Tag Archives: Consumer behaviour

Baby’s Got Whiff? Dip It In Perfume!

Spanish babies are a malodorous breed. To disguise their offspring’s offensive stench, Iberian mamas have a powerful weapon at their disposal: Half-litre bottles of “Baby Cologne”. You want proof? Here are some pics I took this very morning in my local supermarket:



“Low in alcohol”

Now, I must confess, I know nothing whatsoever about miniature humans or the fancy potions that are meant to maintain their olfactory acceptability. It was my Spanish teacher who first drew my attention to this cultural difference in paediatric hygiene a few years ago, when she told me about her frustrations in trying to hunt down such a product in North London chemists after the birth of her first daughter, reaping nothing but raised eyebrows and contemptuous glares.

I can’t get my head around the concept either. Surely, most people dunk their whelps in a warm frothy bath at the end of the day in order to remove suspect residues, probably employing some sort of industrial cleaning product which is already lightly perfumed. Why would anyone expose their little princess’s pristine peachiness to any more chemicals than are absolutely necessary? And chemicals they do contain:


Contains one third less alcohol than other brands, apparently. And a healthy dose of Tirdeceth-9 Octane… WHAT?!  Oh, but look, it’s soap-free!


The question at the top reads, loosely translated, “What does it do for my baby?”, and then goes on to explain that the product lends an “original smell and wellbeing”, and that it “stimulates [the baby’s] senses owing to its special fragrance and your cuddles, which it loves so much”. I guess nobody would want to risk making physical contact with an untreated beast… Theres’s also a series of warnings, including “avoid contact with eyes”, “do not ingest”, “keep out of the reach of children”, “do not use near naked flames or heat sources”.

I’ve already professed my abject ignorance on the subject, but I thought I’d check some figures before hitting the ‘publish’ button. Owing to my work, which I do on rare occasions to finance my cake habit, I have access to a vast database detailling the sales of consumer goods by country, including toiletries and cosmetics. From this, I gather that “Baby and Child-specific Fragrances” are chiefly sold in six countries: Brazil, Spain, Mexico, France, Russia and Italy. This does seem to be a bit of a Latin thing…

Spain is the world’s second largest market (after Brazil), generating retail value sales of US$55.3 million in 2014, and Nenuco and Johnson’s (see my photos) are indeed the leading brands here in Spain. In annual per capita terms, Spanish consumers spent US$9.60 on its defenceless victims aged 0-11 years of age,  while Brazilian parents dowsed millions of tiny botties with US$11.50 worth of the stuff in 2014. Sales in the other countries I mentioned were rather minimal by comparison, hovering around the 1 dollar mark per child.*

So, people, do tell me, are babies sanitised in this way in your country…? Or do they prefer them au naturel?


[*For data source, click here]



Food Industry Ads – It’s A Parallel Universe!

You may think that, after trawling food industry websites for many years to earn my crust, by now I’d be desensitised to how these folks conduct their advertising, much like a seasoned undertaker, who has long since stopped flinching at the sight of the mangled corpses that pass through his premises. After all, it’s business-to-business communication replete with technical details aimed at food technologists rather than at the end consumer. However, since I’m also a consumer of food, I can’t completely switch off that part of my brain, and I thought it might be fun to share a few precious examples with you…

I bet you’ve always wanted one of these:


Those operators really can’t be trusted, can they? And hidden depths are clearly NOT appreciated….

Oh, what could be more heavenly than the smell of freshly baked bread or the buttery doughiness of croissants still warm from the oven… And isn’t comforting to know that there’s somebody behind the scenes, who worries about all this stuff:

Bakery IngredientsIgnorance is bliss, as they say. We definitely DON’T want to know the secret. EVER! Regarding the “friendly labelling”, there’s an explanatory rant coming up. Hold on to your seats. And your queasy stomachs.

But before we get to that, let me ask you this: what makes marshmallow so delectably fluffy and chewy at the same time? Sugar mixed with beaten egg whites in optimum proportions, right? Trouble is, them eggs is expensive – we desperately need something… erm… “innovative” to please our cost-conscious clientele.  Ingredients supplier Wacko Wacker has just the ticket:

Let me guess... Polyfilla? Polystyrene? Recycled upholstery!

Let me guess… Polyfilla? Polystyrene with a dash of added plasticiser? Recycled upholstery!


