Joanna Blythman on ‘The Power of Enjoyment in the Face of Industrialised Food’
The Oxford Cultural Collective has a close working relationship with the Jane Grigson Trust, an educational charity established in 1991 in memory of Jane Grigson, one of twentieth century Britain’s finest food writers.
This year’s annual Jane Grigson Trust Lecture, entitled The Power of Enjoyment in the Face of Industrialised Food, was delivered by distinguished investigative journalist Joanna Blythman.
Geraldene Holt, Chair of the Jane Grigson Trust, commented : “I’m really struck by the sheer skill of Joanna’s text, not only linking it to one of Jane’s books but following the trail so neatly. It’s a genuine tour de force with a powerful case based on reason and morality.”
Here we publish the full transcript of Joanna’s lecture, which she delivered on 12th July 2019 at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery.
First of all I’d like to warmly thank the trustees for asking me to give this lecture.
I only had the privilege of meeting Jane Grigson once, but thanks to her constant presence in my kitchen in the form of her cookbooks, she feels like a dear old friend. The world isn’t short of good recipes, but what I love about Jane is that her books deliver so much more than that. Knowing I was giving this lecture I picked up one of my favourites; her Vegetable Book. Revisiting it just brought home to me what a rich, rounded, wise, and inherently sensible way of thinking about food Jane had. What struck me about it?
For starters, Jane located every ingredient available to us in a cultural context. That context was an understanding of history, seasons, traditions and artisan methods. Authenticity mattered to Jane, and she rooted her thoughts and recipes in specific geographies and landscapes. An ingredient for Jane was partly explained by the locality from which it came. An explanation of the ecology of a given region was one of the tools she gave us to truly comprehend the characteristics of native plant cultivars and breeds of animals.
Here’s some typically educational advice from her on shallots:
“One thing to realise is that the flavour of shallots can vary from region to region and according to variety. There are three main types- the small greyish-brown skinned shallot, the kind the French call “échalote rose”, then the pinkish-red ones, and the bronze-skinned, yellowish variety which keep well.”
Here you see her attention to detail, her focus on the distinctions within classes of ingredients.
Yet despite this respect for locality and local biodiversity, her tone was internationalist, never parochial. Jane drops in sentences that have a cosmopolitan sweep yet make universal links between apparently diverse food cultures. Here’s an example:
“A Ghanaian friend told us that in Accra there is an [avocado] tree in every garden, like apple trees in some parts of England; everyone gets bored with the fruit during the season, as we get bored with endless Bramley windfalls in the autumn. In Kenya it’s much the same.”
Jane assumed she was speaking to an intelligent, enquiring reader, someone capable of understanding nuance. She talked up to her readers, not down. She took it for granted that understanding the background to ingredients would make us more capable at the stove.
And her audience, her frame of reference, was the home cook. She assumed that home cooking, from the humblest daily food to a dish for a feast, was a worthwhile endeavour, an endeavour that lies at the very heart of a life well lived. She also saw it as desirable, and perfectly possible, that people might be encouraged to grow some of their own food. This line from the entry on courgettes is typical:
“You can buy a couple of plants from a nurseryman and grow them in a backyard or tub. Until you have grown them yourself and picked them at 5-7 centimetres in length, you cannot imagine how delicious they can be.”
I keep coming across people who find courgettes dull. Perhaps if they had this experience Jane describes, they would feel differently.
Taste, of course, was the whole point of food to Jane, and she went to lengths to describe it. For instance on salsify she points out that it is sometimes called the “vegetable oyster” but goes on to remark that it “tastes of nothing but itself”. “Others have compared it to the parsnip, but this won’t do either,” she says: “Parsnip has a softer texture than the clean waxy bite of salsify, and is much sweeter”. For Jane, taste was crucial, the sine qua non of food.
Health? Her books have references to the medicinal and tonic properties of certain foods. She notes, for instance, that Medieval doctors credited parsnips with keeping off adders and curing toothache. But Jane never felt any need to trouble her reader with calorie counts for her recipes, or computations of nutritional values for each of their components. I’d guess that Jane simply assumed that if we followed the eating patterns passed down to us through the generations, we wouldn’t go too far wrong.
But the food world we inhabit now couldn’t be more different from Jane’s.
