Don’t eat crap. Three times a day.

Actually, the fruit bit isn't so great after all (Getty/Guardian)

Actually, the fruit bit isn’t so great after all (Getty/Guardian)

6 April 2014: Published in the Observer, my piece on the “5 a day” debate got an amazing 900+ comments. Some of them quite well-tempered (must be something in the diet).

 

So now it’s seven a day? Here’s my easy alternative: just stop eating rubbish

Nanny Britain’s fruit and veg regime will never work while the list includes fruitcake and sugar-laden drinks

My children are apple-cheeked and glossy-haired, strong and slender as willow wands. Not a filling in their heads, either. All the same, we had a family council on diet last week. A study by the epidemiologists of University College, London found that the five-a-day diet is inadequate. Seven or even 10 portions of fruit and veg is more like it and might reduce our chances of early death by 42% or more. Odds worth having: so I asked them to audit their intake.

My daughter confessed that while she has a banana most breaks, she didn’t like the school lunch fruit salad. She is probably getting four a day, tops. My son said he easily ate five a day. You don’t count chips, I countered, because they are made from potatoes (he did know that) and a potato, being largely starch, does not make the NHS five-a-day lists. I think his score is perhaps three – as bad as mine.

Suddenly, I saw developmental disorders all around. The failure to learn Mandarin. The trouble with long division. The severe allergic reaction to the word “walk”. Might there be scurvy lurking there too? Rickets? And how the hell were we going to get up to seven a day? That’s 2,555 portions of fruit and veg a year for each of us, and we’d be living longer, too. Should we marry the kids to greengrocers?

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Nine things to do today to solve world hunger

As requested… I went to an Action Against Hunger Love Food Give Food event this week to speak on social media and hunger: publicised as “Can bloggers end child hunger?” Which is what you might call a big ask. However… it all came out rather hopeful. Blogging won’t end hunger – but there’s an awful lot we can do. Today. Culled from all the meetings like this I’ve been at recently, here’s nine ideas, and a brief (and skippable) introduction:

There is frustration and horror that this crisis has happened again, so soon. That, despite the bloodshed and the anguish of 2008-2010 crisis nothing has happened to address our broken food economy. But there is hope. Lots of it. For one, no one thinks there isn’t enough food or any prospect of it running out, despite the pressures of changing climates. As ever, we just need to distribute it better. ( In this video, hear economist Raj Patel’s excellent explanation of how a few corporates have gained control of global food distribution.)

Corporations can be brought to order: the answer lies in political engagement. It’s still true, as the Nobel-winning economist and philosopher Amartya Sen stated 30 years ago, that there has never been a famine in a democracy. The recipe: get involved in the politics and get involved in your food. Eat better, shout louder, be happier!

  1.  Campaign to stop the speculators. Regulation of the commodity markets to stabilise food prices is crucial in the fight against hunger – some analytsts say that the bankers betting on food prices since 2008 has caused more hunger than climate change. Sign up to World Development Movement’s campaign ahead of this October’s crucial meetings of finance ministers. http://www.wdm.org.uk/action/food-speculation-photo-petition
  2. Eat less meat. Raising meat is depleting food resources and water unsustainably: 20% of greenhouse gas is the result of industrial meat production. Try holding Meatless Mondays. If you love your bacon sandwich, buy half as much bacon, but spend twice as much on it. You’ll get a tastier sandwich, and support a farmer who treats his animals more decently. More on the”flexitarian diet.
  3. Supermarkets are part of and a cause of the broken food economy, in UK and abroad. You don’t have to give them up– though it would certainly help. But, once a week, or when you can, get the groceries at an independent shop – especially one that supports local food systems – and give yourself a pat on the back.
  4. In the shops. Question what’s going on. Suspend your trust. Tell managers you don’t like excess packaging, or imports that are dubiously sourced. Bargains like BOGOFs are usually paid for by the ever-squeezed producers and farmers, not the shop. Choose food that’s local and in season.
  5. Reclaim the land. Brown-field sites all over our cities are there to be occupied, restored and planted with crops. http://www.reclaimthefields.org.uk/
  6. Reduce your food waste – in UK we throw away 30% of usable food, and that’s putting up prices across the planet. Tips here at http://www.myzerowaste.com. And support campaigns to keep food waste out of landfill:  like the movement to get spare and discarded food from commercial outlets used as pig feed again.
  7. Resist hi-tech solutions – they won’t feed the planet, most scientists agree, just corporate profits. We can keep GM out of Europe, if we fight.
  8. Get to know the food system. We need to return to an understanding of the land, rebond with the farmers and producers, and see how we can be take part in keeping the world fed. See the Soil Association’s Community Supported Agriculture site for schemes near you that are ready to welcome adults and children.
  9. Publicise and donate to Action Against Hunger’s Love Food Give Food appeal on acute child malnutrition: new methods mean children seriously ill from lack of food can be treated in their own homes. Vastly increasing the numbers who can be reached, while lowering the cost. Do share the link.

