How Covid-19 has changed the way we eat

 

 

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‘Still Life with Cheese’ by Floris van Dijck, c.1615 © Universal History Archive/Shutterstock

Scrolling past yet another banana bread photo on Instagram, it’s easy to feel cynical about the clichés of lockdown cooking that have exploded as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet the onslaught of sourdough starters that heralded the nation’s return to wholesome home-cooking signals a much more significant shift in the way Britons think and feel about food.

Long before Boris Johnson implemented a nationwide lockdown in late March, supermarket shelves across Britain were swept clean, having been emptied of essentials like toilet paper and pasta by a hysterical wave of panic-buyers. As a direct result of consumer stockpiling and compromised supply chains, many people experienced scarcity for the first time in their lives. Forced to stare at the hard reality that food is, in fact, finite, we began to value, respect and honour food in a way that has been lost since wartime Britain. Many of us reverted back to weekly or fortnightly shops, carefully constructing meal plans and adapting to create new meals out of leftover food. Research by Hubbub – a UK-based sustainability charity – found that 57% of Britons value food more now than they did pre-coronavirus, and as a result, levels of food waste between April and June fell significantly in the UK.

Ever since the American-influenced consumerist culture boom in the 1950s, the UK has fostered a problematic food culture. As a nation, we have learned to rely on endless choice and abundance, regardless of quality or season. The idea of always being able to have whatever we want, whenever we want, has given way to a shockingly throwaway food culture. Recent figures published by WRAP in January 2020 revealed that households in the UK throw away 4.5 million tonnes of food each year that could have been eaten, collectively worth £14 billion. In the UK alone, 24 million slices of bread (or one million loaves) are wasted every single day, which annually produces an amount of carbon dioxide equivalent to more than half a million return flights from London to New York. On top of this, prolonged austerity and rising poverty levels combined with increasingly busy work schedules and stressful lifestyles have generated a mass departure from home-cooking, with more and more households relying on take-out food or ready meals. In the space of just a few generations, an alarming pattern has begun to emerge in which the quality, nutrition and provenance of food is superseded by aesthetics, speed and convenience on a mass-scale.

However, the optimistic among us can see a silver lining to the pandemic in that it has helped us to see the true value of food. Many of those who have been furloughed or are working from home have enjoyed more time for cooking from scratch, partly necessitated by the closure of restaurants and pubs. Covid-19 has brought to light that not only is food a precious, limited commodity, but it also has an incredible emotional significance. Whilst the methodical, creative process of cooking can be a therapeutic time to slow down, the act of eating itself is one that is joyful, and has provided comfort for many over what has been a very stressful, uncertain and frightening time. During lockdown, a slower pace of life has lent crucial time to reflect on what is truly important in life, with sitting down and eating good food with loved ones high up on many people’s priorities.

Nationwide shortages of eggs, flour and sugar from March to May heralded a nostalgic return to home baking, as cooking simultaneously became a source of comfort and a rewarding source of entertainment that has the capacity to bring about a real sense of achievement. As a student, I’ve seen a number of friends get creative in the kitchen over lockdown, setting up dedicated Instagram accounts to document their culinary projects; beginner bakers soon grew to be focaccia aficionados and were relishing the challenge of more complex patisserie. My brother quickly became a gardening fanatic, using extra time saved from his two-hour daily commute to grow his own herbs and vegetables in the garden. This interest in sustainable, home-grown food is echoed in the sharp rise in applications for allotments across the UK during lockdown.

With cookery books and kitchen gadgets widely out of stock online, it’s clear that lockdown has incited a mass rediscovery of the joy of cooking. But as the world begins to slowly heave itself into recovery, the question remains – can we solve our relationship with food for good? Will we have time to bake bread and cook from scratch when we return back to work and university full-time? It’s easy to romanticise ‘the good old days’ of the early twentieth century, where Britons largely sat down every evening for a home-cooked meal made from local, seasonal ingredients. In today’s globalised world, food production and consumption are inherently different, but that doesn’t mean it has to be inherently worse. We must all take the responsibility of educating ourselves on how to be ethical and sustainable consumers, and make an active effort to carve out sacred time for both cooking and eating as lockdown eases further.

