What is Germany is talking about? The situation in Ukraine? The future of Greece? The influx of refugees? All of them are important subjects, but if magazine stands are even remotely representative of today’s hot conversational topic, then it isn’t those – it’s food.
There are now dozens of publications seeking to cater to every taste and price range of food and its preparation.
At first pass, that’s no big surprise as few other countries have as many Michelin-starred restaurants.
But no country has such an extensive network of discount food chains, either, which ultimately illustrates the German food conundrum. Nowhere do people like their food as much yet are so deeply mistrustful of it – while also being meticulous price-watchers.
Eating has become an issue of faith, an ideology, a home in an ever-changing world. Today, the selection of the right meal or brand goes hand-in-hand with moral virtue.
Simply buying organic milk today is a statement, and in general we are now paying more in many places to ensure certain ingredients are specifically not contained in our food.
“Man is what he eats” – never before was that adage a greater admonition. We decide on a style of eating like we choose a political party, but we want it to be a religion. There is a food niche to fit every lifestyle – from the meat magazine Beef, “for men with taste,” all the way to Vegan magazine, which wants to “get under the skin, but not harm anyone.” Its competitor, Vegan Good Life, defines itself as the magazine “for the ethically beautiful.”
The population in the big cities believe they can tell the farmers exactly how food must be produced - but none of them wants to take a pitchfork in hand to do it themselves. Christoph Minhoff, CEO, Federation of German Food and Drink Industries
Despite our moral differences, something also unites us. No matter whether disciples of Fusion or Clean Eating, Mayr Health Cures, Low Carb, or the fetishized Paleo, there is a longing for authenticity, for validity, for truth, which the food industry has been withholding from consumers for a long time.
The food industry is, to a major extent, responsible for all the mistrust that has been building up in the past decades between business and consumers.
Up until the First World War, the majority of the German population lived in the countryside, where most food was produced. Back then, a third of the people worked in agriculture, today it is only two percent.
“The population in the big cities believe they can tell the farmers exactly how food must be produced - but none of them wants to take a pitchfork in hand to do it themselves,” says Christoph Minhoff, who, as chief executive of the Federation of German Food and Drink Industries.
There was a time when people knew where meat, fruit and vegetables came from. But the understanding and interest in their production has disappeared.
The consumer in the era of Germany’s post-war boom years was primarily interested in price. And, with all the pressure to become efficient, the meat and agriculture industries, who were rapidly industrializing to keep pace, forgot to explain themselves and their work to consumers.
Video: The Paleo diet is more a state of mind...
This estrangement quickly grew, fueled by an industry wallowing in advertising. But the farm idyll seen on packaging hasn’t existed for a long time. And let’s be honest, it never did: Hygiene standards 100 years ago were pretty poor.
Food producers are, however, shouldering some blame. “The industry has certainly made the sustained mistake of not sufficiently countering the idyll of the advertising strategy with information about the sober necessities of production,” says Mr. Minhoff. “Coming to terms with this negligence today is difficult and is often viewed with distrust by the consumer.”
In plain language, whoever prints the truth on the package will be penalized. So everyone involved would rather stick with the romanticism of the adverts.
The Berlin photographer and artist Samuel Müller decided to have some fun with it, making a book that contrasts delicious looking pictures on packaging of ready-made meals with their real contents. The contrast couldn’t have been more chilling. But they are differences that we no longer perceive, as food chemistry takes over from natural ingredients.
Although many people are willing to buy a car for €80,000, they think it is incredible when a pork tenderloin costs €8 instead €7 per kilo. Tim Raue, Chef
“There are far too many products with which we are being screwed from beginning to end,” complains Tim Raue, a Berlin-based two-Michelin star chef. “Although many people are willing to buy a car for €80,000, they think it is incredible when a pork tenderloin costs €8 instead €7 per kilo.”
The industry reacted to our expectations in the only systematic way it could conceive – with more efficiency, tricks and chemicals. Scandals over glued-together reconstituted meat, imitation shrimp and laboratory cheese were only the tip of the iceberg.
Producers may now tell the truth in the fine print on food packaging, but the consumer either doesn’t understand or ignores it because he is happy to be taken in by fake innovations – the only possibility the companies have to set themselves apart from the competition.
When the price cannot be beaten down any further, some other incentive must be found. Every product thinned out with water is today extolled as “light.” Hardly any action is being taken against this.
The European Union General Food Law Regulation set two clear safeguards after the mad cow disease crisis in the 1990s: Food must not be deceptively labeled and it must not endanger human health. “But both are still not guaranteed everywhere,” says Thilo Bode, a chef at Foodwatch, a consumer group that exposes poor industry practice. But the path through the courts is complicated and expensive for consumers and lobby groups.