What the heck is a “Clean Label”, I hear you ponder…? Does it involve some hapless trainee scouring the ketchup splodges off the front of the bottle with a soft toothbrush before he puts it on the shelf…? Not quite. The “clean label trend”, as it’s known to industry insiders, is a topic that could probably fill the British Library twice over. I shall attempt to illustrate briefly.

The whole shenanigans started nearly two decades ago, when it slowly dawned on the industry that consumers didn’t find terms like “dioctyl sodium sulphosuccinate” and “butylated hydroxyanisole” on food packages all that appetising.

Essentially, the mission was (and still is!) to replace anything that sounds remotely like a “chemical” with something that Martha Stewart would keep in her pantry.

Sometimes, ingredient substitutions are required to produce a sparkling clean label, but a lot of the time, it’s simply a word game. I mean, why call something “hydrolysed starch” when “potato starch” will do nicely? Or is it “Monosodium glutamate” (MSG) that’s scaring the punters off your products in droves? No worries, just switch to “yeast extract”, which is virtually identical and does the same job.

RadiationSign“E-numbers”, in particular, are known for striking fear into European consumers’ hearts. They’ve been suspected of giving kids autism and poor ol’ granny pancreatic cancer, not to mention throttling the life out of strutting Frenchmen’s sperm… the list of their E-vil doings is endless. Thing is, most E-numbers are, in fact, harmless substances, and so manufactures have simply reverted to calling them by their first names, like vitamin C (instead of E300) and calcium (aka E170). Label space on food packages is at a premium and E-numbers provided a convenient short hand, but the mood has turned, and if, as a food manufacturer, you’re still bent on sticking to them, you may as well be slapping the radiation warning sign on your chocolate biscuit packets for all the good it’ll do your sales.

As for colourings and flavourings, a great big slew of them can just be referred to as “natural”, no need to give an E-number or a long-winded chemical name. The label will be clean, and everybody will be happy. Luckily, the average shopper doesn’t realise that you can make strawberry flavouring out of wood chips and still call it “natural” without breaking any laws. Nobody needs to know that the flavours don’t come from actual fruits.

Yum! Some days, my pee looks like this first thing in the morning...

Just as natural as the first slosh of morning pee…

You may be left with the impression that the food industry views you, the consumer, very much like this:


Trusting, infantile and clueless.

But at least they’ve a sense of humour about it…

And there was me thinking I was the Queen Of Sad Puns! I think I've been well and truly usurped...

And there was me thinking I was the Queen Of Sad Puns! I think I’ve been well and truly usurped…




Who Eats The Most Potatoes?

Germans have a reputation for being big on potatoes. But is it deserved? We shall find out…

As for me, personally, I can take them or leave them. Probably my least favourite are boiled potatoes of the “mealy” kind, which taste of nothing and clog up your windpipe. Floury potatoes are only ever palatable with lashings of butter and/or cheese, preferably mashed. Potato crisps, chips, fries, etc … I will eat them if they’re put in front of me, but it’s not something I’d ever crave.

This is the REAL thing

This is the REAL thing. Except for being boil-in-the-bag, that is… 😉

However ambivalent I might feel about spuds and potato products in general, I do have one big weaknesses: Kartoffelknödel. For those unfamiliar with them, they are the big brother of the Italian gnocchi. (Gnocchi have been, in fact, my fail safe substitute in foreign lands). It’s the texture that does it for me. They are like soft, chewy, springy putty. Gravy (there HAS to be gravy) sticks to Kartoffelknödel like iron filings to a magnet. Kartoffelknödel are a common accompaniment to German meat dishes, like pork roast and Sauerbraten.

Eastern Europe is Potato Crazy
OK, let’s get down to some figures. Which countries’ citizens consume the most fresh potatoes? I must admit, it was somewhat of a surprise to find Germany so frightfully low down on the list with just 22kg per capita in 2012. In 2007, it was still 30kg. Actually, Germany is very close to the global average of 23kg, but global consumption is slowly on the way up rather than declining. The reason for Germany’s dwindling fresh potato intake is the steadily growing popularity of processed foods, including processed potato products. Nobody wants to buy a bag of fresh potatoes anymore. I mean, they need preparation, perish the thought! Also, Germans scoff a lot of pasta and, increasingly, rice, displacing spuds as the national carbohydrate staple.


