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Top ten most fattening foods

March 14, 2011

A long-term French study (Fleurbaix Laventie Ville Santé), has provided new research which helps identify the top ten most calorific foods in our diet. They found that these foods account for 67% of our average daily calorie intake.

Cakes (11.46%)
Bread and by-products (10.61%)
Chips, crisps (8.51%)
Meat (8.42%)
Cheese (5.85%)
Oil, margarine (5.17%)
Butter, animal fat (4.87%)
Cooked meats (4.53%)
Meat-based foods (3.87%)
Pasta, rice, flour (3.78%)

The idea is that these are the foods to target when trying to lose weight. It’s another angle on the obesity issue and perhaps this is simpler than obsessing about calories in individual food products.

What I’ll take from this is: don’t waste your cake calories on poor quality cake – so anything on the counter at the various coffee chains, screen it out. Eat a little cake, but ensure it is homemade or made from only a few high-quality ingredients. Cut crisps out entirely (see previous post about Graze as an alternative for snackers) and try low-fat cream cheese with tomatoes and black pepper instead of supermarket cheddar for packed lunches.


To Graze or not?

March 1, 2011




Snacking or grazing

Like many of us who sit down to make a living, I have reached an age where I cannot maintain health and energy on the mere memory of earlier active years as an aspiring teenage racing cyclist and later bombing up and down the Oxford Road in Manchester on a pink bike to university or the Hacienda.

And so, now I find myself as a newly signed up member of a local gym and spa, busy rowing away the early mornings. A month in, I feel much healthier. But sadly I realise that exercise alone might not be enough. I have a terrible ‘one-to-two-a-day’ cake habit, which I’m pretty sure I need to tackle if I’m to see some results in the weight department.

After avoiding the issue and enjoying the pain au chocolates in my favourite cafes and constant homemade cakes at home (hard to resist the Pear and Chocolate cake), a possible solution presented itself to me this weekend. While reading the Guardian, a tempting special offer from the healthy snacks company, Graze was just too good to ignore. These Graze people understand us: office workers whose healthy eating ambitions are foiled by being surrounded by sweet and salty snacks; women who don’t have time to feed themselves properly, having spent the morning making breakfasts and packed lunches for their children. Graze also pay attention to sourcing and sustainability – saving you the bother: ‘suppliers range from small family run businesses to award winning organic producers.’

Marketing people take note: The simplicity and customisable nature of their offer and the easy online process are a model in how to entice customers and encourage them to take action. A fun half hour sitting up in bed with my i-Pad scrolling through all the many nutty and fruity options (possibly too many?) and I’m almost there. I can rate my favourite snacks (that’ll be the brazil nuts and chocolate buttons then) and reject others for all time. The order form is ridiculously easy and the means by which you can cancel or suspend your future orders appears quick and accessible (usually a stumbling block for me with special offers).

My snack box appeared through the letterbox a few days later. The cleverly designed letterbox-shaped wholesome-looking buff box works brilliantly. Open it up (exciting) and you’re faced with four individually packed, surprise snacks. All packaging is recyclable. I love the grass image printed on the inside base of the box. The snacks all look visually appealing, which is important when you’re competing with the more obvious charms of a pecan brownie. The personalisation is really well thought through with a nutritional information leaflet included for the chosen snacks.

The first delivery consisted of fruit and seed flapjack (really delicious and fresh-tasting and helpfully carved up into 3 pieces) at 223 calories; a tray of actually pretty tasty savoury roasted pumpkin and sunflower seeds (203 cals); 4 very juicy medjool dates (166 cals); and last but certainly not least, their Copacobana mix of brazil nuts and 8 giant milk and dark chocolate buttons at 262 calories. The calorie count is just under most other snacks, but the difference is that these will make you feel fuller and keep your energy levels up far longer than a chocolate snack. It’s an easy way to retrain your tastebuds.

Will I set this up as a regular order? They are not cheap at £3.49 a box (incl. p&p), but then this is a great time-saver and all the thinking has been done for you. A key benefit, apart from sheer convenience, is the wide range of food included here – to replicate these you’d need to raid a health food shop and invest in 20 large storage jars.

