Until comparatively recently I rarely looked at the ingredients of the food I was buying. I was more interested in how easy it was to cook than what was in it. I had what now seems a naïve amount of trust in the food industry, who I was sure wouldn’t feed me anything unnecessary.
My drive to get healthier has seen me paying a lot more attention to the labels, and doing a lot more of my own cooking rather than relying on convenience foods. I hadn’t realised how much I’d bought into the convenience food culture, believing cooking certain things myself was far too much trouble, without ever having tried it.
Until very recently having chips in our house meant either a visit to a chip shop or oven chips…
I mean they’re just chips, right? But quicker. Bung them on a tray, bung it in the oven and chips are ready in 20 minutes. No need for all that faffing about peeling potatoes, no worrying that the potatoes will go off before you use the whole bag, no dealing with roots or mud. And it’s just potatoes.
Call me fussy, but I expect chips to be more than 92% potato! Why do chips need two different types of flour? Why do they need colouring? And 4% oil seems a lot.
So I decided I’d give making chips a go. Believe it or not I’d never made chips. As a child my mum made them, in a chip pan full of boiling oil that terrified me! As an adult I’d believed oven chips were healthier and more convenient.
It turns out it’s not that hard to chop up a potato…
After chopping them I put the chips in a large bowl, with a tablespoon of oil and some seasoning, cover it up with a plate and give it a good shake…
Then pop them onto a baking tray and into the oven at 220°…
Depending how chunky I’ve cut them they can take up to 20 minutes to cook. They’re best turned half way through cooking.
This is the way I make chips most often now. I can vary the size of them, vary the seasoning, and they’re very popular with the family. Apart from a couple of extra dishes to wash they’re not really an inconvenience.
No flour, no starch, no colouring, no fuss! And a bag of potatoes is a lot cheaper than a bag of oven chips.
I’m not saying I never get chips from the chip shop any more, and we still have oven chips in the freezer for emergencies. But in general I make chips from scratch these days, and I’m surprised how easy a switch it was.
Newcastle Can is a project to get my home town working together to get healthier and lose weight. You can find out more about the project here, and my other blogs on the subject are listed here.
Megan Kimble was a twenty-six-year-old living in a small apartment without even a garden plot to her name. But she knew that she cared about where her food came from, how it was made, and what it did to her body — so she decided to go an entire year without eating processed foods
Unprocessed: My city-dwelling year of reclaiming real food by Megan Kimble (from back cover blurb)
It has taken me too long to read this book. That’s not down to the book at all, it’s well written, and informative without being dry or excessively technical. I started reading it a few months ago before my current bout of anxiety and depression.
One of the first indications I’m getting ill is when I struggle to read. In general I’m a real bookworm, flying through book after book. But when I’m ill I struggle to concentrate for a paragraph let alone a chapter. Reading just becomes impossible.
Contrawise it’s a good sign I’m on the road to recovery when I feel like reading again. Last week I read two pages. Over the weekend I read six pages. Yesterday I sat down and read the two and a half remaining chapters and finished the book. The return of my concentration is hopefully a good indicator that I’m on the mend.
I spotted this book in the wonderful Quaker Centre Bookshop last time I was in London. It leapt out at me. I’ve been worrying about the amount of processed food my family eats for some time, both in terms of its impact on our bodies and in terms of the environmental impact of its production. Yet it seems impossible to avoid. Then here was someone who had avoided it, for a full twelve months, I could read about her experience, and possibly pick up some tips. I had to buy it.
I enjoyed it from the start. It’s clearly well researched and referenced, without the level of excruciatingly complicated scientific detail which puts casual readers like me off. The style is chatty and cheerful. While I try and avoid processed food by avidly studying labels Megan Kimble actually visits food producers, from massive industrial dairies to small breweries and distilleries. She finds out more about how labels can mislead us than I’d ever have known without her.
I hadn’t started the book with the intention to dramatically change the way I eat. One of the things Megan demonstrates is how much work an unprocessed diet is. I knew that for me completely cutting out processed food wouldnt be practical. But it did get me thinking differently.
Some of Megan’s conclusions shocked me. Considering dairy for example:
I try to consume less, but better. By better, I mean whole — I eat eggs with all their yolks, milk with all its fat, cheese with all its curd. Not only do fat molecules help your body to absorb the nutrients in mill, but also fat is delicious. Fat fills you up, so its easier to eat less of it.
Unprocessed: My city-dwelling year of reclaiming real food by Megan Kimble
This is so counter to everything I’ve been told about low fat that it seems positively revolutionary. And I don’t know if I could do it. I’ve never had whole milk, unless they gave me whole milk at school in the 1970s (until it was notoriously snatched by Thatcher.) Its been semi-skimmed or skimmed all my life. Maybe I should give it a try?
In other areas her experiments in processing he food herself led her to realise why communities and eventually big corporations developed, as the time and effort taken to produce food was better spent when sharing roles. But the soullessness of these massive corporations is evident, churning out bland additive-filled food, caring for their own profits over their customers health, causing damage to the environment and seeing animals as commodities rather than living creatures. There are lots of good reasons to avoid processed food.
One of the compelling reasons for Megan, which she quotes more than once in the book, is the realisation that we as consumers have power, and can make changes. In the UK free-range eggs and various Fair Trade products are now generally available, all due to customer pressure.
For me, living in the north east, one of the most deprived areas of the country, the argument about investment in the local economy also resonated. If I spend £100 on food at one of the big supermarkets most of that money will leave the region, going instead to shareholders and parent corporations. If I buy locally produced food with that £100 much more of it stays in the region, supporting the local economy.