For all of us, the pandemic has been a life-changing period which has forced us to re-examine the way we live our lives. It’s impossible to know if society will ever fully return to its pre-Covid state, but over the last six months, many of us have made positive changes to the way we eat and perceive food. We still have a long way to go in terms of reducing the UK’s food waste, but the figures from lockdown are promising. The UK government’s plans for a so-called ‘green recovery’ from Covid-19 need a greater focus on food if we’re going to create a more sustainable society. Returning to a culture of home-cooking is a step in the right direction for repairing Britain’s relationship with food, not only in terms of food waste but also in battling the national obesity crisis. Relearning the intrinsic value of good food must be the springboard to address other issues we have with food and its production, including the threat to food standards imposed by an imminent US trade deal, and the detrimental effect that intensive animal farming has on ecosystems and climate. The next six to twelve months will reveal whether Britons can retain the lessons of this surreal and trying period, or whether we’ll swing back into old habits at the first given opportunity.

The Problem with British Chicken

 

It hardly comes as a surprise that chicken is Britain’s favourite meat; it’s versatile, rich in protein and much lower in saturated and calories than red meat. Chicken amounts for half of all meat eaten in the UK, and as a nation we eat a staggering 900 million chickens per year. Despite this, the majority of Britons are ignorant as to where their meat comes from, and the truth behind mass chicken farming. Equally, many are simply reluctant to scratch the surface and continue to turn a blind eye in a bid to enjoy their chicken guilt-free.

I admit that the issue of farming standards is something I became much more aware of after my family rescued three lovely battery chickens two summers ago. Whilst chicken had previously been something exclusive to my plate, having chickens wandering around in the garden taught me that they are far more social, intelligent and inquisitive than I thought. To our surprise, my family and I really quite grew to love them. When they first arrived from the battery warehouse, the three girls were stressed, scrawny, quivering and, in places, featherless. Over a matter of weeks, though, we saw them develop into plump, energetic and glossy birds, with real personalities and the ability to recognise different individuals.

In fairness, misleading marketing and advertising of chicken has a huge part to play in the public’s perception of chicken farming. The primary source of this miscommunication comes from a number of labels incorrectly marketing said chicken to be humanely farmed and of good quality; these include the terms ‘farm assured’, ‘farm fresh’, ‘British’ and ‘corn fed’ commonly pasted on chicken packaging. The fact that a bird is British is not an assurance of quality, and simply indicates that it is a ‘greener’ choice due to lower amassed air miles. Similarly, corn-fed chicken is not necessarily a high welfare choice; though a corn-based diet affects the colour, texture and taste of the meat, it is not indicative of a humane upbringing. In fact, these commonly used labels guarantee next to nothing; the vast majority of chickens that are eaten in the UK are intensively farmed in very poor conditions. Whilst the ‘Red Tractor’ label is often seen as an assurance of quality (Nando’s, for instance, proudly advertise that they only use ‘British Red Tractor birds’), in reality, Red Tractor operates under the absolute minimum EU welfare standards. Shockingly, this allows up to 19 birds per square metre, which are housed in barren barns, with no access to natural light. After only six weeks – which is just half the natural time – the birds are taken to slaughter, and as a result many are too weak to even stand. Even though the use of antibiotics has been reduced, chickens are still often given doses to keep them alive in conditions that would otherwise kill them. Therefore, increased human antibiotic resistance could be being worsened by eating birds farmed in this way. Not only this, but recent research has shown that as much as 92% of chicken for sale is actually contaminated with faecal matter, contributing to the 250,000 Britons that fall ill from poultry food poisoning each year. Rather than being of a decent welfare standard, these practises seem barbaric and it’s bewildering to me that it is even legal to treat animals like this on such a huge scale.

To ensure that high welfare farming methods have been used, look for the terms ‘free range’, ‘organic’ and ‘RSPCA-assured’. A free-range bird will have grown for longer than one that has been intensively farmed, and will have had access to natural light and green spaces for at least half of their lives. Naturally, you’ll pay much more for an organic bird, but this chicken will have benefitted from the highest welfare standards possible, with more outside space than a free-range bird, having the freedom to move between green, outdoor spaces and light, spacious barns. The birds are given the time to grow at their natural pace, and a foraged diet and more active lifestyle results in a chicken that is ultimately much more flavoursome. Not only this, but an organic bird will be higher in healthy omega-3 fatty acids and lower in saturated fat.

