Thursday, 25 September 2008

Tough Love - Reasons not to Quit You don't Normally Hear

You read a lot of advice on how to stick with a program, whether it be a healthy eating plan, fitness regime, or giving up a vice. Invariably the approach is one of encouragement, seeking to nurture a sense of positivity and achievement. Whilst I do believe this approach is important, I think it would be refreshing to tell it like it is for once, warts 'n' all.

So here is the alternative 5-step motivation plan for not quitting your program. Not a fan of tough love? Stop reading.
1. You’ll Hate Yourself
If you have taken the trouble to attempt this endeavour in the first place then the chances are you have a well-developed sense of self. Give up now and you’ll think less of yourself in the weeks that follow. Sure, initially you’ll enjoy the junk food or not having to go to the gym, but they will be hollow pleasures and slowly but surely the self-loathing will creep in.
2. You will Die Sooner and be Unwell for Longer
Life is like a game of golf. It doesn’t matter how well you play on the last few holes – if you screwed up earlier in the game there is a limit to how good your final score can be. Everything you do affects how long you will live and how well you will be when you are alive. If you go back to the sofa and Big Macs for 6 months, then later in life you might develop an illness a few weeks earlier or more severely and then die of that illness a few weeks sooner than you would have.
3. You will be a Failure
That’s right. Don’t believe the garbage you see on sentimental, feel-good TV shows about how taking part is what matters just as long as you made an effort. That’s just something they tell people who have failed so they feel better. Fact is, if you fail, you fail - and deep down, you will know it. Try and remember the last time you failed at something and how that felt. You don’t want to feel like that again.
4. Other People will Secretly be Glad
You shouldn’t care what people think, right? But who amongst us truly doesn’t care what others think? If you give up, people will think one of two things. Either ‘Ha! I knew he didn’t have what it takes,’ or ‘Good, now I feel better about my own failings’. Don’t give them the satisfaction.
5. You’ll be Here Again in Three Months
Try to remember how you felt just before you started your program. You were doubtless feeling overweight, unfit, unhealthy or any combination of these. Enough was enough - action was needed. Give up now and you’ll be back where you started in a few months. No one likes to feel like they’re getting nowhere but that’s how you’ll feel 3 months from now if you quit. So don’t.
... Read more

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Sugar in my Chicken Part 2: Marks and Spencer Respond

Why is there Sugar in my Chicken (Part 1)
Sugar in my Chicken Part 2: Marks and Spencer Respond
Marks and Spencer Chicken - They Respond Once More (Part 3)
Marks and Spencer Chicken - the Final Word (Part 4)

On Friday I received a response from UK Retailer Marks and Spencer to my post Why is there Sugar in my Chicken?

In that post I published my correspondence with M&S on the reasons for sugar and salt being added to their roasted chicken. I included an open letter to M&S, in which I asked why they could not simply sell plain chicken and allow consumers to add flavouring or seasoning themselves.

When I emailed M&S to tell them about the post, I copied the chairman and CEO of M&S, Sir Stuart Rose, whose email I found on the web. The response I received came from ‘The Executive Chairman’s Office’:

Thank you for your email of 10 September and for your patience whilst we have been looking into your concerns. I have been in touch with our food department in order to provide you with a more detailed response.

Marks & Spencer leads the market in the removal of additives and artificial colourings and flavourings from food. All of our food is 100% artificial colourings and flavourings free, and we do not use Aspartame in any of our products.

In May 2007 we banned additives particularly associated with concerns about food intolerance and children’s diets including artificial colours such as Ponceau 4R, Sunset Yellow, Carmosine and Quinoline Yellow which are used in cakes and bakery. We actually do not use over half of the additives permitted by the EU including Monosodium Glutamate and Tartrazine.

I would like to confirm that sugar is not added to our cooked chickens for flavour; the quantity used is too small to add flavour. It is actually added for colour; in cooking the sugar caramelises to the characteristic golden brown colour which our customers prefer. We have carried out trials without this colour, but our customers said that they wanted to see our chickens with the typical golden colouring.

With regards to salt, in the last 10 years we have halved the amount of salt that we use across our products. Out of the 15 Food Standard Agency's 2010 salt targets that are recognised as contributing high levels of salt to the diet, we now meet 11. A small quantity of salt is added to our cooked chicken to enhance and maintain its flavour through shelf life, so that our customers are always guaranteed a great tasting product. The small amount of salt that we add is based on the view from independent taste panels.

We are constantly looking at new ways to make it easier for our customers to lead healthier lives, and we also need to ensure that we balance this with creating products that are enjoyable for our customers to eat.

I do hope the above has helped to reassure you of how seriously we have taken your concerns and I would like to thank you again for taking the time to get in touch.

Mike Rogers
Executive Chairman's Office

It was great to get the brown sugar mystery solved and heartening to learn that my removal of the skin probably was removing most of the sugar. I would question the statement ‘the quantity used is too small to add flavour’ because I believe the palate of someone not normally accustomed to eating food with added sugar and salt would be able to detect the amount of sugar needed to create a criminalization effect. I am pretty sure I could detect the residual sugar when I last ate M&S chicken.

