Inside the food industry: the surprising truth about what you eat

On a bright, cold day in late November
2013, I found myself in the dark, eerie,
indoor expanses of Frankfurt’s Blade
Runner-like Festhalle Messe. I was there
undercover, to attend an annual trade
show called Food Ingredients. This three-
day exhibition hosts the world’s most
important gathering of ingredients
suppliers, distributors and buyers. In 2011,
when it was held in Paris, more than
23,000 visitors attended from 154
countries, collectively representing a
buying power of €4bn (£2.97bn). Think of it
as the food manufacturers’ equivalent of
an arms fair. It is not open to the public.
Anyone who tries to register has to show
that they work in food manufacturing; I
used a fake ID.
While exhibitors at most food exhibitions
are often keen for you to taste their
products, few standholders here had
anything instantly edible to offer. Those
that did weren’t all that they seemed.
Canapé-style cubes of white cheese dusted
with herbs and spices sat under a bistro-
style blackboard that nonchalantly read
“Feta, with Glucono-Delta-Lactone” (a
“cyclic ester of gluconic acid” that prolongs
shelf life).
A pastry chef in gleaming whites rounded
off his live demonstration by offering
sample petits fours to the buyers who had
gathered. His dainty heart- and diamond-
shaped cakes were dead ringers for those
neat layers of sponge, glossy fruit jelly,
cream and chocolate you see in the
windows of upmarket patisseries, but were
made entirely without eggs, butter or
cream, thanks to the substitution of potato
protein isolate. This revolutionary
ingredient provides the “volume, texture,
stability and mouthfeel” we look for in
cakes baked with traditional ingredients –
and it just happens to be cheaper.
This is the goal of the wares on show,
something the marketing messages make
clear. The strapline for a product called
Butter Buds®, described by its makers as
“an enzyme-modified encapsulated butter
flavour that has as much as 400 times the
flavour intensity of butter”, sums it up in
six words: “When technology meets nature,
you save.”
Exhibitors’ stands were arranged like art
installations. Gleaming glass shelves were
back-lit to show off a rainbow of super-
sized phials of liquids so bright with
colouring, they might be neon. Plates of
various powders, shaped into pyramids,
were stacked on elegant Perspex stands
bearing enigmatic labels – “texturised soy
protein: minced ham colour,” read one.
While I never knowingly eat food with
ingredients I don’t recognise, I'd probably
consumed many ‘wonder products'
Manufacturers who need their tomato
sauce to be thick enough not to leak out of
its plastic carton – and just a little bit
glossy, so that it doesn’t look matt and old
after several days in the fridge – were sold
the advantages of Microlys®, a “cost-
effective” speciality starch that gives
“shiny, smooth surface and high viscosity”,
or Pulpiz™, Tate & Lyle’s tomato “pulp
extender”. Based on modified starch, it
gives the same pulpy visual appeal as an
all-tomato sauce, while using 25% less
tomato paste.
The broad business portfolio of the
companies exhibiting at Food Ingredients
was disconcerting. Omya, based in
Hamburg, described itself as “a leading
global chemical distributor and producer
of industrial minerals”, supplying markets
in food, pet food, oleochemicals, cosmetics,
detergents, cleaners, papers, adhesives,
construction, plastics and industrial
chemicals. At Frankfurt, Omya was selling
granular onion powder, monosodium
glutamate and phosphoric acid. For big
companies such as this, food processing is
just another revenue stream. They
experience no cognitive dissonance in
providing components not only for your
meal, but also for your fly spray, scratch-
resistant car coating, paint or glue. The
conference was the domain of people
whose natural environment is the
laboratory and the factory, not the kitchen,
the farm or the field; people who share the
assumption that everything nature can do,
man can do so much better, and more
profitably.
Tired after hours of walking round the fair,
and, uncharacteristically, not feeling
hungry, I sought refuge at a stand
displaying cut-up fruits and vegetables; it
felt good to see something natural,
something instantly recognisable as food.