At this stage, I’m sure that there are some of you are thinking that organic meat is all very well for those who can afford it, but for most people on a budget it’s not a realistic or sustainable option. However, if one makes the decision to eat and enjoy meat – because, really, it is a decision rather than human assumption that we have to eat it – then it seems fair to take the responsibility for where that meat has come from and the process it has undertaken to get to your plate. It almost seems patronising to say that anyone on a tighter budget can’t afford to care about these welfare issues; ethical and economic issues are independent of one another, and ethical issues cannot be overlooked on the grounds of economics. If it does nothing else of merit, perhaps Brexit will help secure better welfare standards for meat in the UK – earlier this year Michael Gove stated that farmers would be granted larger public subsidies for taking better care of their livestock under new Government plans for a ‘green Brexit’. Perhaps the key is for us to adopt an attitude whereby all meat, including chicken, is viewed as more of a treat than an everyday staple, so that when we do have it, we’re happier to pay that bit extra to ensure the animal has been treated with respect and dignity.

The Problem With Gluten Free Diets

Bread 3This post marks the advent of a new feature on my blog for 2018; a series of posts titled ‘The Problem with…’ which aim to analyse and potentially pick apart current food trends. Before I say anything, I feel it is necessary to tell you that I have coeliac disease myself, a serious auto-immune disease which means I cannot eat gluten, and if I do, I will become very ill. It is thought that coeliac disease affects about 1 in 100 people in the UK, although huge amounts of people remain undiagnosed.

This therefore makes it a source of personal frustration that a diet that I have to religiously maintain for medical reasons has become a fashionable and ‘healthy’ lifestyle choice for the masses. A gluten free diet is necessary for my long-term health but it is not something that that I enjoy. I miss gluten – desperately. I may have been only three when I was diagnosed, but I had already encountered the joys of hot crusty rolls, yeasty, soft doughnuts, buttery croissants and pastries, warm char siu buns…the list of now tragically forbidden foods goes on and on. And so why has it become popular to voluntarily prohibit something that is so delicious?

Perhaps a desire to lose weight may answer the above question. Ultimately, cutting out gluten does not lead to weight loss. This false link was probably born out of fad carb-free diet crazes from the 90s such as the Atkins diet, but clearly carbohydrates and gluten are not the same thing. In fact, many gluten free branded products such as bread, biscuits and cakes are actually more calorific that the original product, as they’re pumped with additional sugar, fats and stabilisers in a bid to mimic the properties and textures of gluten. On a practical level, gluten free products are also far more expensive; whilst a regular sliced loaf would cost around 80p, a gluten free loaf will cost around £3.00 (the NHS consequently offers GF bread, pasta and flour on subscription for those with coeliac disease).

Unfortunately, it seems that there is a lot of misinformation when it comes to gluten. I feel sure that if you asked those who followed a gluten free diet what gluten actually is, the majority wouldn’t be able to tell you (for those interested, it’s a protein form found in wheat, barley and rye). Indeed, most people who claim to be on a gluten free diet actually aren’t, either through ignorance and hypocrisy. On a personal level, I have become hugely frustrated in the past when people who claim to be following a gluten free diet continue to consume things such as beer, whisky, soy sauce, fruit squash and flavoured crisps, all foods which would be ruinous for a coeliac.

