Horsing about in the Supermarket

The recent hullabaloo about horse meat found in processed food…

…has put the whole industry under scrutiny – and rightly so. For too long we have been at the mercy of a whole bag of tricks designed to ensnare the unwary consumer. It’s really an insidious thing and perhaps the time has come to wake-up to what’s going on.

Think of a juicy worm wriggling on a hook, placed there to catch a fish. Fish are no intellectual giants and cannot help but take the bait that they are hard-wired to seek out. As humans, despite our larger brains, we are often little different when it comes to making good food choices. Food producers know this and use what I term bait foods to lure the ill-informed humans in, time and time again.

bait foods are simply supermarket products dressed up in all their finery to get at our money, by hooking our poor, confused instincts.

The appearance of bait foods is carefully managed; its packaging and sugary, starchy taste specifically designed to mimicking the healthiest, nutrition-filled fruits and vegetables. Being shinier, brighter and more colourful than any food our ancestors might have encountered in the wild, our evolutionary instincts draw us inextricably towards them.

The sad fact is however, these meals are neither healthy nor nutritious. Luckily bait foods are easy to spot when you know what you’re looking for. Typically they:

  • have a long list of dodgy, sometimes unpronounceable ingredients.
  • come packaged in fancy boxes.
  • are pre-cooked (sometimes, not always).
  • advertise spuriously dubious features (e.g. ‘low-fat’, ‘added iron’).
  • are not actually a food (e.g. apple is a food; a crispy pancake is not – unless there’s a pancake tree in nature we’re all unaware of…)
  • Are advertised on TV, magazines and the general media. If a company is advertising it, then it’s a product that must create revenue to pay for advertising and make a profit. To do so, it must, by definition be made of low cost, poor quality ingredients dressed up like good food. The more a product is advertised, the more you should avoid it.
  • Claim to be ‘Healthy’. If it has to state its healthy, then it most probably isn’t. A good example is WeightWatchers range. They are full of starch or modified starch which turns to  sugar as soo as it hits your bloodstream. The starch is used to replace some of the fat so it can claim to be ‘fat-reduced ‘ or ‘fat-free’ as well as give the mouthfeel of a full-fat product.


There are literally thousands of chemical foodstuffs the food industry uses on a regular basis to lure its customers in. Many of them require a chemistry degree to fully understanding. As a general rule, if you don’t know what something is, you shouldn’t eat it – or at least you should be very suspicious of it. This rule-of-thumb would have served our ancestors well when living in the wild but is now overlooked on a daily basis so removed are we from the food preparation process.

Here’s a simple list of the most common culprits that get into our food and damage our health.

Dodgy ingredients – Look out for packaged bait foods with:

  • Vegetable oil – The natural filler and lubricant of processed food everywhere. Recently identified by the British Heart Foundation as being implicated in the explosion of heart disease over the last 60 years/
  • Added sugar – Any additional sugar in your diet swamps the glucose energy system with instantly available energy, which leads to excess production of a hormone called insulin, which tells the body to store fat. It also deranges your palate so that you can no longer enjoy the subtler tastes of good food.
  • Added salt – this is always in the form of table salt (sodium). Table salt has been stripped of all of the useful minerals that are found in natural rock salt or sea salt. An excess of this can affect your blood pressure.
  • Added starches – e.g. corn starch, tapioca starch, potato starch, modified starch, maize starch, and maltodextrins. These produce the same problems as grain and sugar consumption and usually come from very low-grade sources.
  • Artificial colouring and flavouring – known as E numbers. You’ll have read about the dangers of these before. They are implicated in conditions such as ADHD, and mood and behavioural disorders, especially in childhood.
  • Artificial sweeteners (often called ‘HIS’ – High Intensity Sweeteners by the food industry.) These have many names, such as fructose, sucrose, dextrose (which are classed as ‘natural’ sweeteners like sugar and can often just be called ‘sugar’ on a label). Then there is aspartame, Ace K, Sucralose, Maltitol and Sorbitol which go into the brandnames known as Nutrasweet, Canderel, equal and Spoonful. Don’t even think about it! Even eating tablespoons of sugar is better than consuming these harmful alternatives. Fizzy drinks, sports drinks and most protein powders are rife with this stuff though. All sugar substitutes other than stevia and xylitol are made from this sunthetic material. The long term effect of their consumption is still a huge, dangerous unknown, but they are potentially carcinogenic according to some health researchers.
  • Excess caffeine –Heavily-caffeinated ‘energy’ drinks will disrupt your entire metabolism and hormonal balance. Excess caffeine can also be used to mask energy imbalances and disrupted blood glucose levels.
  • Soya – Is grain-like and contains lectins, phytates and phytoestrogens. The latter increase the production of the oestrogen hormone, producing ‘moobs’ in men. Soya is frequently used as a bulking agent in meat-based convenience like pasties. Or a meat-replacement for those who don’t eat meat.  In fact the quantities of this found in vegetarians’ diets is just one more reason to avoid being one if you can.

