Food: Series 1

Food: Series 1

Gloria Hunniford, Angela Rippon and Julia Somerville investigate the truth about our food in a series exposing everything from the secrets of the supermarkets to the truth behind the labels.

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Things to look out for - At a restaurant

Even the most seasoned restaurant goer can fall foul to the subtle tricks of the restaurant trade. But here are some tips on how you can try to keep your wallet as full as your stomach.

Promotions – Be aware of offers such as free refills at buffet style restaurants. This may sound brilliant, but the more you drink the more full you’ll feel and the less food you’re going to eat.

Recommendations - Alternatively, when being waited on by table service, remember that waiters may have been prompted to push a particular dish that hasn’t been selling too well. Don’t feel obliged to order tings suggested by waiting staff, check the menu and make a selection which may well be closer to your budget.

Menus – Menus are specifically designed to draw your attention to the most profitable dishes, and set menus can be prepared in the most cost-effective way for the retailer. Watch out for particular items decorated by a box or pattern as ‘signature dishes’, these may be highlighted as they make the most money.

Sharing and side plates – The added extras to your meal are more popular in restaurants, but may not offer the value you expect. Ordering other dishes to share can often leave us with more than we can eat. Remember, you could always start with just a few dishes and add more later. Or, if you do over-order, ask for your meal to be put in a take away box. 

Things to look out for - At the supermarket

Special Offers – Everyone loves to feel like they’ve grabbed a bargain! The supermarkets know just that. Products are always placed in prime position on special offers next to bold, colourful signs. Saving when buying is significant, but only if you need that item in the first place! Have a shopping list and stick to it, don’t be tempted. One top tip on how to find out what offers are really saving you money – look at the average price of the product over the last year, it may well be surprising! Marketers spend a lot of time and money making packaging as attractive as possible to you, the consumer, look beyond the label before you part with your cash.

Quality for your cash – If a product is cheap, think about why. It is always worth having a close look at the ingredient list and label, if the food contains lots of things you’re unsure of check out other similar products which might contain ingredients you’re more comfortable with. And as we learnt in the programme, if you’re buying fish from the counter, you can check its freshness from how and glossy the eyes are and the translucency of the skin.

Look carefully at the products you are buying. Just because something is labelled as a certain ‘flavour’ it may not contain the ingredients you had expected – you only get that guarantee if a product is labelled ‘Flavoured’ – so look out for the all-important ‘ed’.

Healthy Eating – As we found out in the show, the lower-fat variety of foods can sometimes contain more sugar than the standard ones, but can cost you more. When trying to decipher sugar and fat content in foods, take note;

  • Less than 5 grams of sugar or fat per 100 grams is considered low but more than 22.5 grams per 100g is considered high. Anything between these figures would be a medium level of sugars.
  • Words like low fat are very strictly controlled by the foods agency so if a product wants to put ‘Low Fat’ on the label, it must be less than 3% fat.
  • Words like ‘light’ or ‘lighter’ have no such control, so you could be getting more fat than you were expecting.  

Things to look out for - At home

Cooking – Try to eat meals that you can cook yourself, not necessarily out of a packet. Processed, packet foods can be much higher in unexpected sugars, salts and fats. If you have put all the ingredients on your plate yourself, you really know what you are buying and eating.

Storage – Avoid throwing away food by simply storing it correctly. Get into the habit of putting any excess food in the freezer before it has a chance to go off. So long as you follow the instructions on how many days to use the product once opened, you can ignore the sell by dates and can enjoy it at a later date! 

What’s in Your Food?

With all those long and unfamiliar words on the ingredient lists of food products, it can be tricky to know what it is we are really eating and where it comes from! Below is an A-Z of the sometimes surprising origins of ingredients which are commonly used in our food, to help you unravel the real meaning of the labels.

A-Z ingredients to look out for:

Anchovies - small fish in some brands of Worcester sauce. 
Aspic - savoury jelly derived from meat or fish, used as a glazing agent.

Ammonia - a strong smelling chemical found in household cleaning products, but it’s also used as gas to kill germs in low-grade fatty beef trimmings. This controversial practice started around 2001, and the resulting product—sometimes called pink slime—is used as a filler in ground beef.

Bacteriophages - First approved for use on food in 2006, bacteriophages infect food-contaminating germs, not humans, says Milkowski. Manufacturers spray these on ready-to-eat meat and deli products that are sold in sealed plastic pouches. Check the ingredient list for the words “bacteriophage preparation."

