BRIANWAVE COLUMN No 17: September 1995

Inglorious Food

Brian J Ford

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Wholesome food makes a wholesome heart. Refined foodstuffs are dangerous. You are what you eat. A natural diet is best. All popular views, and all hopelessly wrong.

Wholesome, natural foods are everywhere - farmhouse cheese, wheatgrain bread, a slice of quiche. And where does the notion of 'naturalness' come in? Cheese is a high-tech product. It is made by acidification and decomposition of secretions of modified sweat glands on the under-belly of genetically selected cattle. Their secretions are collected and kept until they go off. In many cases, they go off so badly that they go mouldy. Then we eat them. Charming.

And wholemeal bread? Wheat does not exist in nature. It is a man-made species. Once the grain has been ripened, it is ground and the flour is separated out - milling is technology. After that it is mixed with water and a fungus culture, and left to ferment. The fungus grows, filling the wet culture medium with bubbles of waste gas as it respires. When the sticky mass is blown up with carbon dioxide the whole mass is plunged into a hot oven and cooked until it is ready to char round the edges.

Then it is cooled, and the denatured mixture of milled seeds and fungus growth is eaten with relish (and often with a hunk of the cheese we met earlier). A significant proportion of people are allergic to the gluten in bread. There is another percentage who are intolerant of dairy produce. So: not only are these fundamentally unnatural products, they can be bad for you. Traditional cheese is one-third saturated animal fat, yet still I watch people eat cheddar with sunflower margarine ...

Which brings us to the quiche. Should you visit Lorraine, that pleasant, pastoral départment of northern France, you'll find that their view of a quiche isn't much like ours. Consider the ingredients of this universal health-freak food. The pastry case is made with fat and flour. The there's the filling: egg, a little milk, chopped bacon. It comes from the oven looking golden and delicious, and obviously terribly healthy.

It must be far better to eat something like that rather than the old-fashioned traditional breakfast grill of bacon, egg and fried bread - just think of the fat and starchy flour. Wait, though; did we not encounter the same essential ingredients in the quiche? So we did. Quiche is very similar to the full breakfast. It is just that quiche is fashionable, and the bacon and eggs are not. When it comes to choosing food, rationality and objectivity are nowhere to be seen.

And are refined foods so very bad? Are brown bread or brown sugar so much better than the refined, white versions? Let us consider where the refined product originated. Pure sugar (like pure flour) were in demand because most contaminants are brown. Refinement gave a product in which the majority of impurities had clearly been removed - the evidence was visible. Yes, food was still adulterated in years gone by (alum, for instance, was added bulk out sugar and chalk put in flour).

But we should not lose sight of the reason why foods were refined in the first place. Refinement meant purity. Today's wholemeal bread is speckled with added husks, bran, and grain. In previous ages the mottled bits would have been crushed beetles and mouse droppings. Food science has given us much for which to be thankful.

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