Friday, 6 January 2012

Shopping for Life

Writing about shopping yesterday made me reflect on what a pain in the butt I am to shop with.  My food shopping particularly is a long drawn out process while I check every label and ingredients list.  It's a bit like people who check the calories and fat content of everything they buy.  But I'm looking for provenance and the inclusion of mysterious "ingredients".

It wasn't always such hard work as I mainly focussed on Fairtrade for things like coffee and chocolate, but now that's just the starting point, the baseline for my scrutiny.  It takes me a long time to get round the shop; but each visit with the girls is an education - they're obviously drawn to the stuff marketted for kids with the garish colours and cartoon characters and I have to take quite a lot of time to explain why some of these things just aren't good for them.  And we talk a lot about why it's important to shop carefully, with a clear view of what you're buying and why.  Teaching children to shop well, I think, is a great life skill, teaching them to make good choices and avoid all the hype.

First of all, I'm looking for local, which in a standard family shop means made in England or Britian.  It's amazing how many standard food items look like they're made / produced in the UK, but actually aren't.  Given that we allegedly export as many biscuits to the EU as we import, it's amazing how many of our nation's favourite "family brands" are actually produced outside the UK.  The strange thing is that you actually have to look quite hard to work out whether they're made here or not.  The other one that winds me up is meat - a lot of things like bacon or sausages are actually "made" here, but using pork from Europe.  All that hard work by the likes of Jamie Oliver seems to have been completely ignored, and given that Norfolk and Suffolk seem to be full of pig farms, it seems totally illogical.  We're basing an economy around just shuffling things around from one region to the other, without adding any value on the way.

We try not to eat too much meat, for health, cost and environmental reasons, and whenever we can, we buy our meat from the great butcher at the Earlham Road shops, where much of it is truly local (from Blythburgh), but I recognise that relatively few people go to a butcher nowadays, and most people shop in supermarkets.  Given this, and given that most people (I think) don't worry too much about where their food comes from, it's a shame that supermarkets don't even clearly label their produce, far less actively support local produce.  There doesn't seem to be too much pressure on the supermarkets from their customers to change, either.

"Natural flavourings" is another one - what on earth does that mean?  I'm naturally very suspicious if someone can't be open and transparent about the ingredients - after all there are a whole number of natural things out there that I wouldn't want anywhere near my food.  Is it something natural but so hideous no-one would want to eat it?  I'm not suggesting it it, but it makes you wonder!

And the ubiquitous palm oil, often hidden away in the unassuming phrase "vegetable oil".  Palm oil surfaces in so many damn products, it's almost impossible to avoid now.  And how about this list from a chocolate product: Vegetable Oil (Illipe, Kokum Gurgi, Mango Kernal, Palm, Sal, Shea)!  I'm not kidding you!

So one of my things for this year, is to cook more food from scratch, with ingredients that would be recognised by anyone.  Most of our full meals are already cooked that way, but I'm thinking more about things like bread and snacks for the children's lunchboxes.  Children are notoriously fickle, so I've got a new recipe book just for kids to engage them in cooking with me, so we'll see how well they take to it.  I love cooking with them so I'm determined to make it work!



  1. I'm glad I'm not the only one, Jon. Recently I looked at practically all the Co-op's own brand bread and found none of it without palm oil.

    At least they do call it that, so you know what you're buying, and it's not subsumed under the generic 'vegetable fat' or 'vegetable oil' description that you find on so many food labels.

    The two posts Elena wrote last year on This Low Carbon Life about Palm Oil really spell it out:

    Here's to happier, healthier and more obvious ingredients in our food.

    all the best, Mark

  2. Yeah, and then there is toothpaste to deal with and all products with sodium lauryl sulphate, aaaaargh!

    here's a great site with palm-oil free alternatives:

    last year I substituted tahini for marg as a micro-resolution.

    all the new year best,


  3. Great link Charlotte - check out this for an inspirational story about palm oil & chocolate, clicked through from your link:

  4. Good point, Mark - I think we could probably all do more with the Coop's policy on palm oil, given that the company is owned by its members. Might be worth dropping the membership team a mail!