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I was a fake food pusher

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.

Comments

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Hattie Graham 1st March 2018 Reply

This is so interesting – what a change you have made!

Suzy 1st March 2018 Reply

Yes, it certainly was a massive change Hattie. Funny how our path can change so radically in life.

Suzy 1st March 2018 Reply

Brilliant. Good for you Louise.

Louise Burman 1st March 2018 Reply

Wow thanks Suzy .. such good timing .. was literally just going to retrieve a little Mars bar (tbh not that little!) from the fridge .. going for a nectarine now instead ..

Stephen T 1st March 2018 Reply

What a turn around, Suzy! I agree that the food industry isn’t aiming to harm us, just make lots of money, but it’s doing a good job! I noticed a few weeks ago that there’s not a single cardboard packet in my house – because real food doesn’t come in cardboard boxes with a two-year use by date.

As for Louise and the Mars bar, I find it much easier not to have that sort of thing in the house because we all have a weak moment and junk does taste good. I’ve added meat or cheese snacks to my fridge for when I feel like something to go with my coffee.

Suzy 1st March 2018 Reply

Wow! That’s fantastic that you’ve got rid of all cardboard box food Stephen. Agree – it’s much easier to just not have the stuff to hand.

Sue Adlam 2nd March 2018 Reply

Inspirational! What was your trigger for change? Sue

Suzy 2nd March 2018 Reply

Ah, that’s a whole other story Sue! I guess partly from a long-standing interest in holistic health, partly hitting 40, partly Dad passing away, partly what had happened years earlier to my son (a long story – you’ll find it on my website) and I think just having the courage to follow my heart.

Emma 3rd March 2018 Reply

Great piece. People need to be educated to make more informed choices. Unfortunately often the cheapest option is the preference rather than the most nutritious. There is a mindset that healthy food is too expensive which is powered by large companies wanting to make money from poor food choices. Very informative!

Suzy 3rd March 2018 Reply

Agreed Emma – it’s a massive challenge to persuade people to move away from what looks to be the value option.

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