Particular cultural contexts are being overridden by a universalist vision of eating that is said to be broadly applicable to all societies. This approach to food emerged post World War Two, and ever since it has been advanced as a modern formula for good health. In the UK, we are asked to eat according to a government prescription that is embodied by the “Eat Well Plate”, or the “Eat Badly” plate, as a growing number of dissenters prefer to call it. This prescription tells us to base our meals on starchy foods, reduce saturated fat, red meat and sugar.
You can see variations on this model all around the world. In the US, it appears as a pyramid. In the far north of Alaska, the Regional Board of Health depicts healthy eating in the shape of an igloo. The traditional, local foodstuffs of the Inuit- such as fish and seal fat – the fat and protein got them through freezing winters – are now restricted to the very top of the igloo, and overshadowed in bulk terms by the very un–traditional refined carbohydrates.
You may remember that earlier this year, a self-appointed body called ‘Eat-Lancet’ launched its global prescription for it considers “a universal healthy reference diet”. Eat-Lancet wants this to be the basis of an unprecedented “great food transformation”.
So Eat Lancet is fashionably on-message. It plays on the guilt and anxiety people feel about climate breakdown and uses its supposedly ethical stance to deflect any challenges. But behind the green rhetoric, Eat-Lancet is advancing a highly debatable proposition. This proposition is that animal foods – meat, dairy, eggs, fish – foods that Jane used regularly, are somehow bad for us, or at least, ought to be restricted. “Plant” food, on the other hand, is promoted by Eat-Lancet as the saviour of human and planetary health.
Eat-Lancet makes me think of a very important figure in British nutrition, surgeon captain Thomas Latimer Cleave, whose 1966 book, the Saccharine Disease, first identified the negative health effects of consuming over-refined foods. He summed up my feelings on the current attack on animal foods, such as red meat, so pithily when he said: “For a modern disease to be related to an old-fashioned food is one of the most ludicrous things I have ever heard in my life”.
It’s worth noting here that Eat-Lancet, despite the ‘plant’ tag, isn’t actually a vegetable rich diet. In fact, it tells us to get only 3% of our calories from vegetables, while recommending that half of our calories should come from wheat, grains, and soya. But it does drastically restrict animal foods. We’re allowed an egg and a half each week, not more than a daily mouthful of red meat. I think we can safely say that Eat-Lancet isn’t a blueprint for eating that Jane would recognise. But these days, Jane’s knowledge and philosophy of food would be roundly dismissed as not science-based and therefore irrelevant. Why?
Well nowadays, the whole discussion around what is appropriate for us to eat has been commandeered by so-called experts – academics, assorted health professionals – to whom we are told to defer because they know best. Let me give you a personal example.
Recently, I was criticised by a dietician for writing an article in BBC Good Food magazine that dared to question government diet advice on what constitutes a “healthy oil”. I was merely a food writer, contributing to a women’s cookery magazine, she pointed out. She, on the other hand had a 4-year degree, had done work experience as part of her training, and followed science-based government guidelines to the letter. How dare I challenge her superior received knowledge?
But let me return to Eat-Lancet. Its ‘animal foods are bad’ script had an initially uncritical reception in mainstream media and its influence continues. Last month, for example, BBC News ran a feature aimed at school students. It contained this statement, citing the seemingly authoritative UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as its source:
“Buy less milk, meat, cheese and butter and more locally sourced seasonal food”.
Did you notice anything? Of course, in the UK, milk, meat, cheese and butter are our locally sourced food; and they never go out of season. Jane would have spotted this right away.
But this logically inconsistent advice was a classic example of a phenomenon known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, that is, you don’t understand enough about a subject to know that what you believe to be true doesn’t stand up. Well, the world seemed entranced by Eat-Lancet until the Italians entered the fray. Thank heavens for Italians and their respect for good food!
Gian Lorenzo Cornado, Italy’s ambassador and permanent representative to the United Nations, attacked both the science and the sense of the Eat-Lancet vision. He said:
“A standard diet for the whole planet” regardless of the age, sex, general state of health, and eating habits “has no scientific justification at all” and “would mean the destruction of millenary, healthy traditional diets which are a full part of the cultural heritage and social harmony in many nations.”
