The Food We Eat by Joanna Blythman

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The Food We Eat by Joanna Blythman

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Category: Popular Science
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: If you can get hold of a copy of this book it really could change your life. You'll realise just how poor some of the food you've been eating really is and you'll have the knowledge to make informed and better choices. It's ten years old but still worth reading.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: February 1996
Publisher: Michael Joseph Ltd
ISBN: 0718139127

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I've seen a lot of books which proudly trumpet the fact that this is the book which will change your life. A quick flick through usually suggests that they're unlikely to do any such thing. "The Food We Eat" by award-winning food journalist Joanna Blythman doesn't make any such claim, but it certainly changed my life.

Back in the early part of 1996 I was working in a full-time job. Food shopping was done in a hurry and always in a supermarket. I didn't have time for anything else. I didn't have a great deal of interest in food: it all seemed much of a muchness and not really worth bothering about. We ate to live, rather than lived to eat, didn't we? Then what seemed like disaster struck: the job I thought I would be doing for another decade disappeared because of illness and I became a woman of leisure.

I started to take more interest in what we were eating. I had time to prepare proper meals and an interest in getting the best for our money. I realised that the food the supermarkets sell really isn't all that tasty and I wondered why. That was when I heard about the publishing sensation of 1996 and I read Joanna Blythman's book. My husband said that I read it with a look of horror on my face. I was hooked on the first page when I read about the supermarket shelves "laden with both the products of intensive farming and heavily processed foods whose raw ingredients have been downgraded and compromised in a way that owes more to the laboratory than the kitchen." Suddenly I understood why our food tasted of so little.

Have a good look at the fruit and vegetables on display in the supermarket. If you live in a prosperous urban area you might have the blessing of a varied selection of quality food. If you visit branches of the same chain in less prosperous areas you won't be quite so lucky. A good, independent greengrocer may well be the best source of good fruit and vegetables but Blythman isn't precious about this. She's realistic and realises that both time and money constraints mean that people will buy from the supermarkets. Her book tells us how to get the best produce and, most importantly, what to avoid. Did you know that the best-tasting apples are Cox's Orange (up to Christmas), Braeburn, Egremont Russet, Elstar and James Grieve? The one with the highest vitamin C content is Sturmer if you're looking at nutritional values. If you want the freshest apples you should buy those grown in the northern hemisphere in the winter and their southern cousins in the summer. The book is packed full of hints like this.

Think of any food you like and Blythman will tell you the truth about how it's produced and any snags. Did you know that the further out to sea fish is caught, the less likely it is to be contaminated with all the filth that clogs the river estuaries and inshore areas? Most white fish is unlikely to be contaminated, but oily fish such as mackerel and herring doesn't do so well. Unfortunately they're the fish that are the best for our health, so they shouldn't be avoided altogether but pregnant women and those whose immune system has been compromised should exercise caution.

The book is well-written and makes easy if uncomfortable reading. It's pithy and straight to the point:

"The common British breakfast cereals, like the standard British sliced and wrapped loaf, are a good example of how the food industry loves to take a basically healthy food to pieces and put it back together again in a more profitable, but nutritionally compromised form."

So, the old joke about the cornflakes box being tastier and more nutritious than the contents isn't so far out after all.

For a long time I shopped with this book in my handbag and I was regularly to be found reading it in the supermarket aisles. This might sound extreme, but with the excellent index it's so simple to check exactly what the label really means, or what you should be looking for in fruit and vegetables. Even ten years later it's still a book that I return to on a regular basis if there's something I'm uncertain about.

In my childhood there was an assumption that the majority of food producers were delivering good quality food from sustainable sources. I'm afraid that it would be wrong to think in the same terms now. The primary aim of the food industry is rarely to deliver quality products at a reasonable price, but rather to "add value" so that a higher price can be charged for food which has been processed and engineered until it is unrecognisable. With this book you can avoid the major pitfalls which litter our supermarkets.

If I've one complaint about this book it's that it's now ten years old. Most of what Blythman says is still true and relevant a decade after it was written, but there have been changes. I'm prepared to accept that there have been improvements and certain that things have got worse in some areas, but I would like to know what they are. I'd love to read an updated version of the book. Some of the points are covered in her latest book - Shopped: The Shocking Power of British Supermarkets - but it concentrates on the retailers rather than the food we sell. It's certainly worth reading though.

You can buy The Food We Eat for 1p plus postage from Amazon Marketplace. It just might change your life too.

Booklists.jpg The Food We Eat by Joanna Blythman is in the Top Ten Cookery Books.

Booklists.jpg The Food We Eat by Joanna Blythman is in the Top Ten Green Books for Eco-Warriors.

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