Low-fat is good, butter is bad; buy free-range, not battery; tofu's terrific, lard's a killer... Messages about what we should and shouldn't eat bombard us on a daily basis. So what are we to believe? And what about the cost to the planet? Rose Prince unravels the myths and explains what we need to know to choose our food with confidence - and a clear conscience
Are there chemical residues on apples?
Yes. First, be aware that while it is in the interests of supermarkets to control the level of pesticide and post-harvest fungicide drenches applied to apples from the "dedicated" British farms that supply them, they are less able to monitor imports. In 2005, the government-backed Pesticides Residues Committee sampled 63 apples and found chemical residues on all but seven. No residues were found on the four organic samples taken. Residues were found on all EU-originated apple samples. Two samples contained residues at levels unacceptably high for children. Concerned parents should peel imported apples.
Are organic apples the right choice?
Not always. Organic apples from supermarkets, organic food shops and even box schemes are often imported, and the food miles they clock up negate any environmental gain. Buying British-grown organic apples is ideal but you will have to look hard for them. Growing a disease-free, good-looking apple without pesticides is a tough task in the British climate. Old trees that have never been treated with agricultural chemicals tend to produce abundantly without problems, but organic farmers say new orchards can develop disease/pest problems after just a few years, which are very hard to control.
After picking, British apples are stored for up to six months at 2-3C in a "controlled atmosphere" with nitrogen gas and ammonia to reduce oxygen levels. But not all apples are stored this way. In 2005, the chemical 1-methylcyclopropene was approved for use in Europe. This is a gas that, when pumped into cold rooms or shipping containers, halts the release of ethylene, the natural hormone in fruit that ripens it. This means the apple you buy can be up to one year old, because the chemical makes apples retain their "just-picked" looks, flavour and juice.
When are British apples in season?
The season for apple growing in northern hemisphere countries runs from August to March but, with the exception of a few varieties, the more unusual ones are available for only some of this time. This is either because they are in short supply or because they do not store well. Thanks to "controlled atmosphere" storage methods, British apples are available until March (although the supply is limited).
The southern hemisphere season kicks in neatly in April, lasting through the British summer and into autumn. Savvy shoppers beware - it can encroach on the start of the British season, the time when loyalty to British farms is paramount.
No food is more versatile - or controversial. The increasing number of free-range eggs on sale in supermarkets indicates that shoppers are more aware of the cruelty of caging hens in batteries. That goes only partly towards solving our egg troubles; in spite of labelling laws, eggs are still not a safe food, especially in ready-cooked dishes.
Which eggs are safe to eat?
British eggs, individually stamped with a "red lion" logo, are laid by hens that have been vaccinated against salmonella. The scheme means that 90-95 per cent of British shop-sold eggs are. These are the ones to use when making mayonnaise, but seek out free-range eggs with the red lion logo if you are concerned about hen welfare, too.
Which eggs are unsafe?
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) reports a serious problem in the catering trade with the use of imported eggs - Spanish eggs in particular - contaminated with salmonella. Salmonella infection is linked to poor husbandry and intensive systems. It is a mystery why there's no law to force caterers to provide consumers with information about the eggs they use, as retailers of fresh eggs do. British farmers are lobbying the catering trade, demanding that they stop using imports.
What's in the supermarkets?
Marks & Spencer operates an ethical egg policy, selling only eggs from free-range hens and using them in its ready meals and other foods - excellent. Its hens are fed on a GM-free, cereal-based vegetarian diet; there's one metre of floor space for every 11 birds, but the organic variety has more space. The Co-op sells 66 per cent UK-sourced eggs from hens whose welfare complies with the RSPCA's Freedom Food standards (loose requirements compared to Soil Association-certified organic systems). Feed for the hens is GM free and the diet consists of cereals, grass and meal. The Co-op has not banned the sale of battery eggs but is admirably honest in labelling products. Tesco, Morrisons and Asda did not supply information about their eggs.
We in the UK (with Russia) are the biggest tea-drinkers. Putting aside the taste and any benefits to be had, read between the leaves and you may change the way you buy it for ever.
Are there chemicals in my tea?
In 2001, 46 tea brands were tested and residues were found on five samples. The residues did not exceed government-approved maximum levels, but this is still unsatisfactory in a drink that should be 100 per cent pure.
Is tea an environmentally friendly crop?
