Are “superfruits” a scam? A potato might do the same job at a tenth the price…

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Pomegranate – lots of fibre, if you can eat all those seeds.

30 December 2013: fruit sold on health promises, my story published in the UK’s Daily Mail.

Believe the hype and they’ll solve all your health issues.  They are the natural solution for everything from cancer, heart disease and dementia through to ageing skin, poor eyesight and interrupted sleep. No wonder “superfruits” now pop up everywhere: in cereal, desserts, snack bars, breakfast juice, desserts, face cream – even designer gin.

But though goji berries, acai juice, pomegranates and cranberries often claim their healing properties are rooted in ancient medicine, the explosion in their use is a very modern phenomenon.

Marketing gurus in the United States invented the word less than a decade ago, to profit from the boom in so-called “functional foods” – the industry’s term for staples – like yoghourt or snack bars –  that can be sold at a premium by pushing health benefits.

The labelling tactic worked. Superfruit products worth hundreds of millions of pounds are now sold in Britain every year. The global market in superfruit juices alone will be worth over £6bn by 2017, according to food market analysts Euromonitor .

As you’d expect, the fruit and health foods industries have gone bananas (rich in potassium and fibre, these might be a superfruit if they weren’t so old-fashioned). Since there’s no regulation or even definition of the term, anything you like can be a superfruit – and millions can be made if you get the marketing right.

In Britain, two out of three new juice products launched last year claimed to contain superfruit, and new ones are being announced every week. A big launch in 2011 was Cherrygood, a fruit juice made in part from an imported American cherry supposedly very high in antioxidants. One glass will give “the equivalent health benefits of around 20 portions of fruit and vegetables”. Though the company offers no proof of that extraordinary boast, Cherrygood has been a hit, according to the food analyst agencies, and by 2013 all the supermarkets and health stores were stocking it.

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The real horse meat scandal…

… is that our greedy, ruthless supermarkets have got off scot-free

September 2, 2013: op-ed for the Daily Mail

Now, six months after the worst scandal in the history of our supermarkets, the biggest joke of all has emerged. And it is the shops and food manufacturers that are having the last laugh. 

The big stores and food suppliers that, for years, have let horse, donkey, pork and who-knows-what other foreign substances into cheap burgers and ready meals have been told what penalty they will face. The answer is precisely none. No prosecution, no fines, not even any new regulation to prevent them pulling the same revolting stunt again.
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2409371/ALEX-RENTON-The-real-horsemeat-scandal-greedy-ruthless-supermarkets-got-scot-free.html#ixzz2k3VXVrYO

 

Tackling Big Sugar – the next great health war

Image - copyright, The ObserverMy Observer magazine story and an editorial calling for government action on sugary drinks gathered lots of interest: 170k web hits, 850 comments and a feeble response from the British soft drinks industry.

The tin of 7UP rolls to a stop at my feet. I pick it up, scowling at the kid on a bike who’d tossed it and missed the litter bin. The can is green and shiny: “Put some play into your every day,” it says. “Escape to a carefree world… Don’t grow up. 7UP.” And underneath, in tiny print, the real info (though you need a calculator to get to the truth): the lemon- and lime-flavoured drink contains a trace of salt, no fat, no fibre and 34.98g of sugar – eight teaspoons. The sugar delivers 135 calorie; enough energy for about 15 minutes’ cross-country running. It’s cheap, too. Half the price of milk.

If the stats are right, this teenager in Leith, who threw the empty tin, drinks 287 cans, or the equivalent, a year: more sugary drinks than any other child in Europe. Not to mention a whole lot more sugar, in breakfast cereals, bread, and even chicken nuggets. That is in part why Scottish children’s teeth are the same quality as those of children in Kazakhstan. And perhaps why a 2010 survey of 17 countries found that only Mexicans and Americans were fatter than Scots.