But why did the fruit have dates, several
weeks past, beside them? A salesman for
Agricoat told me that they had been
dipped in one of its solutions, NatureSeal,
which, because it contains citric acid along
with other unnamed ingredients, adds 21
days to their shelf life. Treated in this way,
carrots don’t develop that telltale white
that makes them look old, cut apples don’t
turn brown, pears don’t become
translucent, melons don’t ooze and kiwis
don’t collapse into a jellied mush; a dip in
NatureSeal leaves salads “appearing fresh
and natural”.
For the salesman, this preparation was a
technical triumph, a boon to caterers who
would otherwise waste unsold food. There
was a further benefit: NatureSeal is classed
as a processing aid, not an ingredient, so
there’s no need to declare it on the label,
no obligation to tell consumers that their
“fresh” fruit salad is weeks old.
Somehow, I couldn’t share the salesman’s
enthusiasm. Had I eaten “fresh” fruit
salads treated in this way? Maybe I had
bought a tub on a station platform or at a
hotel buffet breakfast? It dawned on me
that, while I never knowingly eat food with
ingredients I don’t recognise, I had
probably consumed many of the “wonder
products” on show here. Over recent years,
they have been introduced slowly and
artfully into foods that many of us eat
every day – in canteens, cafeterias, pubs,
hotels, restaurants and takeaways.
You might find it all too easy to resist the
lure of a turkey drummer, a ready meal, a
“fruit” drink or a pappy loaf of standard
white bread. You might check labels for E
numbers and strange-sounding
ingredients, boycotting the most obvious
forms of processed food. And yet you will
still find it hard to avoid the 6,000 food
additives – flavourings, glazing agents,
improvers, bleaching agents and more –
that are routinely employed behind the
scenes of contemporary food manufacture.
That upmarket cured ham and salami, that
“artisan” sourdough loaf, that “traditional”
extra-mature cheddar, those luxurious
Belgian chocolates, those speciality coffees
and miraculous probiotic drinks, those
apparently inoffensive bottles of cooking
oil: many have had a more intimate
relationship with food manufacturing than
we appreciate.
When you try to dig deeper, you hit a wall
of secrecy. For at least the past decade, the
big manufacturing companies have kept a
low profile, hiding behind the creed of
commercial confidentiality, claiming they
can’t reveal their recipes because of
competition. Instead, they leave it to
retailers to field any searching questions
from journalists or consumers. In turn,
retailers drown you in superfluous, mainly
irrelevant material. The most persistent
inquirers may be treated to an off-the-peg
customer reply from corporate HQ, a bland,
non-specific reassurance such as, “Every
ingredient in this product conforms to
quality assurance standards, EU
regulations, additional protocols based on
the tightest international requirements,
and our own demanding specification
standards.”
My growing preoccupation was how little
we know about the food that sits on our
supermarket shelves, in boxes, cartons
I spent years knocking on closed doors, and
became frustrated by how little I knew
about contemporary food production. What
happens on the farm and out in the fields
is passably well-policed and transparent.
Abattoirs undergo regular inspections,
including from the occasional undercover
reporter from a vigilante animal welfare
group, armed with a video camera. My
growing preoccupation was instead just
how little we really know about the food
that sits on our supermarket shelves, in
boxes, cartons and bottles – food that has
had something done to it to make it more
convenient and ready to eat.
Eventually, contacts within the industry
provided me with a cover that allowed me
to gain unprecedented access to
manufacturing facilities, as well as to
subscriber-only areas of company sites,
private spaces where the chemical
industry tells manufacturers how our food
can be engineered. Even with 25 years of
food chain investigations under my belt, it
was an eye-opener.