Really… you eat them like THAT?!?

As an aside – and things may have changed in the two+ decades since I left Germany – but eating a potato with the skin still on was totally unheard of back then. When I moved to the UK in the early 90’s, I was confronted with concept of “new potatoes” and baked potatoes. It was also the first time I’d seen people gobble up slices of (gasp!) unpeeled cucumber in their salads and sandwiches. I had clearly landed on an island inhabited by Pleistocene heathens. To my great relief, they did pull the skins off their bananas before biting into them, so not all was lost, as far as I could tell.

Back to the stats: Trumping the fresh potato consumption charts is the Ukraine, with 143kg per person in 2012. Now, this sounds like some serious potato load, but it’s an underestimate, because potatoes grown on allotments/datchas etc, destined for private consumption, which never enter the formal market place, are excluded from these figures.  Poland managed 116kg, and Russia 70kg. Incidentally, Peru, birthplace of the tuber, stood at 79kg per head.

Irish spud intake almost pales into insignificance by comparison, with 47kg and a falling tendency, but Ireland is still ahead of the UK’s 30kg. The US, shock horror, barely musters half of that! But we all know why: fries.

Yes, it was once a potato...

Screwed-up potatoes…

Next, let’s look at frozen processed potatoes. This includes potato chips for oven baking, potato waffles, croquettes, etc. The UK leads world per capita consumption with 21kg in 2013, followed by Australia and Canada (both 19kg), and the US (15kg).

Where potato crisps/chips are concerned, the surprise global leader turns out to be Norway, with a per capita intake of just over 4kg per head in 2013. Hot on its heels are the UK, Canada, Ireland, the Netherlands, followed by the US and Spain. In Spain, a small plate of “free” potato chips is usually served with drinks in places that can’t be bothered to do proper tapas. It’s always a total disappointment for me 😦

Anyway, let’s hear it from everybody else – what’s your fave potato product that you couldn’t live without?

Too Gay For Our Pasta? Barilla Gets Spagbol On Its Face

I spend a large part of my working week faffing around on blogs keeping up with the food industry news. Some of it is ho-hum, some of it is ha-ha (see my Hilarious Headlines posts here and here) and some of it is oh-no!  The latter tends to results from unsavoury discoveries (think horsemeat!), or from moronic statements that a gormless company exec lets rip through one of his orifices in public.

This post is about just such a shit storm, although it is not, strictly speaking, “news” anymore. The contentious utterance seeped through the airwaves a month ago. I wanted to watch the response unfold on the interwebs, and it was worth the wait.

Guido-BarillaSo, who said the stupid thing?
Guido Barilla, chairman of Italian pasta and pasta sauce maker Barilla, during a radio interview. (Barilla is the world’s leading pasta brand.)

What did he say?
Well, in response to a question regarding company’s advertising strategy, which, so far, had centred around a traditional family setting, with the mother serving food to her wedded husband and their bright eyed, bushy tailed offspring, he stated that the company would steadfastly continue to portray the “classic family” in its adverts.

Is that it..???
No. If only he’d left it at that…!

On further prodding, he said he would never use a gay couple to advertise Barilla pasta. He didn’t see things they way they did, so he continued, and if they didn’t like it, they could choose another brand of pasta.

And because his trotter clearly hadn’t sunk into the steaming pile quite far enough, he also stated that he was against homosexual couples adopting children.

(To be fair, he did say something about being in favour of gay marriage – which still lacks legal recognition in Italy – but the roar of the incredulous masses drowned that bit out.)

So, what happened next?

Well, pretty much this:

KidAnd that:


Almost immediately, the calls for a boycott started. There’s facebook page, of course there is!

But… is his opinion all that surprising?

No, there is nothing surprising at all about individuals holding these kinds of views. Nor was anyone expecting that a major food company, be it Barilla, Nestle, Kraft, Unilever, Danone or whoever, was going to feature same sex couples canoodling over their noodles or exchanging cheesy grins while spoonfeeding each other Philadelphia.

Bland and predictable continues to be the word. Let’s face it: Taking a light sabre to societal norms is not the natural terrain of companies vending kitchen cupboard staples. Grannie flashing a bare knee at gramps as she spreads Bertolli on his cracker is as edgy as it’s ever going to get.