Contrary to what we’re told by the media, a gluten-free diet is not healthy. As Dr Michael Greger writes ‘Just because some people have a peanut allergy doesn’t mean everyone should avoid peanuts’. It is not recommended for the general public to follow a gluten free diet unless absolutely necessary, and anyone who does take this decision should consult a doctor before eliminating gluten from their diet. In fact, cutting gluten out of your diet will most often have an adverse effect on your health; without gluten, an individual can very easily become significantly deficient in both fibre and iron (I myself have suffered from anaemia in the past). Indeed, some studies have tentatively suggested that there are higher rates of heart disease in people who eat a gluten free diet. Perhaps most significant is the effect that a gluten free diet has on your microbiome and immune system. A recent Spanish study found that a month on a gluten-free diet impairs our gut flora, potentially setting those on gluten-free diets up for an overgrowth of harmful bacteria in their intestines. Gluten itself may also boost immune function; after less than a week on added gluten protein, subjects experienced notably increased natural killer cell activity, which could even improve our body’s ability to fight viral infections and cancer. In a different study, bread with high gluten content was found to improve triglyceride levels better than regular gluten bread. This anti-gluten epidemic is particularly concerning given that most people in the UK aren’t eating enough fibre anyway. Gluten-filled whole grains – such as wheat, spelt, barley and rye – are rich in fiber, providing diversity for microbes in the gut. Not only this, but they are also linked to reduced risk of coronary heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, and other chronic diseases.

Furthermore, the upsurge of the gluten-free trend seems to have undermined the seriousness of coeliac disease. Now that the phrase ‘Gluten Free’ is thrown around fairly flippantly – hundreds of products (even shampoo) are now branded ‘Gluten Free’ to boost their selling power – it doesn’t always guarantee that there is no risk of cross contamination, especially in restaurants. Given that even 20 parts per million can be toxic to a coeliac, it’s all too easy for food to become contaminated and subsequently hugely harmful for a coeliac. The phrase ‘Gluten free’ now has connotations of wellbeing and weight loss, rather than as a medical indicator. Whilst some restaurant chains – such as Pizza Express and Cote Brasserie – are markedly aware and cautious when it comes to cross contamination and serving safe food to coeliacs (thus earning them official Coeliac UK accreditation), the majority don’t take the necessary precautions to ensure food is actually gluten-free, rather than just safe for those with ‘intolerances’.

Having said all of this, there is a recognised condition called ‘gluten sensitivity’, although it’s medical credibility is still sketchy, and little is understood of it. Although 15% of people believe that they have a mild version of this, interestingly, a study that tested and retested a number of these ‘sufferers’ with dummy foods found that the majority of those who were ‘intolerant’ were not found to have any difficulty eating or digesting gluten. I do understand that there are people who genuinely do feel sluggish and bloated after consuming gluten. Whilst many doctors have conceded that more research is to be done on this sector, to me, the main problem seems to be not the gluten itself, but the highly-processed gluten-containing foods that people are eating.

It’s not hard to see that excessively processed ‘plastic’ supermarket white, sliced bread or shop-bought cakes are damaging for the digestive system and will leave many feeling bloated and lethargic. Alternatively, as I mentioned before, unprocessed, whole and unrefined grains such as spelt and rye, along with things like oats and sourdough bread, have a high glycaemic index and are actively beneficial for gut health, blood pressure, weight control.

Exclusion diets are never healthy but ultimately there will always be fad diets and new ‘toxic’ foods to avoid (in the 1980s it was MSG, and salt in the 00s). I can only hope that with a better understanding of gluten and what it does, people will begin to recognise that health reports from the media are often misinformed and distorted. Gluten is not the enemy; it is not ‘dirty’ and cutting it out will not make your diet ‘clean’.

 

 

 

Mould or Fold?

