Saturday, 27 November 2010

Food for thought: the rise and rise of gastro science on television

As something of an amateur foodie (and with a professional chef for a brother), I've been interested to note the expansion of a new documentary genre in the last few years: programmes dedicated to the science and technology aspects of food. Indeed, the BBC seems to broadcast a new series on the subject every month or so, but why now and more importantly, are they any good?

As an answer to the first question, there must presumably be some knock-on effect from the small army of celebrity chefs: Jamie, Gordon, Nigella and their ilk, not forgetting Heston, ready to metamorphose into The Muppet Show's Dr Bunsen Honeydew at any moment. But is that enough to have generated a new genre out of nothing in so short a time? Health worries in general and the enormous growth (slight pun intended) in obesity in the UK are no doubt also responsible. With one in eleven British children apparently receiving treatment for asthma and alarming obesity statistics constantly in the headlines, it's little wonder our diet is being scrutinised in ever-increasing detail.

Another possible influence on the production of these programmes is the scientific-leaning campaigns by the prepared foodstuffs industry, cajoling us to stay healthy via the consumption of 'isotonic' drinks and food containing 'friendly bacteria'. Yet even a casual examination of the evidence suggests these products are as much a result of marketing as medicine, with benefits yet to proven in any serious sense. Indeed, in the case of pro-biotic foods there may even be potential side-effects. But back to the programmes themselves: do they provide any useful information to combat the hype and worry or are they just more cheap airtime to replace the cookery shows broadcast ad nauseum?

The programmes have covered a wide range of topics, but mostly steer clear of matter-of-fact detailing in favour of light-heartened musings, vox populi taste tests and experiments of the 'disgusting science' variety. A primary purveyor of the latter is the BBC's Jimmy's Food Factory, in which farmer Jimmy Doherty attempts to make processed food (and chewing gum) using supposedly household equipment and ingredients. It has to be said, watching chips being made via a gas gun and tennis racket is fun, but hasn't this more in common with Jackass than the Open University? Whereas Delia, Hugh, and the Hairy Bikers/Bakers et al make at least some effort to provide useful information, there's not much about Jimmy's explosive experiments that can aid us to make wiser choices as food buyers.

Other series that might attempt a more serious approach suffer from experiments using subject groups and/or timescales that are obviously too small for meaningful correlations to appear. Another BBC show, E Numbers: an Edible Adventure, is a prime example of this. Presenter Stefan Gates attempted to overdose of E numbers courtesy of a single day's junk food binge, only to find he'd mostly stayed within the recommended daily allowance for E numbers but had eaten over 400% of his fat RDA, 500% of his salt, and over 200% of his sugar intake. Now is that surprising? No wonder one reviewer found it 'maddeningly superficial'; it seems to have more in common with The Supersizers brand of infotainment than anything else. In fact, I seem to remember a single discussion on food additives whilst at school twenty-five years ago that was more informative than these three episodes.

It's not all doom and gloom: the BBC's The Truth About Food has gone some way to balancing the above, with a good book and website to match, but this is far and away the high point of the genre. It seems to me producers are missing a trick by not examining the current (and near-future) developments in food processing, from increased use of nanomaterials to cloned farm animals and in vitro slabs of lab-grown meat. This latter may sound a touch Frankenstein-ish, but beef flesh grown in a tank would presumably save on a lot of methane production. Then there's aquaponics, where the nitrogen cycle from farmed fish can help feed edible plants which in turn reduce the build-up of dangerous chemicals in the tank, something I learned about the hard way whilst breeding three generations of tadpole shrimps earlier this year.

So, in conclusion, the potential of television to educate whilst entertaining seems to have been once again been well and truly scuppered. One up for the Rupert Murdochs methinks, and a minus several million for the Lord Reiths. Doh!

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