Anything that comes in a box, tin, bag,
carton or bottle has to bear a label listing
its contents, and many of us have become
experts at reading these labels. But many
of the additives and ingredients that once
jumped out as fake and unfathomable have
quietly disappeared. Does this mean that
their contents have improved? In some
cases, yes, but there is an alternative
explanation. Over the past few years, the
food industry has embarked on an
operation it dubs “clean label”, with the
goal of removing the most glaring
industrial ingredients and additives,
replacing them with substitutes that sound
altogether more benign. Some companies
have reformulated their products in a
genuine, wholehearted way, replacing
ingredients with substitutes that are less
problematic. Others, unconvinced that they
can pass the cost on to retailers and
consumers, have turned to a novel range of
cheaper substances that allow them to
present a scrubbed and rosy face to the
public.
Imagine you are standing in the
supermarket. Maybe you usually buy some
cured meat for an antipasti. Picking up a
salami, even the most guarded shopper
might relax when they see rosemary
extract on the ingredients list – but
rosemary extracts are actually “clean-
label” substitutes for the old guard of
techie-sounding antioxidants (E300-21),
such as butylhydroxyanisole (BHA) and
butylhydroxytoluene (BHT). Food
manufacturers use them to slow down the
rate at which foods go rancid, so extending
their shelf life.
Rosemary extracts don’t always have to
carry an E number (E392), but the more
poetic addition of “extract of rosemary”
makes it sound like a lovingly made
ingredient – especially if that salami is
also labelled as natural or organic. And the
extract does have something to do with the
herb, usually in its dried form. The herb’s
antioxidant chemicals are isolated in an
extraction procedure that “deodorises”
them, removing any rosemary taste and
smell. Extraction is done by using either
carbon dioxide or chemical solvents –
hexane (derived from the fractional
distillation of petroleum), ethanol and
acetone. Neutral-tasting rosemary extract
is then sold to manufacturers, usually in
the form of a brownish powder. Its
connection with the freshly cut, green and
pungent herb we know and love is fairly
remote.
Not sure what to have for dinner? How
about a chicken noodle dish? If you noticed
that it contained an amino acid such as L-
cysteine E910, your enthusiasm might
wane, especially if you happen to know
that this additive can be derived from
animal and human hair. But a range of
new-wave yeast extracts is increasingly
replacing E910. One supplier markets its
wares as “a variety of pre-composed,
ready-to-use products that provide the
same intensity as our classical process
flavours but are labelled as all-natural.
Ingredients are available in chicken and
beef flavour, with roasted or boiled
varieties, as well as white meat and dark
roast.” All can be labelled as “yeast
extract” – a boon for manufacturers,
because yeast extracts have a healthy
image as a rich source of B vitamins. Less
well known is the fact that yeast extract
has a high concentration of the amino acid
glutamate, from which monosodium
glutamate – better known as MSG, one of
the most shunned additives – is derived.
What else is in your basket? Suppose you
are eyeing up a pot of something
temptingly called a “chocolate cream
dessert”. You read the ingredients: whole
milk, sugar (well, there had to be some),
cream, cocoa powder and dark chocolate. It
all sounds quite upmarket, but then your
urge to buy falters as you notice three feel-
bad ingredients.
The first is carrageenan (E407), a setting
agent derived from seaweed that has been
linked with ulcers and gastrointestinal
cancer. It is now regarded in food industry
circles as an “ideally not” (to be included)
additive. The second of these worrying
ingredients is a modified starch (E1422), or
to give it its full chemical name, acetylated
distarch adipate. It started off as a simple
starch, but has been chemically altered to
increase its water-holding capacity and
tolerance for the extreme temperatures
and physical pressures of industrial-scale
processing. The third problematic
ingredient is gelatine. This is anathema to
observant Muslims, Jews and vegetarians,
and even secular omnivores may be
wondering what this by-product of pig skin
is doing in their pudding.
Fortunately for the manufacturers of your
chocolate cream dessert, there is a Plan B.
They can remove all three offending items,
and replace them with a more
sophisticated type of “functional flour”,
hydrothermally extracted from cereals,
that will do the same job, but without the
need for E numbers.