Tea is grown in a monoculture - in other words, just one type is planted over vast areas. This reduces biodiversity (ie wildlife) and increases the need for agricultural chemicals, which can also be dangerous to estate workers who apply it. There are organic tea farms, which do much to lessen the impact of growing tea on the environment.
Who picks the tea leaves?
Production is very labour-intensive and workers' conditions are a serious cause for concern. The workforce can be trapped within the plantations, dependent on the "owners" for medical aid, housing, fuel, food and in many cases the education of their children, themselves destined for life on the plantation. Wages are low. In India, the rate varies from less than one US dollar a day to just over a dollar; it is estimated that the living wage should be more than $2 a day. Problems on estates include sexual discrimination, poor working conditions and abuse of migrant workforces.
So is all tea, apart from Fairtrade, unfairly traded?
Not necessarily. Some of the bigger conglomerates and all UK retailers have signed up to the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) and the Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP). Both schemes promise an admirable code of conduct.
Can buying Fairtrade tea help?
Yes. The Fairtrade organisation either buys direct from an estate, if the social welfare and income of the workers are good, or it buys from groups or co-operatives of smallholder farmers, or gives farmers and workers shares in processing plants.
Recently, mutton and meat from older lambs have finally entered the consciousness of British meat-eaters. For a long time, it seemed only that British lamb was tenderly sweet and pale; then, when stocks ran low, in came New Zealand lamb - tenderly sweet and, yes, pale. All the while that 100,000 tons of NZ lamb was coming into ports, it passed boats crammed with live sheep from the UK going on hellish journeys to southern Europe - 50,000 a year. Only these were the interesting ones: tasty, slightly older lambs with the flavours of wild grasses from fell, dale and highlands. Their destination was slow cooking, with garlic, tomatoes and wild marjoram. If one good thing came out of the 2001 foot-and-mouth epidemic, it was the exposure of this crazy swap and transportation scandal.
What lamb is in season, when?
March-April - spring lambs, newly weaned, born around Christmas. Most are bred for this season and the practice of getting them to this weight is fairly unnatural; many are reared indoors and fed concentrates.
May-July - British lamb will still be in shops, larger lambs born in early spring who have fed on the new grass. This is fine-tasting young lamb, often superior to "spring" lamb and cheaper, too.
August-October - hogget (or shearling). These are lambs (usually hill breeds) that have reached a year old or more; their meat is stronger flavoured and delicious.
November-spring - New Zealand lamb arrives. It's nice, and I'm glad the sensible New Zealand farmers, who never receive subsidies, have an outlet. But there is no getting away from the fact that this shipped-in lamb has a food-mile sickness.
What is mutton?
Mutton is from sheep that are slaughtered at over two years old. Older sheep have more flavour and may need a lot of slow cooking in order to be tender, but most mutton animals produce beautiful tender meat.
Is lamb farmed intensively?
Apart from those rushed for the Easter season, most lamb is farmed relatively naturally.
Is organic lamb superior?
A high-grade conventional lamb is as good a choice as organic; choosing organic in the case of lamb is more about the environment. It is good to know, for example, that the animal was not grazed on land treated with chemicals. This is not to say that most conventional lamb is; hill farmers in particular rear their lambs on untreated land.
LARD AND DRIPPING
Use lard in pastry and it promises to be endlessly crisp. Spread dripping on toast and top with cress for a filling meal. Both fats produce fabulous roast potatoes. In spite of the high vitamin content, doctors don't approve because these are saturated fats. But a little at a time is a pleasure, and at least these fats do not go through the horrendous refining process that diminishes the goodness of most vegetable oils - and, indeed, makes them potentially harmful.
What is lard?
Lard must be pork fat or it cannot be labelled as such. The fat is heated, which reduces most of it to a liquid. This is then filtered and cooled, leaving a white, naturally hard fat with a high melting point. Because it undergoes no further deodorising, lard retains a porky taste, which is great for cooking. Lard keeps in the fridge for up to 12 months.
How harmful are animal fats?
Animal fat is saturated and health experts recommend we limit the amount we eat. But animal fats have many good properties. They are a whole, natural food. Lard, dripping and dairy fat are antiviral and antibacterial, and they can play a part in fending off disease, including cancer. The fatty acids are important for metabolism and growth. The conjugated linoleic acids (CLA) actually help reduce body fat. Meat fats contain a good balance of omega-3 and omega-6, albeit in small quantities.
Where does lard come from?
