Food for thought

When I moved to Glasgow a couple of years ago, I was struck by the same thought again and again: my dinner tastes like crap. Or rather, it didn’t taste of anything. Thick sirloin steaks didn’t really taste of steak, no matter how I cooked them; tomatoes were cold, but didn’t really have any flavour; even cheese – my great weakness – was bland and lifeless.

At first I wondered if I’d left my tastebuds back in Ayrshire, but when I started looking into the food I was eating I spotted one key difference. Before I moved to Glasgow most of the food I ate was local, so for example almost all of the meat I ate came from a local farm. When I moved to Glasgow, most of the food I ate came from supermarkets.

So I started looking at the labels of the food I was buying, and discovered that in many cases I was buying something that looked like food, but which was largely a collection of preservatives, colourings and water. Fruit and veg had been picked long before it was ripe and transported halfway around the world, which explained why it didn’t go off for a week but also explained why it didn’t taste right. I started reading up on the food industry and the supermarket industry, and learned what terms such as “reformed” and “mechanically recovered” meant; I read a few articles about the pesticides and chemicals in foodstuffs, the micro-organisms in milk and the regular health scares about factory farming. So I went organic.

There are three things you need to know about organic food. First, it’s much more expensive than supermarket “value” ranges. Secondly, it takes a lot more effort (so a weekly shop isn’t enough). And thirdly, it usually looks awful and tastes fantastic.

The first time I tried organic fruit, I ended up covered in juice – not because I have particularly sloppy eating habits, but because I was used to fruit that wasn’t particularly juicy or tasty. I had to learn how to cook bacon again, because I was used to chucking bacon into the pan, waiting for it to shrink and chucking more in. Organic bacon isn’t full of water, so it doesn’t shrink. I had to get used to shopping several times a week, because organic fruit and veg is ripe and therefore goes to mush in a couple of days. And I rediscovered my tastebuds, which had been largely unused for several months.

There’s another benefit to organic food, which is that by choosing organic you’re generally supporting smaller, local farms and shops instead of giving yet more cash to the supermarket chains. Don’t get me wrong, I still buy stuff from supermarkets – wine, toiletries, bread, the odd packet of crisps – but their power (and their effect on small shopkeepers) worries me. If you want a good scare, the non-fiction book “shopped” is worth reading.

I’m convinced that to future generations, our eating habits will seem insane – and I suspect that the health consequences of cheap (ie. adulterated) food will come back to haunt us.