Swallow This by Joanna Blythman

With Swallow this, author Blythman presents a thoroughly researched and informative book on everything that goes into store bought or restaurant food (in other words, anything you didn’t grow yourself). With a distinct EU/UK perspective, nearly every chemical (whether listed on a food label or not) is exhaustively researched, cataloged, and collected into intelligent groupings for easy reference. For the most part, shock tactics and Exposé histrionics are eschewed in favor of common sense observations, making for a more grounded piece. More interestingly, since Blythman is UK-based, this is a revealing book that shows the EU really isn’t all that better than the US in controlling everything from GM to chemical additives that could be harmful or deadly through long term exposure.

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The book breaks down as follows: Part One: How the processed food system works (why it all tastes the same, on the factory floor, clean label, at the food maker’s market, fresh in store); Part Two: The defining characteristics of processed food (sweet, oily, flavored, colored, watery, starchy, tricky, old, packed). About 30% of the text is the carefully compiled references at the end.

Much of the book revolves around how preparation practices have changed to make food cheaper and last longer – often by replacing whole ingredients with chemical vestiges of the original or cheaper alternatives. Most revealing is not so much the chemicals themselves but the extraction methods that use very toxic chemicals (e.g., breaking milk down into ‘milk proteins) to accomplish the purpose.

Also interesting was the last decade mission of manufacturers to ‘clean labels’ in order to turn chemical sounding ingredients into more palatable ‘natural’ sounding names. Those switches were eye opening; a 40 letter chemical name could often be turned into something more pleasant such as “rosemary extract”, a chemical which really has nothing to do with rosemary but instead slows down the rate at which foods go rancid (e.g., a preservative).

Because the author went to specialized ‘food fairs’ that aren’t open to the public (for obvious reasons), she was able to obtain a lot of information on the chemicals that aren’t listed on a label – those used in packaging (e.g., specialized chemical ‘air’ to keep produce fresher) or during the production process that are supposed to dissipate by the end. Even fresh food (e.g., lettuce), has a lot of chemical coatings by the time it reaches the produce section. Or ‘fresh’ baked bread at the supermarket arrived there frozen and just popped into an oven.

Swallow This presents an interesting quandry for the modern age and a topic that I would have liked to see addressed as well. To whit, without the chemicals and innovation that make food cheaper and last longer, how would we feed the global population? But at the same time, are we engineering our own destruction (cancer, diabetes, etc.), a ‘prosperity plague’ of the modern age? So while I am glad to read Blythman’s book and understand more about what goes into the food I buy at the store, I wish the book wasn’t such a one-sided indictment against the food industry. There is so much more to the topic. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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