought last week, will taste exactly the same when they buy it next week. It is also more labour intensive, and hence more expensive, to manufacture real custard, or Creme Anglais, as opposed to the custard that is mass produced today. The gentleman also spoke of life after the Second World War where it was expensive to buy bananas, raspberries, and mangos, and so chemists came up with a way of manufacturing flavours and introducing them to foods, such as yoghurt.
Any yet when we shop in the supermarket do we ever give a thought to the complex set of processes which bring those products to the shelves? I put a new screen in an iPhone last bank-holiday Monday as the previous one was cracked. I thought it would take 15 minutes. It took over two hours! In doing this I saw the incredible complexity of the phone (speakers, motherboard, camera, battery, a multitude of connectors, the screen itself and digitizer), and it made me think of how much we rely on complex, unknown processes to live the lives we currently do.
In the same way, if I eat tinned custard, do I ever think how much has gone into making that product? We are heavily so reliant on a complex and evolved infrastructure, and I think that much of the time we take it for granted. That infrastructure exists in the circuit boards of my iPhone, the ingredients and additives which make up the baked beans I had for lunch, and people who are involved in making the jeans that I have on. We criticise countries which use immigrant labour almost as slaves to build their buildings and maintain their cities. We criticise sweat shops which employ people in a way which we would not do in the UK. Yet, where was the jumper that you're wearing now made? Who made it? How much rainforest was destroyed in order to grow palm oil so that you could eat that Cadbury's Creme Egg? What chemicals are you ingesting when you eat that packeted sandwich from Tescos?
I don't know the answers to these questions, but we seem to have become so disassociated with the world around us that we simply take our current lifestyles for granted. If I want X, Y or Z, I'll simply buy it regardless of what it takes. Whether it takes the financial exploitation of people in less wealthy countries, the deforestation of brazil, or leads to obesity. Have we become spoilt? We take for granted things which can only exist at the detriment to someone or something else. How can we change this?
In writing this article I found this website: http://www.ethicalconsumer.org However, I don't know if their ethical values are the same as mine, so I'm not sure how useful it is!