It’s a rather clunky translation from the Italian, I know, but I feel that Jane, with her broad, holistic, educated understanding of food would have clapped his efforts.
And he got results. The World Health Organization subsequently dropped its planned sponsorship of the Eat-Lancet diet.
It goes without saying that I share the Italian problem with any monolithic universal diet. But, I could support a very different sort of food message, one that I do believe is globally applicable. And here it is in 3 words: Avoid processed food.
Or, if we come back to the topic of this lecture, I could say: Avoid industrialised food.
Or, if that’s too long, not clear enough, then here it is in 1 word: Cook.
Let me explain my thinking.
I have an over-arching hunch that natural ingredients in their least processed forms are the best basis for our minds, bodies and souls. And I was pleased to see that two major studies reported this year alone have provided robust scientific evidence to back up that sentiment, because they make the links between over-processed food and disease.
But what exactly do I mean by industrialised, or that even trickier word, “processed”? Jane used processed food all the time: cheese, olive oil, vanilla, capers, for example. We’re not against these, are we?
Thankfully, an international alliance of researchers led by Professor Carlos Monteiro at the university of Sao Paulo has done us all a favour and given us what’s known as the Nova classification. Very usefully, it breaks down the weasel world “processed” into four groups:
Group 1: Unprocessed or minimally processed foods
Group 2: Processed culinary ingredients
Group 3: Processed food
Group 4: Ultra-processed food and drink products
(Crisps would be a simple, old-fashioned example of an ultra-processed food).
But let me give you a more up-to-date example of an ultra-processed food: ‘The Impossible Burger‘, a plant-based rival to the classic beef burger. Its ingredient list is as follows:
Water, soy protein concentrate, coconut oil, sunflower oil, natural flavors, potato protein, methylcellulose, yeast extract, cultured dextrose, modified food starch, genetically modified soy leghemoglobin, salt, soy protein isolate, and synthetic vitamins.
I wonder if Jane might read this ingredients list, note the marketing assurances about its healthfulness, and still be left asking the question, “What the hell is it?”
Now I’m grateful to the NOVA researchers for defining processed food in a way that allows a deeper, more sophisticated discussion of the increasingly industrialised food on our plates. They have made an impact. The term- “ultra-processed” is featuring more and more in debates about diet and health.
In the UK currently, just over 50% of the food we eat comes into the ultra-processed, industrialised category. We’re being assured that hi-tech, cutting-edge, ultra-processed food of this type is going to replace real food as we know it.
Pat Brown, the CEO of Impossible Foods, says he can replace meat from animals by 2035. “Cows aren’t getting any better at making meat. We are”, he says, with breathtaking hubris.
You might think such a scenario is implausible, but is it?
Well the fact is that despite the body of science that links consumption of over-processed food to obesity and ill health, there are a number of powerful interests pushing it, and in power terms, they seem to outweigh those interests that defend relatively unprocessed, real food.
So what’s the driving motivation here?
Simply put, ultra-processing hands manufacturers a licence to print money. Take potatoes. There’s only so much any retailer could charge for them in their natural form, even if they marketed them as exclusive heirloom varieties, hand polished in mineral water by virgins hand selected by M&S. But transform them into crisps, or microwaveable chips, and the sky’s the limit. This is what food engineers refer to as “adding value”: they break down whole foods into standard components that they endlessly manipulate and tweak to produce a series of novel, lucrative configurations.
Ultra-processing is a tried-and-tested formula for skinflint spending and profit generation.
“Value engineering” (keeping down ingredient costs) is the food manufacturer’s overweening objective. They do it by replacing the costlier items, eggs, butter, meat, milk, for instance, with pre-processed industrial substitutes, artfully employed, using all the tricks in the food technologist’s manual, to create a similar effect. Why use real eggs in your formulation for instance, when you can choose instead cleverly confected starches, which, along with synthetic egg flavouring and yellow colouring, will give your product an egg-like effect?
This strong financial incentive to reduce raw material costs is the reason why ultra-processed products as seemingly dissimilar as fish fingers, mayonnaise, chocolate mousse, frequently share so many common ingredients: added water, protein flours, industrially refined oils, gums, chemically altered starches, sugar, all tarted-up with synthetic additives, and further confected with “processing aids”, such as enzymes, that do not appear on the label.
