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Articles from the Club Sandwich on the Green Scene

The Who sang “we won’t get fooled again” but we are still being fooled, and most of the time. Ever a contentious issue (just how much do you think manufactures want you to know?) the dodgy problem of food labelling once more raises its ugly head, prompting Mark Lewisohn to ask a few pertinent questions.
Are you a vegetarian? Yes? Good. Great, in fact.

But do you eat ice-cream, or use low-fat spreads or low-fat mayonnaise or suck mints or chew gum or take vitamin capsules? You do? Then, sorry, but you’re probably not a vegetarian after all.

These products, and a good many others, contain gelatin (or gelatine). It’s a harmless enough name all right, and it’s been around for so long that very few among us question what exactly it is. Well here’s a dictionary definition for you: “a colourless, odourless, tasteless glue prepared from albuminous substances, eg bones and hides”.

Bones and hides. Bones and hides… of animals. In other words, all the bits and pieces and entrails left behind after flesh has been scraped and steamed away, processes into a yellowish jelly. It’s a vile, slaughterhouse bi-product, and usage of it is rampant in the food industry. (and other industries besides.)

Now, I don’t think that I’ve been particularly dense about this (although it’s certainly a possibility) but I just didn’t know. There I’ve been all these years, considering myself a vegetarian, and proud of it, when actually – courtesy of low-fat yoghurts – I’ve been in taking animal derivatives on a daily basis, and feeding them to my children. While blissfully believing that I’ve been carefully cutting down on their fat intake I’ve been blithely feeding them crushed animal hooves and boiled-up bones.

The fact is, many vegetarians believe that the products they eat are animal-free when they are nothing of the kind. Carnivores may smile at the news – “at last they’ve got their come-uppance for all that preaching” once can almost hear them baying – but doubtless they too are being affected by food manufactures’ deceptions somewhere along the line.

Staff at The Vegetarian Society have long been aware of the gelatine problem. Sue Stobart, whose job it is to licence the Society’s distinctive “V” symbol for labelling on pure vegetarian products, is appalled by the widespread use of gelatine. “Who would ever think, when choosing and eating yoghurt, that it’s got the remains of a dead animal in it,” she questions. “And it’s also in lots of readymade dessert and puddings, an awful lot of sweets, even things like Polo mints, and it’s a fairly safe bet that pastilles and jelly babies are full of gelatine too.”

Worse still is the fact that although gelatine may have been used in the processing of a product it may not be declared in the stated ingredients because, by the time the product is sold, it is no longer present. For example, its molecular structure is such that gelatine is used by some manufactures of apple juice as a fining agent – that is, to make a naturally cloudy liquid into the clear liquid that consumers want. But because there’s no trace of the gelatine by the time the apple juice is put on sale the carton will list “apple juice” as the only ingredient. It’s also used in some wines for the same reason and, again, you’d never know it from looking at the label.

And to continue the theme, soft drinks which include beta-carotene, an orange colouring, may also contain gelatine, in that it can be used to encapsulate the substance or help make it soluble. But although you’ll see beta-carotene listed among the ingredients you have no way of knowing whether or not gelatine was once knocking about in there too.

Despite the subterfuge, however, close scrutiny of food labelling should certainly still be practised. Kim Davenport of Eat Your Hearts Out! – caterers on the McCartneys’ World and New World Tours – was recently given a vivid reminder of this. “I bought some vegetable oil in Australia,” she says, “didn’t read the label because I assumed that it was simply that, vegetable oil, and only found out later that it was cut with animal fat. Also in Australia, all the cream is thickened with gelatine. Linda once told me never to go to the supermarket without a magnifying glass, and she’s absolutely right. Whoever would have thought that vegetable oil would be cut with animal fat, and cream with gelatine? And I know that animal products are in most sweets and biscuits too.”

So just why is the use of gelatine still so widespread in these supposedly enlightened times, these days of supposedly greater consumer awareness and increasing vegetarianism? Sue Stobart of the Vegetarian Society believes it’s because pressure has never been really put on companies to seek an alternative. “They could use guar gum, pectin or agar-agar (so good they named it twice!) but rarely bother because they’re not as stable or reliable in mass production. Then again,” she adds, “they’ve not really sought ways to improve them either.”

A spokesperson for a leading sweet-making company told me, “They (the alternative substances to gelatine) just don’t have the right texture and consistency to go through the machines used to make our confectionery. And besides, they don’t give the same chewy texture that the public expects from our product.”

Pardon me for being cynical, but haven’t we heard this argument before? “The public won’t want it so we won’t give it to them?” Sorry, but it just doesn’t wash. The consumer – once things are explained properly – really doesn’t want his haddock artificially yellowed, his apricots artificially oranged, his bread artificially whitened, or darkened, his fruit waxed to look shiny… or his yoghurt to contain crushed and boiled animal remains.

I’ve thought we’d been through all this for the last time, but obviously not. So ought we not to use our voices once again to tell manufactures just what we do want. And not stop telling them until they listen?

Low-Fat Spread
Yoghurt (especially low-fat, long-lifed or whipped)
Mousse and other dairy desserts
Vitamin capsules
Low-Fat Mayonnaise
Jelly Babies
Wine Gums
Sugar-Coated Sweets
Chewing gum
Ice Cream and sorbet
“Fitness” Drinks
Apple Juice

From Club Sandwich, Issue # 67, Autumn 1993

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