Food is too cheap

cheap-eats-cover10 Jan 2015: Thrifty or lavish, we all are now guests at the discounted, buy-one-get-one-free, year-round cheap food feast, eating more than we need and paying less for it – as a proportion of our incomes – than our grandparents did, or their parents before them. This, it turns out, is not entirely a good thing.

Cover story for Newsweek magazine – free to read here 

 

Is “health bread” a scam?

Bakery firms are making big promises: touting premium loaves to help with everything from dieting and flatulence to memory loss and the symptoms of menopause. I enlisted some experts and we took apart 12 supermarket loaves to ask: are health breads a big gluten-loaded con?

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(Extended version of an investigation for the Daily Mail, published 21 Feb 2013)

Once there was white bread, which was nicer, and there was brown bread, which was better for you.

Now most supermarkets stock 40 or more different breads. They’re far more than the building blocks of a sandwich: some “health breads” claim to make you fitter, slimmer, to improve your memory or even to stop you eating so much bread.

Some of the designer health breads cost five or six times what a normal loaf does. They are imported from France, Italy and Germany. Yet many of the products have little or no health value at all – and the claims may be in contravention of labeling law.

Many of these breads also taste horrible. But people don’t buy them first for flavour.

One of the brands, Burgen,  calls itself “bread shaped health food”. One of the loaves is flavoured with linseed and soya and claims to help with symptoms of the menopause through adding natural hormones to the diet.

But medical professionals told us that was “extremely unlikely”.

Burgen, which is owned by Britain’s biggest bakery company, ABF, claims a whole range of medical benefits for its loaves, but our experts poured cold water on most of the promises. We requested scientific evidence from Burgen, but it didn’t provide any.

Burgen breads cost £1.40 each in supermarkets, more than twice as much as basic bread.

There are breads that promise healthier bones and better brain function and memory, and of course, relief for a range of allergies to gluten, wheat or excess yeast. But many of the claims are misleading or unproven.

Our survey found that expensive slimmers’ bread from WeightWatchers and Nimble is almost identical to and just as fattening as budget white bread at less than a third the price.

Some of these breads address problems – like healthy bones – that hardly exist among the sort of people able to pay for designer loaves.

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Food is too cheap and that’s damaging all of us

Editorial I wrote for the Observer

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jan/13/price-to-be-paid-cheap-food

Sunday 13 January 2013 The world is throwing away a shocking amount of food. A report last week claimed that at least a third of the 4 billion tonnes of food the world produces each year never gets as far as our mouths. Between 30% and 50% of food purchased in Europe and the US is thrown away. The research is questioned, not least by the supermarkets, but it does echo the results of an exercise in Britain six years ago, when researchers for the government-funded Waste and Resources Action Programme (Wrap) went through the nation’s rubbish bins. It concluded that we were throwing away 30% of the food we’d bought while it was still edible.

Britain – and much of the rich world – has got used to filling the fridge with what looks nice, not what it actually needs. The cost of that indulgence is, says the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, £10bn annually. Globally, the cost, in money, energy and ever-scarcer water, is unquantifiable.

Our future food security has been climbing the top 10 of current global worries. The prospect of feeding a mid-century planet of around 9 billion people looks impossible without major and potentially unattractive changes to farming and our diet. If you accept the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation’s call for production to be increased by 70% to feed the population of 2050, most of the work will be achieved just by being a bit more thrifty. All we have to do is to use better what is already there.

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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

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).

Word of Mouth: Tesco Is No Champion of The Poor

Tesco's not a champion for the poor

Tesco's no champion for the poor: Reuters

10th June 2010, Observer Food Monthly

Forget the eulogies to Sir Terry Leahy. The legacy of Leahyism has been damage to our towns, countryside and environment, and the promotion of a much poorer diet that we’ll all pay for

Sir Terry Leahy is retiring as head of Tesco after 14 years, “to spend more time with his private investments”, according to yesterday’s Guardian. He got the sort of press that’ll make a nice decorative feature in his downstairs loo. He is one of the “10 people who have most helped the poor in recent decades,” said the Tory blogger Tim Montgomerie in a Times piece, straplined ‘champion of the poor’. “Every little he did helped us,” said The Sun. “The outstanding businessman of the decade,” said the Mail.

Do these people get out at all? They could visit one of the towns in Britain, such as Inverness, where three in every £4 is spent in a Tesco store; take a walk down the high streets reduced to a pathetic straggle of charity shops and tanning parlours. Then Leahy’s fans might begin to see why another part of the population – among them farmers, small business people and independent shop owners – don’t think Sir Terry helped at all.