Carrageenan Extracted from seaweed, carrageenan is a gel used as a thickening agent and emulsifier (keeps food from separating.) It may be injected into raw chicken or other meat as a way to retain water, as well as in dairy products like cottage cheese and ice cream. Chocolate milk often contains carrageenan to keep the cocoa from separating from the milk.

Carmine - a red food-colouring that comes from boiled cochineal bugs, which are a type of beetle. There have been reports that the bug-based colouring can cause severe allergic reactions in some people, including potentially life-threatening anaphylactic reactions, so the FDA now requires that the ingredient be listed clearly on food and cosmetic labels. Carmine can be found in ice cream, Skittles, Good n’ Plenty, lemonade, and grapefruit juice.

Carbon monoxide - The same stuff that comes from the exhaust pipe of your vehicle is also used in packaging ground beef and some fish like tilapia and tuna. Carbon monoxide is injected into plastic wrap after all the air is sucked out to block the process of oxidation that can turn pink meat brown. The process is considered safe for humans although it isn’t widely used anymore. Consumer groups have objected to the treatment's potential to mask meat spoilage. 

  • E120 - Cochineal/Carmine, this red colouring is isolated from crushed insects;Coccus cacti.  
  • E542 - Edible Bone Phosphate, from animal bones.
  • E901 – Bees wax, made by bees but does not contain insects        
  • E904 – Shellac, natural polymer derived from lac beetles 
  • E913 – Lanolin, a wax from sheep excreted by the skin of sheep and extracted from the wool 
  • E966 – Lactitol, made from milk sugar      
  • E1105 – Lysozyme, from chicken eggs

Gelatin - derived from collagen, a protein often collected from animal skins. Gelatin, which is a thickening agent, can also be found in frosted cereals, yoghurt, candy, and some types of sour cream.
Glycerine – a sugar alcohol compound found in some brands of toothpaste .

Ice Cream – may contain whey powder, non-dairy fats, eggs. 

Isinglass - Dried fish bladders used as a fining agent derived from the swim bladders of certain tropical fish. This ingredient gives beer its appealing golden hue.

L-Cysteine - An amino acid made from human hair or duck feathers. Used as a dough conditioner in some bread products to improve the texture and feel of products, as well as prolong their shelf life.

Lanolin -also known as wool wax, is a yellow wax-like substance secreted by glands of wool-bearing animals, such as sheep. Lanolin is found in chewing gum.

Pepsin - enzyme found in animals gastric juice, may be used in cheese making

Propylene glycol - This chemical is found in antifreeze. It has lubricating properties which aid in making spice concentrates. And if you need good mixing in food, this is your compound. You’ll find it in sodas, salad dressing, and beer.

Rennet - An enzyme found in calves' stomachs, used in some cheeses.

Silicon Dioxide - Also known as silica, it's most often present as quartz or sand. It's added to foods as an anti-caking agent, to keep them from clumping, such as salts, soups, and coffee creamer.

Shellac - Secretions from a bug native to Thailand, which is used to coat your favourite shiny sweets, like jelly beans. Look for it on ingredients lists as "confectioner's glaze".

Sodium benzoate - This common preservative is used in soft drinks and other carbonated beverages, fruit juices and jams, salad dressings, condiments, and pickles.

Saltwater is injected into food in a practice called plumping, whereby manufacturers inject salt and other ingredients into raw meat (mostly chicken) to enhance flavour and increase the weight of the meat before it’s sold. Check the fine print and the nutrition facts label. Meat that’s been injected may say “flavoured with up to 10% of a solution” or “up to 15% chicken broth.” Regular chicken has about 40 to 70 mg of sodium per 4-ounce serving, while plumped chicken can contain 5 times or more than that amount, or 300 mg and up.

Taurine-  A type of amino acid found extensively in animal tissue.  Taurine is found in meat and fish. It is also found in human tissue, our large intestine, and human breast milk.  It is used in energy drink Red Bull.

Xanthan gum gets its name from Xanthomonas campestris (a strain of bacteria present during the fermentation process), and contains bacteria similar to rotting veggies. Like that layer of decay, xanthan gum acts as a thickening agent or a gel. You can see xanthan gum in dairy products, sauces and salad dressings.


Courtesy of the Vegetarian Society