Thursday, November 06, 2008

Not On The Label, by Felicity Lawrence


I just picked this up from the library in a rather desultory mood. It turns out that it’s pretty nifty. Felicity Lawrence is a food writer and investigative journalist for The Guardian. She’s written on food issues for the last twenty years.

The title suggests that the book will be a forensic look at what is actually put into your food, sort of in line with Bee Wilson’s marvellous book Swindled, which looked at the history of additives and other spurious food ‘ingredients’.

Happily, Felicity Lawrence takes a far wider approach than just food ingredients. Instead she looks at labour laws, immigration (cheap labour), regulation, politics, food ethics, environment, health, obesity. And they’re just the subjects I can rattle off the top of my head.

As you read, you soon get the impression that Lawrence has marshalled a lot of material (in fact, probably most of it) from her work for The Guardian. Hence the book doesn’t really feel like it has a particular theme that the author has been working towards. Rather it seems that her day job as a journalist has shaped the book instead.

This is not a criticism of the book, it just means that it has a bit of a scatter gun effect as Lawrence jumps nimbly from one subject to the next. So if you’re the sort of reader that is looking for an overall theme, you won’t really find it here. But if you have a fascination with odds and ends of information, then you will enjoy this. In fact, if you’ve already had an entrée to this type of food writing, then you will most likely enjoy this.

I loved Lawrence's section on food additives. I was gobsmacked to read that, according to Erik Millstone, Reader in Science and Policy at Sussex University, that people in industrialised countries now eat around 6-7 kilos of food additives a year. (Check out his book Food Additives and The Atlas of Food.)

Furthermore, ‘around $20 billion is spent each year by the food industry on chemical additives to change the colour, texture, flavour and shelf-life of our foods.’

I enjoyed this book and am trying to get hold of a new book Felicity Lawrence released this year about how the food industry is destroying our health. (It's called Eat Your Heart Out.)

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