TIP: Order a box  a week and take one snack to work each day, working out at a very reasonable 87p a day. I’m trying out a Monday and Tuesday delivery to keep me stocked up for the week.

FREE BOX: Try Graze out with a free box and a second one half price. Order using this code:  32181K4

The New Food Colonialism

September 15, 2010

Asparagus farming in Peru

The New Food Colonialism is already upon us, although it exists in a kind of parallel universe far away from public view, and far away from employment and environmental regulation. In the 21st century, food has become the new oil and water is an increasingly scarce resource.

In general this involves wealthy countries such as the US, Russia, China and Saudi Arabia taking out long leases on land in the developing world (currently Africa, South American and Asia), redirecting and buying up essential resources (mainly water) to grow crops for the developed world. Why do they need to do this? Because they have ruined their own land through the intensive agricultural practices of the last 40 years and what’s left is expensive. China has only 9% of the world’s arable land to feed 20% of the world’s population. Enormously wealthy Saudi Arabia grows rice for its own population in hunger-striken Ethiopia. In extreme cases countries buy up land for biofuel crops in countries where a large proportion of the population are starving.

In a world facing rises in population and food prices this makes sense from an investment point of view, but is short-termist and disastrous for those living in developing countries as it destroys livelihoods and causes food shortages. The US can just move on to the next patch of land once it has depleted an area entirely, but for that country’s population they are left with unusable land: soil depletion and a much reduced water table level.

Map of trading land (from Der Spiegal)

This is all rather sinister and makes for chilling reading. But you could argue that we all collude in the exploitation of other countries in our desire for out-of-season produce and for unsustainably cheap food. This might seem less significant than the major land-grabs going on at the moment, but the effects can still be catastrophic. A simple packet of (over-priced) out-of-season asparagus tossed onto a contact grill destined for a salad, is part of a bigger story of the continued exploitation of the developed world by the rich northern hemisphere countries, made possible by globalization.


This week my teenage son has to write about globalization for his economics GCSE homework. So out comes the Globalization VSI (Very Short Introductions series – I used to commission this series- it’s great for quick but serious information) and a variety of information is gathered from the web. I know that food provides many good examples of the issues involved in the impact of globalization in the developing world, but hadn’t reckoned on such a wonderful article landing in my lap at the very time I (my son) needed it.

Felicity Lawrence – a dedicated investigator of many of the problems associated with modern food production – wrote about the Peruvian asparagus industry for The Guardian, highlighting the serious depletion of water supplies that this has caused.

Not only does this raise issues of food miles, but far more seriously for Peruvians, it is the cause of a drop in the water table level of 8 metres a year in some places. this leaves small-scale farmers and the local population with little water and has seen the introduction of water rationing: all so you can eat asparagus from July-April.

Politically, this relatively new industry set up with World Bank loans, is good news: it has created 10,000 new jobs (but relatively low-paid ones where a worker gets 27p per kilo picked for a crop which retails for about £8 per kilo in UK supermarkets); it has also increased export trade income for Peru.

A new report by Nick Hepworth (for the development charity, Progressio) accuses supermarkets and the World Bank of failing to properly assess the impact of this new industry on Peru’s water resources. The large-scale export farms were allowed to buy up the rights to water supplies, while wells used by small-scale farmers and ordinary people in the area most affected, the Ica Valley, have dried up despite drilling further down.

Food for export is an obvious way for developing countries to improve their economic situation but this needs to be sustainable and the income and benefits need to end up in the right hands.

Read The Rough Guide to Food for more background on this subject, agricultural sustainability, food politics, and Fair Trade.

Also for information and tips on how to shop locally and seasonally.

Chocolate Brownie Wedding Cake

August 10, 2010











The DIY wedding cake

I was asked to make the wedding cake for my youngest brother’s wedding in late July. The guest list went up from an initial 80 people (at this point I agreed to do this willingly) to a subsequent 140 people (which I was rather anxious about). I set aside 2 days to conceive and make the cake and, after much tension in the Food Digest kitchen, finally it was made, safely transported and scoffed with much appreciation (and relief on my part).