Any more? Leave a message here.

  • The nine ideas: gathered from people at events organised by World Development Movement, Action Against Hunger and the Take One Action film festival in Scotland.

Olive oil – 5000 years of fraud and poisoning

The olive harvest

The olive harvest: the money in olives has always been an enemy of tradition and quality Photograph: David Silverman/Getty Images

Book review: The Observer,  Sunday 15 January, 2012 

Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil by Tom Mueller

Is there any foodstuff as dodgy as olive oil? Human beings have been defrauding and occasionally poisoning one another with the stuff – or simulacra of it – since the beginning of cooking. You may fairly picture a Sumerian house-spouse 5,000 years ago frowning at an amphora and saying: “The guy said he actually cold-presses extra virgin olives in his own kitchen. Funny taste, though…” Luckily, according to the cuneiform tablets discovered at Ebla, the Sumerians had a royally appointed olive oil fraud brigade.

That’s the sort of thing we need now, when the profits in olive oil crime are, as one EU official puts it, “comparable to cocaine trafficking, with none of the risks”, and the regulations less effective than at any time in the last two millennia.

Tom Mueller, in this eye-popping investigation, makes a convincing case that the fraudsters are busier and richer now than ever before. Key to their success is the confusion, snobbery and ignorance that shroud the product. I have a little experience of this: I conducted a blind tasting of extra virgin olive oils a few years ago for a national newspaper that wanted “the truth on expensive olive oil”.

We had a dozen oils, and a panel consisting of an importer, an Italian deli owner and a couple of eminent foodies: the results were so embarrassing and confusing the piece was never published. The importer went into a fugue after he was informed that he’d pronounced his own premium product “disgusting”; the deli owner chose a bottle of highly dubious “Italian extra virgin” as his favourite (it had cost £1.99 at the discount store TK Maxx); and both the foodies gave a thumbs-up to Unilever‘s much-derided Bertolli brand.

The story of the latter, a market leader here and in the United States, provides a good tour of the rottenness in the trade. The Bertollis were bankers and traders who never actually owned an olive tree, despite the bucolic Tuscan scenes depicted on their labels. They got rich on the back of the incomprehensible twist in European law that, until 2001, allowed any olive oil bottled in Italy to be sold as “Italian olive oil”, which, absurdly, is what we all pay most for. In fact, even now 80% of the oil Bertolli uses comes from Spain, North Africa and the Middle East. It it is still flogged in bottles with “Lucca” and “Passione Italiana” on the label. Today, Italy still sells three times as much oil as it produces.

More serious – for aficionados and olive farmers – Bertolli and its supermarket rivals corrupted the meaning of extra virginity, a controlled definition of high-quality oil since 1960. “Gentle”, “smooth” and “not peppery on the throat” are the sort of words Bertolli and its rivals used in ads promoting their generic extra virgin oil. But true extra virgin oil is peppery – it bites the back of the throat so fiercely it can make you cough. The flavours are vivid. “Peppery” is an official, positive attribute of “extra virgin” whereas smoothness will reliably indicate a low-quality oil.

So Bertolli and the other brands came to need low-quality oils in order to produce an expensive one. That suits them, naturally, but it is ruinous to people trying to make and sell the proper stuff. And it suits the fraudsters, who, for millennia, have been passing off oil from all sorts of plants as that of olives. The deodorising and cleaning techniques that are used to render seed oil or even oil chemically extracted from the stones and twigs of olives produce a very bland oil.

It has become almost impossible for the processors to tell when they’re being sold fake oil and, as one sadly tells Mueller, even harder for them to sell good oil for a reasonable price: “When a customer tries a robust oil, they say, ‘Oh no, this is a bad oil!’ He’s become used to the flat taste of the deodorato.” As a result, 70% of cheaper extra virgin oil sold is a fraud, according to Mueller – though that doesn’t harm the big guys. And so the Bertolli family sold up to Unilever, a company that got rich turning waste animal fats and whale oil into margarine. (Unilever has now sold Bertolli to Spain’s biggest oil corporation.)

It is an appalling and comical mess, which Mueller sees largely in terms of honest, hard-working farmers versus slippery businessmen. He interviews prime examples of both. But you could tell the same story of almost any artisan’s product we put in our mouths, from bacon to cheddar cheese or smoked salmon. Industrial production techniques and the supermarket’s tendency to strip out quality in order to give “value” will debase any foodstuff once it becomes popular to the point where the producer has to abuse his animals, sin against tradition or commit fraud in order to stay afloat.