It’s worth noting that Eat-Lancet, through an alliance with a body known as ‘FRESH’ – an acronym for Food Reform for Sustainability and Health – receives backing from powerful companies that have a clear vested in selling us ultra-processed food. Let me give you a flavour of the companies involved.
There’s Bayer, the company that owns Monsanto, a company that’s fighting a snowstorm of lawsuits in the US raised by people who believe its weedkiller, RoundUp, also known as glyphosate, has given them cancer.
There’s Pepsico, the sweet soft drinks company.
There’s Kellogg’s, manufacturer of all those pseudo-healthy breakfast cereals.
There’s Nestlé, which aside from selling us tooth-rotting confectionery, ruthlessly promotes its formula milk to mothers who have no access to clean water.
There’s Symrise and Givaudan, two companies that manufacture synthetic flavourings.
There’s a posse of pesticide and chemical companies, grain refiners, palm oil companies.
Now, the more industrialised our food has become, the more it is made by companies such as these, the less we understand it in the broad, holistic, intelligent way that Jane did.
I don’t know what you think, but my feeling is that many people are quite suspicious of these foods and what they might be doing to us, yet because they are so ubiquitous, we take heart in a safety-in-numbers trust. We think, well these foods are so available, and being eaten by so many of us that they must be safe. The government would not let anything be sold to us that wasn’t safe, would it? And a vast regulatory food safety apparatus has been put in place to convince us that it is safe.
Food companies are obliged to operate a system of self-regulation known as HACCP, hazard analysis and critical control points, and this is policed by the Food Standards Agency in the UK, and equivalent bodies in other countries. To my mind, the very existence of this modern food safety establishment has helped to create the illusion that food safety is best delivered by what the French sociologist, Claude Fischler, describes as an “aseptic no-man’s land” of promised biological purity, a purity that is best established in some distant place by faceless scientists in white coats.
There was a classic example of this in May when environmental health officers stopped the local Women’s Institute bringing in homemade cakes to cheer up residents of a hospice in Rutland, simply because they had been cooked in home kitchens. Yet although it can ban cakes that might cheer up a dying person and his or her family, this system is full of as many holes as a ciabatta loaf.
So far this year in British hospitals five people have died because they were fed sandwiches contaminated by listeria. But you can bet your bottom dollar that these killer sandwiches had passed seamlessly through rafts of HACCP checks from factory to bedside. The suppliers involved, by the way, were back in production within a week or two.
Meanwhile the power vested in this ineffective food safety establishment is used remorselessly against small producers. Some of you will know about the case of Errington Cheese, Scotland’s oldest artisan cheesemaker. A child died from E-coli and that company’s raw milk cheese was falsely blamed and it was put out of production for three years. Exhausting its own funds, and with help from crowdfunding and the leading E-coli expert, Professor Hugh Pennington, the Errington’s were subsequently exonerated in a lengthy, expensive court battle that nearly bankrupted them. Now they are making wonderful cheese again and selling it to grateful customers. But the case has sent a chill through Scotland’s cheesemakers. One cheesemaker has ceased production permanently, and others are pasteurising their products. Why? Because the public health authorities effectively harass them if they don’t.
The fact of the matter is that fear, not enjoyment, walks hand in hand with the industrialised, ultra-processed food system.
Fear of poisoning.
Fear of obesity.
Fear of whole groups of macronutrients, such as fat.
Fear, of course, is joined at the hip with another F: faddism.
Lacking coordinates to navigate the industrial food system we are encouraged to fixate on isolated nutritional micro-parts of whole foods that are identified as either saints or sinners, depending on which school of nutrition you adhere to. A host of dogmatic dietary tribes vies for our loyalty: low-fat, low-carb, paleo, keto, vegan, flexitarian, red meat avoiders, gluten-free, intermittent fasting, or Eat-Lancet’s ‘plant-based’.
So how can we challenge these immensely powerful, and I would say hostile, forces that are encouraging us to eat a diet that is ever more divorced from ingredients in their whole, diverse, and most wonderful forms? How can we restore a normal, pleasurable, literate view of food that Jane would recognise and put that at the heart of our lives?
As I said earlier, it seems to me that Jane simply assumed that enjoyment was the natural consequence of eating in a time-honoured, fairly traditional way. She saw that enjoyment began with an informed appreciation of the factors that create good food. She knew that for most of us, it was predicated on home cooking.
