Loyalty cards and the politics of a Christmas dinner

Loyalty cardsI’ve always been fascinated by consumer profiles.  When Tesco introduced the Clubcard, David Sainsbury initially rejected the idea of introducing a similar scheme. However when Sainsbury’s saw the adverse affect that the Clubcard had had on Sainsbury’s sales, they soon changed their minds.

The value that you the consumer get from “loyalty cards” (usually expressed as points – so you don’t realise how little it is) is nothing compared with the information you’re giving the retailers.

Clive Humby, from marketing firm Dunnhumby, helped Tesco to establish their Clubcard in 1994. Lord MacLaurin (who was then the chairmen of Tesco) famously said “What scares me about this is that you know more about my customers after three months than I know after 30 years”.

It’s very easy to see how profiling works. YouGov kindly let you search their information online: www.yougov.co.uk/profiler

Enter your favourite products, and it will tell you all sorts of things about other people who like that product:

The possible lifestyle of a Warburtons customer

So the shops can use this data to predict what sort of thing you may want, and more importantly what they can try and sell you to make more profits.

As it’s nearly Christmas, and just for a bit of fun, I thought it would be interesting to compare the politics (and possible gender) of people for different roasts:

Politics of Christmas Roasts

£64 million of wasted food at Christmas

graph showing Christmas Food Waste

I was horrified to read reports in the press this week about a Unilver poll which found that we waste £64 million of food on Christmas dinners!


  • 17.2 million Brussels sprouts
  • 11.9 million carrots
  • 11.3 million roast potatoes
  • 10.9 million parsnips
  • 9.8 million cups of gravy
  • 7.9 million slices of turkey
  • 7.9 million cups of stuffing
  • 7.5 million mince pies
  • 7.4 million slices of Christmas pudding
  • 7.1 million pigs in blankets

will end up in peoples waste bins!

How did we end up in such a state, where there’s around 925 million undernourished people in the world and we’re feeding our bins! As a small boy I’d loved to have done potato prints – but my mum told me food was for eating, and not to be wasted.

How times have changed, we even have have competitions to see how quickly people can stuff obscene amounts of food into their stomachs:

Picture of people eating ridiculously large burgers

We definitely need more education for our our children (and their parents). Portion control is a good way to teach kids maths. If we’re having 10 people for dinner and 50% of people like sprouts, and the sprout lovers eat 6 sprouts each, how many sprouts do we need?

Leftovers are some of my favourite meals. We will buy a sensibly sized turkey, the bones will make stock, and we will enjoy tukey and ham pie, turkey risotto and turkey curry etc.

Have a look at sites like Love Food Hate Waste for more inspiration. You’ll save money and feel better. Perhaps you could join me and donate some of your savings to Oxfam?

A nation of drug takers?

Prescription drugsIn 1776 Adam Smith (in The Wealth of Nations) described us as “a nation of shopkeepers”. With our high streets in decline, this is no longer true. If Adam Smith was alive today, perhaps he would call us a nation of drug takers?

Nearly half of us now take prescription drugs, with a cost of over 15 billion pounds! I can feel my GP’s blood pressure rising as he reads this. So before any more angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors are prescribed for hypertension, let me make some things clear. As an insulin dependant person with diabetes, the medical profession have saved my life. Without insulin, I would have been dead many years ago, and the plethora of other drugs I take help prevent me get complications like strokes and heart attacks. These days, with the help of Google (other search engines are available) everyone is a “medical expert” and I don’t have any medical qualifications. However there are some obvious facts, which many are chosing to ignore, about what could be done to reduce drug costs and make us healthier.

A nation of fatties?

What worries me is that our GPs now barely have time to treat symptoms, let alone find and treat the underlying causes. It’s not hard to find what’s wrong with the nation’s health. The Health Survey for England, published yesterday, show us that we’re getting fatter:

Weight of adults

It’s now almost become politically incorrect to suggest to someone that they should loose weight. Nearly half the population don’t do sufficient physical activity, and we’re eating more junk food . More than 27% of women consume more than 3 units and 37% of men conume more than 4 units of alcohol. The poorer you are, the more likely you are to be affected. There’s a very clear link (particularly with women) between waist circumference and social deprivation:

Waist circumference & social deprivation

source: www.hscic.gov.uk/catalogue/PUB16076/HSE2013-Ch10-Adult-anth-meas.pdf

Sadly it’s these people who are often the least mobile, and often have had a poorer education. So there’s no point in telling them about health vegetarian meals, made with ingredients from Waitrose, when their nearest shop is Home Bargains or Poundland.