It is a depressing story, without any obvious remedy, but it is only half this greatly entertaining book. Mueller, an American who set up home in Liguria, tells a gripping story of the rise of olive oil to the point where it symbolises civilisation – whether in the minds of a Roman legionary miserable in the lard-eating German outposts of the Empire, or on an aspirational dinner table in middle-class northern Europe or America today.

Olive oil runs through Mediterranean culture. It had a place in religious rituals, cooking, lighting, cleaning, medicine and, of course, economics. Mueller makes a case – or at least he finds an academic who will – for olive oil’s central role in pederasty in ancient Athens. Across the ages, the cool green oil flows, past an unchanging cast of cranks, crooks and fanatics. The Romans, says Mueller from the top of Monte Testaccio, a hill by the Tiber made of discarded oil amphorae, policed olive oil better than we do. They probably used it more sensibly, too: most of what we eat today on the cheap is actually lampante – oil of a grade they deemed suitable only for lighting their houses.

Original article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/jan/13/extra-virginity-tom-mueller-review

Paying more for Fairtrade cocoa is key to ending child labour

30th September 2010 The Times

To eat chocolate is to enter a moral maze. It has been associated with indulgence and sex and more recently, justice

To eat chocolate is to enter a moral maze. It has always been associated with indulgence and sex — if you believe the advertising — and the newest selling point is justice: “fairly traded” chocolate that promises a decent livelihood for the cocoa farmers. In the past year this has become mainstream: Cadbury (with Dairy Milk) and Nestlé (with KitKat) have gone into Fairtrade, and some Mars products carry the less-exacting Rainforest Alliance label. You can have chocolate both sinful and worthy simultaneously: “Indulge your sweet tooth with this decadent collection of Fairtrade Belgian chocolates . . .” runs an ad on the Oxfam shop website.

Can you taste that goodness? At a party I handed round two plates of chocolate squares. They looked identical but I said one had Fairtrade chocolate on it, the other was conventional: I wanted to know which tasted better. My subjects voted in favour of the Fairtrade chocolate, and with a political bias: the more liberal-minded, the more they preferred the Fairtrade. I’d conned them, of course: the two chocolates were the same, which made everyone cross.

Read the rest via Times Online

Making £50 a week taste better

Alex goes supermarket shopping on £50 a week

After I tried to feed my family on Sainsbury’s menu, I appealed to Times readers for better ideas

7th July 2011

The Times

Two months ago, Sainsbury’s launched a “value” marketing drive, with TV and press campaigns, promising to feed recession-hit families for just £50 a week. The first menu was depressing with its pseudo-bargains, unlikely extravagances (a £5 bunch of grapes) and lots of tinned and frozen food. These included some sausages at 10p each: beige and tasteless, just 45 per cent pork, they were the most revolting things that have ever been in my frying pan.

All this was mocked on these pages and elsewhere, especially when the company was pushed to admit that in nutritional terms the menu would in fact provide only 85 per cent of what a family would need. Unsurprisingly, the promotion has now disappeared from Sainsbury’s stores and website.

“Marketing froth” was one trade analyst’s verdict: that rang true in this house. When I tried to send my kids off to school on the budget breakfast of toast and jam, they were as appalled as if I’d attempted to ban the TV. What is wrong with porridge, many of you asked.

Read the rest here via Times Online

British farmers and the supermarket price wars

British farmers forced to pay the cost of the supermarket price wars

The Guardian, Saturday 2nd July2011.

As profits soar at the supermarkets, food producers say they are being forced out of business by unfair buying practices.

You can pick up a punnet of British raspberries – at their best this weekend – on a two-for-one offer in most supermarkets. But as shoppers reach for that quintessential summer treat, they should perhaps ponder the fact that it is the farmer, not the supermarket, who is paying for the generous discount.

The farmer may well be making no profit at all, with no choice in the pricing and little or no idea, when he picked and shipped the raspberries, how much he would get for them. Or that the packaging would be paid for by the farm, but done by a company chosen by the supermarket – at up to twice the cost of it being packaged independently.

Read the full article at The Guardian.

Can you feed your family on £50 a week?

Alex Renton feeding his daughter and family for £50

May 19th 2011, The Times

Sainsbury’s believes you can, but when Alex Renton took up the challenge, he found his household of foodies and fussy eaters had serious misgivings.

Eighty-four meals, £50, one happy family, say the new Sainsbury’s adverts. They promise to feed a family of four for seven days for less than the price of a tank of petrol: “No really, it’s possible — we know because we’ve done the maths.” If they’d done that, I thought, we really should do the experiment. My happy family of four is very bad at doing the maths — we don’t have much of a clue what we spend on food even though we suffer the usual shrinking-income fears of the times. Feed each of us for £1.79 a day? I went straight down to Sainsbury’s.

Find the full article here on Times Online (in front of the paywall).