In the second episode of a four part series looking at the food we eat, the Tonight programme examines the impact of our apparently insatiable demand for cheap food.
We like our food to be fresh – we also like convenience and plenty of choice. But most of all, it seems we like our food to be cheap. Food prices may have been rising but the reality is we spend less than our grandparents did, as a proportion of household income, on food.
Jonathan Maitland asks whether this has had an impact on what goes in our food – and looks at some of the surprising things that are in our favourite foods – including chicken, bread and ham and sweet treats.
We ate our way through an astonishing 899 million chickens last year. To keep up with demand chickens are intensively farmed, keeping the price low and the volume high – but does that affect the meat we eat?
We put 2 chickens – an intensively farmed low-cost broiler bird costing £4.50 and a free roaming chicken costing £15 through a series of tests.
First chef Aiden Byrne butchered the chickens and said he could see a difference in the meat. Then they went head to head in a taste test, with unanimous results in favour of the premium bird.
Finally the team took the chickens into the laboratory where the scientists extracted their fat. They found that the low-cost bird had about a third more fat than the premium chicken. But the scientists were surprised with the amount of fat in both chickens.
Looking closely at a range of low-cost supermarket chickens, we found that the average volume of saturated fat per 100g was more than that found in potato crisps. According to the Food Standards Agency traffic light system, this is a “medium” or “amber” amount of saturated fat.
Our scientist explains: “When people buy chicken, they think they’re buying a low fat, healthy, high protein product, but in fact they’re wrong. Because, there is somewhere in the region of between three and four times the amount of calories from fat in the whole chicken compared to protein.”
The British Poultry Council was keen to point out, however, that: “Chicken, particularly if it is skinless breast, has one of the lowest saturated fat content of any meat and is therefore considered to be one of the healthiest meats.”
The key, it seems, to producing cheap food is speeding up production. Take ham for example, our favourite cooked meat. Not so long ago it would take three months to turn a leg of pork into a leg of ham, now it takes just 30 hours. So how do they do it?
Tonight goes behind the scenes at a ham factory in Kent where they produce 11 tonnes of ham a week. We show how the ham is injected with brine and massaged by machine before being formed into a ham shape that we all recognise.
The manager explains: “What we’re trying to do is get the cure through to the meat fibres. It looks a bit slimy and that’s because we’re working out the miasin in the muscle fibres meat glue, it glues the ham together effectively it makes it stick.”
Seven tonnes of the ham the factory makes has 20% added water too. This makes the product even cheaper.
Speeding up the manufacturing process has undoubtedly reduced costs – which makes the end product cheaper for all of us.
But at what price? Because mass production has also, undoubtedly, changed the very nature of our food – not least our daily bread.Around 80% of the 12 million loaves of bread we buy daily has been made industrially and contains a lot more than just flour water salt and yeast.
Some breads contain 16 different ingredients, some which have bewildering names: Calcium propionate, L-Cystine, E920, ascorbic acid, to name a few.Jonathan Maitland asks Professor Andrea Sella, a professor of chemistry, to talk him through what’s in our bread, and why?
Jonny concludes: “I get it, so if it’s a case of give us this day, our natural daily bread, then go down to the bakery and buy it because the price of industrialisation is an extra dozen or so ingredients.”
The Federation of Bakers told Tonight: “whether bread is made in a small shop or a large bakery,… additional ingredients may be used in small proportions for specific purposes – for example to make the dough softer, to extend its life or to give it a different flavour.”
They added: “However it is made, bread is a good, nutritious food.”
Thanks to our processed diet - we’re bombarded by all sorts of chemicals in the form of colours, preservatives, emulsifiers and sweeteners.
Flavourings are added to all sorts of everyday foods too: yoghurts, ice cream, milkshakes, flavoured water and, of course, sweets.Jonathan Maitland travels to Ipswich to meet an expert flavour creator and discovers how they make a raspberry sauce without using raspberries.
But can a flavour created in a lab really be a match for the real thing? To find out, our flavourist created a raspberry sauce using absolutely no raspberries at all, and Jonny created one using the real fruit. We tested the concoctions, with the help of two ice cream vans, on a bunch of kids…
Tonight: What's In Our Food? is on ITV at 7.30pm