You can’t escape them… They’re everywhere… Big, in your face and filled with enough ‘food’ to feed a small third world country for a month… I’m talking about supermarkets, those faceless mega halls of consumption full of what they would have us believe is good quality, low priced, tasty food of infinite variety. If I was on trial here I’d be found as guilty of filling their coffers as much as the next person, but over the last few months I’ve started to see things in a very different way.
I’ll start by telling you how this all began: Pizza. No special, magic kind of pizza, just ordinary, supermarket sold, £2.83 pizza… And I was having a problem with them. Firstly they were far too big for me to eat and bits got left behind and they generally tasted awful anyway. So I had a thought: Why not start making my own? It can’t be that hard after all.
Well I did. I’m not the most amazing chef in the world, I’ll grant you, but most of the time my pizza’s are now turning out better than the pre-prepared ones and I can make them with whatever I like and experiment to my heart’s content. I tried making the dough out of beer one and even had a go at ‘ Welsh Rarebit pizza.’ You wouldn’t get that sort of flavour in a supermarket I can tell you.
And following the pizzas I wondered what else I could make myself. Turns out pretty much everything if you’ve got the right stuff. So far it’s been mostly limited to my culinary range and basic deserts but I am getting better the more I practice. The ice cream was a bit rubbish though. Basically since then I’ve successfully ditched most processed food (with the exception of biscuits, Deli meats and snacks.)
I now realise that through this I’ve been doing myself a favour. Turns out I’m much healthier as a result. That’s kind of obvious, but I’ll tell you why: It’s what they’re pumping into those pizzas and processed foods and deserts. I’m sure we’re all aware of preservatives and E numbers and stuff like that… But when you know how to make these things yourself it becomes much worse, especially when you actually start looking at the ingredients.
Take a look at the ingredients for ‘Goodfella’s fully loaded deep pan baked cheese pizza.’ It starts off fairly innocuous but once you get down the list…
Wheatflour, Mozzarella Cheese (25%) (With added starch) Water, Tomato (7%) Vegetable Oil, Tomato Puree, Cheddar Cheese (3%) Yeast, Salt, Starch, Dextrose, Herbs, Sugar, Garlic Puree, Emulsifer: Mono and Diacetyltartic acid, Esters of mono and diglycerides of fatty acids, Black pepper, Flour Treatment agent: Ascorbic Acid.
And that is being sold for around £3… But now compare that list with the ingredients for my pizza, of the same kind:
Self Raising Flour, Water, Olive Oil, Mozzarella Cheese (Grated) Tomato Puree, Salt, Yeast.
My list is a hell of a lot shorter. Mine doesn’t contain sugar. Why the hell do you need sugar in a savoury pizza? If it were sweet and sour Pork pizza maybe (Ooh… there’s an idea!) And dextrose? Well that’s another name for: Glucose, which as we all know from biology lessons is basically the stuff that sugar is made from. And why add starch and have ‘added starch’ to the cheese? There’s enough starch in a single bag of flour anyway. Why add more? And don’t forget that starch is another form of Glucose! And as for the rest of the stuff… Ascorbic Acid, Esters of Mono and diglycerides of fatty acids… What are those things? Emulsifier? That sounds disgusting!
So the Goodfellas Pizza contains some horrible stuff and a load of added sugar for £3. If any of that stuff were essential to our diets it wouldn’t need to be added. Now my pizza, after summing up the price of the ingredients and working out the cost per pizza, comes to just a bit more than a pound and it’s far healthier as too much sugar rots your teeth and makes you fat!
But this is only one pizza out of hundreds. Who knows what the others contain? (And, by the way, watch out for a certain supposed ‘real Italian pizza’ that’s actually made by a German company!) It’s only a hint at what these huge companies are doing to our foods. So I decided to ditch most processed foods like pizzas etc.
You would have thought that was enough. I got rid of most of the bad excess in my diet, cut out the crap the companies were adding… But it turns that was only the surface of the problems with our foods… There are problems that not only stem from the manufacturers of processed foods (whom we can ignore if we so desire) but alsofrom the purveyors, the ones who sell both processed and unprocessed foods: The supermarkets. And in some ways it’s worse.