Building up trouble for the future?

It’s even more worrying when you look at the data concerning childrens’ health. Eat up your greens? The number of children geting their five a day has fallen in the last 6 years and is now only 16%:

Children five a day

Over half our kids get less than three portios of fruit and veg a day, and 7% don’t get any! Last year 15% of girls and 16% of girls were classified as obese! In 2012 0nly 18% of our children did the recommended physical exercise (compared with 24% in 2008);

Who’s to blame?

I believe this problem has come about as a result of lack of education. Our politicians need educating, and also need to stop listening to some of the very effective lobbying from the food industry.They need to be aware that having more people educating us on exercise and diet could save prescription costs.

The parents of today’s children also need educating. Many of them rely on ready meals, and don’t now how to cook good simple meals with fresh ingredients which are cheap and nutritious.

The last person I want to blame is our GPs.

What can you do?

If you’ve got kids, take them on a hike! The endorphins you get as you climb a hill beat anything their local dealer can supply, and theyll lose weight and be less likely to be depressed. You’ll also feel better.

Read books like Joanna Blythman’s Bad Food Britain: How A Nation Ruined Its Appetite to find out how we got into this mess, and then read (by the same author) What to Eat: Food that’s good for your health, pocket and plate, to find out what you can do. about it.

Visit (and preferably walk to) your local shops and find (if you’ve still got them) your local butcher and greengrocer. The butcher can tell you how to cook the cheaper (and tastier) cuts and your greengrocer will show you cheap seasonal foods (which will be riper and better tasting than the supermarkets).

Cook with your family – it’s far more fun than watching celebrity chefs on MasterBore. If you make a mistake have a laugh and learn from it. As a small child I loved visiting an aunty who’s cooking sometimes went wrong. When the sponge she’d baked turned out to be a bit runny in the middle she used a tin can to sut out the middle and then called it a polo cake!

Co-operate with your neighbours. If you can’t afford a sack of potatoes, share one. You’ll both save money and you don’t have to worry if they won’t keep as you’ll get through a smaller quantity twice as quickly.

Change food from being a chore to a source of fun – and feel better at the same time.

Healthy hospital food?

White toast


Last week I was admitted into hospital. I can’t fault the wonderful staff, all were professional and friendly at the same time. However I can’t believe some of the unhealthy foods we’re still being offered in hospitals.

I’ve had insulin dependant diabetes since 1980, so am very careful what I eat. The ideal diet for someone with that condition, is a good diet for most of us to follow. I aim to eat a balanced diet, that is low in fat, sugar and salt and contain a high level of fresh fruit and vegetables. In particular I aim to eat carbohydrate foods which have a low GI (Glycemic Index).

My first meal was breakfast. A lady asked me if I would like some toast. I asked if I could have some granary or wholemeal bread. Only white bread was available (pictured above). I wasn’t expecting hand crafted rolls from an artisan baker. But I do think that in hospital I should have at least been offered (and preferably encouraged) a more healthy alternative to this mas-produced white bread. A local bakery does a sliced oatmeal bread, which would have been better, and is not expensive.

I then found I could have had cereals, including Rice Krispies! I suppose I should have been pleased that we weren’t offered Ricicles (although that decision was probably made by the accountant and not the nutritionist).

I was offered sugar in all my drinks, despite having insulin dependent diabetic written above my bed.

I tried to choose my lunch carefully. I certainly didn’t choose this:

Healthcare orange juice

but one arrived anyway! Most of the people in my ward had diabetes and I noticed were drinking this. The only time I ever drink orange juice like this is when I’ve got hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). I find it’s almost as good as Lucozade (which is high in glucose syrup) for getting my blood sugars up.