But what I fail to understand is this: The execs of large companies are, above all, seasoned PR experts, trained not to volunteer any personal opinions or strategic data that could possibly compromise the mothership’s sales. And while a large company may ostensibly be aiming its products at a mainstream audience, WHY ON EARTH would a company boss actively go about alienating part of its consumer base?

Homosexual people, contrary to some sources, are not a mythical tribe inhabiting the deepest recesses of the Brazilian rainforest, shunning the evils of human civilisation, and in particular, dried bits of dough twisted into droll shapes. They are everybody’s family members, work colleagues, friends… In fact, a team of dedicated anthropologists who’ve been observing this species very closely in its natural habitat, aka The Real World, reported that its members eat pasta…and sometimes even TOGETHER with the “classic” people! ‘They’, one should imagine, also make up a fair number of Guido Barilla’s 14,000+ employees.

Anyway, how coming out with ill-conceived statements like these on public radio is going to bolster Barilla’s market share – which is every commercial company’s ultimate goal, surely! – remains a mystery.

Needless to say, after the public outcry broke, there was the oh-so predictable “I’m sorry if I offended anyone blah blah” fauxpology.

On the upside, the consumer backlash to such gaffes is usually quite creative. I’ve picked out a few amusing images for you:


"Here's what our traditional family has to say to Barilla" - posted on facebook

“Here’s what our traditional family has to say to Barilla” – posted on facebook

Some were quick to seize the glaring business opportunity:

Barilla 2GayPasta[I’ve collected these at random from various sites, if anyone would like attribution/credit for creating them, please leave a comment below, and I’ll sort it out asap.]

Is there anything more that Guido Barilla could do to smooth out the ripples in his lasagne sheets?
Hmmmm… he might want to follow the recent example of the CEO of an organisation with an even more conservative standing than his own, which manages to maintain a consumer base of around 1.2 billion, by issuing the following statement: “If a person is gay and seeks Go(o)d pasta and has good will hard cash, who am I to judge?”

Hilarious Headlines – August/September 2013

On my weekly perusal of the food industry news, I come across some funny bone tickling stuff. Let’s get straight to it.

‘Sieg Heil’ Hitler Wine Label Sparks New Nazi Row In Italy (08 August 2013, Foodanddrinkeurope.com)

The H-word never gets old, does it…?!

Apparently, there's a whole selection of "historical greats" to choose from... poor Che and Karl, they aren't exactly in the most delightful of company :(

There’s a whole selection of bottled historical greats to choose from. Poor Karl and Che, I don’t think they’re enjoying the company at all! Oh well, at least they’re way over on the left.

US Man Bathes in 300+ Cans of ‘poppling’ Pepsi Max (12 August 2013, http://www.beveragedaily.com)

Certainly looks like it’s doing *something* for him. Hey, isn’t there some urban myth that cola dissolves meat…? This may well be the last time he’s had fun in the bathroom by himself…

Machinery Firm Says Japan is 15 Years Ahead in Cake Innovation (20 Aug 2013, bakeryandsnacks.com)

Let’s be very clear about this: Japan has no bloody clue about cake! Japanese kitchens do not even have ovens. Well, in recent years, they have started to make an appearance, but Japan has even less of a baking tradition than Spain. And that’s saying something. (Something terrible, as far as I’m concerned.)

This is what a traditional Japanese cake looks like:

You see what I mean?! Two pancakes stuck together with something horrible like red bean paste or whatever.

Dorayaki Cake. See what I mean?! Two pancakes stuck together with something heinous like red bean paste. Yeuch!

Vietnamese Authorities Unclear: Is an Orange a Citrus Fruit? (21 Aug 2013, freshplaza.com)

OK, I take that back. The cluelessness crown is to go to Vietnam. Sorry, Japan!

A clear case o identity crisis

A clear case of an orange going through an identity crisis

Brazil Pig Quotes Increase (23 September 2013, themeatsite.com)

The caption below the headline read as follows: “Brazil – In the first fortnight of September, hog quotes resumed increasing, affected mainly by the low volume of slaughter-ready animals”

So, instead of trotting off to the slaughter house like good little piggies, they are enrolling in poetry slams now? Watch out, Oscar Wilde, these Brazilian squealers are going to rhyme rings round you before too long…!

Out of the mouth of babes...

