In the 20th century, World War II and the rising consumer society contributed to the growth of the processing of food – using such advances as spray drying, juice concentrates, freeze drying and the introduction of artificial sweeteners, colouring agents, and preservatives such as sodium benzoate. The second half of the 20th century saw a rise in the pursuit of convenience foods.Shirley Conran famously said “Life is too short to stuff a mushroom” and food processing companies marketed their products especially towards middle-class working wives and mothers. Frozen foods (like the famous fishfingers credited to Captain Birdseye) found their success in sales of “TV dinners”. Processors utilised the perceived value of saved time to appeal to the postwar population, and it is this same appeal which makes the use of convenience foods so seductive today, despite the fact that so many TV programmes are about baking from scratch.I suppose if we did all make each meal from scratch we wouldn’t have the time to sit on the sofa to watch other people doing exactly that.

Jamie Oliver this week upset many when he commented on the fact that we have come to accept as the norm, processed low quality food. He said, “The fascinating thing for me is that seven times out of 10, the poorest families in this country choose the most expensive way to hydrate and feed their families. The ready meals, the convenience foods.I meet people who say, ‘You don’t understand what it’s like.’ I just want to hug them and teleport them to the Sicilian street cleaner who has 25 mussels, 10 cherry tomatoes, and a packet of spaghetti for 60 pence, and knocks out the most amazing pasta. You go to Italy or Spain and they eat well on not much money. We’ve missed out on that in Britain, somehow.” It is true that when food is processed we rarely think about its provenance-does anybody want to imagine the origins of the meat in a Fray Bentos steak and kidney pie? The horsemeat scandal could never have happened if we were strict about the sources of our food.If we read the ingredients for instance on a tub of cheap ice cream and don’t understand the words or what the E numbers mean, chances are it is not a nutritious food that is going to do us any good. But we are all guilty of turning a blind eye to this stuff.It was only after having children that I became much more aware.I soon found out that phosphate additives which magnify taste, texture, and shelf-life are carcinogens which also cause rapid aging, kidney failure, and weak bones. And that refined sugars, processed flours, vegetable oils are not only addictive but also increase your chances of heart disease, dementia, neurological problems, respiratory failure, and cancer.

With processed foods though, despite all the drawbacks we know about, the genie is out of the bottle and most households would struggle without them, even if we are talking about tinned peas or a bottle of ketchup. Modern supermarkets would not exist without modern food processing techniques as lengthy transportation of goods would not be possible.Our varied diet is only possible because of food processing. I think the answer is to buy fresh when possible and food that has been processed to a minimum. But anybody who wants to buy a Findus ready meal on a plate would probably be better of eating the plate-for nutrition as well as taste!

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