Radio 4’s Food Programme on “real food”

In recent episodes of  BBC Radio 4’s The Food Programme there have been interesting examples of – and some challenges to – the show’s dogma. I think it is fair to say the show is crusading for something it calls “real food”. But what is that?

One episode (“The Calorie”, 24 October 2011) I’m thinking of was devoted to the idea of calorie-counting. The show lined up various people who argued that there was no solid connection between a food’s energy content and its being a contributor to obesity. So far so good, one may say. It may be that it’s no good just going by the calorie count on food packaging. (Thought that’s one of the means by which I am discriminating between foods, and it seems to work, more or less.) Along the way, contributors complained about “processed food”. The show’s sign-off was to the effect that we might overcome any confusion by insisting on “real food”.

But this is nonsense, surely, and we were in effect reminded of some of the silliness of the idea in an episode of the show (“Future Food”, 14 November 2011) which looked at a subset of the foodie movement:  “food futurists” are deliberately messing with our ideas about the stuff. They were toointeresting for the Food Prgramme to ignore, but they were mostly off-message.

Some of my irritation with the the FP caliphate is that they are sure that words like “slow”, peasant, natural, old-fashioned, revivalist, heritage, artisinal, organic, free-range, or co-operative are good. I don’t share that, but I get it.

More particularly and seriously I can’t see that anyone would be wise to construct a diet which avoided processing. Even leaving aside the fact that to do so would eliminate cooking, one has to reckon with getting rid of bread, cheese, pasta and butter. All are processed, and all are variously good or bad for slimmers or gourmands, according to circumstance. Of course, most restaurant food is the ultimate in processing, but somehow escapes censure.

But I can’t see that an all-in-one TV dinner, for instance, or a military rations pack, or a Complan drink, must be assumed to be lesser – or unreal – food merely because they are extremely processed.  Ready-meals can be formulated so as to be healthy, tasty, and indeed artisinal, by turns.

Wherein does “real” food consist? One might go for provenance, animal welfare, conservation values, dietary merit, culinary diligence or talent. I see that ideas of authenticity and naturalness will sometimes come into play, for some people. But we have to remember, for instance, it might well be the case that the “unnatural” pig farming of the UK may have much higher welfare standards than the more “natural” farming of a peasant. And someone might well choose to source their food from intensive horticultural firms rather than free-range or organic beef herds.

The point is that there is no such thing as “real” food.


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Publication date

24 November 2011