Out of the snout of Babes…

[To view the previous Hilarious Headline post, click here]

Who Drinks The Most Wine?

Wine is in the top five on the interminable list of things that I should know about but don’t.
Working class Germans are just not wine drinkers, and so when I grew up, I learned that there were three kinds of wine: Sour (all German wines fall into this category, my parents would not have touched those with a barge pole), drinkable (only sweet wines would fall into this category, and they would most likely be of Italian origin), and fizzy (consumed only once a year on New Year’s Eve, and it had to be as sweet as lemonade. Champagne would have been relegated to the “sour” category).

I had a little more exposure to wine after I’d moved to the UK in the 90s. OK, it’s not exactly a country of wine connoisseurs either, but the supermarkets, even back then, offered a fairly wide range of wines from all over the world, including German ones. The concept that some German wines could be considered “good”, was a total revelation to me and took some getting used to.

Admittedly, I didn’t learn that much more about wine during my two decades in the UK, but I internalised one golden rule: when bringing a bottle with you to a social gathering (of people you were fond of), you should not spend any less than £6 on a red or £4 on a white, otherwise it was likely to taste nasty.

Now I’m in Spain, and they certainly seem to know their wine. The emphasis being on the word their, because they don’t seem to be familiar with anything else but their homegrown vino. I’d go as far as to venture that the average Spaniard is not even aware that countries like Chile and Australia also make the stuff, and that some of it ain’t half bad.

I do drink more wine now than I did before, it’s pretty much standard issue when having a meal out, but I’d struggle to I exceed 6 glasses a month. Totally pathetic, I know…

Tinto De Verano - A Spanish summer favourite. It's kind of like Sangria, but with less alcohol and far more refreshing

Tinto De Verano – A Spanish summer favourite. It’s kind of like Sangria, but with less alcohol and far more refreshing. I love it!

Now let’s look at the figures*. Owing to sheer population size, China is the world’s largest market for wines. Of the 28.6 billion litres guzzled globally in 2012, China downed 4.2 billion litres, the USA 3 billion litres, Italy and France 2.5 billion litres each, and, to my utmost surprise, Germany pops up in fifth place with 2.1 billion litres.

But what’s most interesting, I’m guessing, is per capita consumption levels. Instead of giving you the per head consumption for every man, woman and child as usual, I’ve selected per capita intake from legal drinking age onwards.

So, Portugal leads, with 51.5 litres per head in 2012, followed by Italy (47.6l), Switzerland (really???) (42.6l), France (38.7l), Austria (37.7l), Argentina (35.3l), Belgium (33l), Greece (31.7l), Netherlands (30.7l) and Germany is in tenth place with 29.9 litres.

There are always a few surprises, and Spain ranking 13th with just 25.8 litres was definitely one of them. I mean, that’s barely a thimbleful ahead of Ireland and the UK, with 25.1 and 23.3 litres, respectively.

The US managed a paltry 13.4 litres, and Chile 16.6 litres, which isn’t very much, considering both are major producers. Canada did marginally better with 18.3 litres, but at least they don’t pride themselves in growing the stuff, as far as I’m aware.

OK, that’s enough stats. I don’t want to be responsible for sending anyone’s head spinning without even having indulged in a lovely glass (or six) of red.

So, what’s it for you? Red or white? Or beer…?

[* For data source, click here]

Which Countries Eat The Most Cheese?

Ooooooooooh, CHEESE…! I must confess, I have a predilection for the stinkier incarnations. Although, I don’t care all that much for blue cheeses, I find them a tad too acidy (though good for cooking, e.g. crumbled into in soups), it’s the medium-soft kinds, those that get really runny as they mature, which send me right up to heaven.

Unfortunately, they tend to turn into a bio hazard in the fridge, and leaving these feisty breeds festering on the kitchen counter in the quest for perfect ripeness will inevitably lead to an emergency evacuation of the entire apartment building…

So, which are the most cheese-loving countries?

Spearheading the cheese consumption league table is France with 17.2kg per capita in 2012. Not a big surprise, I grant you, but I did not expect the three runners up to be Scandinavian countries, namely Finland, Norway and Sweden, with around 16kg per head. Next in line are a more predictable round of suspects, i.e. Belgium, Switzerland, Greece and Italy.

