Thirteen Foods That Shape Our World
Alex Renton BBC Books £16.99
The late Auberon Waugh, waxing satirical on the additive-rich diet of the average British child, once imagined a teenager’s typical daily intake that culminated in an evening meal of ‘7 fish fingers; half pt tomato ketchup; 2 btles cherry-flavoured Panda pop; 9 digestive biscuits; frozen peas’.
The foreword to this book, by Sheila Dillon of Radio 4’s The Food Programme, suggests he wasn’t far off the mark.
‘About 55 per cent of the food we eat in the UK in 2022 is defined as ultra-processed,’ she says, meaning it’s made from ‘industrial derivatives of whole fats, starches and sugars’.
In this fascinating compendium, Alex Renton examines the food industry and illustrations of culinary wrongdoing, from workers’ rights to animal-welfare standards
This diet is a major contributor to ill health and environmental ruin, all because we value food that is cheap.
In the rest of the book, Renton examines the food industry, providing multiple illustrations of culinary wrongdoing.
Crimes against nutritional quality, workers’ rights, natural habitats and animal-welfare standards are all regularly committed in pursuit of low prices and fast profits.
Take the Chorleywood Bread Process, launched in 1961: by combining high-speed mixing and baking with a ‘huge range of processing aids’ – emulsifiers, preservatives and extra salt and sugar – it created a soft, fluffy, relatively tasteless loaf that ‘kept’ for longer.
The CBP method is still responsible for 90 per cent of the bread we eat today.
The failures and frauds of the food industry detailed here – from the mislabelling of olive oil to the adulteration of ‘artisan’ salt – often make for uneasy reading. So does the miserable six weeks of life endured by cheap broiler chickens.
Yet there is also much enjoyment in Renton’s pithily elegant phrases and smooth blending of historical anecdote with compelling facts.
Who knew, for example, that in the mid-Victorian era Italian ice-cream vendors were key in transmitting diphtheria and typhoid?
He raises hope, too, singling out ethically concerned producers for praise, such as the chicken farmer Linda Dick and the Fairtrade chocolate brand Tony’s Chocolonely.
But their wares are inevitably more expensive, which brings us to the book’s knottiest problem.
Britain now has some of the cheapest food in the world. Yet with the cost- of-living crisis adding to existing inequalities, feeding a family is already proving difficult for many.
The question that haunts this fascinating compendium is how a better, more honest food industry can ever be combined with an affordable one.
Wonderdog: How The Science Of Dogs Changed The Science Of Life
Jules Howard Bloomsbury Sigma £17.99
During lockdown, searches for ‘puppies for sale’ doubled, but even before the pandemic, dog ownership was rocketing. Since 2000 in the US and the UK there’s been a 20 per cent rise in the number of pet dogs.
Millions are now wondering, what do dogs really think of us? What do they understand of the world? Do they really reciprocate the love we feel for them?
In Wonderdog, science writer Jules Howard explores how for centuries scientists have studied dogs – at first with the aim of helping humanity, later simply to understand the minds of these creatures who, despite being dangerous predators in the wild, are unique in the animal kingdom in bonding fiercely with their humans.
In Wonderdog, science writer Jules Howard explores how for centuries scientists have studied dogs – and it’s proof positive that our pets really do love us as much as we love them
Through studying dogs, Ivan Pavlov discovered the Pavlovian response, where animals and humans are conditioned instinctively to react to something. But his experiments on canine digestive tracts were horrifyingly cruel.
Further work by Pavlov’s disciples was instrumental in sparking the anti-vivisection movement. From then, research became more humane and our insights into dogs grew incrementally.
Like the Andrex puppy, Howard’s prose scampers off in all directions, sometimes making for a somewhat confusing read with several subjects tackled at once.
But many gems are there – such as the explanation as to why the ‘alpha dog’ theory favoured by ‘dog whisperer’ Cesar Millan, which posited that dogs were merely watered-down wolves who needed to be shown who was boss, was temporarily all the rage.
Research now shows the gulf between the two species is far wider than first thought and it’s better to ‘reinforce’ good behaviour with treats.
With enormous patience and love, scientists have recently trained dogs willingly to enter MRI scanners, revealing their brains lighting up at the sight of their owner.
Other studies show how, after a cuddling session, both dogs and owners see a spike of 130 per cent in the oxytocin ‘love hormone’ in their urine. Proof positive that our dogs really do love us as much as we love them.
Julia Llewellyn Smith