Tuesday, 6 March 2012
Never mind the ingredients feel the convenience
In the university building where I work we are often asked to help the marketing students by taking part in focus groups. Every time I weaken and agree to do this I end up regretting my decision, because I am invariably the awkward element in the group. Never again, I resolve. But then, a few weeks later, there will be a desperate appeal from another student who needs someone to make up the numbers. They obviously haven't heard about me and my opinions about the kinds of products they want people to test. These invariably come in packets and are "convenience foods" that a pompous foodie like me would never dream of buying. So it was much against my better judgement that I agreed to taste some new vegetarian products this week. The students produced "sausage rolls" and "Scotch eggs" and we all had to give our opinions. Unfortunately the manufacturers, who were obviously very proud of these innovative delicacies, were also present and keen to trumpet their virtues. My resolutions about keeping quiet crumbled, and I questioned why they wanted to make these vegetarian products taste and look like meat by imitating meat-based snacks. That's what manufacterers do, they told me so it's obviously what people want. Hmm... I thought that was what a focus group was there to tell them? The other group members, all students seeking a free lunch, looked bemused. The manufacturers then told us that the advantage of these kinds of products was that schools liked them because obviously it is a well known fact that children will only eat junkfood but these products were much healthier than their meat equivalents. I suggested that by pandering to this view they were actually encouraging the consumption of sausage rolls and other unhealthy, fatty foods and implying that junk foods are ok. Wouldn't it be better to encourage children to eat other kinds of foods? Things went downhill from there on. None of my long-suffering friends would have been surprised by this turn of events as they know all too well my strong (they would say obsessive) opinions about food. Not everyone is as passionate about it as I am, but generally it is a very emotive subject. Food has so many cultural and social associations. Think of Christmas dinner, how wedded most families are to their own particular traditions and how important it is for family members to attend. So it seems a pity that we are often encouraged to devalue food for the rest of the year in favour of so-called "convenience products" that distance us even further from its production. The anonymous paste in those "sausage rolls" might have been "healthier" in some sense than meat, but it could have been made from anything. Taking them out of the packet and sticking them into the microwave may be quick and easy, but is making fresh, healthy, delicious food at home really such a waste of our time? I will certainly carry on making food from ingredients that I recognise and avoiding "convenience foods", but I think I'll skip the focus groups.