Even when food scandals do break, we react with a shrug of the shoulders.
Only a few weeks ago, the European Court of Justice banned a raspberry-vanilla fruit tea made by Teekanne, Germany’s market leader. It contained all kinds of “aromatic substances,” but is actually produced from sawdust. On the other hand, there was not a bit of raspberry or vanilla in the teabag, as the name of the tea and its packaging suggested. Teekanne’s defense was that it had never even alleged there was. The case took three years to reach its conclusion.
Perhaps worse is the fact that a veal liver sausage containing only five percent veal liver may be marketed as such.
The truth is that a city such as Hamburg slaughters 80,000 chickens a day, and the need to supply these animals means the meat market is expanding globally. This gives rise to unscrupulous suppliers who do not recognize legal guidelines.
Poor global market standards also give rise to naturally dioxin-contaminated foodstuffs and an extreme use of antibiotics, which increases the risk of resistant germs. In the face of such factors, it is only logical that more than 50 percent of Germans are fearful of food endangering their health, according to a study by the University of Göttingen.
How do consumers react? They have lost their faith in the industry and instead cling on to marketing or fads, for example, food described as “completely natural” or made “according to a traditional recipe,” or that gluten or lactose-free food is somehow better. In the meantime, there are more lactose-free food products than people who are lactose intolerant.
Since December 2012 there has been an E.U. Health Claims regulation that restricts advertising. Since that time, 250 advertising claims have been challenged and allowed, and many others were rejected. The food industry is creative in formulating new labels.
Soylent is a nutrient-fortified sludge of cornstarch, oatmeal and rice protein sold in daily portions that makes all other food superfluous.
Germans are so wonderfully suspicious, yet we are also gullible. Over-sugared yogurts can make the claim they somehow support our immune system. The energy drink Red Bull “invigorates the body and the spirit,” a statement which cannot be proven. Tap water with a little magnesium mixed in can attest to having a “muscle function.”And when all else fails, a product can strengthen “wellbeing.”
This type of pseudo-medical exaggeration can be used as a sort of social tool, probing at people’s egos.
More than ever before, we are paying attention to our bodies. Heart, cholesterol levels, blood pressure, physical activities, bowel movements – everything has to be controlled. The body is understood as a machine, food as fuel.
To simplify things, the industry supplies updates for this machine by emploiting the latest fashions. The Low-Carb movement wants to minimize carbohydrates. Paleos want to imitate the food of the Stone Age, choosing to ignore that our ancestors bit the dust at a maximum age of 30 and weren’t vegetarians.
In Germany, vegetarians account for around ten percent of the population, or eight million people. One in ten of these see themselves as followers of the hard core variety of vegan. This makes for a tempting market group, and the food industry is indulging them. Whether the majority of them really are anti-meat because of the killing of animals is anyone’s guess. For many, it has simply become trendy.
And there is still no definition of what “vegan” actually means. Cheese often contains animal gelatin. And what is touted as a “pure vegetable” product can contain egg albumen or chicken protein. Even Innocent’s tropical juice is deceiving. Pineapples, mangoes, and maracujas feature prominently on the label, but they make up only 15 percent. The rest is apple and orange juice.
Every trend provokes new tricks and deceptive maneuvers. That is why it is so important for all those involved to change. Lawmakers must set clear limits and make guidelines for labeling, not just in Germany but for the entire European Union, to at least preclude some advertising distortions. The industry must bow to clear information requirements.
But above all, we consumers must finally understand that no one can deceive us as cleverly and effectively as we do ourselves.
Around 25 percent of the population is now eating consciously, but the majority allows itself to be deceived. But perhaps they will have their revenge, courtesy of a new food from California.
Soylent is a nutrient-fortified sludge of cornstarch, oatmeal and rice protein sold in daily portions that makes all other food superfluous, as well as microwaves, stoves, kitchens, markets, restaurants, in short, a major part of the whole food industry. It’s an astronaut diet for planet Earth.
The invention of 26-year old software engineer Robert Rhinehart is the purest form of taking in nutrients. Maximum reduction just like Apple products. iGrub, so to speak. No distractions, no wasted time, no ballast or poisons, but also no fun or enjoyment.
Soylent is the end of dining and at the same time its redefinition. Nano-eating is for people who have no time to lose. Actually, it is for those who don’t eat anymore but want to survive. Not even the established food industry would come up with such a mad creation.
Thomas Tuma is an associate editor-in-chief at Handelsblatt. To contact the author: [email protected]