Oven: 175°C

Cake tin sizes:  12”, 9”,  6” – make two of each size for this cake.


To make the cake pictured you need to make two batches of the above recipe. Don’t be tempted to make it all in one batch – it’s too difficult to handle and unless you’ve got two tins for each size needed the mix will just be lying about. I estimated the cost of this cake at around £35-40 (buying mainly organic ingredients from Waitrose).

Ingredients for the chocolate brownie layers

150g 70% dark chocolate (Waitrose own brand dark chocolate is cheapest good quality – buy the 200g packs)

450g butter (unsalted preferably)

8 eggs

850g granulated sugar

200g plain flour

55g cocoa (Green & Blacks)

1 teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon salt


6oz/ 170kg nuts (brazil, pecan) – for the whole cake you will need double this: 340g

  1. Tip onto silicone paper-lined baking sheet and toast for 8 mins exactly (no more!) in oven.
  2. Leave to cool, then chop nuts roughly into small-medium pieces.


Very straightforward, one-pan method:

  1. Pre-heat oven then lightly toast the nuts as above.
  2. Melt the chocolate and butter together slowly in a large mixing bowl fitted over a saucepan of barely simmering water, then beat it until smooth,
  3. Remove it from the heat and stir in all the other ingredients
  4. Bake on the centre shelf of the oven for 30 minutes
  5. Run a palette knife around the edges and leave to cool in the tin before popping out onto a piece of greaseproof paper

White chocolate icing

200g white chocolate (use Green & Blacks)

250g unsalted butter

450g icing sugar


NB White chocolate can be tricky – be gentle with it and handle as little as possible

  1. Melt choc very slowly in bowl above simmering water (avoid stirring), leave to cool slightly.
  2. Meanwhile, beat the butter and icing sugar together.
  3. Stir in the chocolate gently.
  4. Leave for about 30 minutes to cool down before icing the cake.
  5. Ice tops only (if you want to ice the sides do these before the top).
  6. Leave to set overnight then loosely wrap ribbon around sides gluing the ends together.

Add decorations such as rose petals, lavender etc.

‘Moro’ style broad bean and fresh cheese salad

June 22, 2010
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Moro is a wonderful restaurant: one which make you want to know how they made their deep fried chickpeas; their divine caramelised figs. My Rough Guide to Food co-author and I ate there last week to celebrate being on the shortlist for a Guild of Food Writer’s Award (we won!) and it was perfect: relaxed atmosphere (nicely judged service), unusual wines, wonderful looking and tasting food.

My Moro starter of broad beans and fresh cheese was so delicious that I decided to add it to my repertoire of salads. Coincidently, a few days later at Bath Farmers Market, I spotted the perfect cheese for this salad: a fresh ewes milk cheese made by Somerset artisan cheesemaker Tim Homewood. Scooping up mint and broad beans from Chris Rich’s vegetable stall and chili flatbreads from the Thoughtful Bread Company I was in business.

This is quick and easy to make and loved by all around the table (well, all except for my culinarily unadventurous 11-year old daughter).


Handful of Broad beans per person (boil for about 6 minutes)

About 4 Squashy black olives per person (tear the olive off the pip)

Handful of rough-chopped mint; few dessertspoons of fine chopped parsley

– mix the above ingredients with a simple lemon, olive oil, S&P dressing.

Add 1 dessertspoon of fresh (curd or soft) cheese per person – sliced- and drizzle a little dressing over it. ** you could use grilled halloumi or feta as alternatives

Serve with fish and new potatoes – or as a starter with interesting bread.

Private (food industry) profits v Public health

June 22, 2010

The profits of private firms ought not to take precedence when compared with the health of the more than four million people at risk in this country.

Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, President of the Royal College of Physicians

The high cost of supermarket food

Finally – after 30 years of its largely unchallenged assault on public health – the food industry is being taken to task. NICE has said that trans-fats (classified as toxic by WHO) should be banned from food in England and salt levels reduced further. New, comprehensive research indicates that this will save 40,000 lives a year and £1bn NHS costs. This move is backed by doctors, health professionals, the Royal College of Physicians.