I am pleased by M&S’ efforts to eliminate food additives from their foods, but not impressed. Were I to see the two most pernicious additives – trans-fats and high fructose corn syrup - on their list of triumphs, then I would be. In fact to impress me it would be enough for them to say they are seriously thinking about these additives.

I also like their approach, implied by one of their letters in the previous post, of leading customer tastes rather than being led by them. Conceptually, this means they are selling us things that taste how they ought to taste rather than how we want them to taste. Presumably until a certain point they had been working the other way around which is why their foods had so much salt added in the first place. In an environment where foods have tastes we were never exposed to when evolving, leaving it up to us to decide how we want food to taste seems like a bad idea.

In spite of these points in M&S’ favour, it does not detract from what is now becoming a conspicuous inability to answer the central question. So, once again, I present an open letter to M&S, this time to the Executive Chairman’s Office.

Dear Mr Rogers,

Many thanks for your response to my open letter.

I am grateful to you for clarifying the purpose for the use of sugar in your cooked chicken and pleased to hear further evidence that Marks and Spencer takes seriously the issue of food additives. Whilst I remain sceptical about the justification for using sugar in this way and whether it would affect the taste, I would prefer to focus on the question of salt.

The fact that you have so diligently attended to the question of sugar and given so comprehensive a roll call of M&S’ achievements makes me especially perplexed by your failure to answer my central question. This is the same question your colleague appeared unwilling to address in my correspondence with her.

To restate this question, I hope for the last time, why you do not allow consumers to add salt themselves according to their own taste? Why not sell plain, roasted chicken, stating clearly on the packet that seasoning should be added to taste? You could even include a sachet of salt with the chicken so that customers’ convenience would not be compromised.

The benefits would be:
  1. Your target market would now include all chicken-eaters instead of only people whose tastes correspond to your independent panel. You would regain me as a customer, for a start
  2. You would be able to market the product as having no added salt
  3. Your goal of positively influencing consumers would be furthered because they would at least get a chance to discover what plain chicken actually tastes like
I look forward to your response to this question.

Yours Sincerely,

See Also:
Why is there Sugar in my Chicken (Part 1)
Marks and Spencer Chicken - They Respond Once More(Part 3)
Marks and Spencer Chicken - the Final Word (Part 4)
We're all Junkies
Why (Refined) Sugar is Bad: Some References
... Read more

Saturday, 20 September 2008

High Fructose, Low Budget: The Alternative Advertisement

Earlier in the week I suggested in my little man / big business post that if you didn't like the recent advertisements put out by the Corn Refiners Assocation then you could create a spoof of your own. Not one for giving advice I am not prepared to follow myself, I decided to do just that. Here it is. To see the original advertisements, click the 'Read More' link underneath.
My Alternative HFCS Advertisement
Original HFCS Advertisements

See Also:
HFCS, the Little Man and Big Business (Part 1)
HFCS, the Little Man and Big Business Part 2 - Making a Difference
... Read more

Thursday, 18 September 2008

HFCS, the Little Man and Big Business Part 2 - Making a Difference

HFCS, the Little Man and Big Business (Part 1)
HFCS, the Little Man and Big Business Part 2 - Making a Difference
High Fructose, Low Budget: The Alternative Advertisement

In part one we looked at companies that manufacture and sell products like tobacco, sugar and HFCS. I suggested that for the most part, the people who own them (shareholders) and the people who work for them are just trying to make an honest dollar/pound like everyone else and have constructed for themselves a view of the world that allows them to get on with life without worrying about the rights and wrongs of what their company does. I also suggested that whilst companies are totally amoral and according to one view behave in the manner of a sociopath, they are, nevertheless, neither inherently good nor evil. Ironically, this complete lack of morals is the good news – or at least the best news we can hope to get under the circumstances.

The amorality of companies presents as much of an opportunity as it does a threat. They are, for the most part, interested in just a couple of things – self-preservation and profit.

Companies usually come into being when someone decides they can make money from selling something. It’s unlikely any of the companies that began refining sugar in the 18th and 19th centuries in England had any idea their product would become the scourge of the western diet. If they had seen similar opportunities in the penicillin market no doubt they would have been equally inclined to make that (although of course it would not be discovered until the 20th century.)
Companies Follow the Dollar
If the bigwigs at British American tobacco discovered that that tobacco, when treated in a certain way produced the most alluring, harmless aromatic scent that consumers were just crazy about and would pay twice as much for….you can bet they’d have their business realigned accordingly within months. In the context of a burgeoning market for potpourri, you can also bet their cigarette manufacturing arm, with its attendant legal and regulatory burdens, would quietly dwindle to nothing within a decade. Companies follow the dollar, pure and simple.

McDonalds, that arch-villain of the food world, bought Pret a Manger in 2001. Now I’m not saying Pret a Manger sells healthy food – a recent UK TV program about sandwiches disabused me of any such notion – but next to McDonald’s own food, Pret’s is a shining beacon of nutritional excellence. The point being, McDonalds is getting a whiff of the coffee and investing strategically. They sense a shift towards the healthy option and are getting ready to move with the times. They are not passionate about selling burgers – they sell them because right now that’s where the money’s at.

