Samui Wining & Dining
A Spoonful of Sugar
Nourishment is what we all need, but are ‘nutraceuticals’ taking things too far?


­6The satisfying crunch of a sweet, raw carrot. The burst of flavour from a freshly-picked strawberry. That squirt of juice from the first bite of a fresh orange. Even the tantalising firmness of crisply-blanched vegetables sitting next to your steak. There was a time when food was food, back in a golden era when life was far less complex. Somewhere back in the ’50s, when the deprivations of WWII had ended. When a ‘healthy’ diet contained things like bread and butter, full-cream milk, eggs, sugar and bacon. And all those fresh vegetables, which had been so scarce just a few short years ago. But then things changed.

As with many things in life, it was the Americans who took the lead. It was that dynamic and thrusting nation which, with so many busy things to be getting on with, first began to eat in a hurry. The initial branches of McDonald’s appeared and then a multitude of followers all featuring ‘drive-thrus’. Instant frozen TV dinners started to replace the family meal. More and more food became ‘processed’ – it was both cheaper and quicker to make. But gradually, as the world moved closer towards the end of the millennium, people began to fret about the quality of what they were eating.

And the response from the food industry was immediate and simple – and this was when the idea of what we now call ‘nutraceuticals’ began – manufacturers started to sprinkle their produce with vitamins and proteins. It’s ironic in a way: rather than preparing ‘natural’ food it’s more cost-effective to leach all the nourishment out of beef or cheese in a rapid mass-production conveyor-belt process, and then mix in some protein or vitamin powder to try to balance it up again afterwards.

This was a stroke of genius when it came to marketing – manufacturers could now shout about how ‘healthy’ their product was. Food became ‘power-packed’ or ‘vitamin-rich’. And in some cases it all got a bit silly. Kellogg’s, for example, in the famous American High Court decision of 1989, were compelled to cease advertising their corn flakes as breakfast ‘food’ – it was demonstrated that there was more nourishment in the cardboard carton than in its contents (and so they simply added riboflavin). And in the decade which spanned the turn of the century, dozens of similar cases curtailed manufacturers’ misleading claims. ‘Cheerio’s reduce cholesterol’ – oh no they don’t. Ocean Spray cranberry juice ‘assists urinary function’ – not a bit. Nutri-Grain Soft Oaties are full of ‘wholesome cookie goodness’ – no way. Walkers Crisps ‘contain less salt than bread’ – it’s not true. But whilst all this fuss was going on there was a whole new industry waiting to arise. And, in a way, it was the next logical step in the process.

The term ‘nutraceutical’ was coined in 1989 by Stephen de Felice, founder and Chairman of the Foundation for Innovation in Medicine. Simply defined, these are naturally-occurring agents such as enzymes, protein chains, vitamins, anti-oxidants or anti-fungals which are intended to supplement and enhance food products. It’s much the same idea as before, but this time developed into an exact science; a joining together of the bio-technology and pharmaceutical industries.

Just take a close look at the contents of any of the trolleys at a supermarket checkout today. You’ll see ‘superfoods’ and ‘superjuices’, energy drinks with antioxidants, fish fingers that proclaim ‘omega-3’ credentials, breakfast cereals crammed with vitamins and iron, margarines with oleo-extenders, milk with extra calcium and even ‘probiotic’ yoghurt drinks that are just swimming with healthy live bacteria. And to that you can add whole ranges of sports and energy drinks, and dietary supplements such as fish-oil capsules and multi-vitamins; although these last two are nothing new.

Today, we the public now demand products that will make us healthier and help us to live longer. But it’s a vicious circle; that’s what we want and so it would be commercial suicide for the manufacturers not to provide it for us. But the more of this ‘really healthy’ food we are offered, the less inclined we are to buy anything else. And because these products are ‘even better than real food’ (as the manufacturers will have us believe) they can justify charging top dollar for them. It’s a win-win situation, for the big companies at any rate. It’s a lot more believable to see a health claim on a box of sugary cereal than on a raw potato or carrot, with the perverse result that the most nourishing food in the shops sits there quietly in the grocery section, largely ignored.

But it doesn’t stop there. As a spin-off from all this, ‘cosmeceuticals’ have recently begun to appear. In the last decade, the big pharmaceutical companies have been busy with research into the natural properties of plants. And, on the positive side, there have been many beneficial discoveries, some of which have found their way into our food chain. But now this same chemistry is turning towards our cosmetic products. Anti-aging creams like the extract from the wild yam, which contains oestrogen in a lotion form, for example.

And then the latest development, ‘farmaceuticals’, which is logical again. There’s a whole new industry just waiting to emerge, with farmers learning how to genetically modify their crops at the growing stage to include extra vitamins and proteins at source. Right now this is highly controversial and has a very negative public image, but in the future …

Worrying, isn’t it. I mean, food should be food and not some cocktail of chemicals. Doesn’t it all just make you long for those simpler times that I mentioned at the start? The days when policemen were respected and sausages were made from real meat? Well, those times might have passed but there are still places where the tide of ‘progress’ has washed on by. Like our island of Samui, for example. Fish and seafood come fresh out of the sea each morning. Steaks come from organically-fed cattle. Vegetables are grown in real soil with natural manure. And all sorts of fruit just grow on trees!

Yes, sure, there’s processed cheese in the supermarkets. But who needs it with scores of superb and affordable top-notch restaurants to choose from. On Samui there’s no need of a ‘spoonful of sugar’ to go on our food – it’s already sweet enough!


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