Fridge

It’s a predicament most of us have had to face; staring at a questionable packet of vegetables in the fridge, you debate whether to investigate further into their edibility – weighing up the benefit of having something to eat against the horrifying risk of revealing some putrid, furry underbelly – or to, more effortlessly, chuck them. And, though I’m sure many of us would [guiltily] choose the latter on the basis of haste and practicality, there is an urgent necessity for Britain to change its attitude around food. It is a real blessing that the vast majority of Britons have enough to eat, but indeed a curse that we all too often have too much to eat and fail to place the value food that we should. Levels of food waste in the UK have reached horrifying levels; according to the Waste Resources Action Programme, Britain throws away 7.3 million tonnes of food every year. Notwithstanding the detrimental effect to the environment, this degree of wastage is also financially detrimental, costing the average UK household around £60 a month. A huge amount of this waste comes from supermarkets, as between them Asda, Co-operative Food, M&S, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose disposed of over 200,000 tonnes of food in 2013. It is an endless source of bewilderment to me that Britain has not already followed France’s lead in tackling food waste; in February 2016 the French senate unanimously passed a law that banned supermarkets from destroying or throwing away unsold food, instead forcing them to donate it to food banks, charities or else for it to be made into animal feed. Although no such legislation exists in Britain, there are several organisations which strive to put unwanted food to use; The Real Junk Food Project’s Leeds café alone fed 10,000 people using 20 tonnes of unwanted food in the space of just 10 months, which has sparked a worldwide movement of pay-as-you-feel cafes that divert wasted food into delicious and healthy dishes. On top of this, The People’s Fridge (London’s first community fridge launched in Brixton in February of this year) provides an outlet for local businesses to donate spare food in a bid to cut food waste, encourage food sharing and tackle food poverty in Britain, which is an increasing source of concern seeing as 8.4 million people in Britain live in food insecurity.

Having said all of this, what is more alarming is that supermarkets only contribute a mere 1.3% to total UK food waste; it is therefore exceedingly clear that the gross extent of food waste stems not from commercial businesses, but from our own homes. I’ll admit to the occasional unnecessary food chuck, but I grew up with family who were almost frighteningly frugal when it comes to food. I have a particularly perturbing memory of my father scraping a thick, downy layer of blue-green mould off a raspberry jelly with his teaspoon before eagerly tucking in; or there’s my Gran, who was known to defensively insist that the can of soup – which was priced in shillings – which my brother had drawn from her pantry was ‘absolutely fine!’ Admittedly, their habits near the extreme, but nevertheless the British need to turn their stiff upper lip to their attitudes surrounding food. To start with, don’t over-buy; the majority of food waste is stuff that we simply just never get round to eating. On top of this, we should be braver with the food we already have that is somewhat ‘questionable’; from my experience, if it looks alright, smells alright, and tastes alright, then it’s probably alright. Sometimes, all you need is to be a bit more imaginative with the sad, wilting food in your fridge; overripe fruit can be made into a smoothie or a coulis, drooping vegetables can be whizzed into a soup, and, dare I say it, mould can be scraped off cheese providing it’s minimal and you’re hungry. In fact, I positively look forward to finding stale bread in the bread bin, which holds the potential for croutons, breadcrumbs, French toast, even bread and butter pudding. I draw the line at dodgy chicken or dodgy rice – they have to go.

Of course, restaurants also have a part to play in the food waste debate, throwing away 900,000 tonnes of food each year in Britain. However, there is hope. Pret-a-Manger’s company policy demands that all of their food is made freshly and that none is thrown away – at the end of each day, Pret donates everything that they can to the homeless instead of throwing it in the bin like all other restaurant chains. And, true to form, Selfridges has instilled some glamour into the food waste debate with their sell-out pop-up restaurant WastED; the New York chef Dan Barber – alongside several guests including Alain Ducasse and Yotam Ottolenghi – has created a five-week menu that transforms leftover food (such as pockmarked potatoes, vegetable trimmings and tinned-chickpea water) into fine-dining food, the star dish being a whole charred cod’s head.

The fact is, the British government puts far more emphasis on sell-by-dates and the laws surrounding them than food wastage legislation and redistribution initiatives. What we must do is recognise the bizarre imbalance between Britain’s increasing food waste levels and the rising number of people living in food insecurity, and lend more support to organisations that work to balance this out. Far be it from me to contradict ‘official’ food health standards, but, after all, we did manage to survive perfectly well before the advent of the sell-by date sticker; perhaps we should re-assess the iron grip this sticker has grown to hold over our lives.

 

Life of Pie

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‘The cook disappeared. Almost at once she was back again staggering under the weight of an enormous round chocolate cake on a china platter. The cake was fully eighteen inches in diameter and it was covered with dark-brown chocolate icing.’