Have you ever watched a game of soccer being played by young kids? They scuttle around the pitch in a group, following the ball wherever it goes. For grown-up aficionados of the game this is an amusing spectacle, but for the kids, who at this age have largely their own self-interest in mind (they just want to kick the ball), it makes perfect sense. Companies follow the dollar like these kids follow the soccer ball; and since it’s our dollars they are chasing, that makes us - the consumers - the ball.

In such games, the referee’s job is to make sure the players behave themselves during the scramble for the ball; but since young children have not yet grasped the concepts of fair play and rules, this is not an easy task. If the teacher is one of those well-intentioned but bumbling types, easily manipulated by the kids’ pleas, then the game can degenerate somewhat, with the rules being followed only in the loosest sense. The regulators and lawmakers, particularly those responsible for nutritional regulation, are this kind of referee.
Balance of Power in Our Favour
So let’s examine the balance of power between big business and the little man. There are three key ways that companies are able to exert influence:
  1. Marketing. As we have seen from the HFCS adverts, companies can employ slick techniques to convince consumers they should buy products.
  2. PR. Companies routinely use the media to their advantage by releasing stories to show their products in a positive light.
  3. Lobbying. Vast sums of money are spent on legal and professional services with which companies put pressure on the regulators to make decisions favourable to their interests.
On the other hand, there are four key groups who can influence companies:
  1. Consumers. If we don’t buy the product, companies will not make money out of it and will look for other things to sell.
  2. Shareholders. Each year, they take part in a meeting at which they can table motions that affect company policy and lobby other shareholders to vote on them.
  3. The Media. It has the power to publicly bring companies to account for misdeeds and educate the public about products.
  4. The Regulators. I include in this category the lawmakers and government. They can remove products entirely from circulation or make life difficult for companies to continue to make money from them, for example through taxation or stringent regulations.
On the face of it, companies are at a disadvantage – they are being influenced from all directions and have comparatively fewer ways to exert their own influence. More importantly, if you examine the ways they can be influenced, the consumer has the power to act either directly or indirectly in all cases.

In the diagram, red lines indicate where the consumer’s influence can be felt by the company, either directly or indirectly. The black lines are where companies can exert their own influence. Of course, this takes no account of the relative power of each channel of influence – but whereas the black channels are being utilised to their maximum by companies, the red channels are under-used.

Companies throw billions at the black lines of influence - lobbying, marketing and PR. They would regard these activities as pivotal to their success. If as much effort was devoted to the red mechanisms of influence, the balance of power would begin to shift to the little man. In this battle, effort equates to money and although the companies have a lot of money which buys a lot of effort, even the vast coffers of entire industries could not buy enough effort if every consumer exerted their potential influence in the same direction.
Buying Power
If consumers buy less of a product, companies make less money out of it and focus their attention elsewhere. Many of us make compromises for the sake of convenience or cost so we all have an opportunity to influence in a small way. It may not feel like it makes any difference if we stop buying that once-a-week trail-mix bar because it has some kind of corn syrup in - but it does. The company manufacturing those bars will be watching sales like a hawk. If sales drop even a little, they run focus groups. In those groups, someone like you will tell them why they stopped buying the bars.
We are the Media
There was a time when the little man would sit at his desk writing letters to newspapers complaining about the world. They would rarely be published or used as the basis for a story.

With the advent of the Internet, particularly what has been dubbed ‘web 2.0’, this has profoundly changed. Now you can contact the media and companies much more easily and free of charge. Just find the website, write an email and boom, you’ve scored a point for the little man. Many news websites allow you to comment on stories now – so there is even a guarantee that your views will be published.

And that’s the point - now we are the media. The fact that you are reading this blog proves the point; and you don’t have to be a blogger to make your views known – the participatory web has generated a wealth of opportunity for the little man to seize control from companies. Don’t like the corn industry’s adverts? Create a spoof and post it on YouTube. If you make it funny enough it might even get more views that the originals.

Companies are scared of the pace at which technology and the socialisation of media is changing. They have accepted that they will, for the foreseeable future, be one step behind the consumer in this medium – it’s up to us to take advantage of that.
Contact the Regulators
Just as it has become easy to contact companies and the media thanks to the Internet, likewise the regulators are suddenly within easy reach. Formerly these bodies were remote and almost mythical, mentioned in the news but never seen anywhere else. Now they have websites and can be found in search engines or linked to on blogs and other sites. In many cases, regulators welcome comments and complaints from the public and will act on the consumer’s behalf in disputes.

Even politely acknowledged emails sent to governments make an impact – someone has to read these emails and someone else takes note of the numbers of emails about a certain topic. Someone else then looks at these numbers and decides what issues matter to the public so they can advise politicians on what to talk about in speeches or propose as legislation.