The problem highly processed foods, like white bread and orange juice is that they make your blood sugars shoot up and then drop as quickly. This applies to everyone, not just people with diabetes.  That’s why people on unhealthy diets can get irritable when they get hungry (as their blood sugar drops). Most people in ward had a poor understanding of good nutrition, and (despite havingdiabetes) didn’t appear to have spoken to a nutritionist.

I realise the NHS has a very difficult job to do, and there are financial pressures.  Sadly our food industry often makes healthy eating dearer (white bread is usually the cheapest – which I don’t understand as the flour needs less processing).

In 1980, when I first had diabetes, I was surprised to be offered white bread, ice-cream and jelly (not low sugar) in hospital! I was hoping that things would have improved more than they have.

A hospital visit is a great opportunity to make people rethink their diet, make healthier choices and hopefully cut down the chances that they are readmitted. That would actually save the NHS money.

Manufacturing trouble?


Friends, who work in the food industry, think they do a superb job making food that’s both easy to serve and affordable. A book I read in the 70’s told me that the mission statement of Marks and Spencer was to subvert the class structure of Britain by making items available to the working classes that previously only the upper classes could afford! I can remember the excitement of having a Chicken Kiev for the first time! The example of Chicken Kiev is interesting. Most of us tend to think it’s a traditional dish, probably from the Ukraine. However I think it’s origins are French – and it was originally made with veal.

Posh restaurants changed it to chicken, because it was more expensive! Now you can buy two Chicken Kievs and get change from £1! How did this come about?

We can thank factory farmers for bringing down the price of chicken. I think most people would be appalled if they walked through a modern intensive poultry farm.

Florida chicken house

The few that allow cameras in are probably the better ones, in terms of animal welfare. Due to their intensive rearing, a typical supermarket chicken today contains more than twice the fat, and about a third less protein than 40 years ago.

How can the supermarkets sell food so cheaply?  A look at the ingredients gives us a clue. In the one I looked at there was less than 50% chicken! The ingredients listed were:

“Chopped and Shaped Chicken Breast Mix with added Water and Soya Protein (67%) [Chicken (48%), Water, WHEAT FIBRE (contains Gluten), Tapioca Starch, SOYA PROTEIN ISOLATE, Stabilisers (Triphosphates), Salt, White Pepper] , Garlic Butter (10%) [Unsalted Butter (from MILK), Garlic Powder, Sugar, Parsley, Citric Acid, Flavouring] , Rapeseed Oil , Fortified Wheat Flour and Wheat Flour Blend [Fortified Wheat Flour [WHEAT FLOUR (contains Gluten), Calcium Carbonate, Iron, Niacin (B3), Thiamin (B1)], WHEAT FLOUR (contains Gluten)] , Salt , Dextrose , WHEAT SEMOLINA (contains Gluten) , Maize Starch , WHEAT GLUTEN , WHEAT STARCH (contains Gluten)”.

The problem, as I see it, stems back to the industrial resolution, when workers left the land and moved into cities. Factories sprung up, producing cheap processed food.

There’s a long history of the food industry buying cheap ingredients, and then adding flavouring, sugar and salt to make it more appealing. I can recommend reading Swindled: From Poison Sweets to Counterfeit Coffee – The Dark History of the Food Cheats by Bee Wilson.  I’ve used chickens as an example, but I could have used many others.  It’s frightening when you read the real reasons why prawn are now so cheap, and you’ll probably want to cut them out of your diet when you read more (see here for an example). Another good read is Felicity Lawrence’s Not On the Label: What Really Goes into the Food on Your Plate. It’s shocking that, after the horse meat scandal, I’m struggling to find evidence of prosecutions etc.

As supply chains have lengthened, we’ve become more distanced from food producers. A small producer probably wouldn’t bother to substitute a cheaper ingredient to save a penny – but if you’re producing 100,000+ then saving a penny can add thousands to the bottom line.

One of the main problems is lack of education.  The eminent Professor John Webster told me in the 70’s the British public profess to have an interest in animal welfare, until they walk through the supermarket door and buy the cheapest food there is! Thirty years on and his message hasn’t changed (see here for example).

When I buy a chicken, I’m surprised how many meals I get out of it.  I buy a good one, and bulk it out with pulses and vegetables.  Nothing goes to waste, I always make a stock out of the carcass.