It’s no wonder that the food industry has reacted badly (and rather unconvincingly) to this: the whole industry is built on processed foods – of which trans-fats are just one component. They make far higher profits on processed foods than real foods such as fruit and vegetables and so, could be seen as having a vested interest in not helping the public make healthy choices. The government show little inclination to support NICE’s evidence based recommendations – and why should they, the food industry is a powerful lobbying force. NICE also called for “full disclosure of interests by all parties” for government and food and drinks industry discussions. Meanwhile, many people are limited by what’s on offer at their local supermarket, many of which do  not offer healthy alternatives – or do, but at a higher price. A ban worked for smoking; why not for other unnecessary and unhealthy products?

Factory-food Britain

The public needs to make better and informed decisions, and understand the impact of its choices.

Jon Poole , CEO, Institute of Food Science & Technology

Over-processed, over-priced, foods and drinks are to blame for our obesity epidemic. Obesity on this scale did not exist 30 years ago. Food companies swell their increasingly vast profits with products made from cheap bulking agents, colouring, flavouring, artificial sweeteners, trans-fats, salt and sugar: low unit costs and relatively high price + blissfully uninformed consumers: the shareholder’s dream.

The majority of food sold in supermarkets is factory-made using a variety of highly processed components (they’re not really ingredients in the way we think of normal cooking ingredients). So-called ‘natural’ flavours involve taking a natural ingredient and processing it to within millimetres of its life to create something which can be legally called ‘natural’ and yet also work within the mass-production environment of our food factories. Sugar often appears in a number of guises on the food labels of a single product: glucose syrup, corn syrup, HFCS, fructose, the list goes on. Artificial sweeteners are not the answer: they merely increase our appetite for sweetness in food and drink, which in a young child predisposes them to a lifetime desire for processed food over real food.

‘Children’s Food’ sets the pattern for a lifetime’s bad diet

If we want to get a sense of what’s wrong with our national diet, we need look no further than the food we feed our children.

Children are reliant on their parents for the food and drinks they are given. Recent research showed that 90% of schoolchildren’s packed lunches contained dangerously high levels of sugar, salt and fats – and that’s before we start on breakfast cereals (astonishingly high proportions of salt and sugar). Anecdotal evidence suggests that most primary pupil lunches contain a variety of the folllowing: crisps, chocolate confections, additive-laden dairy desserts (fromage frais is NOT yoghurt), biscuits, soft drinks, and fatty fake cheese novelty products.

Soft drinks

These chemicals have never been tested on children…Why take a chance?

Professor Marion Nestle, Nutritionist, New York University

Why do we sell/ buy flavoured water targeted at primary-age children? The character branded drinks contain not one, but two artificial sweeteners as well as a mix of flavouring, preservatives and colouring.

Fruit Shoots (despite the name and packaging) have little to do with fruit, containing a tiny percentage of fruit but a large amount of water and high number of artificial additives. It is much more expensive than plain fruit juice. ‘No Added Sugar’ screams the label in the hope that busy parents won’t check the ingredients label. A long thread on considers it to be a “misleadingly-packaged, additive-laden product”. Any parent who puts these in their child’s packed lunch should try drinking one: they are astonishingly sweet (that’ll be the artificial sweeteners) – no wonder children refuse water and milk nowadays; no wonder British children struggle to eat just two portions of fruit or vegetables a day. After a diet of highly sweetened and salty foods, real food just doesn’t taste right.

Europe food culture

I was in a café the other day surrounded by middle-class mothers and fathers handing their 4-8 year olds ‘flumps’ (beef gelatine and a whole host of additives) and fruit shoots. One child stood out: he was tucking into a piece of homemade flapjack and a fresh fruit juice. His mother was Italian. Of course Italian children, like other Europeans, do not have special ‘children’s food’.

It’s time for British people to walk away from supermarkets (who take 85p of every pound spent on groceries), get back to basics and start cooking again. It’s time for schools to include proper cooking, as opposed to the ridiculous food ‘tech’ which props up the factory food industry, as part of the curriculum. We’ll be healthier and better off financially too.