Although it’s not shown on the diagram, clearly the regulators and lawmakers read and are affected by the media, so the little man’s influence can come from more than one direction for the regulators.
Become a Shareholder...or Don’t
In part 1, we had shareholders pegged as the opposition – but whilst the public ownership of companies may be at the root of company psychopathy, it nevertheless represents an opportunity for the little man to influence company behaviour in more ways than one.

First, by ethical investment. Share value is important to companies and influences their power. If investors go out of their way to avoid funds, banks and other financial instruments or bodies that are known to invest in companies they disapprove of, they make a difference. There are a growing number of ethical funds and financial institutions out there and although there may not yet be any who avoid investing in the corn industry, they are certainly addressing issues like tobacco and fair trade.

Alternatively, become a shareholder activist. In May 2008 UK TV Chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall bought a stake in UK supermarket behemoth, Tesco and tabled a motion for the June meeting of shareholders, calling for changes to animal welfare. He persuaded the holders of £3m worth of shares to vote in his favour, but unfortunately lost. Nevertheless, this shows what can be done with shareholder power and of course even though he lost, he scored a big win via the media coverage. The full story is here.
Corporate Social Responsibility
The existence of corporate social responsibility (CSR) bears witness to the influence we can have over companies. If companies are interested in the dollar and self-preservation then CSR proves that companies realise that our opinion has the ability to make or break them. Now companies are falling over themselves to prove how ethical they are. If you Google CSR plus the name of a major company you will invariably find well-crafted policies, open forums or other web sites designed to show that the company cares. Even British American Tobacco has found a way to contrive a veneer of caring.

Psychopaths will often feign emotions they are not capable of having in order to achieve their objectives; but from the little man’s perspective it matters not how genuine the sentiment is when companies flash us their best smile - what matters is that they are doing it.

I’ll end with a quote from Adam Smith, Scottish moral philosopher and a pioneer of political economy:

“Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production; and the interest of the producer ought to be attended to, only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer.”

See Also:
HFCS, the Little Man and Big Business (Part 1)
High Fructose, Low Budget: The Alternative Advertisement
Good discussion of the arguments for and against CSR
... Read more

Saturday, 13 September 2008

HFCS, the Little Man and Big Business

HFCS, the Little Man and Big Business (Part 1)
HFCS, the Little Man and Big Business Part 2 - Making a Difference
High Fructose, Low Budget: The Alternative Advertisement

The recent release in the US of adverts sponsored by the corn industry to promote high fructose corn syrup as being ‘not that bad’ has sparked much discussion about the ethics of marketing unhealthy products to the public.

These adverts were deeply misleading and obviously designed to capitalise upon the ignorance of consumers. Yet to anyone who knows the facts they were so wide of the mark they could almost have been a joke. When I watched them I nearly spat my breakfast onto the laptop.

Weasel Tactics
The levels of indignation are reflected by the breadth of coverage it has received in our community, where it was roundly condemned in the following places, to name just some: Ross Training, Livin’ La Vida Low-Carb, Modern Forager, The IF Life. To see the original videos, go to any of these articles.

This is, of course, nothing new - although the weasel tactics employed here do mark a new milestone in treating the consumer with contempt. Big business has been lobbying for, and marketing products which are patently bad for us for years. Slick advertising and well-groomed, plausible front-men have become the modus operandi for companies peddling ostensibly unacceptable products to somehow acquire for them a veneer of acceptability.
Big Business
The sugar lobby are amongst the worst offenders. In this article we witness the absurd spectacle of an industry trying to promote a product on the basis that used in a different way (i.e. not eaten!) it's not harmful; and, as this news story illustrates, they are equally at home with straightforward bullying. When you see the roll-call of garbage-peddlers who were in league with the Sugar Association as they tried in 2003 to strong-arm the World Health Organisation into withdrawing healthy eating guidelines, it’s not hard to see their angle.

As for the tobacco industry, where do I start? After all these years they still wheel out wheezing spokespeople in times of crisis to advocate ‘freedom of choice’. One can’t help feeling as if these self-confessed smokers and advocates of choice are in some way being exploited, in spite of their clear complicity.

Pharmaceutical companies are the toughest bunch of all because their products are ostensibly acceptable. Perhaps this is how they managed to ease themselves into a position of almost unassailable power. For so long everyone just assumed they were the good guys – we took our eye of the ball. Now, when find that they are manipulating data to suit their marketing needs and funding lavish trips for doctors to acquire influence, we have become aware of their true might.

The bigger the business, the greater the power and the slicker the machine. Provided someone in a well-cut suit with a good haircut can keep a straight face whilst saying...

…blah blah blah moderation blah blah …

- then continue to keep a straight face whilst countering damning evidence with...

...the evidence we have seen does not support this...

... then somehow, by sleight of hand and sheer chutzpah they get away with it. We are hypnotised by the gibberish, mesmerised by the gloss.
Not Fundamentally Evil
Naturally, it is tempting to brand these people and the companies they work for as bad, or even evil; but the uncomfortable truth is that these people are probably no more or less evil than you or me. They are just doing their job and too lazy, broke or ignorant to confront the fact that their job indirectly causes suffering.