A recent report, by The Centre for Diet and Activity Research (CEDAR), looks at the growing price gap between more and less healthy foods.  According to the report, healthy foods in 2012 were three times more expensive per calorie than less healthy foods:

Price gap between more and less healthy foods

It’s no wonder obesity is increasing. When I look in shops like B & M and Home Bargains I see lots of cheap, but heavily processed foods. We’re lucky, where I live, to still have a greengrocer.  Many places no longer have one…

I welcome programmes like Jamie’s 15 minute meals, which show you that you can make tasty, reasonably priced meals in no time at all without resorting to packets and ready meals. I also commend Joanna Blythman’s What to Eat: Food that’s good for your health, pocket and plate – follow her guidelines and you can eat better and help save the planet.

Why we’re getting fatter!

Today is traditionally a day on which we make resolutions.  With recent headlines like 10-year-old girl weighs 22 stone, I’m sure many will be planning to loose weight.  Why is obesity such a problem?

I’m very worried that even quite young people are now becoming obese.  A report by Public Health England, on Social and economic inequalities in diet and physical activity, shows us a link between social deprivation and obesity amongst children:

This report tell us that people living in the poorest neighbourhoods will, on average, die seven years earlier than people living in the wealthiest neighbourhoods!  The reasons seem to be poor education and bad diets.  The better off spend more on fresh fruit and vegetables, whereas the worst off spend more on processed foods.  At the same time, people with the least income in general do less physical activity.

It’s also worrying how many people are now relying on food banks in the UK.  According to the Trussell Trust 346,992 people received emergency food from food banks in 2012/13 – a 270% increase on the previous year.

Many food banks don’t accept fresh produce, as they can’t easily handle it.  I’m pleased to see the Trussell Trust is now trying to teach people how to cook when on a low budget, and provides advice on food budgeting, hygiene and nutrition. A report from the Institute for Optimum Nutrition, point out that people below the poverty line find it hard to afford healthy food, which they reckon can cost up to 50 per cent more than filling but nutritionally poor alternatives.

So who do I blame for the mess we’re currently in?  Friends who work in the food industry say they’re keen to provide nutritionally sound, affordable meals. However a Consumers Association report on breakfast cereals last year points out that 32 out of the 50 cereals they looked at were high in sugar. In only two cases was this due to the fruit they contained; for the rest it was added sugar.

It’s interesting how big food manufacturers have refused to use traffic light labeling. Maybe that’s why we worry about whether to buy full fat milk (which actually is skimmed to contain 3.6% fat) whilst eating crisps that have over 30% fat!

Teachers try and do their bit – but I don’t think it’s the first thing that OFSTED ask about.

Politicians will love to say they’re doing something about it. However they seem more interested in scoring political points off each other, rather than getting together and making sure something is done.

Many now trust supermarkets more than politicians. Did you watch Dispatches – Supermarket Secrets and Deceptions? It may change your mind about how you shop! The big 4 supermarkets now dominate the market:

According to data from Kantar Worldpanel, they have 75.2% of the market.  Bear in mind that the Co-op, Waitrose, Aldi and Lidl are in my “Others” category.  This means we now buy very little today from small independent shops.  I think this is why we now exist on foods from factory farms, and rely on artificial additives and preservatives to give taste and extend shelf life.  Good markets and greengrocers (traditionally the source for fresh and healthy fruit and vegetables) can be hard to find in many areas.

Our over-worked doctors haven’t got enough time to discuss healthy eating, so prescribe statins etc. to reduce cholesterol, and medications to reduce blood pressure. If you find all this depressing, well they’ve also got tablets to help you with that!

Thankfully organisations like the The Kindling Trust, with projects like Feeding Manchester, and the Plunkett Foundation, who led with Making Local Food Work, are making a difference.  I hope you’ll support initiatives like these.

I’ll finish this post with one of my favourite quotations from Margaret Mead. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Farewell 2013!

As it’s the season for reviews, I thought I’d do a quick review of some of this year’s highlights of doing this blog this year.

I’ve been to some great markets, and The Merchant of Hoghton’s Food Producers:

and Orton Farmers’ Market:

were both amazing examples of how could a Farmers’ market can be.