And I see very many chinks of light these days that make me optimistic that we can reclaim her vision.
Let me slowly wind down this lecture by returning to the global south, to Brazil, where the Nova classification originated, the country that currently has the sanest government eating guidelines in the world. Guidelines that we would do well to adopt.
Brazil doesn’t patronise its citizens with simplistic, kindergarten visual images and deeply flawed nutrient profiling schemes. It doesn’t blind them with red, amber, and green traffic lights, which give people the impression that Diet Coke is healthier than mackerel.
Instead it has 7 clear principles that it asks its citizens to apply.
Here they are:
1) Make unprocessed foods the basis of your diet
2) Limit your consumption of processed foods
3) Avoid ultra-processed foods
4) Eat minimal oils [Referring to industrially refined cooking oil]
5) Eat in company
6) Shop where fresh foods are offered
7) Develop cooking skills
You can see that the first four are essentially nutritional recommendations, but the last three – eat in company; shop where fresh foods are on sale; develop cooking skills – are social. And I think that Jane would like this, for it brings us back again to the theme of this lecture, the ‘power of enjoyment‘.
She would approve of these last three principles because they talk not just of what we eat but how we eat.
They assume that eating well is a matter of culture, not merely nutrition.
Last year, about a week before Xmas, I was walking past a rather unremarkable cafe near where I live. I’d never paid much attention to it. But it had opened on its day off, Monday, its tables all nicely set with napkins and decorations, and was serving a complimentary proper Xmas meal to assorted homeless citizens.
What an uplifting sight it was to see! A meal that offered dignity, safety, enjoyment and companionship to people whose lives are often chaotic and frightening. And I’m sure it uplifted the mental health of the people who took the bother to host it. It reminded me that it’s always important, as Brazil’s guidelines do, to locate civilised, health-sustaining eating in conviviality round a table.
However much we are encouraged to do so, it’s really important never to lose sight of the daily pleasure of sharing uncomplicated home-cooked food.
Now, the prevailing industrial food complex wants to make passive consumers out of us, people who no longer have any intuition about the food they eat, people who trustingly go along with whatever big companies sell them.
But I do believe that an alternative vision of food, a vision that is predicated on enjoyment, on the hands-on participation of active citizens, is terribly seductive.
I see it bubbling up at a grass roots level all around us.
I see it expressed in the Real Bread movement. Bakeries that follow these principles are springing up everywhere.
I see it on the allotment, and in the school playgrounds where little children tend vegetables in raised beds.
I see it in the recycling, refilling shops that are springing up on shopping parades, where we rediscover the domestic economy our mothers and grandmothers took for granted by filling up our storage jars and old bags from gravity dispensers, instead of buying food over-packaged in plastic from the supermarket.
I see it in organic box schemes that deliver to our homes, reconnecting our rural food producers with urban consumers.
I see it in places like Liverpool, where the ‘Can Cook’ initiative has pioneered a dignified alternative food proposition to meals on wheels.
It gives me so much pleasure to see that small independent food shops with progressive ideals are actually doing better than they have for ages, even as the big chains disappear from our shopping parades.
I see it in the seed savers movement where citizen groups are defending our planet’s biodiversity against corporate patents.
I see it in the ongoing strength and momentum powering not-for-profit workers’ food co-ops, such as ‘Locavore’ in Glasgow, ‘Unicorn’ in Manchester, and ‘Infinity’ in Brighton.
I see it at work in places as unalike as Brixton, Bristol and Totnes, where their eponymous pound is a local currency that helps people relocalise their food economies.
Currently, a self-seeded, resilient movement composed of enterprises of this kind is beginning to break through with an alternative to the monolithic industrialised food system. This movement demonstrates to me one extremely uplifting and empowering point: Grass grows through concrete, eventually.
You see, for all that the post-WW2 industrialised food system poses as normal, as a permanent, unchangeable status quo, it actually represents a brief, and problematic episode in the history of how the world has fed itself since time began.
So many people are hungry for the restatement of the saner, more enjoyable tried-tested eating patterns and they are determined to make that happen.
I like to think that that if Jane was here with us today, she would recognize, respect, and cheer on their intention.