In my line of work I am indirectly involved in the promotion of some of the products I rail against in this blog. Shame on me, you might say. Why don’t I quit my job and get new job planting trees? Money. Security. Ambition. Hypocrisy, perhaps. But I promise I am not a bad person.

Likewise, the companies cannot, by definition, be evil. They are simply a collection of people, policies and processes that have evolved under the system we know as capitalism. The company is owned by the shareholders but run by the employees. The shareholders want the company to continue making profits because this pays their bills. To keep the shareholders happy the employees must take whatever actions are most likely to keep the company making profits so that their wages continue to be paid and they can pay their own bills.

Even the shareholders are arguably no worse than the employees themselves. You could question the ethics of their investments but I am guessing that for the most part they are not bad people.
The Corporation as a Sociopath
In the film The Corporation, the way companies behave was examined in the context of psychiatry. The conclusion was that when examined in these terms, companies exhibit the traits of a sociopath. In other words, someone

…who lacks a sense of moral responsibility or social conscience (

I believe this is fundamentally at the root of many of our problems with big business pushing products that are bad for us. A collection of people with no particular desire to harm others, when assembled into a group under the corporate system, end up conspiring to do so. The sum of the parts is greater than the whole.

The majority of the time, this is not a problem. Most companies are making products that people want to buy. We have regulations that ensure those products meet certain standards and laws to enforce those regulations; and even in the worst companies (such as tobacco manufacturers) there will be a presumption to favour the consumer’s wellbeing when there is more than one choice but no effect on profit.
Painting themselves into a Corner
The problem comes when two circumstances align.

First, product development accelerates faster than research and regulation. HFCS is a good example – if we had known about its effects when it was first being introduced into foods, would it have got this far? Banning something on which few profits depend is easy because there are no lobbies. Maybe the research was there but the regulators we slow. Either way, the problem is that very often, the organisations developing the products have more money to spend than the researchers and regulators.

Second – and this is the key one - a company gets itself into a position where its financial wellbeing depends on continuing to sell a product that turns out to be bad. It paints itself into a corner.

In the case of tobacco companies, there really was nowhere for it them go with their products when it started to become clear that tobacco was a killer. You may ask why the CEO doesn’t stand up at the board meeting and say “I think we should fold the company because we sell poison.” I guess he could, but the board would oust him; and even if the board all agreed with him, they could not get it past the shareholders, who, after all, own the company; and the shareholders are not going to throw away their investment. If they were that way inclined, their money would be invested elsewhere.

The corn industry, at some point, decided that HFCS was the way forward. They invested in infrastructure and supply chains and developed a healthy customer base. Evidently they have got themselves to the point where a lot of their revenue depends on HFCS and for them it’s a no-brainer: they must find a way to preserve that revenue stream using whatever means necessary. When someone’s back is against the wall, they act unreasonably – this appears to apply to sociopaths too.
Are we Doomed?
Don’t get me wrong – there are some shits out there. I made some assumptions and simplifications to allow me to develop my point. Clearly there have been and continue to be individuals in companies who themselves behave psychopathically and could reasonably be called bad; but stick with me here – what I am saying is that for the most part this is not the case. For the most part, people are just doing what they must to live their life. They have constructed a view of the world to allow them to live their lives without daily fretting.

“Nothing is easier than self-deceit. For what each man wishes, that he also believes to be true.”

~Demosthenes, prominent Greek statesman and orator of ancient Athens.

So are we doomed? I don’t believe so. In Part 2 I will tell you how I think the little man can make a difference.

See Also:
HFCS, the Little Man and Big Business Part 2 - Making a Difference
High Fructose, Low Budget: The Alternative Advertisement
... Read more

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Five Great Longevity Quotes

Health and Nutrition
Doctors and Medicine

"Health nuts are going to feel stupid someday, lying in hospitals dying of nothing."
~Redd Foxx

"If I'd known I was going to live so long, I'd have taken better care of myself."

~Leon Eldred

I enjoy the ironic paradox of this one, since living longer is something one instinctively associates with taking care of oneself whereas this highlights that it's possible to live a long time but not be as well as one would like. Interestingly, I can’t find out who this guy is. His quote is everywhere, but Wikipedia brings up nothing and Google is not much more help. Anyone know?

"In order to change we must be sick and tired of being sick and tired."

~Author Unknown

"Health is merely the slowest way someone can die."
~Author Unknown

"When it comes to eating right and exercising, there is no I'll start tomorrow. Tomorrow is disease."
~V.L. Allineare

I can't find out who this guy is either - anyone know?

Health and Nutrition
Doctors and Medicine
... Read more

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Why is there Sugar in my Chicken?

Why is there Sugar in my Chicken (Part 1)
Sugar in my Chicken Part 2: Marks and Spencer Respond
Marks and Spencer Chicken - They Respond Once More
Marks and Spencer Chicken - the Final Word (Part 4)

Like many food retailers, UK-based Marks and Spencer offer a range of cooked meats and fish. I sometimes take advantage of this when I haven’t time to prepare a meal myself – a cooked salmon fillet with a tomato and avocado make an excellent ad hoc lunch on a busy day.