 It’s also important to learn to see through the misleading language that is applied to the packaging in order to sell more units. Here’s a useful translation service:

 What the Food Companies Really Mean

1)      No added sugar – “Instead we’ve added a selection of sweet tasting, carcinogenic chemicals called artificial sweeteners or starches.”

2)      No artificial flavouring – “we’ve been kind enough not to add a concoction of chemicals will trick your brain into thinking you’re eating something healthy.”

3)      Natural Flavouring – “a tiny drop of lemon has been added to the chemical junk we’re already poisoning you with.”

4)      Low-fat – “We’ve taken the healthy fat out and replaced it with a horrible smorgasbord of industrially-processed food waste.”

5)      An essential source of vitamins and minerals – “We’ve added a tiny selection of manufactured vitamins back into a product whose nutritional benefits we’ve already stripped bare.”

The UK Horsemeat Scandal

As I write this, the UK press is up in arms at the discovery of horsemeat in Findus packaged food that was advertised as containing beef. To me this news item in a storm in a teacup and misses the bigger picture. The appearance of once thing in the place of another seems hardly surprisingly and is bound to be common place when we have to take the provenance of processed foodstuff on trust.

Horse meat is a long way from the worst ingredient that can be found in processed foods of this sort. If the product in question was entirely horsemeat (while dressed up as beef) it actually made of better ingredients than the many, many other ingredients that are found in most processed foods. Horse is a non-toxic animal and therefore entirely edible in its unadulterated form, however distasteful to our sensibilities it may be. It can be eaten without any ill effect over a long period of time, a habit for which the French are well known. The same cannot be said for most of the other additives we are offered by the multinational companies.

Yes, but we were unaware of what we were eating’ will be a common refrain. My response to this is to point out that this is only the normal state of affairs with processed meals unless you’re qualified as a food chemist.

It’s a trust issue though; we were betrayed’, you’ll hear said again and again. To which I say be much more careful where you place your trust. The processed food industry is not a place that I would place mine and expect it to be well kept. The only loyalty a food manufacturer had is to its shareholders and its profit margin. The buck stops there.

Instead of trying to turn a circle into a square, let’s start a revolution; literally re-evolving back in time to a healthier era. Let’s bin the low-fat’ products, chuck the free-from’ junk and dispose of all the rest of the chemical-based garbage the shelves are groaning with and from which our health is suffering. Let’s sack the big food giants by refusing to give them our money and instead support and celebrate the high quality makers of real food, the small businesses that are the saving grace of our food industry.

Why not begin again with real food? Patronise your local butcher, grocer and fishmonger, or farm shop. It’s true that eating real food like this might cost us a bit more money – good, I say. To my mind, it’s the situation we have right now which is the price not worth paying! Spending more will help put high quality food back where it should be: at the forefront of our minds and  the centre of our lives.