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


Anonymous said...

This is great, well done for getting in touch with M&S about the matter....I have noticed that most pre-packed and pre-cooked meats contain high levels of salt I can see why they do this (preservative) but they have no excuse to be loading the stuff with sugar, its probably to make it more palatable to our carb obsessed nation....

Anonymous said...

Is it Free Range?

Methuselah said...

Anon - the one in the photo, yes. The stuff M&S sells, not as far as I know....

Scott Kustes said...

Methuselah, good work on contacting M&S. I recall checking the label of deli-made deviled eggs back in the day and seeing "high fructose corn syrup". Now, I'm no deviled egg expert, having never made them myself. But as I recall from watching my mom make them throughout childhood, it's eggs, a bit of mayo and mustard, and that's about it. I don't recall Mom ever adding HFCS.

And I have to say one thing in regards to the first sentence: GAH! I can't stand misuse of the word "myself". It's become darn near epidemic of people trying to sound smarter than they are, yet sounding incredibly dumb.

Scott Kustes
Modern Forager

Methuselah said...

Scott - always good to find a fellow stickler for correct grammer! The same problem exists with the word 'yourself' as you are no doubt aware. I am daily confronted with this misuse at work and people often wonder why I have developed a wry smile in a meeting for no apparent reason.

You may also notice the equally glaring grammatical error in Mike Rogers' response in part 2, where he misuses the word 'whilst'...

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