Most lard you see wrapped in white paper in chiller cabinets hails from the slaughterhouses of Denmark, Holland and Belgium. Animal welfare standards are lower in these countries - for example, stalls and tethers are still legal practice. Although such practices are banned in the UK, up to 70 per cent of our pigs are indoor-reared. Lard from free-range pigs is a rare commodity, but easy to make if you buy pork fat from a butcher you trust and melt it at home.
Is beef dripping safe to eat?
In terms of BSE, beef dripping falls under the same rules as beef and may not enter the food chain unless it can be traced back to the farm. That's not to say illegal dripping does not slip through the net. Saving dripping from roasts is the best source.
The lengthy, resonating flavour that characterises soy sauce is described as "umami" but it comes in two guises, natural and chemical. The former is the result of amino acids developing as the sauce brews naturally; the latter comes through the simple addition of monosodium glutamate. There are three types of soy sauce:
Japanese naturally brewed soy sauce - made using the koji process, similar to wine-making. Aspigillis bacteria are added to soya, wheat and water and the mash exposed to humid heat to grow a mould. The sauce is brewed for up to six months, and amino acids develop. This soy sauce contains no added sugar, colour or flavour, though it does contain salt.
Chinese fermented soy sauce - made with soya and no wheat, and less acidic. Sodium benzoate or potassium sorbate is usually added to preserve it. Japanese soy sauce is extracted by pressing the mash, while Chinese sauce is water that is flushed through the mash, taking on only its flavour. The liquid must then be coloured with caramel, and salt, sugar and sometimes artificial flavourings are added.
Hydrolysed vegetable protein (HVP) soy sauce - a highly processed and disgusting product. Hydrochloric acid is added to the beans, creating flavour-producing amino acids. HVP has been found to contain chloropropanol, which is a carcinogen. Fortunately, HVP sauce represents a small share of soy sauce sold in the UK.
BUTTER AND SPREADS
Butter bad, margarine good - or so the mantra went. But recent evidence claims that the transfats in spreads and margarines are more harmful than in butter, and that dairy fat wins the nutrient quality stakes despite being a saturated fat. Could it be possible that butter is a safer, more wholesome food? It may be, but it has other drawbacks.
Which is better for you, butter or "spread"?
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Spreads contain varying levels of transfats. Those made with hydrogenated oil have the highest levels, but transfats are formed when all vegetable fats are refined. Those in butter, dairy foods and other animal fats are naturally occurring and do not share the harmful properties of the synthetic transfat that results from hydrogenation.
Are low-fat and olive oil spreads the answer?
They can still contain transfats and a lot else. Bertolli "Lucca" Olive Oil Spread, for example, contains 21 per cent olive oil (Bertolli's own), plus rapeseed oil, vegetable oil, buttermilk, water, emulsifiers, preservatives, thickener, flavourings, colouring and vitamins. Watch out for the term "vegetable oil": it often means palm oil, a saturated fat that carries serious environmental concerns but that manufacturers like to use because it has a high melting point.
What's good about butter?
Butter made from cow's milk contains unique acids that protect against viral illness, fight tumours and guard the gut from pathogenic bacteria and the negative effects of microbes and yeasts. Butter is rich in vitamins A and D, which aid the absorption of calcium. However, do not ignore warnings about overeating saturated dairy fats - enjoy butter in moderation.
Surely butter is fattening?
In fact, evidence is emerging that eating a bit of butter helps with weight loss. The short- and medium-chain fatty acids (such as butyric and lauric acid) contained in butter are used rapidly for energy - faster than those in other oils, including olive oil. The medium-chain lauric acid in butter actually raises metabolism.
Are the problems with fat purely about health?
Sadly not. The production of palm oil has had a devastating impact on the ecosystem of South-east Asia, where large tracts of the natural forest have been cleared for palm plantations.
And is butter innocent?
Butter troubles abound. There is the poor quality of life for cows in large-scale, intensive dairy farms, and the effluent from such farms can poison the local environment and water supply. Cheap imports of butter (or cream for butter-making) have put economic pressure on farmers, causing them to increase herd sizes, keeping the dairy cattle indoors all their lives so they never graze in fields.
When a specialist food becomes available to everyone, it should be time to celebrate. In the case of sushi, the transformation in 10 years has been remarkable. Now, any city dweller can pop out to the supermarket for maki rolls. We are cheered by the low calorie count and ecstatic about the nutritional goodness... But it isn't all good news.
What's not to love?
