September 2010

The Nation Reviewed

Bread and butter

By Gay Bilson
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

For dessert we ate hot puff pastry with a filling of grated apple cooked with butter, eggs and lemon. It pleased the guests, although one of them asked about the filling and seemed shocked that the ingredients were so rich, which is to say (she implied by her look), unhealthy. Another guest, a food scientist who directs the FOODplus Research Centre at the University of Adelaide, demanded to be given the ends as well – all crisp, tender pastry with no filling.

I told him the proportion of butter to flour is almost weight for weight. He responded by telling us about a strain of durum wheat, developed by cross-breeding, dubbed ‘waxy durum’. When flour made from waxy durum is added to normal, strong bread-flour (durum is a pasta flour, not a bread flour), pastry can be made with much less fat content than usual.

I did some simple maths and protested that the butter in his ten or so mouthfuls of puff pastry did not amount to much, and that perhaps we should simply eat less of what is, in excess, unhealthy. I sang in praise of authentic puff pastry, as opposed to the commercial variety that does not contain butter and, in my purist opinion, should not be called puff pastry. I’d become all huff and puff, your typical food hobbyist who knows a lot about the culinary arts, about flavour and texture in food – someone who understands why good food should cost so much and can afford to purchase it by not spending on other commodities.

The food scientist, whom I had begun to treat as some kind of ogre, patiently explained why he and his colleagues try to increase the health benefits of foods that the majority of Australians eat every day. He agreed that changing our eating habits is the best long-term goal, but said that, since it’s such an uphill battle to educate and inspire people to change, and since the problems of obesity and heart disease are so pressing, it’s important to make fast food healthier in the meantime. The waxy durum is of interest to companies such as George Weston Foods, makers of Tip Top and Sunblest, who provided the flour for the FOODplus research. I suppose the scientists’ attitude is: if you can’t beat them, help them.

The next day I read a paper by the FOODplus chemist who has been testing the waxy durum. He concluded that it “increased loaf expansion”, lowered the “compression” of the crumb, remained softer for much longer than bread baked without waxy durum, and “may have an application as a fat substitute, and other commercial advantages”. While finding a version of ‘beauty in truth’ in his findings, I was shocked by the yawning difference between what I want from a loaf of bread and what he is measuring. I want crust, gutsy flavour and texture; I don’t care about the ‘staling process’ and I never add fat to bread, which, for those of us who near worship bread, would be akin to turning it into biscuit or cake.

The food scientist, however, did tell a persuasive story about the development of wheat with a high lutein level (lutein reduces macular degeneration of the eyes, a major problem in Asian countries). The flour milled from this strain of wheat is used to make noodles, which are packaged and distributed by a multinational company, and eaten by millions throughout Asia, so people’s health is improved without resort to a change of diet. Also, lutein is yellow, so the food additive normally used to colour the noodles – poisonous if eaten in large amounts – becomes unnecessary; the company saves money and the label can legitimately claim no artificial colouring is used in its product, thereby selling more instant noodles.

The food scientist was beginning to seem like a saviour. Yet I continued to argue for change in eating habits, which is to say education, with an emphasis on information beyond that to be expected of industrial food labelling. Consider the comedic space between the boast on the packaging of a sealed “mini apple pie and sultana treat” that “we bake fresh every day”, and the simultaneous claim – in smaller print of course – that the treat “can be kept for 6 months if stored at –18°C, and if thawed and kept at 5°C will keep for 14 days”. Even if both claims are true, the emotive appeal to ‘home-cooked freshness’ of the first claim is cancelled out by the second.

We trust and are seduced by food labelling where once we trusted food itself, because we had a more direct knowledge of it and were, by necessity, more involved in its supply and preparation. In working to add health benefits to industrial food, the food scientists may, in part, be heroes, but are also, surely, complicit in changing the parameters of what the public know and trust will make them healthy and contented. Pastry used for the ubiquitous Aussie meat pie made with waxy durum, with far less fat (let’s not pretend it is butter, or even olive oil), will give the food companies licence to claims that will allow the gullible to think they can happily eat more.

The food scientist retorted that we have culturally moved so far from truly understanding food’s connection to agriculture that the scientists necessarily work with what is used in industrial food to make it healthier. But, I argued, Australia is a gastronomically challenged nation; we have no traditional benchmarks for our industrial foods to aspire to, as, say, the French and Italians do.

Elizabeth David argued in the ’60s that the Mediterranean diet was “the rational, right and proper food for human beings to eat”. It is good to read of someone often characterised as a romantic calling a diet rational (the Mediterranean diet, much touted as soteriological in the ’90s, is high in olive oil and vegetable consumption, and its populations statistically shown to live longer lives than both North Americans and Anglo-Saxon Australians, both of whom have diets high in dairy produce and meat). The Sustainable Development Commission in the UK published a report last year with recommendations for sustainable eating, one of which was: “Consume less food and drink”. Meanwhile, we go on consuming more and more industrial food, ignoring the bottom line – agriculture. The food scientist, over a second slice of authentic, butter-rich puff pastry filled with organic apples and lemons, repeated that he and his fellow researchers are working with agriculture. But in the same department of scientists, I reckon we need a team of sociologists, public health researchers and, most importantly, a board of advisory tasters.

Gay Bilson
Gay Bilson is a writer, literary critic and former Sydney restaurateur. Her books include Plenty: Digressions on Food and On Digestion.

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