How to feed the world (book review)

mcmahon book cover

Feeding Frenzy – The New Politics of Food, Paul McMahon

New books by Paul McMahon and Jay Rayner. Published in The Observer, 3 June 2013

Food got bigger than DIY about a decade back, but publishing took a while to hoist its tired old frame on to the bandwagon. Now the food books tumble out, unstoppable, in a startling range of sub-genres. There’s the cookbook with jokes. The memoir with recipes. The polemic about food system apocalypse. The cookbook (with gardening tips) for that apocalypse. The part-time vegan diet book with anti-capitalist polemic, recipes and jokes (just reviewed that one, actually). And all of the above, with celebrity attached.

Paul McMahon’s is a straight food apocalypse book, no jokes, one recipe: a four-ingredient plan to feed the planet. McMahon admits that there are an awful lot of books in his genre. Since the food price spikes of 2008, he’s seen many titles “all warning of an impending food collapse”, including The Coming FamineThe End of FoodWorld on the Edge and Climate in Peril. (My shelf is even bleaker: So Shall We ReapEat Your Heart Out and Food Wars– and, full disclosure, I’m writing a little one myself.) But gloomy though his own title is, McMahon wants to put distance between him and the “professional doom-mongers”. He wants to offer some hope and so, with 100% more jokes, does this paper’s restaurant critic, Jay Rayner. Continue reading

The future of fish farming?

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Alastair Barge with one of his (smaller) halibut

May 24, 2013: Here’s my Guardian  story on Gigha Halibut, the onshore farm producing gorgeous, chemical-free fish –  at a premium – on Scotland’s West Coast.

It got interesting reaction from the salmon-farming industry. Some of it not even rude. See below.

There are stealth bombers cruising through the huge swimming pool, flat-fish the size of doors, changing colour as you watch, from matt black to pebble-and-sand. Fish farmer Bob Wilkieson pulls one up in a net. It is 7kg of dense, thrashing muscle, utterly alien with its twisted face and deltoid wings.

These are four-year-old Atlantic halibut, and they may be the future of fish-farming: raised onshore, without chemicals and on organic feed. Unlike the flabby, slimy stuff we have come to accept as farmed salmon, this halibut is lean and far better to eat – in terms both of ethics and taste – than its wild brothers.

I went to Gigha, a little island off Kintyre, for a taste. Smoked Gigha halibut, which has kept popping up on menus since its launch 18 months ago, is worth the trip. Sliced thin, with a little lemon, its sweet, gently oaky taste (Gigha’s smoke-recipe using whisky-barrel chips was designed by the acknowledged master, Allan MacDougall, late of the Loch Fyne smokery) has high-end chefs queueing up for some of the strictly limited production.

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3 good reasons to buy British lamb – so why ship it from New Zealand?

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I can’t imagine Easter without a slow-roast leg of lamb. As crucial as a Cadbury’s Creme Egg. The tradition comes from the Old Testament, but this year there is a more contemporary reason to buy lamb: British sheep farmers need our support. After a season of terrible prices, they are now trudging through a second winter, in the middle of lambing. On Tuesday a Cumbria farmer told BBC Radio 4 of having to dig pregnant ewes out of snow drifts and of many new-born lambs dying from hypothermia. “Buy our lamb to help us through this,” Alistair Mackintosh pleaded.

So I went shopping. But there was no British lamb at all in the Co-op, only the stuff that’s shipped frozen from New Zealand. At Waitrose – a shop that loves to boast of its “commitment to British farmers” – there were a few bits of Welsh lamb (I live in Scotland) on the meat counter but the fridge was filled with Kiwi sheep, too.

Waitrose’s rack of New Zealand lamb – the luscious section of upper ribs and fillet – was priced at an amazing £30.99 a kilo – £10 more than the Welsh. British sheepfarmers were recently getting not much more than that for the whole animal. For the shops, the best thing about lamb at Easter and Passover is the fact that you can make so much money from it.

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