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


Chris said...

Good stuff.

I notice that you are in the UK. Whereabouts? I live in Edinburgh and must admit to buying quite a lot at M&S Simply Food.

Methuselah said...

Hi Chris - I am in Birmingham. Nice city, Edinburgh - we visited a few years back and enjoyed.

M&S is still the least of many evils when one is in a tight spot for lunch, but where humanly possible I bring my own so that I can control what goes in. Do you use it for 'to-go' food as well, or more for a weekly shop?

Chris said...

Hi there

M&S is really close to home so I often drop in on the way back form work. So i tend to buy veggies, meat, berries, red wine, yoghurt. I've never bought their convenience meals. I'm no saint but I prefer to cook my own stuff where possible.

One thing that annoys me about M&S is them charging for plastic bags. I happily recylce bags but the idea of M&S getting all environmentally friendly when they are flying in asparagus from Peru and prawns from Madagascar seems wildly inconsistent.....

There is a good local butcher that I like to use for eggs and meat but I can only really get there at a weekend and often I'm off up north on a Saturday hillwalking.

Of course ASDA, Waitrose, Sainsbury;s all get custom too.

Methuselah said...

Yeah - the food miles thing is a tough one. We've managed to get to the point where on a good week (i.e. we are doing nothing at the weekend) we get seasonal food from butchers, markets etc and supermarkets get nothing. But when busy at the weekend it all falls appart and we end up lining the pockets of corporate monsters like Tesco. Then it's a case of just trying to find products that have not been flown in from the Galapagos Islands ;-)

Asclepius said...

Thorn in side stuff! Keep it up!

I think that there is a large degree of obfuscation in the reply from M&S. For me they are simply 'following the money' - and who can blame them.

M&S have to make money. Sweet stuff sells. Salted stuff has a longer shelf life. That is their incentive! End of.

Who were these customers who asked for chickens with a 'typical golden colouring'? In these health conscious times, there is actually an opportunity for M&S to inform their customers exactly what constitutes a NATURAL appearance and why sugarless chicken is a HEALTHIER option - and I'd imagine many of those that buy the precooked chicken are doing so under an impression it is natural and healthy.

You might also want to ask M&S what classifies as an 'artificial colouring and flavouring' rather than a 'non-artificial colouring and flavouring'. I'd imagine heavy mechianical and chemical processes are involved in the production of both.

Again, superb work Methuselah! M&S should be reminded that the first step to getting off a hook is to stop wriggling.

Methuselah said...

Thanks Asclepius - I think you are right about this boiling down to money. This is the thing I find most difficult to swallow - the insistence that the consumer's interests are paramount, when in fact profit comes first. If they were a little more honest about their priorities they might come across as less evasive.

There are so many issues that they should be challenged on, such as the excellent ones you raise....but when you consider that in spite of my efforts to keep things simple through this correspondence I am still failing to get straight answer to my central question, you can imagine that pursuing any additional threads might prove self-defeating!

Anonymous said...

Nice letter.

We should remember that salt is an important additive during cooking to improve the taste of food. If you are purchasing already cooked food (which in my opinion is a bad idea period) then one should expect it to be seasoned.

Methuselah said...

Mini - thanks. I've just had a reply to say they are looking into the latest post. You have to give them credit for continuing to engage. I am looking forward to their response.

I am interested in your statement

...salt is an important additive during cooking...

In what way is it important, and according to whose rules? I have been cooking without adding salt for years and I doubt I am alone. How has this importance escaped me and am I to expect a visit from the salt police?

Neil said...

Unless you have renal disease, the presence of salt is of minute importance on health grounds. But as regards taste, then I agree you should have the choice of whether or not to add it to your food rather than finding it already in situ. Personally i find it acts as a flavour enhancer, but am learning to use butter on my veg which tastes even better

Methuselah said...

Neil - I guess it depends how much they put in and whether all the other food I am eating has had salt added by someone else....but I take your point that in isolation the amount found in one portion of chicken is probably too small to have a significant impact on health.

It's the effect on my taste buds that bothers me most - when manufacturers add salt to your food, you end up needing it in other foods or they taste bland. There ends up being a kind of flavour competition, with the biggest loser being good old plain vegetables, to which you end up having to add salt of your own because you are so used to it being in things like Marks and Spencer chicken!

Anonymous said...

...salt is an important additive during cooking...

As a taste enhancer. Like pepper and other herbs are. I take a lot of pride in my cooking and seasoning food is important to get the flavour out of it. If you are spending £12 on 2 nice filet steaks it needs some seasoning. Just ask Gordon Ramsay!

If you cook with quality fresh ingredients, season it yourself and don't eat processed food it is highly unlikely you would get anywhere near your RDA for salt.

A small amount of salt is essential in our diet in any case, without it we would die.

Methuselah said...

Mini - to get the most out of food in a gourmet sense, no doubt you do need to add salt. Since I don't add salt to any of my food and don't eat processed food, my taste buds are quite sensitive. So a £12 steak tastes superb to me without any seasoning. No doubt it would taste even better if I followed one of Gordon Ramsey's recipes, but I am perfectly content with the current levels of pleasure I derive! I am also still alive, which I assume to be evidence for ample salt content existing naturally in the vegetables, seafood, meat etc I consume. Another thing to consider is that our hunter gatherer ancestors seemed to get by without digging holes to look for impromptu salt mines before each meal...

Neil said...

£12 steaks!! I'm coming round to your place :)

Anonymous said...

Just to add my 2 cents.
I live in the U.S., and I totally agreee that there is no need to have sugar in your chicken. I cooked a whole bird (pastured, of course)last night, and to get that "golden color", I rub it down with a little extra virgin olive oil. In fact, that browns up most poultry quite nicely!

Anonymous said...

Here's one that shocked me, I thought about going for breakfast in Marks and Spencer and felt like porridge, that comes with an optional honey or fruit compote option. Preferring mine unsweetened (and knowing the M&S reputation for sugar in everything) I double checked if the porridge had sugar added already, lo and behold it did. I figured I'd settle for any savoury meal without added sugar, a soup, sandwich, anything, the server scoured through the ingredients lists of the cafe, and even he was shocked to find there was nothing that could be eaten at the cafe that did not come with added sugar... ! I ended up not eating there...

Methuselah said...

Depressing, but not surprising!

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