Britain leads the rest of the world in consumption of ready meals. Our trust in the manufacturers of processed foods and drinks would be touching if it was not so harmfully misplaced.
Time and again, those processed food and drink manufacturers have been shown to be far more concerned about maximising and protecting their profits than they are about the health of their customers.
Their most profitable ingredient is also their most deadly – sugar. Like salt, it is a cheap but unhealthy ingredient that can be used to bulk out cereals, yoghurts, cooking sauces, fizzy drinks, cakes, biscuits and, of course, ready meals.
In the early 1970s, a British scientist called John Yudkin published a book of his research into the impact of sugar in our diet. Called “Pure, White and Deadly”, Yudkin’s book set out the evidence linking sugar consumption with health problems, in particular coronary heart disease.
At the time Yudkin’s book was published, contradictory (and bogus) research by an American nutritionist called Ancel Keys had already laid the blame for coronary heart disease on saturated fats. Keys’ research suited the processed food manufacturers because it gave them an opportunity to replace expensive fats with cheaper sugars in their products, rebranding them as “low fat” and, by implication, “healthy”.
Yudkin’s research threatened this whole new edifice of “low fat” healthy food products because it showed quite clearly that sugar, the very product the manufacturers were using to replace fat, was far more deadly.
What is perhaps most instructive in the story of John Yudkin is the way the food industry responded to his book.
The World Sugar Research Organisation described “Pure White and Deadly” as “science fiction”. The British Sugar bureau put out a press release describing Yudkin’s findings as “emotional assertions”. Ancel Keys, whose own research stood to be discredited by Yudkin’s identification of sugar as the real enemy, engaged in a series of personal attacks on Yudkin, claiming for example that Yudkin’s research was a “mountain of nonsense” and accusing him of being a propagandist for the meat and dairy industries.
Other attacks came in more subtle form. Access to research facilities were suddenly withdrawn from Yudkin, and he also no longer received invitations to international scientific conferences. By the time of his death, in 1995, both John Yudkin and his research had become completely marginalised and discredited through the efforts of the processed food industry (“Pure White and Deadly” had even gone out of print).
Indeed, such was the ferocity of the food industry’s response that it undoubtedly discouraged other scientists from following up Yudkin’s research. Thanks to their aggressive protectionist actions, for the subsequent nearly 50 years the ingredients going into a processed food continued unchanged and unchallenged, despite the evidence of their danger to health.
In those intervening years we have seen an explosion in rates of obesity and diabetes in the UK, most of it thanks to the excessive sugar pumped into our food.
There are numerous other examples of these companies acting to protect their commercial interests whilst simultaneously preventing us from knowing what they are really up to – misleading labelling, misleading and targeted advertising, sponsorship of research designed to portray their products in a favourable light, marginalisation and discrediting of any research which threatens their business, and of course worming their way into government policy making.
The UK TV’s Channel 4 revealed a couple of years back that half of the sixteen members of the government’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition – the body which is there to advise the government on things like nutrition and obesity – had between them received millions of pounds of funding from the very food industry companies that are pumping us full of sugary products, including Tate & Lyle, Coca Cola, Mars and Unilever.
If recent history has taught us anything at all it is that we cannot trust the manufacturers of processed foods and drinks to do anything other than prioritise their profits, whatever the cost to our individual and collective health.
One of the most popular of the various ready meal ranges in the UK is a sugar-laden version of the classic Chinese dish chow mein.
Real chow mein is believed to have originated in China’s Guangdong province. It translates simply as “fried noodles” and is most commonly cooked with chicken, but here it works deliciously well with tofu. It’s a dish which is very easy to make from scratch, as this recipe shows. And of course, the most obvious advantage of cooking from scratch is that you know precisely what has gone into the food you are going to eat.
If you are one of those people who say they find tofu bland and uninteresting then this could be the dish to change your mind. Tofu is only bland when it is not prepared and cooked properly. It needs to be treated like a delicate sponge – squeezing out the water content first so that it will later soak up the beautiful flavours in the sauce.
vegetable chow mein
400 g block of tofu
1 carrot, cut into thin julienne strips
100 g bean sprouts
250 g pak choi, shredded
6 spring onions, finely sliced on the diagonal
4 tbsp groundnut oil
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 red chilli, de-seeded and finely chopped
3 cm piece fresh ginger, finely chopped
200 g rice noodles
60 ml dark soy sauce
60 ml light soy sauce
2 tbsp sesame oil
40 ml rice wine
40 ml maple syrup
2 tbsp cornflour
1. Cook the noodles in a large pan of boiling water according to packet instructions until just tender. Drain and rinse under cold water. Drain again, and tip back into the cooking pan with 1 tbsp sesame oil. Stir and set to one side.
2. Gently squeeze the block of tofu to release excess water. Wrap in several layers of kitchen paper and lay the block flat between two chopping boards. Place weights on the top board and leave for 20 minutes. This will help extract more water.
3. Make a sauce by whisking together the soy sauce, sesame oil, maple syrup, garlic, chilli, ginger and rice wine vinegar.
4. Take the pressed tofu from between the boards and carefully unwrap from the kitchen paper. Cut the block into four by slicing once lengthways and once crossways. Place each quarter on its side and cut into four thin slices. You should end up with sixteen pieces each around 5 cm by 4 cm and half a centimetre thick.
5. Put the cornflour in a bowl. Roll the pieces of tofu in the cornflour so that they are lightly coated. Set aside for 30 minutes. The cornflour will draw more moisture from the tofu and also helps give it a light, crispy edge.
6. Place a wok over a high heat. Add 2 tbsp of groundnut oil. Once the oil is hot, carefully add the tofu pieces to the wok. You may need to do this in two batches. Cook the tofu for 3-4 minutes per side, or until it is a light golden colour. Remove from the wok with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper. Set to one side.
7. Clean the wok and place back on a high heat. Add 2 tbsp groundnut oil. Once it is hot add the carrot. Stir fry for 2-3 minutes until the carrot is becoming tender, then add the pak choi, the bean sprouts and the spring onions. Stir fry for a further 3 minutes then add the noodles. Stir fry for a further 3 minutes. Finally, add the tofu and the sauce. The liquid will quickly bubble up. Stir it through the vegetables, tofu and noodles and cook for a further 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and serve immediately.