Unprocessed food is more expensive though, and we all have to decide where we spend our money. Whether its £5 or £50 it will make a difference. I try to buy organic and unprocessed, but its a fine balancing act between what I want and what I can afford. I often have to compromise.
If I had to have a negative, and its a very unimportant negative, the book was very much embedded in the American systems of agriculture and processing. This is only natural, it’s where it was written and the audience it was initially written for. But it let me wondering whether things are the same here, and how I would find out. And she just did food, a mammoth task in itself, but what about the chemicals we have around us all the time? Toiletries, cleaning products, plastic. I had unanswered questions. However I think inspiring me to look further into something is the mark of a good book, not of the author missing something out.
All in all a good read, and one I’d recommend.
My teenage daughter is looking suspiciously at the fruit bowl. I blame myself for this.
It’s not that she doesn’t eat fruit. It’s that the fruit she’s used to is generally supermarket bought; uniform, highly-shined fruit, available all year whatever the weather.
A couple of years ago I read Swallow This: Serving Up The Food Industry’s Darkest Secrets, by Joanna Blythman* and learned about some of the processes that happen to supermarket fruit to keep it shiny and fresh looking. I was horrified. I thought I was feeding my kids healthy fresh fruit, but it turns out its covered in chemicals the shops don’t need to declare because what they’re doing to the fruit counts as a process not an ingredient.
There seems to be so much to worry about when buying food anyway, excess packaging, food waste, air miles, palm oil, E numbers, fats, sugar, carbohydrates, cholesterol… It’s all too much to take in – so I just filed the information away in my brain and kept buying the fruit. Because some fruit is better than none, and they wouldn’t be allowed to use anything dangerous, would they?
I’m currently reading Unprocessed: My City Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Real Food, by Megan Kimble* and it’s got me thinking about the issue of processed food all over again. In trying to get healthier for the Newcastle Can challenge I’ve been trying to cook more meals from scratch, less take always, less frozen chips, more fruit and veg. But if the fruit and veg I’m buying from the supermarket has already been sprayed with pesticides, shined with wax, and coated with chemicals to make it last longer is it still healthy?
I don’t think I could completely avoid processed foods but I would like to avoid more of them. I think there’s a connection between the increase in obesity and the rise in power of the food industry. I’m no dietician or nutritionalist, I’m just a very confused ordinary person who wants to do better. But where do I start?
In the introduction to Unprocessed Megan Kimble describes how a simple suggestion made her see things in a totally different way: “Spend money better.” Her example uses American dollars, but I imagine it would be similar in the UK.
“If a community the size of Tuscon shifted 10 percent of its spending to local businesses – a 10 percent shift, not an increase – within one year, we would create almost $140 million revenue for the city. What this also means, I realise, is that we would withhold that $140 million from the balance sheets of those corporations that then use our money to influence government policy, to grow unsustainable food, to waste energy – and to process and sell us foods that aren’t good for us.
This came as a revelation to me too. I mean, I knew buying local was a good thing. I try to support small local businesses rather than big chains when I’m treating myself to cake and coffee, going out for a meal or buying gifts, but it had never occurred to me to do the same for my food shopping. The supermarket is just where you buy your food, it has been all my life (although, at the risk of sounding like a grumpy old woman, the supermarkets when I was little were very different from the massive 24 hour stores I’m used to now).
For a while in the late 90s/early 00s I got organic veg delivered. But my budget was tight and organic food started being available much more commonly in the supermarkets, so I stopped. As money got tighter I started only buying organic for the things we eat raw, and gradually only buying organic if it was reduced to clear.
I like to think of myself as frugal rather than penny-pinching, careful rather than tight-fisted. I like a bargain, who doesn’t? As prices have been going up much faster than wages for quite a while I need to watch what I spend, as do most people.
But I want to put my money where my mouth is. I don’t want to just whinge and worry about processed food, excess packaging, sustainability, air miles and the rest. I want to do something. And I think it would be great if as well as bringing the city together to get healthier the Newcastle Can project boosted the local economy!
So I’ve signed up to a trial weekly fruit and veg scheme from North East Organic Growers. It felt really expensive, but then I’ve never paid for a full months worth of fruit and veg in one go before. And given what I’m saving on take-aways since signing up to Newcastle Can I have some spare cash.
Every week my fruit and veg is delivered to a local contact person and I collect it from there. I don’t know what I’ll be getting in advance, it’s like a lucky dip and the kids are always keen to help unpack to see what’s there. There will always be staples like onions, potatoes, carrots, apples etc. but there are other things too, things I wouldn’t necessarily pick up if I was food shopping. For example purple sprouting broccoli is something I’d heard of but never cooked with, so it’s challenging me to cook new recipes and try new things.
It’s also showing my kids what real fruit and veg is like. I remember when I was little strawberries were a summer treat, waited for with anticipation, then wolfed down in abundance because they didn’t keep. To my kids strawberries are just another item on a supermarket shelf year round. Yes, I’m sounding like a grumpy old woman again, but it was different when things were special, when we didn’t all expect to have everything and have it now!
So, my teenage daughter is looking suspiciously at the fruit bowl. I blame myself for this. But I’m working on putting it right.
“Those apples look weird.”
“What’s wrong with them?”
They’re not very shiny. And that one’s got speckles.”
“That’s what apples look like! Just try one.”
She liked it.
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* Click here for an extract from Swallow This: Serving Up The Food Industry’s Darkest Secrets, by Joanna Blythman
* Click here to find out more about Unprocessed, by Megan Kimble.