'The truth about chips was the most disgusting thing I've learnt during this series'- Philip Boucher Hayes
Thinking healthy is a fat lot of good when we're addicted to processed, refined, bleached and deodorised nosh, writes 'What Are You Eating?' presenter Philip Boucher-Hayes
Published 10/04/2016 | 02:30
Is the fault in our genes? Is it the food manufacturers? Is it a failing of our will power? Everywhere, the national conversation about food places health and fitness on a pedestal, but we are sliding rapidly in the other direction. Why, in spite of huge advances in nutritional science, are we getting food more wrong than ever?
Let me begin with a confession. I don't have the answer. And that's after 10 years of making programmes and interviewing countless people in lab coats, on farms and in factories across the country. This probably doesn't say much for my journalism, but I'm sorry, I just don't know where we went wrong in our relationship with food.
It's like a horrible marriage. We put up a beautiful public veneer of Masterchef and Instagrammed meals, but behind closed doors it's ugly and tension-filled. Hollow promises to diet tomorrow, guilt trips, and anxiety-ridden shopping trips. Post-binge system purges, then post-detox junk-food splurges. Midnight falls-from-grace into the arms of an inviting fridge.
If the volume of media we consume was an indication of our good intentions, we'd all be as fit and lean as Masai warriors. But we are obesity league toppers. Never in the history of entertainment have so many broadcast hours and print acres been devoted to the subject of food. But the evidence suggests food made on television stays on television.
Which is why I wanted to make a series about what we actually eat. I felt if people could see what I've seen inside the factories, then the debate might change just a little. But making such a series was something of a challenge, as the more industrialised end of the food industry wasn't exactly throwing its doors open to us (with a few honourable exceptions).
One WAG in RTÉ has identified What Are You Eating? as a new TV genre: Grimfotainment. It's a repellent yet curiously absorbing look at the mechanics of processing our most popular foods. "A cookery programme in a food lab" was my less succinct pitch.
What's the most disgusting thing we've learned? The chips, is one answer I can give unequivocally. Not that any of us ever codded ourselves that deep-fried food was dietetically virtuous, but food writer Joanna Blythman warned me I'd find it particularly hair-raising. She is the author of Swallow This and has unparalleled knowledge on the topic.
First off, the oil used for frying is called RBD, which means refined, bleached and deodorised. Refining involves using solvents and acids, following which it has to be bleached to alter its visually unappealing dark colour and deodorised.. well, you get the picture.
Manufacturers will do whatever they can to extend the frying life of the oil so that it can be re-used again and again for five or more days. This requires the addition to the oil of a cocktail of anti-coagulating, anti-foaming and anti-spattering agents that would leave a chemistry PhD scratching his or her head. Butylated hydroxyanisole, anyone? And that is the only one I can get past the spell-check on this computer.
But the really cunning little trick is that even though the butylated hydroxyanisole is being bunged into the frying oil along with tertbutylhydroquinone and is bubbling away alongside your chips, it doesn't have to go on the label. Relatively new laws lobbied for by the food industry mean chemicals used in processes, as distinct from actual ingredients, don't have to be listed.
At the other end of the process, I found the holes in the regulatory net more than a little disconcerting, too. "We (the EU) don't test for antibiotic resistant microbes in the food chain," Professor Martin Cormican in UCG slid into our conversation with an arched brow.
We spend a fortune conducting tests to make sure the meat in our bolognese is bovine and not equine, even though a little bit of horsemeat never did anybody any harm. But we don't test for the presence of killer bugs like MCR-1.
That little fella was thought, until recently, to never have left China. But such is the nature of globalised trade in food products that he has been detected in the EU food chain. Before you shrug this one off as yet another Avian Flu-type media-imagined menace, you should know MCR-1 is resistant to Colistin. That's the very last line of defence in antibiotics, the one the doctors reach for only when all else has failed. And this line has been breached. There's a guaranteed killer in the food chain, but European authorities don't test for it.
Setting all of that aside for a moment, which I will grant you is not easy, I have learned something far more surprising than all the above while making this series. It's good news, too.
There are three things that make the greatest contribution to determining what will kill you; your genes, your environment and your diet. And nearly all of the people with the most impressive amounts of letters after their name told me that diet was the least significant of the three.
This doesn't mean we have a free pass to curse our parents yet again and pour an extra pint of double cream on the potato dauphinoise, but it does help in arriving at a more sanity-preserving approach to our food. You are going to die, whatever you do, so just learn to stop worrying and start loving food again.
And how do we start being a bit more sane about food?
You live in the 21st Century and processed food is a reality that can't be avoided. Make your peace with the frozen-food aisle, it can be your friend, just don't move in with it. I suspect it is precisely because the TV and magazine food bar is set so high that so many people just shrug and say "healthy eating isn't for me".
You also live in an environment that is constantly conspiring against you. Psychiatrists studying overeating have shown how the brain is stimulated by images of food, flooding you with pleasure hormones making it hard to resist the impulse to stick your face in the fridge. So cut yourself some slack. You are not weak. Advertisers are going out of their way to make it very hard for you to exercise self-control.
We've had quite enough of the fixation on dieting, too, please. A whopping 60pc of diets end in failure - ie the dieter puts on more weight than they began with. So perhaps we also need to stop thinking about diet as a means of losing weight and looking good. If we could reprogramme our definition of diet to mean "what I eat to stay healthy into old age", we'd be doing ourselves a massive favour.
Where What Are You Eating? fits in to this is to try and make the conversation about food a bit more grounded. Only a tiny minority actually eat chia seeds and quinoa, though they are the most written and talked about foodies in the country. The majority of us eat sausages that are 50pc pork and 50pc chemistry lab. Hopefully though, if we arm you with some information about the chemistry lab portion, it'll inspire you to interrogate your shopping trolley a bit more.
And the programme might also get you to stop taking dietary advice from models. Stop taking dietary advice from chefs. Definitely don't take dietary advice from RTÉ journalists with TV shows to sell. Only ever take dietary advice from a dietician - and perhaps your granny.
You don't need all that advice anyway if you trust your gut instinct. Literally listen to what your stomach is saying. If you have to ask yourself should you have the second slice of white bread toast, you already know the answer.
Next Wednesday on RTÉ1 at 8.30pm in What Are You Eating?: Using you loaf when it comes to bread