Another possibility for cleaning up this
dessert would be to use a “co-texturiser”,
something that would cost-effectively
deliver the necessary thick and creamy
indulgence factor. Texturisers, just like
modified starches, are based on highly
processed, altered starch designed to
withstand high-pressure manufacturing –
but because they are obligingly classified
by food regulators as a “functional native
starch”, they can be labelled simply as
“starch”. Again, no E numbers. So, out
come two additives and one ingredient
that many people avoid, to be replaced by
a single new-generation ingredient, one
that is opaque in its formulation
(proprietary secrets and all that) but which
won’t trigger consumer alarm.
The history of food processing is littered
with ingredients that were initially
presented as safer and more desirable, yet
subsequently outed as the opposite.
Hydrogenated vegetable oils, or margarine,
were actively promoted as healthier than
the natural saturated fats in butter. High
fructose corn syrup, once marketed as
preferable to sugar, has now been
identified as a key driver of the obesity
epidemic in the US.
Is the clean-label campaign a heart-and-
soul effort by manufacturers to respond to
our desire for more wholesome food? Or
just a self-interested substitution exercise?
The lines are deliberately blurred: as one
executive in a leading supply company put
it, “Ingredients that give the impression
that they originated in a grandmother’s
kitchen and have not been processed too
harshly are of great appeal to consumers.”
Meanwhile, there is no evidence that
manufacturers are using greater quantities
of the real, natural ingredients consumers
want. Clean labelling looks less like a
thorough spring clean of factory food than
a superficial tidy-up, with the most
embarrassing mess stuffed in the cupboard
behind a firmly shut door – where,
hopefully, no one will notice.
From water-injected poultry and powdered
coagulated egg, to ultra-adhesive batters
and pre-mixed marinades, the raw
materials in industrial food manufacturing
are rarely straightforward. In fact, they
commonly share quite complicated back
stories of processing and intervention that
their labels don’t reveal.
In the same way that you will never see a
stray onion skin lying around a ready-
meals factory, you’re extremely unlikely to
see an eggshell, either. Eggs are supplied
to food manufacturers in powders, with
added sugar, for instance, or as albumen-
only special “high gel” products for
whipping. Liquid eggs will be pasteurised,
yolk only, whites only, frozen or chilled, or
with “extended shelf life” (one month) –
whichever is easiest. They may be liquid,
concentrated, dried, crystallised, frozen,
quick frozen or coagulated. Manufacturers
can also buy in handy pre-cooked, ready-
shelled eggs for manufacturing products
such as Scotch eggs and egg mayonnaise, or
eggs pre-formed into 300g cylinders or
tubes, so that each egg slice is identical
and there are no rounded ends.
These hard-boiled, tubular eggs are
snapped up by sandwich-making
companies. Manufacturers can also take
their pick from bespoke egg mixes, which
are ready to use in everything from
quiches and croissants to glossy golden
pastry glazes and voluminous meringues.
And there is always the cheaper option of
using “egg replacers” made from
fractionated whey proteins (from milk). No
hurry to use them up: they have a shelf life
of 18 months.
Food engineers can now create a “natural”
mature cheese flavouring by blending
young, immature cheese with enzymes
(lipases or proteases) that intensify the
cheese flavour until it reaches “maturity” –
within 24 to 72 hours. This mature cheese
flavouring is then heat-treated to halt
enzymatic activity. Hey, presto: mature-
tasting cheese in days rather than months.
(Traditional cheddar is not considered
truly mature until it has spent between
nine and 24 months in the maturing room.)
A factory pantry looks nothing like yours.