I was always aware that these cooked meats contain more than just meat. The ingredients often include salt, other preservatives and sometimes even sugar.

In the past I have been prepared to overlook this – why?

I think I was being seduced by the appearance. The chicken looks like – well, chicken. Like I had bought it raw and cooked it myself. I convinced myself that based on the appearance of the chicken, the amounts of salt and sugar must be insignificant. I would in any case remove the skin before eating, assuming a basting process was used to apply these ingredients.

Recently, after several weeks of eating only fresh food I had prepared myself, I found myself tucking into a Marks and Spencer half roast chicken on a busy day. The email I then sent to Marks and Spencer speaks for itself:

Why do you insist on having salt and brown sugar in practically all your cooked meats and fish? It’s a disgrace.

I normally avoid all processed food and eat only freshly prepared food, Occasionally I look to M&S for something healthy and ready to eat, but find that after eating your ready-to-eat chicken my mouth feels awful because of the sugar and salt you have added.

Are you doing it to preserve the product? I would happily pay more if your supply chain would become less efficient because of a reduced shelf life. In this day and age, adding things like sugar and salt to fresh food that is otherwise untainted is ridiculous.

M&S responded a few days later:

I would like to assure you that we are working to reduce the amounts of salt and sugar used in our products, as our customers have told us this is what they want.

However, we have found that we often need to use salt to give products an authentic flavour. So, although we are working to keep the levels to a minimum, we will continue to use it when we think it’s necessary.

But for those customers who want to control their salt intake, we do clearly label our food with the nutritional information, including the sodium content and recommended intake.

Authentic? By whose yardstick? In what sense does chicken become authentic when it has something added to it that is not chicken. By any reasonable measure, the addition of another substance can only serve to reduce authenticity.

What they are referring to is the faux authenticity they and other retailers have created with their ingredients cartel. Because they all add this junk to their cooked meats, people have come to believe that’s how real chicken tastes.

My reply did not cover the authenticity angle because in my experience the people who engage with customers via email are not receptive subtle reasoning (as Julian Grave’s response to my Sugar Pusher post illustrates.) Here is what I said:

Don’t worry – I am not intending to turn this into an endless correspondence; ut there are a couple of points I feel I really must take you up on here:

1. Salt can be added to food easily. If people think chicken is not authentic without added salt, they can add it. Why are you adding it for them and alienating customers like me in the process?
2. You do not mention sugar after your first sentence. Why do you add that? I hardly think for authenticity.

Please explain and I promise to leave you alone.

It took them a while to respond to my latest email but finally, after a reminder email from me, they responded with the following:

I'm sorry to hear you've been awaiting a response from myself. Unfortunately I have been unawares due to absence from the office.

We also add sugar for flavour as we do salt. We are aiming to positively influence consumer acceptability of lower sugar and salt levels in foods whilst maintaining the safety, quality, taste and performance of our products.

When I read this I got that copy-and-paste feeling – contrast the grammatical howlers of the first paragraph with the slick marketing-speak of the second.

In retrospect I regret my promise to leave them alone and find myself with little choice other than to break it.

My next step will be to publish this post and let Marks and Spencer know that their responses are now the subject of public scrutiny. I hope this will sharpen their minds on the production of a more considered response.

So – here is my ‘open’ response to Marks and Spencer:

Dear Marks and Spencer,

Thanks for your latest email - your desire to positively influence consumer acceptance of foods with lower salt and sugar is laudable.

However, once again I must ask why you do not simply allow consumers to add salt and sugar themselves according to their own taste. Salt and sugar are ubiquitous condiments, so to say it is for convenience is not plausible; and since the food we are discussing here is roasted chicken, not a ready meal, you can hardly argue that the sugar and salt are part of the recipe.

In your first email you talked about authenticity. Can you not see that by adding sugar and salt to plain, roasted chicken you are perpetuating the misconception amongst consumers that this is what chicken tastes like? You appear to believe that because you test your foods with a cross-section of consumers you are entitled to be the arbiter of how salty or sugary roasted chicken should taste.

Here is my suggestion:

Simply sell plain, roasted chicken, stating clearly on the packet that seasoning should be added to taste. This would have 3 benefits:

1. More potential consumers of the product
2. You would be able to market the product as having no added sugar or salt
3. Your goal of positively influencing consumers would be furthered because they would get a chance to discover what plain chicken actually tastes like

I look forward to publishing your views on this suggestion.

Yours sincerely,


I will post their response if and when it arrives.

See Also:
Sugar in my Chicken Part 2: Marks and Spencer Respond
Marks and Spencer Chicken - They Respond Once More
Marks and Spencer Chicken - the Final Word (Part 4)
We're all Junkies
Why (Refined) Sugar is Bad: Some References
... Read more

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Why we must Sacrifice Diet Freedom for a Better World

photo by slice
“People have the right to make up their own mind about what they eat or don’t eat.”

- Retailer Julian Graves, whom I accused in The Worst Sugar Pushers of All.

I don’t disagree with this. People do have the right to make up their mind about what they eat - and thank heaven for that. At current levels of knowledge about nutrition, intervention by the authorities would probably damage people who want to be healthy as much as it would protect those who do not.

