A disgusting example of ‘junk television’

BBC3 has given us yet another helping of mechanically-generated TV designed to scare us about what we eat.

Cheap food is often not very good. Sometimes it might look the part, but the content is frequently sickly and leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. How appropriate, then, that a programme ‘revealing’ this fact should have been shown on BBC3 – the Beeb’s yoof TV channel which produces documentaries that seem like a tasty treat on the outside but are actually stuffed with crap.

Britain’s Really Disgusting Foods, presented by the mildly amusing Alex Riley, was the search for the worst thing you could eat that is legally available in shops. Riley has thick, black-rimmed glasses and could probably do with a haircut. He looks like a dork and has a vaguely northern accent, but his management calls him ‘tall, sleek and unconventionally handsome’. Whatever.

He went in search of foods that had the most ‘stuff’ added to them. Unsurprisingly, this didn’t mean organic parsnips, but the kind of food churned out by big food processors and sold in your local cash-and-carry.

His first target was something called ‘cheese alternative’. This is an ‘analogue’, a substance that contains some of the qualities of cheese - it even contains some skimmed milk - but isn’t actually produced in the same way as cheese. Instead, it is created by the block load to pad out cheap supermarket food and takeaway pizzas and is packed full of ‘E’ numbers – that is, artificial additives. And it doesn’t taste of anything very much, never mind cheese.

If the ‘cheese’ is full of additives, the chicken breasts are full of water. Riley managed to find some in his local Booker cash-and-carry store (yes, bizarrely, it is the same Booker that sponsors Britain’s most famous literary prize) which contained just 60 per cent chicken and lots of water. You won’t find chicken breasts like this in the local supermarket, but you might find them in your restaurant-bought chicken fried rice or chicken vindaloo. A trader in Smithfield, London’s main meat market, told Britain’s Really Disgusting Foods that chicken breasts stuffed full of water are popular with Chinese and Indian takeaways.

Another unsurprising target were sausages. They’re absolutely full of rubbish, right? Well, actually, not as much as you might think. Riley was most disappointed to find that eyelids, scrotums, anuses and ears aren’t allowed into any product labelled ‘sausage’. In fact, sausages must be 32 per cent meat at least, and most good-quality sausages contain 80 per cent or more.

However there’s lots of other stuff you can put into meat products – like connective tissue - which might otherwise be thrown away. You’d have thought in an era of waste-not-want-not eco-frugality that the efficiency of the meat industry in this respect would have been praised. Many processed products are also bulked out with ingredients that are a hell of a lot cheaper than real meat: rusk, soya, colouring, etc. Confront people with the raw ingredients and they will turn their noses up. Offer samples of such a sausage at the posh nosh exhibition the Good Food Show, as Riley did, and people seem to think they’re actually quite nice. Just don’t mention what’s in them.

This only goes to show the pragmatic attitude we Brits have to our food. As long as someone can assure us that what we eat isn’t harmful, we’ll happily munch away. Restaurants perform much the same trick. It doesn’t really matter what you’re eating - if it’s cooked with half a pack of butter and seasoned well, it’s going to taste good. We just love salt and fat, whether it’s fine dining or the local takeaway after a heavy session.

As is often the way with this kind of TV show, Riley pulled in an expert or two to suggest that eating this kind of rubbish is responsible for the ‘wave of degenerative disease’ in Britain, without actually detailing why that might be the case (or even proving that it is true). Like the pies he created to show off the worst of British processed food practices, Riley’s film didn’t have a lot of meat in it.

He did, however, manage one good thing. Booker’s magazine for the Good Food Show featured a column by potty-mouthed celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, which apparently extolled the virtues of Booker’s wares to the catering trade. No doubt Ramsay was mortified to be featured in a programme on crap sausages and dodgy chicken; these are the type of catering practices he attacks in shows like Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. But that’s what you risk if you whore your reputation as a multi-Michelin starred chef to all-comers – just the kind of thing that a young, up-and-coming chef called Gordon Ramsay was railing against 10 years ago.

Britain’s Really Disgusting Foods was another prime cut of the kind of no-need-to-watch factual programming mechanically generated by BBC3 and, indeed, by every other channel these days. From Honey, We’re Killing the Kids to It’s Shit Being an Indian Sweatshop Worker (okay, I made the last one up), factual television has been reduced to junk telly, as obvious and unsatisfying as a Pot Noodle. Yummy!

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

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