The body count of the fish used is the big problem. Blue-fin tuna is listed as critically endangered, while stocks of yellow-fin - the one in supermarket sushi - are dropping. Some tuna is caught on long lines, which is a danger to other marine species. Ask about the retailer's dolphin policy when buying fish or sushi.
Where does all that fish come from?
The salmon in supermarket sushi is farmed and this can be problematic in terms of marine pollution and the decimation of wild stocks used for feed. Pollution issues also arise with another sushi ingredient, warm-water prawns. Environment agencies say the deforestation of mangroves in South-east Asia to make way for prawn farms leaves the coastline dangerously unprotected, and contributed to damage in the 2004 tsunami.
Is sushi safe?
Against all odds - yes. You'd think that a combination of cooled cooked rice and raw fish should carry a cigarette-pack-style health warning but the Health Protection Agency reports no trouble. It is, however, illegal for restaurants, takeaways and shops to sell sushi or sashimi that has not been previously frozen at minus 20C for 24 hours. Those that make the sushi on the premises are not subject to the "freezing" law. Some fish can contain worms, which the FSA says can cause illness. These worms die at low temperatures.
How fresh is the fish?
Ideally, the fish arriving in the UK is not more than four days old from catch time, stored at 0.4C. In the case of frozen fish, the catch may be blast-frozen on the boat itself.
Is sushi totally good for you?
The Japanese have the lowest heart-disease rate in the world, but it is not known whether this is down to their fish eating or the general diet. The oils in some fish are beneficial to heart health. There have been concerns about mercury levels in oily fish and dioxins in some farmed salmon. Weighing good against bad, the benefits of the essential fatty acids in fish oils win, and mercury levels are tiny in wild fish. If you worry about contaminants in farmed salmon, choose organic or wild Irish salmon.
Like people, some foods have a permanent halo even if they don't always deserve it. Tofu is one such food. It was first made in China more than 2,000 years ago and was taken to Japan by Keno priests in AD700. Hand-made tofu is still a matter of pride and skill in Japan, but traditionalists say corners have been cut for the mass-market product, turning what should be a flavoursome, meaty curd into a bland slab. And there are some environmental concerns.
What's in tofu?
It's made from ground cooked soya beans, water and a coagulant that sets the paste into curds. These are pressed to remove liquid, leaving a cake that can be cut, eaten fresh, cooked or diced into soups and stir-fries.
How is tofu made?
The crucial point is the coagulant. Nigari - the mineral magnesium chloride, taken from evaporating seawater - is the traditional substance used to curdle the paste and give tofu a multifaceted, earthy flavour. But modern makers can use calcium sulphate, or gypsum. This retains a lot of water, boosting the makers' profits, but it gives tofu a chalky taste. The industry insists gypsum's calcium content is a good thing. The most artificial coagulant is glucono delta lactone, a highly refined chemical derived from maize.
Another big issue with tofu is genetic modification; one type of GM soya has been licensed for use in the UK but any food product, including soya, must be clearly labelled if it is derived from a genetically modified organism (GMO). GM's detractors say that crops are being gradually contaminated with GMOs.
How can I avoid GM soya?
Buy organic tofu, simply because the organic sector best polices the movement of GM-contaminated material.Trading standards offices in the UK are particularly concerned about fraudsters passing off non-organic foods as organic.
If tofu eco-friendly?
Not always. Soya farming has grown hugely. With not enough being grown and no more suitable agricultural land where it can be grown, large Amazon rainforest areas are being cleared to make way for it.
The rise in popularity of free-range and organic birds is due solely to concerns about factory farming. But rumblings about avian influenza threaten the free chicken. We can expect to see birds back in the shed or, worse, mass slaughter. The irony is that disease spreads fast when animals are densely stocked.
Why do some chickens cost £3 and others £20?
The price reflects the farming method. It is possible to rear a chicken in only 38 days, and hence to sell it for less than a fiver, but traditional, slow poultry rearing (which can take up to six months) pushes up the farmer's costs and therefore the shelf price. Chickens bred specially for fast growth are reared indoors, on a diet designed to get them up to size in the minimum time, and welfare troubles are endless. The life of a broiler-house bird is horrendous, if mercifully short. Hope for change is remote; a European directive meant to change standards is under discussion but nothing is likely to happen until 2010.
Is a chicken what it eats?