Meat reducing: eat less; eat better

June 2, 2010

By switching to higher welfare meat and eating much smaller amounts than you’re used to, you can help prevent the worst effects of global warming.

Meat consumption is set to double by 2050 as a result of increasing global affluence and ever more ‘efficient’ or intensive methods of production. ‘Sixty billion farm animals are already used to produce food annually, the majority in industrial-scale factory farms.’ (CIWF) The figure for the UK is almost 900 million.  This will have a serious effect on the environment, carbon emissions, water supplies, hunger and animal welfare.

Climate Change: Quick facts: Meat production contributes nearly 20% of global man-made greenhouse gas emissions. Cows and sheep produce around a quarter of all man-made methane emissions globally. Methane is 23 times more more deadly in terms of global warming than carbon dioxide.

Animal Welfare: In the real world cheap meat comes at a high price in terms of animal welfare. Reared in extremely cramped conditions with no semblance of a natural  life, most never see the light of day. Ducks are farmed in artificially-lit industrial sheds with no access to water apart from tiny drinking bottles; Chickens don’t scratch about outside while the injuries they end up with have been well documented by the likes of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Chicken Out campaign and Viva‘s long-term investigative work in this area.

There’s no getting away from it cheap meat = low welfare standards.

Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) says: ‘It not only causes huge suffering to billions of sentient creatures but also wastes precious resources such as grain and oil.’


If you’re in any doubt about the way in which animals destined for supermarket chill cabinets are treated check out CIWF’s authoritative supermarket survey (the detail makes for uncomfortable reading). Waitrose and Marks and Spencer consistently come out top for animal welfare.

World hunger: Meat production accounts for around 30% of the world’s useable land and a third of the global grain harvest. Intensive meat production uses artificial animal feed which in turn uses our resources (water and land) to an excessive degree in terms of the amount of protein created. These resources are under serious threat with water shortages becoming an increasing problem in the US and Europe and soil erosion reducing the amount of cultivatable land. Grass-fed cattle have a much smaller impact on resources.

Health: Industrial meat production creates the cramped conditions which encourage increased ill-health amongst animals and the spread of disease – hence the use of antibiotics in animal feed as a preventative measure. This leads to problems of drug resistance in humans. This is before we start talking about BSE and dicey feedstuffs.

Ask the experts:

CIWF and Friends of the Earth’s Eating the Planet report goes into great detail on this topic.

UN expert, Professor Edgar Hertwich, says: ‘Biomass and crops for animals are as damaging as [burning] fossil fuels.’

Lord Nicholas Stern, an expert on the economic impact of climate change came out in favour of vegetarians:  ‘Meat is a wasteful use of water and creates a lot of greenhouse gases. It puts enormous pressure on the world’s resources. A vegetarian diet is better’.

Over 100 Professors from Dutch Universities have joined forces to issue a “Plea for Sustainable Livestock Farming”, which calls for a radical reform of industrial farming.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggests we have a meat-free day each week to help cut carbon emissions.

How to be a meat reducer

CIWF has calculated that if the average UK household halved its meat consumption, this would  reduce emissions more than if we halved our car use. It seems that we are already eating slightly less meat: recent Defra figures show a 5% drop in meat consumption in 2009 from 2005.

You could try switching to organic meat: try your local farmers market or order a meat box from an organic farm’s veg box scheme. Riverford (minimum spend £25 for mixed box; sausages, beefburgers to mince and lamb chops) and Well Hung Meat Company (chicken, sausages, mince and usual cuts) are multi-award winning, ethical companies who work hard to keep the quality up and the cost to shoppers down. Try ordering a month’s supply at a time and freezing it.  It will cost more than cheap meat per ounce, but if you eat a smaller quantity on fewer occasions you needn’t spend more each week.

You’ll probably notice an improvement in flavour which can reduce the amount you need to use in some recipes. Make pasta sauces with organic chorizo sausage to make a little go a long way; or perhaps revist cottage pie with organic mince and herbs.

What we need is an attitude change akin to the recent shift in smoking patterns in the West.