I borrowed a pen from a friend several weeks ago. It was one of those promotional biros you frequently get given as a ‘free’ gift. There was nothing particularly remarkable about it. The off white, smooth plasticky feeling cylinder felt at ease in my hand and wrote like any other cheap pen. I forget which organisation it was promoting. What I do recall is seeing the words ‘made from recycled cornstarch’ inscribed on the side of its barrel.
I mulled those words over before I returned the pen to it’s owner. In my food centric world cornstarch, or corn flour as we call it in the UK, is an edible ingredient. And this pen was about as an inedible an object you could find. How could something I use regularly to thicken sauces become a pen?
Around the same time I was sent a review copy of a new book published by Joanna Blythman called Swallow This. It’s taken me some time to get through it. Blythman is a skilled writer and I have read many of her books. Her prose is informative and engaging. The issue lay not with her writing but with her subject matter. In the book she uncovers the truth behind those so called ‘clean labels’ for foods we believe to be wholesome but in reality are anything but. For a food savvy consumer such as myself it makes uncomfortable reading. If you’ve ever had that feeling in your stomach like you’ve swallowed a pound of lead when you realise you’ve been duped then you’ll know what I mean. It’s not pleasant reading.
It turns out that the food processing industry has plenty of dirty tricks up its sleeve to prolong the life of products which they are not obliged to declare on their labels. Take our friend starch. You and I will be familiar with starchy foods like flour, potatoes and rice but starch comes is a myriad of forms. It can be used to replace butter to make products lighter. It can stop ingredients from separating in sauces and soups. It can mimic fat in items like sausages and extend the life of yoghurts. As Blythman sums up:
“Whatever consistency is needed – crisp, crunchy, melting, creamy, succulent, gummy, mouth filling, elastic, smooth, shreddable, jellied, stringy, cuttable, short, cohesive or chewy – multi-tasking starch can deliver it.”
Plus it can be turned into pens.
The most worrying thing about these revelations is how little the manufacturer has to declare on the label. My generation has been brought up to mistrust E numbers. Manufacturers have become wise to this and now use ‘functional starches’ which are perceived as being cleaner, and ergo more ‘natural’, because they are not chemically altered (their structure is changed using things like heat instead). These will simply appear on labels as ‘starch’, ‘dextrin’ or ‘soluble fibre’.
Before you blow a gasket at the duplicitous nature of the food processing industry take some comfort in the fact that even Blythman with 25 years of investigative journalism under her belt didn’t realise the extent of their deception until she began delving into their ways and means. The fact of the matter is that we have all been conned. She even makes an apology in the introduction for dulling our appetite for products we use on a regular basis. It makes you realise that pretty much everything that comes in a jar, packet, can or tube has been tampered with. Nothing is sacred. This book is a testament to the fact that cooking from scratch is the only way to really know what is going into your food (although that also opens up the other can of worms regarding organic vs non organic products).
“These days, cooking is a powerful political statement, a small daily act of resistance that gives us significantly more control of our lives,” concludes Blythman.
Swallow This is uncomfortable yet compulsive reading. Just don’t pick it up right before you eat dinner.
Swallow This by Joanna Blythman (4th Estate) is currently available on Amazon priced £10.49