No doubt about it. For the traditionally reared chicken, a cereal diet supplemented by forage in pasture, picking up the odd grub, will produce flavoursome meat with a well-exercised, muscular texture. Feed in the broiler house is also cereal-based, but high-protein feed for fast growth, based on fishmeal, can be soya (which can be GM derived), often fed to the chickens along with oils and additives, including vitamins, enzymes and antibiotics. Antibiotics "prescribed" by vets help to keep the birds disease free - a necessity in such cramped conditions.
Antibiotic residues in meat are a huge consumer problem. A government inquiry found the presence of antibiotics in meat to be responsible for 50 per cent of people's decreased immunity to infections.
Are free-range chickens the most welfare-friendly?
Not always. Free-range farms can be overcrowded, and handling of the birds on farms, during transport and at slaughter can be just as rough as for the broiler-house bird. To carry the free-range label, a bird has only to spend half its life with access to outdoors. Unless labelled organic, the bird's feed is also in question. Look for "traditional free range" or "free range - total freedom" on labels, as these indicate higher welfare standards. The strictest standard, in terms of welfare and feed, is the organic Soil Association mark.
How are chickens reared in Europe?
France and Italy farm poultry intensively, too, but they have always had large, thriving markets for the slow-reared farmhouse bird, regarded as a luxury and having a price to match.
One huge attraction of the continuing love affair with all things southern European is the ever-changing menu of cured pork. Right now, the hot legs in town are Iberico hams, with their buttery fat and dark, tender meat. Lardo di colonnata will be next; wafer-thin strips of this peppery cured pork fat, melted over toast, are a revelation. A positive outcome of the 1990s food scares is growing consumer curiosity about provenance: where and how livestock are reared and what they are fed.
Like all pork products, cured meats have animal welfare issues. The assumption is that imported cured meats are bound to be made on cute farms on oregano-scented hillsides. Artisan charcuterie does exist but, like all specialist meats, it is available in specialist shops and markets, especially in the country where it is produced. However, almost all generic cured meats sold in the UK - although based on traditional recipes - are made using factory-reared pigs. Welfare standards in European countries are lower than in the UK. Mass-produced British pork comes from factory farms, too, but here they use marginally kinder methods.
What's in the supermarkets?
The overwhelming majority of supermarket hams and salamis are undistinguished, to say the least. There are exceptions; Tesco sells genuine Parma and San Daniele ham, and Sainsbury's and Waitrose stock genuine Iberico ham from Spain, although not equivalent in quality to Joselito Iberico. Sainsbury's stocks no other cured foods made with pork from free-range farms, but it does sell organic ham. Waitrose's own-brand Italian prosciutto, salami and pancetta are made with "farm assured" pork from inspected Italian farms - an improvement in information, reassuring on animal welfare.
We guzzle 100,000 tons of frozen peas a year. Little wrong with that; our favourite brands boost British farm incomes and are relatively safe and unadulterated. But imported fresh peas pose troubling debates that environmentalists, aid agencies and consumers find hard to reconcile.
Where do frozen peas come from?
Birds Eye sells 50 per cent of frozen peas in our shops. Virtually all are grown in the UK (only a shortage will see the company import from New Zealand) and the business supports 380 individual farmers. Turning over £50m a year, Birds Eye (which is now part of Unilever) is vital to our farming economy. It does not pack "own brand" peas for supermarkets or other names, and its corporate transparency makes the brand a safe choice if you want to buy peas with British provenance.
What's the process from farm to freezer counter?
While the peas are processed by state-of-the-art technology, artificial additives are not used. Birds Eye peas are harvested from June to August and, at the moment of ripeness, are picked using special machines that shell and clean them before taking them to the factory. The peas are blanched in water at 90C for 60 seconds, cooled, and blast frozen in a special tunnel at minus 25C. The conveyor belt bounces, keeping the peas apart. They are held in stores, then packed through the year as required.
Are peas sprayed with pesticides?
Frozen peas were last tested for residues in 2003; 76 samples were tested and residues of the fungicide Vinclozolin were found on one sample imported from Belgium. No residues were found on the British samples. Podded, air-freighted fresh peas (from Kenya, Guatemala and Peru) were tested for residues in 2004; of 72 samples tested, 27 had residues.
Can peas be grown without chemicals?
Farmers are being encouraged to reduce artificial treatments and introduce environmentally friendly pest-control using predators, companion planting and pheromone traps, but these measures are voluntary. Birds Eye has worked with the Wildlife Trusts Partnership and birdlife ecologists on the issue, but this remains at the research stage. UK organic farmers are permitted some treatments deemed "natural" but admit that peas are a problematic organic crop.