If I were to ask about what benefits a supermarket has over a local greengrocer or market you’d probably say things like: ‘It’s cheap, It offers more variety, I can go when I like…’ Etc, etc. So let’s take the first one: It’s cheap. Is it really? Look at that pizza… £3 when you can make it for £1… How much of that money goes to their own coffers? In the case of the brand pizza, not a lot. But look at their own brand pizza, which seems to take up the most space. Almost all of that money goes into their own coffers. The manufacturers don’t get much out of it, the cheese makers and the tomato growers even less… And the cheap ‘Value range’ probably has even worse shit in it than the brand pizzas.
There’s been a programme on Channel 4 recently about Jimmy Doherty (pig farmer and friend of Jamie Oliver) trying to improve the quality of Tesco‘s value range and as part of that he analysed what made up three of the value products: Meatballs, Sausages and Chicken Kiev. The Meatballs hardly contained any meat and what meat there was in there allegedly came from about one hundred and seventy different animals… The sausages were low quality and tasteless and the Chicken Kiev was so pulverized and decimated you could hardly call it chicken. And that was just three of the products of one supermarket. Ok, so Tesco now sell improved ‘Value’ sausages and kievs (though for how long is anybody’s guess) but the meatballs are still made of one hundred and seventy different animals and contain little meat. At the end of the series Doherty came out with two products of one supermarket improved. What about the value ranges of ASDA, Morrisons, Sainsbury and whatever else Tesco is flogging as food. What the hell are they made of?
Throughout the series I got a sense that the supermarkets weren’t really interested in the quality of the food. They kept saying ‘Oh no… we can’t sell that. It won’t make enough of a profit…’ I would understand if they said this maybe once, as every business has to make a profit I suppose, but Tesco make billions every week so you’d think they could put a little of that aside to try and inject a bit of quality into their food. But no. All they are interested in is profit and making more and more and more money all the time. That’s why the food is low quality. The value products, the more expensive products… They really cost a fraction of what the customer pays… And why? Because they fill it with shit to make it cheap enough for them sell at extortionate prices. I got hold of an expensive range tirimisu from one of the supermarkets… You get two in a packet…. And in it: chicory fibre. CHICORY FIBRE! What? Why? You look at a proper Italian tirimisu and you’ll find its made of cream, coffee, Marsala wine, sponge, Amoretti biscuit (digestives if you want a cheaper substitute) and cocoa powder. This stuff? The sponge is water, there’s no biscuit, little hint of coffee or Marsala and it contains things like chicory fibre… And this all to make it cheap enough to sell at a ridiculous profit. And how did this chicory fibre Tirimisu taste? Like an offence to Italian cuisine. I’m sorry for dwelling on Italian food but that’s mostly what I know how to make myself. And if you want to know the effect all of this cheapness is having just go and watch an episode of Countryfile. Farmers are struggling because supermarkets are squeezing every last penny they can out of the ones they deal with whilst financially obliterating those they don’t.
But that’s not the only reason why the food is cheap. The other reason for its cheapness is what they sell- AKA: The variety. They would have you think they offer variety, but really they don’t. The first evidence I’ll cite for this is a visit to Sainsbury’s not that long ago. I went in looking for some cheese, as you do. So they had cheddar, lots of cheddar… In fact an aisle full of cheddar and some red Leicester and maybe one or two others but not a lot of choice. No Brie… No Camembert… Very little choice on offer other than fucking cheddar. Do you know how many British cheeses there are? Hundreds! And continental ones? Even more. And Sainsbury’s only sell cheddar??? That is disgraceful, but it is indicative of the supermarket ethos as a whole. Take apples. Like with cheeses there are hundreds of varieties but supermarkets mainly sell red and green ones from Argentina and foreign climes. Meanwhile, the humble British apple variety is slowly dying out because of the lack of variety on offer in supermarkets.