I’m glad we went on a walking holiday in the North East this year, otherwise I might not have discovered  Cross Lanes Organic Farm, near Barnard Castle

with its green living roof, tractor tyre shelves and great food!

If ever your that way, you must also try and visit Robineau Patisserie in Darlington:

I’d go on quite a detour to visit there again…

This year I’ve been to some great butchers, and some fantastic bakers – like Bramhall Bakery:

As bread and cheese go so well together I must also mention the amazing Courtyard Dairy in Settle:

Since my visit they’ve won Best New Cheese Retailer at the 2013 British Cheese Awards, and Best Cheese Counter at the BBC Good Food Show, and at the same event, Andy also won Cheesemonger of the Year – I’m sure he deserves it.

It’s been nice to see cider make a comeback, although my comments refer only to the proper stuff, and not the stuff marketing people promote which is made with imported apples and added water and god knows what!

So I was very pleased to visit the Three Counties Cider Shop in Ledbury  – a wonderful village for food lovers in Herefordshire.  Even better than cider is a good perry, and Tom Oliver:

(in my opinion) makes some of the best you’ll ever find.

In fact, if you want the perfect meal, what could be better than a proper crusty loaf of bread, some tasty cheese and a glass of good cider or perry?  If you buy them from these people you’ll be consuming natural products and not artificial additives.

A big thanks to all the producers, for allowing me to write about them, and to you for reading this blog.

Happy 2014!

Some New Year’s Resolutions for Food Lovers

1. Eat more pulses

As a child I used to hate butter beans etc. that were unimaginatively served in school dinners.  But now I really enjoy trying different pulses and they’re good for your health.  Using pulses also means I can pay more for meat that has bean reared in an acceptable way, because adding pulses to stews and other dishes makes a little meat go a long way.

If you’re not sure about cooking pulses, there’s some help here and more recipes here.  It’s easier to use tinned beans, but cheaper to buy dried ones.  A pressure cooker saves a lot of time.

2. Eat more fruit and vegetables

I’m sure my doctor will approve of this one!  These days I much prefer a vegetable curry to a meat curry and it’s more authentic.  It’s time to rediscover fennel, red cabbage, and turnips.

3. Eat more seasonally

Why do we buy tasteless strawberries in December?  Eating according to the seasons is cheaper and better for the environment.

There’s plenty of advice on the web about how to do this, like the BBC’s Food Seasons and Eat Seasonably.

4. Eat more sustainable fish

It’s alarmed me how many species of fish seem to have gone (or become very scarce).  Why are we catching fish like mackerel and then feeding it to salmon in horrible fish farms?  I’d rather eat mackerel than salmon, and it takes about three pounds of wild fish to grow one pound of farmed fish

Find a good fishmonger and use the Good Fish Guide for guidance.

5. Drink less alcohol

My recent course at Cheshire Wine School reminded me that spending a bit more on a bottle gets a lot better quality wine so if I drink less I can improve the quality of what I drink!

I can’t stand low alcohol wines, but drinking a nice English cider or perry (like those made by Once Upon A Tree or Oliver’s Cider and Perry) rather than a glass of wine will also help cut down my alcohol consumption.

6. Buy more real bread

Real bread may cost a little more than the mass produced cotton wool sort that many of us eat, but I think it’s well worth paying a bit more for proper bread.  Watching Britain’s Best Bakery reminded me how passionate bakers can be, and I look forward to visiting as many as possible this year.

It’s easy to find a good baker:


It’s always nice to visit a proper bakery, bakers are some of the nicest people I know!

7. Buy more local foods

I’m delighted that local foods seem to be making a comeback.  According to the Food Ethics Council food accounts for 25% of the distance travelled by lorries in the UK, and 12 billion miles driven a year by consumers.

I’m pleased that small artisan producers are starting to use some of the tactics used by supermarkets and are now doing loyalty cards etc.

8.  Exercise more

The easiest exercise you can do is to not do a one stop shop at your supermarket!  Instead walk around your town or village and do more shopping at the small independents.  You can build up a relationship with them.  If you ask, they’ll often get thing in if they don’t already stock it, and they will advice you on what’s good at the moment and if you’re on a budget they’ll find you a bargain!