Yet there is a difference between choosing what to eat from the available food and being able to choose what food is available. We must get used to the idea that some foods should never have been available in the first place and must now be banned.
We think freedom is about being able to do what we want – but in reality freedom operates only within the bubble of our own experience. If we are not aware we ever had an option, there is no sense of loss when the option is withdrawn - we do not feel any less free. So if it were possible to engineer mass, experience-specific amnesia then we could ban something without anyone feeling their rights had been eroded.

However, we cannot do that. Instead, people get used to food they like being available then perceive the threat of its withdrawal as the erosion of their rights or freedoms. Quite reasonably from their own perspective, their complaints might include:

- I am capable of eating this stuff in moderation so why should my pleasure be taken away because others cannot exercise self-control?

- My health is my business, so I should be allowed to eat this stuff.

- Instead of banning things, you should concentrate on educating people to eat them sensibly.
What Monkey Wants Monkey Gets
Taking things away from people does not sit well in the agenda of political parties. Our democratic systems, envy of the world though they may be, encourage a doctrine of ‘what monkey wants monkey gets’ – you’re not going to vote for the candidate who stops you doing the things you like. This is part of the reason cigarettes are still on sale; and governments are more than happy to dress up their profiteering and corporate appeasement as pandering to liberal ideals.
Merry Dance

Photo by spin spin
So instead of taking things away from people, we inch our way towards solutions painfully slowly. One by one, US states ban trans-fats. Milligram by milligram, regulations about salt content in processed foods shift in favour of reductions. The absurd and merry dance continues between companies wanting to make money from selling rubbish, researchers reporting that the rubbish damages our health and people telling the authorities they should be allowed to eat rubbish if they want to.

In the meantime, obesity rates inexorably increase, diabetes incidence rises to unprecedented levels, cancer rates increase and drug companies spend billions developing semi-effective cures for our diet-induced ailments.
So I say we must change the emphasis of the merry dance. Yes, let’s educate. Yes, let’s respect people's sense of loss. Hey, let’s even see if we can find a way for companies who manufacture this rubbish to land a bit more softly when we ban it...but we must become less squeamish about this concept of freedom.

People will complain at first, but then forget. They will find new foods they like. They probably won’t thank anyone for the extra few months of life they were given by being forcibly prevented from eating so much high fructose corn syrup - but then gratitude is not what this is about.

This is about making society collectively healthier so that some of the billions currently spent looking after the sick or squandered on misguided medical research can be spent on other ways to make the world a better place.
What Can We Do?
Clearly it will take time for the world to change - but I believe we can all help things along by recognising that:
  1. The gratification of our every preference is not necessarily a right
  2. However much we resent government intervention, sometimes it is the only way to create a better future
What do you think about this issue? I can imagine there will be some strong opinions, so please share any thoughts in the comments.

See Also:
The Worst Sugar Pushers of all: Health Food Stores
Julian Graves Responds to 'Sugar Pushers' Post
... Read more

Friday, 5 September 2008

San Francisco Part 2 - My Proxy Cheesecake Shame

The Great Cake Porn Tour
New York - Limited Cake Porn but Plenty of Sugar Pushers
New York Part 2 – Another Sugar Pusher and Cake Security Threat
Las Vegas - Supreme Cake Porn and Absurd Food Labelling
Yosemite National Park - More Blood Sugar Capers
San Francisco Part 1: Stretching the Definitions of Natural and Healthy
San Francisco Part 2 - My Proxy Cheesecake Shame

In the Yosemite post I discussed the possible reasons for Mrs M's repeated consumption of sugar-laden foods in spite of the ill-effects she experienced each time.
No Sugar Day
A few days ago the battle between her modern brain and her primeval urges finally shifted in favour of the modern brain as she decided to have a 'no sugar day'. For Mrs M, the Great Cake Porn Tour has become emblematic of her own 'great sugar tour', whereby she has decided to eat every sugary treat on holiday that she would normally not allow herself at home. With most of the boxes now ticked, I suspect she felt now was the time to give herself a break from the ravages of wildly fluctuating blood sugar.
Nevertheless, the following day we were back in business, as I was bidden to fetch donuts from the market for breakfast. As I was making my selection I realised I was enjoying picking the ones I would eat myself. Chocolate icing with custard centre and plain icing with raspberry centre. Instead of one, I picked two.
Later, at the Cheesecake factory in Union Square, Mrs M ordered cheesecake. I had a lot of advice to offer as she perused the menu. Above is a photo of the chosen slice - note the brown lump close to the apex. This was a half a snickers bar. Note also the texture of the main body. It had good density.

