The 5 Worst Processed Foods - Interview with Joanna Blythman

Understand the mystery of your food labels with investigative journalist and author Joanna Blythman

  • Discover the 5 worst processed foods 
  • Learn the unnatural truth about rosemary extract and soya protein 
  • Find out about chemicals that don’t appear on the label

We interviewed Joanna Blythman, a journalist with 25 years’ experience investigating the food chain, 7 published books, and a string of awards under her belt, about her latest frightening discoveries.

Joanna’s goal to uncover the expensively protected secrets of food manufacture even led her to covertly infiltrate industry events! In her latest book Swallow This, Serving Up The Food Industry’s Darkest Secrets Joanna asks the questions:

  • How ‘natural’ is the process for making a ‘natural’ flavouring? 
  • What, exactly, is modified starch, and why is this ingredient in so many foods? 
  • What is done to pitta bread to make it stay ‘fresh’ for six months? 
  • Why, when I eat a supermarket salad, does the taste linger in my mouth for several hours after?
Joanna uncovers eye-popping facts about the processed food we buy, and we think it’s important to share her views to help you make more informed decisions about your food:

OB: What is the main message of Swallow This that you’d like the reader to understand?

Joanna Blythman: That you can’t trust processed food. To get a measure of control over what you eat, you need to cook at home from whole ingredients. If you’re one of those people who has concerns about processed foods, then your suspicions are fully justified!

Especially now that over the last few years, the clean label initiative shows fewer ‘E numbers’. People think they can relax. Things like tick lists that include no artificial ingredients, flavours, additives, etc. give people confidence, but there are many things that aren’t on the label, such as processing aids.

For instance, when you buy something with ‘pasteurised egg’ as an ingredient, it is treated with an enzyme (an additive is used) to turn it yellow, because the egg is processed at such high temperatures, that the yolk turns brown.

OB: What health conditions do you associate with eating processed food?

JB: Our bodies are now bombarded with combinations of relatively new high-tech ingredients and additives, which are likely to be making us ill with things like allergies, intolerances, Crohn’s, IBS, coeliac.

Processed food contains known poisons. There is a lazy assumption that if these substances are in small quantities, then they are not doing any damage, but this is complacent, and likely to be wrong.

Nano particles are coming in as food ingredients or from packaging in tiny amounts, but they can have a massive impact. Endocrine disrupting chemicals in food packaging can also be very dangerous. If you want to be healthy, base your diet on unprocessed foods that you cook yourself.

OB: Are there any healthy ingredients or foods that we’d be shocked to find out the truth behind?

JB: Watch out for anything called extract or concentrate. Carrot concentrate is something you might think will be good for you, but actually, it’s a factory-made, highly processed substance that won’t be contributing to your Five-A-Day. It is used as a “clean label” yellow colouring, but neither the word “colour” nor “colouring” need appear on the label. It makes margarines and spread look yellow, like butter; without colouring, they would look grey.

Rosemary extract appears in your potato gnocchi or rustic salami, but you’re not looking at a herby aromatic essence, patiently handmade by artisans in Tuscany. In fact, by the time it emerges from its complex extraction process, this brown liquid or powder has no scent or smell of the fresh herb. It is there as an antioxidant (effectively a preservative), to extend the product’s shelf life.

Another area to worry about is vegetarian and vegan foods. They can be quite fake. This is an example of the industry playing on the fact that some vegans might be ready to accept additives as long as no animal products appear.

Products with added soya protein could pose a lot of problems because it is extracted by washing soya flour in a chemical solvent (hexane, used in cement), in aluminium tanks. So this heavy metal, which is known to be bad for the brain and the nervous system, could potentially leach into the product.

If something has an innocent-sounding name or is vegan, it benefits from a halo effect. But, whatever category, read the label, try to understand it. Why are you eating it?

OB: What are your top 5 processed food villains?

JB: These are the foods that tend to have the most hair-raising ingredients:

1. Cheap meat – ready cooked, sliced turkey meat, sausages, burgers, minced up meaty products are always suspect.
2. Everything to do with bread and cakes – they’re packed with additives and treated in particular ways when packaged in order to extend the shelf life.
3. Mayonnaise – read the label of a commercial mayo – particularly a healthy/slimmer’s version and it may have up to 20 ingredients. You can make mayo at home with only 2 ingredients! 
4. Sauces and gravies are bulked out with modified starch and colours that make them look tastier.
5. Lunchtime wraps are potentially going to contain a combination of all 4 points above – including processed bread, mayo, the sticky sauce, the chicken that has added water and starch to pump it up.

OB: So how do we get around these villains, do you recommend only organic and home-grown food?

I’m a townie, so I’ve never managed to grow my own vegetables, but I love the idea and know it can be done easily!

Here are 3 golden rules to avoid food villains:

1. Buy unprocessed food.
2. If possible, buy organic. Always choose it where you have the option.
3. Buy from local shops, have a face-to-face relationship with the people who are selling the food. In this case, there’s more chance that they will let you know what’s in the food, name the farm or market where the cow came from.

I’ll do anything to avoid shopping in the supermarket. I don’t like the impact they’ve had on the environment. I think the display and sights you see in a local shop, or a lively food market really make you want to cook!

We’ve been turned into passive consumers, not active citizens who choose what we want to eat. We don’t interact and aren’t encouraged to know about what’s in our food, this lack of understanding and interaction with food needs to change.

OB: What do you think about organic supermarkets and larger health stores?

Places like Whole Foods Market are being progressive; I like what they’re doing. However, there is a halo effect that might be happening; no one is lying or misleading but we’re so keen to think something is good and different that we might not realise that we still need to be looking carefully at what we’re buying.

For me preparing food from scratch, and sharing it around the table with friends and family, is one of the greatest pleasures in life, and a healthy way to eat.

Thank you Joanna!

Fortunately, you don't need to worry about additives or damaging processes with your Organic Burst Superfoods. Our products are all 100% pure, grown without any nasties or chemicals and contain no additives whatsoever!

If you'd like to know more about what’s hidden in processed food, we can highly recommend Joanna’s groundbreaking book Swallow This.

By Investigative Journalist Joanna Blythman

Joanna Blythman is Britain's leading investigative food journalist and an influential commentator on the British food chain. She has won five Glenfiddich awards for her writing. Joanna’s latest book Swallow This is a fascinating exploration of the food processing industry and its products - her discoveries are utterly eye-opening! 

Subscribe & Stay Ahead of the Crowd

Always awesome. Never spammy. Delivered weekly. Don't miss a thing!