I was expecting the Netherlands to be among the top five (probably because the German term of disparagement reserved for the Dutch is “cheeseheads”), but they are in ninth place with 14.5kg, not that far ahead of the Germans’ 12.3kg.

The US nibbled its way through (a most likely totally bland-tasting) 11.2kg, while Australia managed 10kg, Canada 9.6kg, and the UK 8.3kg.

Eastern Europe, for some reason that I can’t figure out, is all over the place. Bulgaria impresses with an appreciable 13.8kg, but neighbouring Romania made do with an abstemious 1.8kg. Totally baffling! Russia was in the middle with 5.4kg.

Many countries, especially those in the Asia Pacific region, do not have a culinary tradition that includes dairy products, and this means no cheese. Hence, sales of cheese in countries like China and Japan remain marginal. And who can blame them – rotten milk is somewhat of an acquired taste…

So,  what’s your favourite kind of cheese?

[For data source, click here]

Which Nation Drinks The Most Beer?

I’m a bit of a late starter when it comes to some of life’s pleasures. Take coffee – I didn’t come to appreciate that until I moved from an unmentionable UK backwater pit to London, aged 29, to start university (yes, a late starter on all fronts!).

So, beer is the latest thing I’m cultivating a liking for. I’ve previously been ambivalent about the golden brew, it’s not something I’d habitually order as a stand-alone drink or with a meal. My move to Spain has changed this, because here they serve you a “caña”, which is a small, very manageable, 250ml glass of beer.

In Germany, the default order is a “Mass”, which is a full litre, or a “Halbe”, i.e. half a litre. They will bring you a smaller glass if you ask very nicely and don’t mind a patronising frown to go with it. In the UK, the standard serving size is a pint, which is a smidgen over half a litre.

And although I’ve been known to devour an entire packet of biscuits in one sitting, as well as a 400g Toblerone bar without ill effects, I don’t seen to have been endowed with a plumbing system extensive enough to accommodate a ‘normal’ sized serving of beer.

Well, thank you Spain for returning me to the bedrock of my Bavarian heritage. Maybe I can work up to the required capacity from here.

Munich brewery sign, pic taken in Munich town centre

Ornate sign on an old brewery house in the centre of Munich

So, who drinks the most beer?

I do have an answer to this question, and no, it’s not the Germans, but the citizens of the Czech Republic by virtue of each of them guzzling 144.1 litres in 2012 (the global per capita average being 27.8 litres), and THEN come the Germans with 106.5 litres, which is a fair bit less.

Ireland is close behind Germany in third place downing 104.7 litres, followed by Austria, Estonia and Poland, all with around 100 litres per annum per head.

And while beer consumption is still rising on a global level, it is actually diminishing in the countries where consumption is currently highest, including the five leading markets I’ve just listed. (Poland’s is still on the way up.)

In the UK, too, beer intake is plummeting. In 2007, per capita consumption stood at 90.4 litres, while by 2012, this had dwindled to 71.8 litres. The US, over the same five-year period, registered a decline from 81.8 to 75.9 litres.

A few countries surprised me with their low consumption rates. No, not Iran or Algeria, you’d expect those to be way below 10 litres per head (and it is), but France mustering a mere 29.2 litres and Italy 27? What’s going on there….? Wine is to blame, I guess… but that’s another post 🙂

A shop in Munich town centre selling beer mugs. The English word for those, I suppose, is “beer steins”, which sounds German (“stein” means stone), but I’ve never heard a German person use this term. To us, it’s a Bierkrug. “Krug” means jug.

[For data source, click here]

Is There Anything Wrong With White Bread?

As I trawl my way through the food industry news every week (wanna know why? click here), I sometimes come across items of such mind-numbing stupidity that, in order not to explode, I just need to sound off. And no better place for it than right here.

So, on July 5th I read, that the (UK) Federation of Bakers (FOB), was not a happy bun(ny). The reason? UK bread consumption has been declining around 2% each year for the past few years. The worst affected category, to the organisation’s horror, was white bread (which, however, still accounts for the vast bulk of UK bread sales).

This heinous revelation made the FOB’s director Gordon Polson wail, “We’ve been too successful in saying wholemeal is good for you. What we forgot to say is that white bread is good for you, too. It’s our fault for promoting wholemeal!“.