Going on a nice walk means you can eat more, and not put on the calories.  The endorphins produced by exercise beats taking drugs!  The Ramblers and the National Trust make it easy to find some nice walks (and here are some I’ve done).

9. Discover old recipes

There’s lots of new recipes on the internet, many of highly dubious providence.  This morning I saw a recipe for Champagne and Curry Soup with Oysters!  What a waste of good ingredients.

Instead why not have a look at some of the recipes our grandparents used? For inspiration there’s fantastic sites like  Great British Kitchen and The Foods of England.

I feel, having made a list of 9 things, that it should be 10! What have I missed out?

Incredible Edible Wilmslow

Just over a year ago I visited Incredible Edible Todmorden.  Like most people who visit this fantastic project I came away impressed and inspired.  The idea is now spreading (Todmorden gets visitors from afar away as Australia and Chile) and similar initiatives are beginning to bloom in France (see here).

I thought I’d visit Wilmslow to see how it’s going there.  I wanted to be green, so went by train:

and found herbs, edible flowers, and even strawberry plants growing on the station platform.

Outside the station I gather Community Payback had helped to create beds:

there’s wild flower meadows and apples, damsons and blackcurrants.

A sign:

explains about the shared town centre growing space and encourages you to help weed water and plant spare edible plants.

I then used their map to visit some of the other plots in the town.  My first stop was the King William pub:

to admire the edible flowers at the front, and the edible courtyard around the back.

Then it was on to Waitrose, where I found herbs growing outside their store:

Helen, from Incredible Edible Wilmslow, had suggested I visit when it was the Artisan Market, and I was glad I did.  Here I met Transition Town Wilmslow

where a very helpful lady told me what they’re doing to help tackle climate change, fossil fuel depletion and economic contraction.

The man at Growing Places:

besides selling stylish garden tools, was also actively involved in the project.

I didn’t get as far as Shenton Farm Shop in Handforth (where they have a herb bar), but they also had a stall in the market:

There was a composting area:

and a few planters helped make this area look better:

Off South Drive, four large raised beds are packed with herbs and vegetables:

Even outside Sainsbury’s they were doing something different:

The Incredible guide told me to find trolley attendant Mark, for more cookery ideas than Jamie Oliver!

Even businesses with no land had managed to grow hanging baskets with edible flowers:

and two opticians and a dentist are also involved:

You can see all the places I visited here.

I didn’t manage to get to the community orchard site as I spent longer than I’d intended in the Artisan Market.

They’re just making a start at Wilmslow Health Centre, which I think is great. A better diet had obvious benefits for our health, and I suspect the psychological benefit of communal growing are even greater.  Everyone I spoke to about the project was so positive about it. They’ve achieved a lot in a very short period and I left Wilmslow feeling a happier person.


Happy Easter

When I first started writing this blog, I struggled to find rare breed eggs – like these beautiful ones from Ladymeads organic farm in Sussex.  Happily it’s a lot easier now, but this made me wonder what proportion of the population would be eating such items this Easter?

My research left me feeling rather depressed.  I spent my Easter holidays walking in Swaledale, visiting Farmers’ markets and buying food from small independent retailers, as featured in this blog.   I suspect my activity is relatively unusual.  I see that markets are still in decline, with less than 0.5% of food purchases being made in all markets (not just Farmers’ markets).

DEFRA have just released their family food survey for 2010 here.  This report provides statistics on purchases, expenditure and the nutrient content of food purchases in the United Kingdom.  We’re spending less on items like milk and cream, fish, fruit and bread, and spending more on soft drinks and alcoholic drinks.

5 A DAY purchases peaked in 2006 and have fallen back to approximately 4.0 portions purchased per person per day in 2010.  More worryingly poorer households reduced their purchases by 20 per cent between 2007 and 2010, down to the equivalent of 2.7 portions per person per day:

Trends in 5 a day purchases

The report shows that lower income families also consume lower levels of fibre and higher levels of NMES (non-milk extrinsic sugars).

I’ve just watched Doctor Robert Lustig’s video Sugar: The Bitter Truth.  It’s nearly an hour and a half long  – but well worth watching if you want an insight into what’s going wrong with what we eat.

Better education is clearly needed.  I don’t think we can rely on the politicians or big businesses to properly promote healthy eating.