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The food industry and I go back a long way – right back to 1993. That was the year when I landed my job at a PR agency specialising in the food processing sector.
Let me say straight up that I loved working with the food industry. I loved the dynamism and the innovation and the buzz of food technology. I loved exploring food factories (even with a little blue hairnet on). I loved the photo shoots, when I’d watch lard being coloured and styled to look like mouth-watering ice-cream. I loved the glitzy European exhibitions and briefing journalists in three languages on clever chemical food additives. I could talk for hours about how they created a “desirable” sensory experience and how they replaced other “real” ingredients (like fruit) to cut costs or mimic the mouthfeel of fat in low-fat products which would otherwise be unpalatable.
I loved the huge press launch dinner that I helped organise at an eye-wateringly expensive venue on the Champs-Élysées in Paris. It was for a new food starch that allowed manufacturers to emblazon words like “natural!” and “homestyle!” all over their products. Just the sort of meaningless but highly emotive labels that jump out at time-poor parents from the supermarket shelf. “Just like Mamma made.” Only these foods weren’t just like Mamma made. They were cheap, processed products made in a plant with high-tech additives that Mamma would not have been able to pronounce, let alone cook with. They were as homestyle and natural as a can of Coke. That’s the thing with food packaging: the laws are so laughably lax that you can put any old nonsense on the front of the packet and you’re likely to get away with it.
Back then, I was pretty knowledgeable about food processing – but I was profoundly ignorant about the effects of processed food on our health. I had no idea what these foods were doing to people.
I might add at this point that, in all my dealings with the food industry, I never once came across anyone who actively set out to harm anyone’s health. In fact, most of the people I worked with were nothing less than lovely.
The problem, though, is that the food industry is simply not concerned with our health. It’s concerned with sales figures and repeat purchase and replacing expensive ingredients with cheap ingredients and extending shelf-life and optimising the bottom-line.
Food companies respond to consumer demand – and consumers today demand convenience and cheap food and a nature-defying shelf-life. We’ve become hypnotised by the lure of convenience food, cheerfully munching our way right into chronic disease.
And that’s the bit I just didn’t grasp back then. In my naivety, I associated limb amputations with Princess Diana campaigning against land mines in Angola. I never dreamt that hundreds of limbs were being amputated right here in the UK because of Type 2 diabetes, brought on by eating too much junk.
I knew, of course, that it was important to brush our teeth well after eating the confectionery I was promoting. But it was only many years later that I came to understand that our teeth are merely the canary in the coalmine. I know now that sugar is toxic and that it kills.
These days, I view the food industry through a different lens. I think of the people I meet every day whose health and lives have been wrecked by insidiously addictive fake foods. My job now looks very different from those PR years. It’s helping people to wean themselves off the very foods that I’d spent so many years pushing at them.