Oh dear. What were they expecting? That people would start eating wholegrain bread in addition to white bread rather than instead of? And yes, having been exposed to food industry logic for over two decades, I have absolutely no doubt that this is exactly what they were expecting. The food industry routinely offers us ‘healthier’ options on the bizarre premise that sales of the standard stuff will not be negatively affected. If those sales do fall, they complain. If they remain stable, but the healthier version doesn’t fly off the shelves fast enough for their liking, they also complain.

But I digress. Anyway, in response to the FOB’s woes, nutritionist Dr Carrie Ruxton was duly interviewed on the bread issue, and she dared to venture the professional opinion that, although white bread was marginally better than sweets, there was really no point in eating it at all, from a nutritional perspective.

Well, the FOB did not want to hear THAT. Oh no. According to them, “there are no negatives to eating white bread. It’s not unhealthy, just different“. And besides, they hastened to point out, it was fortified with calcium and other good things.

It is true that white flour in the UK (and in many other countries) is fortified with a small number of vitamins and minerals. In the UK it’s calcium, iron, vitamins B1 (thiamin) and B3 (niacin) – this is a legal requirement. But why is there a law in the first place? Let me explain…

The milling process strips the grain of all its nutrients, except for the dead pile of starch you’re left with at the end, which serves as an energy source for the body, but nothing more. In fact, in order for the body to process and metabolise this depleted flour, several vitamins and minerals are required, which it now has to find elsewhere.

Let me introduce you to a British institution: The crisp sarnie - a sandwich filled with potato chips.

A British institution: The crisp sarnie – a sandwich filled with potato chips.

The flour fortification law was passed precisely because white bread is a public health concern, and not to add a little bit of extra nutrition for good measure. Bread is a staple food in the UK, and this means that it might make up a significant proportion of someone’s daily food intake, particularly among less well off socio-economic groups.

Nobody is going to develop a deficiency from tossing a poached egg on a couple of slices of white toast in the morning, but if all you can afford to eat, day in, day out, is flabby white bread crisp sandwiches, don’t expect to have any of your own teeth left by the time you hit 38.

So, does the addition of a handful of minerals and vitamins make white bread whole again? Not on your nelly. Only a tiny proportion of the vitamins, minerals and trace elements removed during milling are added back in. What about zinc? What about magnesium? What about fibre? What about folic acid and all the other B-vitamins contained in the grain, which, after all, is a seed containing the living embryo of a plant. For it to sprout and start growing, the grain needs a full complement of nutrients.

The pitiful, legally required effort of flour fortification is like knocking down Buckingham Palace and putting up a tent, and then saying to the Queen, “at least it’ll keep the rain off your head”.

What Does The World Eat?

Last week, I re-discovered an amazing book I bought a few years ago, written photographed by Faith D’Aluisio and Peter Menzel, a California-based writer-photographer couple, who boldly invited themselves for dinner with 30 families in 24 countries.


For me, the most powerful component of the book is the photographs featuring all the members of a household with a week’s worth of grocery shopping laid out in front of them. The authors also provide an insightful break-down of how much was spent on what, e.g. dairy products, fruit & veg, starchy foods, sweets, snacks, beverages, etc.

I’ve reproduced a handful of pictures, to give you an idea. Excuse the poor quality – the originals in the book are, of course, far superior. (The added captions are mine).

German family

The German Family. What amused me about this shot was how neatly all the food and drinks were lined up – none of the other families managed to do it quite this orderly, lol.

The Mexican family. Mexico has the highest per capita consumption of soft drinks after the US. And sure enough, the picture shows a whole row of Coke bottles in the back.

The Mexican family. Mexico has the world’s highest per capita consumption of soft drinks after the US. And sure enough, the picture shows a long row of Coke bottles in the back.

A family in Mali. Gosh, 15 people and barely any food! OK, there's a few big sacks of grain (millet, corn, rice), but barely any vegetables, and, even more disconcertingly, no protein foods except for a canister of milk and a small bag of dried fish.

A family in Mali. Gosh, 15 people and barely any food! OK, some big sacks of grain (millet, corn, rice), but very few vegetables, and, even more disconcertingly, no protein foods except for a titchy canister of milk and a small bag of dried fish.

If you want to see some more pictures, click on this link from The Guardian.

The book was published in 2005, but it has lost none of its relevance. I cannot recommend it highly enough for anyone who’s interested in food and in the vastly different diets consumed by the people(s) of our planet.