As she worked her way through the sturdy wedge with her customary tiny mouthfuls I found myself looking on with a mixture of vicarious joy and profound resentment... and it suddenly felt as though I had stepped over the boundary from observer to participant in an unacceptable way. Indulging my own desires by proxy like this felt strangely reminiscent of the plot of Oscar Wilde's A Picture of Dorian Gray; and for the protagonist in that, things do not turn out well...
Making it Count
As our trip draws to a close, I sense Mrs M's treat selection becoming increasingly ponderous. Yesterday the 'Healthy Snack' mentioned in San Fran part 1 was the outcome of 20 minutes of intense consideration. I think she has realised that a finite number of sugar experiences remain, and is determined to make them count. She knows that when the holiday is over, she will return to her healthy diet, her resolve likely strengthened by the blood sugar shenanigans we have seen, and her modern brain firmly back in control.
I have no idea what joys and horrors the final 24 hours hold as Mrs M endeavours to wring every last drop out of her own great sugar tour, but it seems only fair to respect her privacy in these intensely personal moments. I myself will be examining my own motives a little more closely in case by some strange quirk of justice it turns out that choosing cakes for other people and closely watching them eat them turns out to be bad for your health...

The Series:
The Great Cake Porn Tour
New York - Limited Cake Porn but Plenty of Sugar Pushers
New York Part 2 – Another Sugar Pusher and Cake Security Threat
Las Vegas - Supreme Cake Porn and Absurd Food Labelling
Yosemite National Park - More Blood Sugar Capers
San Francisco Part 1: Stretching the Definitions of Natural and Healthy
San Francisco Part 2 - My Proxy Cheesecake Shame
... Read more

San Francisco Part 1: Stretching the Definitions of Natural and Healthy

The Great Cake Porn Tour
New York - Limited Cake Porn but Plenty of Sugar Pushers
New York Part 2 – Another Sugar Pusher and Cake Security Threat
Las Vegas - Supreme Cake Porn and Absurd Food Labelling
Yosemite National Park - More Blood Sugar Capers
San Francisco Part 1: Stretching the Definitions of Natural and Healthy
San Francisco Part 2 - My Proxy Cheesecake Shame

I know this is supposed to be a cake porn tour, and part 2 will include some cake porn, I promise; but I had to do a separate post first on the sugar pusher theme.

I am starting to realise that whilst health food stores should be ashamed of themselves for selling products that are not healthy, there is a wider issue of the way the way individual products are marketed and labelled.

Mrs Methuselah, in the dying throes of her round-the-USA sugar binge (see part 2 for the climax to that fiasco) bought some coated confectionary at De Lano's Market in Tiberon today. As she sat in the car 30 minutes later complaining about the sugar low and accompanying headache (I know - she really should change the record), she also remarked

I can't believe they were described as natural and healthy.

Fortunately there seems to be a De Lano's market on every street here, so I did not need to drive 30 minutes to get a photo of the All Natural Golden Bridge Mix Healthy Snack.

Obligingly, Sun Ridge Farms publish the ingredients online, I can show them here. I have emboldened the ingredients of particular interest.

Milk Chocolate Coating (whole malted barley and corn, cocoa butter, whole milk powder, unsweetened chocolate, soy lecithin, pure food glaze), Peanuts, Raisins, Malt Ball Centers (high maltose corn syrup, matled mile powder [wheat flour and malting barley extract, milk, salt, baking soda], whey powder, fractioned palm kernel oil, soy lecithin), Almonds, Yogurt Coating (natural evaporated cane juice, fractioned palm kernel oil, nonfat yogurt powder, soy lecithin, lactic acid, vanilla, salt, pure food glaze), Peanut Butter Coating (evaporated cane juice, fractioned palm kernel oil, peanut flour, whey, and soy lecithin), Cherries.

There are two issues here.

1. The product is described as 'all natural' yet contains the emboldened ingredients which are processed food products.
2. The product is described as a healthy snack, yet contains highly concentrated forms of sugar.

Here is an open letter to Sun Ridge Farms - I will contact them to let them know about this post and also copy De Lano's Markets on the email, offering them both the opportunity to comment.

Dear Sirs,

I recently purchased some of your Golden Bridge Mix and am confused about the way it was marketed and the ingredients.

First, Golden Bridge Mix is described as 'all natural', yet contains high maltose corn syrup and fractioned palm kernel oil, both of which are processed food ingredients. I am particularly confused that both natural evaporated cane juice and evaporated cane juice appear in the list. This has to mean that the second of these two is not natural, right? Please explain how you can justify describing this product as 'all natural'.

Second, the product is labelled 'Healthy Snack.' Could you please explain how you determine whether a food you sell is healthy? There is a great deal of evidence that highly concentrated forms of sugar such as high maltose corn syrup and evaporated cane juice are anything but healthy. The irony is that a number of your other products (such as raw nuts) could easily be described as healthy, yet you do not describe them as such.

I look forward to your comments, which I will happily publish.

Yours sincerely,


The Series:
The Great Cake Porn Tour
New York - Limited Cake Porn but Plenty of Sugar Pushers
New York Part 2 – Another Sugar Pusher and Cake Security Threat
Las Vegas - Supreme Cake Porn and Absurd Food Labelling
Yosemite National Park - More Blood Sugar Capers
San Francisco Part 1: Stretching the Definitions of Natural and Healthy
San Francisco Part 2 - My Proxy Cheesecake Shame

See Also:
The Worst Sugar Pushers of all: Health Food Stores
... Read more