And with potatoes and other vegetables it’s even worse. In terms of mushrooms, for instance, Tesco come out the best offering what, compared to the others, is a huge variety. In fact I would go so far as to say that Tesco comes out the best on terms of variety with fruits and vegetables, so some points to them there, but it’s still not a lot compared to how many varieties there are. Certain other supermarkets sell only baby buttons… And Potatoes? In most cases they are labelled just as ‘potatoes’ when there are hundreds of types. All shapes, sizes and colours. same with carrots and onions and cabbage. There are many different varieties on offer but go into a supermarket and you wouldn’t believe it were true. Due to their obsession with profit they believe that nobody would buy a purple carrot or a black potato. And you can eat the leaves of the carrot as well, yet with supermarket carrots the leaves are chucked away and presumably wasted. Compare how much space fruit and vegetables take up in a supermarket with Kid’s toys or DVDs- Far less. I know in Morrisons, for example, they’re shoved into a tiny corner whilst Asda have an even smaller section with a little stand in the middle of the aisle. From what I’ve seen, Sainsburys have the largest fruit and veg section, though not the most choice.
And don’t think it stops with fruit and vegetables. What about meats? That’s a bit harder as there are less animals people will eat, but it can be seen clearly in terms of cuts. It’s mostly fillet steaks, joints and loins. Maybe there are a few other bits but the really exciting bits, the bits that require a little more skill to actually cook, are nowhere to be found. Poultry is a little different as they do sell whole chickens and ducks and Turkeys at Christmas but what about Pigeon? I can go outside now and in five minutes I’d see one of the fat little buggers. Why can’t I pay some farmer to come and collect them and use them for meat breeding? They lay eggs once every six to eight weeks after all. Goose used to be a staple of Christmas dinner in this country but now I think you’d be hard pressed to find it unless you went to a butcher.
On top of all of this you have one of the reasons the high street is dying. Books, DVDs, Games, Clothes… All sold dirt cheap to undercut the high street competitor. And how do they do this? By selling only what they know will be popular. The latest releases, the best sellers etc. Look at whats on offer. It’s limited. Go into a supermarket and look for a copy of Lord of the Rings… Either in book or DVD form. Maybe ten years ago when the films were being released you’d have found them because then they knew people would buy them…. But now? Not a chance. Go into any HMV or Waterstones and I’ll guarantee it’ll be there, all three of them. The same will be true of the Hobbit when that’s released. You’ll see the book on supermarket shelves for a while but once a certain amount of time has passed you won’t see it there until the inevitable remake in fifty years time…
But what can we do about the supermarkets? They’re so big and so powerful and so many people now depend on them for a meagre livelihood that if everybody said ‘no’ and stopped using them then as a country we’d be in serious financial shit (more so than most of the Eurozone already is.)
For a start the supermarkets have to care more. They have to become more like traditional grocers than faceless corporations seeking to make as much profit as possible. They need to stop trying to sell cheap value beans and pizzas and they need to stop trying to undercut other companies. They need to stop selling so many processed foods and ready meals filled with junk like chicory fibre and ‘maltodextrose emulsifier’ and offer more variety of meats, poultry, fruit and vegetables and Sainsburys really needs to diversify it’s cheese range. They need to stop screwing over the farmers and allow them to actually make a living. They need to start actively improving the quality of food production -They talk about it but they never do. Finally, they need to concentrate on foods rather than emulating American megastores which sell everything. We are not America. We have a proud tradition of the high street in this country and we need to keep it that way.
As consumers I think we can help them do all of this. If you want to buy a DVD or a CD or clothes go and shop around on the high street. You’ll find far more choice and it may just be that it turns out to be a little cheaper if you shop around. After that we need to start depending on them much less. We’ve become far too sucked into their world over the last twenty years and we’re poorer as a society because of it. Rather than say shopping exclusively at one supermarket, spread it around. Don’t throw your money at just one. And use what’s local as well… Use your market, if you have one. Like the high street they’re being suffocated by the corporate giants of Tesco and you’ll likely find things in there that you never will with the present state of the supermarkets. To paraphrase the Lion King: There’s more to eat than can ever be eaten, more to cook than can ever be cooked! The other day, for instance I saw White Pudding for sale in there… Not black, White! Ok, so it looked like a giant dildo but still it tasted good. Finally there is one more way. I’m sure everyone has a windowsill or a patch of ground somewhere where you can grow at least something. It’ll be good quality and if you have surplus to requirements you can share your produce with friends who may be growing something different… A mutual food trade just like Grandpa caveman used to practice!