For years, we have been led to believe that food is about convenience and entertainment. Consequently, our supermarkets and take-aways are full of quick, easy eats that satisfy all our cravings in one hit. And the cheaper it is, the better. Or is it?
In the race for consumers, there is an obvious split in the market between cheap, convenient, volume driven foods, vs Artisan foods which have a reputation for being unnecessarily expensive and only for a certain type of customer.
But what is really going on here? Instead of asking why are Artisan foods so expensive, perhaps we should be wondering what it is that makes mass-produced food so cheap?
The answer to both these questions lies in the way ingredients are sourced and the methodology of production. With artisan foods, the producer focuses on local and seasonal primary produce, free of synthetic chemicals with maximized freshness and minimal processing. Traditional techniques are used, by which the products are non-standardized and produced in small batches by hand. Obviously there are fewer economies of scale in this model.
On the contrary, convenience foods are volume driven, focusing on a high yield, efficiency, standardization and a low cost final product, seemingly ideal for a population that is always on the go and looking to save money. In order to achieve these ‘benefits’ however, there are a number of methods used in the manufacture of fast moving consumer foods which not only deplete their nutritional value, but which make them potentially toxic: factory farming with intensive methods to rear livestock to gain maximum outputs at the cheapest cost possible and the use of synthetic chemicals and genetic modification to standardise quality and flavour.
In the UK, we eat more ready meals than any other country in Europe, spending £2.6 billion a year. Being able to grab something that is cheap and quick to eat is obviously very convenient, yet most of these foods provide little to no nutritional value and are loaded with excess sodium, sugar and trans fats, significantly contributing to health problems such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
Convenience may seem an attractive advantage, but plastic leaches into your ready meal from the container as you microwave it; you are in fact paying a huge premium for the convenience of not knowing exactly what you are eating.
Luxury branded convenience foods offer higher quality ingredients such as free-range chicken and premium grade eggs, but basic ready meals have to cut costs somehow, with the answer being to use cheap off cuts and fillers. A standard chicken dinner may claim to contain 25% ‘meat’, yet this ‘meat’ may often be taken from a part of the animal that is not normally considered food – I am thinking feet and coxcombs here. Transglutaminase (doesn’t sound like something you want to be eating I’m sure), a super strength enzyme, is often used to bond slabs of cheap meat together to form one uniform joint, creating the impression of a larger quality piece. Collagen, a powdered protein, is also often added. When combined with water, it swells and becomes bouncy and glutinous to make up for a lack of actual meat. However, its not just meat products that don’t live up to be all that they may seem: a well-known circular, convex ‘potato’ crisp (am I being sufficiently coy?), hardly contains enough potato (only 42%) to be considered a potato product. And the potato that is used has been so highly processed and de-natured that it certainly contains none of the nutrition of the original potato. Butif they were to describe it as a ‘combination of rice, wheat, corn and potato flakes pressed into shape, with added sweeteners, emulsifiers and colourings’, that doesn’t quite have the marketing zing that the manufacturers are looking for.
In the UK, processed bakery products are worth £3.6 billion pounds, and it is one of the largest markets in the food industry (that alone speaks volumes about our average diet). We also product some of the least expensive bread in Europe, and with this lower price comes lower quality and added ingredients. A basic bread dough contains four ingredients: flour, water, salt and yeast (which would be expected in a homemade, or artisan loaf), yet mass produced factory breads contain a vast number of added ingredients and processing aids that are not required to be declared on product labels. Enzymes are added to help the dough hold more gas, creating a lighter texture and helping the bread stay softer for longer, hard fats are added to improve loaf volume, crumb softness and extend the shelf life, and chlorine dioxide gas is added to flour to whiten it to have that aesthetically pleasing colour. Further additives and flavouring agents are added to products, such as sugars in the form of glucose syrup and maltodextrin, and concentrated salts such as Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) are used to boost flavour and mask cheap ingredients. However, processed sweeteners such as these contain addictive chemicals that trigger brain neurons causing you to crave the foods more.
With artisan foods, on the other hand, you know exactly what you are paying for and exactly what has gone into the product. Small batches may cost more to produce, but they don’t need as many additives and preservatives. In this day and age with 1 in 2 of us likely to get cancer in our lifetime, spending a little extra on a loaf of bread may not be such a bad thing after all!