When the home cook decides to make a
Bakewell tart, she or he puts together a
lineup of familiar ingredients: raspberry
jam, flour, butter, whole eggs, almonds,
butter and sugar. The factory food
technologist, on the other hand,
approaches the tart from a totally different
angle: what alternative ingredients can we
use to create a Bakewell tart-style product,
while replacing or reducing expensive
ingredients – those costly nuts, butter and
berries? How can we cut the amount of
butter, yet boost that buttery flavour,
while disguising the addition of cheaper
fats? What sweeteners can we add to lower
the tart’s blatant sugar content and justify
a “reduced calorie” label? How many times
can we reuse the pastry left over from each
production run in subsequent ones? What
antioxidants could we throw into the mix
to prolong the tart’s shelf life? Which
enzyme would keep the almond sponge
layer moist for longer? Might we use a
long-life raspberry purée and gel mixture
instead of conventional jam? What about
coating the almond sponge layer with an
invisible edible film that would keep the
almonds crunchy for weeks? Could we
substitute some starch for a proportion of
the flour to give a more voluminously risen
result? And so on.
We all eat prepared foods made using
state-of-the-art technology. And we don’t
know what this diet might be doing to us
We all eat prepared foods made using
state-of-the-art technology, mostly
unwittingly, either because the
ingredients don’t have to be listed on the
label, or because weasel words such as
“flour” and “protein”, peppered with
liberal use of the adjective “natural”,
disguise their production method. And we
don’t know what this novel diet might be
doing to us.
A disturbing 60% of the UK population is
overweight; a quarter of us are obese. Are
we leaping to an unjustified conclusion
when we lay a significant part of the blame
for obesity, chronic disease and the
dramatic rise in reported food allergies at
the door of processed food? There are
several grounds for examining this
connection.
Food manufacturers combine ingredients
that do not occur in natural food, notably
the trilogy of sugar, processed fat and salt,
in their most quickly digested, highly
refined, nutrient-depleted forms. The
official line – that the chemicals involved
pose no risk to human health when
ingested in small quantities – is scarcely
reassuring. Safe limits for consumption of
these agents are based on statistical
assumptions, often provided by companies
who make the additives.
Manufactured foods often contain
chemicals with known toxic properties –
although, again, we are reassured that, at
low levels, this is not a cause for concern.
This comforting conclusion is the
foundation of modern toxicology, and is
drawn from the 16th-century Swiss
physician, Paracelsus, whose theory “the
dose makes the poison” (ie, a small amount
of a poison does you no harm) is still the
dogma of contemporary chemical testing.
But when Paracelsus sat down to eat, his
diet wasn’t composed of takeaways and
supermarket reheats; he didn’t quench his
thirst with canned soft drinks. Nor was he
exposed to synthetic chemicals as we are
now, in traffic fumes, in pesticides, in
furnishings and much more. Real world
levels of exposure to toxic chemicals are
not what they were during the
Renaissance. The processed food industry
has an ignoble history of actively
defending its use of controversial
ingredients long after well-documented,
subsequently validated, suspicions have
been aired.
The precautionary principle doesn’t seem
to figure prominently in the industry’s
calculations, nor – such is their lobbying
power – does it loom large in the
deliberations of food regulators. If it did,
then steering clear of manufactured
products would be a lot easier.
The pace of food engineering innovation
means that more complex creations with
ever more opaque modes of production are
streaming on to the market every day. Just
last month, a dossier for a new line of
dairy proteins dropped into my mailbox.
Alongside a photo of a rustic-looking,
golden pan loaf, the explanation read:
“Many bakers are now turning to
permeates, a rather new ingredient in the
food ingredients market. Permeate is a co-
product of the production of whey protein
concentrate (WPC), whey protein isolate
(WPI), ultrafiltered milk, milk protein
concentrate (MPC), or milk protein isolate
(MPI).”
Permeate, apparently, “contributes to the
browning of baked goods” and produces
bread that “retains its softness for a longer
period of time and extends shelf life”. How
clever. But I would prefer that my bread
was browned solely from the application of
heat. I’m prepared to accept that it will
stale over time, rather than eat something
that owes its existence to ingredients and
technologies to which I am not privy,
cannot interrogate and so can never truly
understand. Am I about to hand over all
control of bread, or anything else I eat, to
the chemical industry’s food engineers?
Not without a fight.