It’s difficult not to be familiar with this infamous Mathilda scene, evocative of sympathy and nausea in equal measure as the porky elementary-schooler Bruce Bogrotter is forced to ingest the entirety of a grossly rich, dense and fudgy chocolate cake, not only in front of the whole school but also under the menacing eye of the ‘Trunch’. Is it the horror of the aggressive enforcement of such excessive gluttony, combined with the humiliation of public gorging, that makes the scene so unforgettable? Or is it perhaps the inherent guilt that even though what we’re reading is obscene, extreme, and ever so slightly vile, there is also some feeling of bilious jealousy, a sense of longing for a taste of what is described as being the most sumptuous chocolate cake in all the land. It seems that food is unmistakably memorable in literature; the deployment of our imaginations can allow us to dream up the most delicious or most dire creations. Perhaps, in the same way that cities often seem that bit more magical when reading about them in a guide book than they do in reality (most likely down to the omission of the actuality of the sordid urban underbelly), so does fictional fodder seem override that of reality. Harry Potter’s Butterbeer, for instance, holds so much promise, mouth-wateringly described as a hot, foaming tankard of alcoholic butterscotch, yet, tragically, the commercial version offered at Warner Bros’ Studios is widely regarded to be a synthetic, sickly bevvy of overwhelming abhorrence. Similarly, earthly attempts to replicate the confectionary wonderment of Willy Wonka’s factory in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory have flopped spectacularly; it seems ludicrous how a purple-wrapped ‘Wonka’ bar from Sainsbury’s can be in any way related to the factory’s glorious torrent of liquid chocolate. I feel sure that the delights of Enid Blyton’s pop biscuits, google buns, and infamous ‘toffee shocks’, would, even if well-executed, doubtless fail to adhere to our very much elevated and totally extraordinary expectations. It has not escaped my notice that all of these examples are taken from children’s fiction, but, I suspect, that’s the point. Surely, there is no outlet more vivid or more creative than the imagination of a child, the limitations of which are very few and far between. It does seem totally paradoxical that food is more delicious when imagined than when eaten, but I suppose that’s just the way the literary-cookie crumbles.

 

 

The demonisation of food

It never ceases to amaze me how far the media can dictate our own opinions, most namely around food. Of late it seems that the two most sacred pillars of food, fulfilment and enjoyment, have been shrouded by deep and dark clouds of shame and guilt. Of course, food trends are inevitable and fairly harmless –whilst I have no doubt that shoulder pads will make a reappearance in years to come, so has the avocado emerged from its prawn-festooned grave and reinvented itself as the perfect toast-topper in a glittering, sanctimonious fanfare. Yet trends are a very different thing to the vilification of food that plagues the way we see what we eat now. Food is now subdivided into heroes and villains; expect considerable kudos for wolfing down chia seeds, quinoa and kale at regular intervals. Contemplate consuming sugar, gluten or processed meats, however, and you can expect to spend an eternity languishing in the pits of hell. Of course, the ascension of self-labelled health gurus such as the likes of Ella Woodward or the Hemsley sisters (whose relative beauty adds insult to injury) have only made things worse by pulling the woollen hat of deception over the all-too-ignorant eyes of the nation. It seems to me that people are far too quick to accept and adopt their campaigns with very little scrutiny to argument. Whilst Ella Woodward fiercely advocates giving up ‘refined sugar, gluten, dairy, anything processed or refined, and meat’, how can this be an appropriate diet for the masses when her motivation was the management of her own postural tachycardia syndrome? Similarly, the Hemsley sisters justify their damnation of gluten since ‘It breaks down the microvilli in your small intestine, eventually letting particles of your food leech into your bloodstream’ which is certainly the case…but only if you have the auto-immune defect ceoliac disease. The very fact that there have been so many fad diets in the last decade (Atkins, Dukan, no-salt, no-carb, no-solids…) is very telling of their crushing inffectuality. I’m afraid that the holy grail of eating well lies in the mundane; moderation and balance. You don’t have to be a ‘superfoodie’ to see that eating vast amounts of fat and sugar is unwise, but a wedge of chocolate cake is hardly going to kill you; that, surely, is mere common sense. Frankly, if you can’t muster the will power to eat in moderation, don’t blame the food, blame yourself. As Nigella Lawson, the font of all culinary – and any other field for that matter – wisdom says, ‘life is about balance, not being smug’.