ʽʽHi, I’m Benjamin Nunn – critic, gourmand and author of Ben Viveur. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You might have read me in an in-flight magazine, or a beer publication, but here on my own blog I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others so anything goes.

I deal with real food and drink in the real world, aiming to create recipes that taste awesome, but which can be created by mere mortals without the need for tons of specialist equipment and a doctorate in food science. Likewise, I tend to review relaxed establishments that you might visit on a whim without having to sell your first-born, rather than hugely expensive restaurants and style bars in the middle of nowhere with a velvet rope barrier, a stringent dress code and a six-month waiting list!

There's plenty of robust opinion, commentary on the world of food and drink, and lots of swearing, so look away now if you're easily offended.

Otherwise, tuck your bib in, fill your glass and turbo-charge your tastebuds. We're going for a ride... Ben Appetit!

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Satiety Index

The scare tactics began a few years ago.

‘Traffic lights’ on foods, telling us all, in a bright red, amber or green way, just how bad things were for us. Number of calories, amount of fat, amount of salt, that kind of thing.

Strangely enough there were very few all-green items on sale in the supermarkets, and lots that mixed amber and red, with maybe one token green column. (Ready salted crisps, for example, which score low in sugar and high in everything else.)

I do wonder just how they can accurately calculate exactly how much saturated fat or how many calories is in something anyway?  And does the figure quoted apply to the entire contents of the packet or the amount a person is reasonably expected to eat, disregarding any crumbs or sauce that gets left behind?

(I think an apple (probably all green except in the sugar department) contains about 50 calories, but is that if you eat everything including the core, which I normally don’t? In fact I don’t even usually get close to the core, so I’m probably only eating just over half the mass of the apple)

Anyway, whatever the inherent ambiguities in the system, it has stuck, and now the Food Standards Agency, in its final throes before likely Coalition dissolution, has been actively persuading the food industry to roll out such systems out beyond the chiller cabinet in the house of Sainsbury, extending it to fast food outlets.

If they get their way and those who matter buy into the concept in a big way, it might soon be difficult to pick up a menu in a restaurant without feeling guilty about the quantity of saturated fat in the chocolate cheesecake.

But is it worth it?

Guilty pleasures

Yes, I know, their hearts are in the right place, and they want us to live longer and have unobstructed arteries and order the rocket salad instead.

Maybe some folks will, and maybe some places will improve their recipes and make them healthier, cutting out some of the crap in order to turn reds into ambers and ambers into greens. I wouldn’t mind that, so long as taste isn’t compromised in any way.

And this is, I feel, one hugely important metric which is missing from the traffic light scheme and which would help consumers make up their minds what sort of balance between fitness freak and fat fucker they’d like to strike.

I call it the ‘Satiety Index’, and it’s basically the sum of the bad things (fat, calories, salt, sugars etc.) divided by the pleasure and satisfaction one will get from eating it – so you can determine if it’s worthwhile to do so.

As an example, I love anchovy fillets, which are very high in salt, but the saltiness is kinda the point, isn’t it? They taste yummy almost because they are salty - take that away, and they're merely oily and fishy, which is probably healthier but nowhere near as pleasant.

I’m happy to risk eating 200% of my recommended daily salt intake occasionally on something like that, but I’m way, way less happy about eating something like a chocolate biscuit that is high in salt, because that’s a complete waste of unhealthiness.

I like a good bag of pork scratchings too. Salty *and* fatty. Very unhealthy. I know. But it’s worth it. Sinking ones teeth into the salty, fatty goodness is hugely satisfying.

On the other hand, a bland ready meal containing similar quantities of salt and fat but that tastes of nothing much is just going to make me angry.

I’m not a particularly health-conscious person, and taste is always the most important thing, but where it’s possible for food to be healthier without it compromising on taste, it would seem to be a no-brainer to make it so, surely?
I guess it’s one of the reasons I’ve never understood why anyone other than recovering anorexics would want to drink non-diet soft drinks. What a waste of calories!

You can't eat the memories you gave me

When I worked in Ipswich a few years ago there were limited choices for where to get lunch, and some of those were pretty crap.

There was once a magnificent sandwich place called Carrot Cake run by an eccentric Canadian who constantly shouted at his staff whilst serving up vast, fresh doorstep toasties such as the ‘Mike’ and the ‘Larry’, filled with various meats and cheeses and vegetables and chutneys in fantastic combinations - but he tragically went out of business after I went off on an ill-advised health kick and stopped going there.

Carrot Cake’s sandwiches were mostly red-lit I'm sure, but they were so very, very worth it. Ironically, their carrot cake wasn’t all that. But I’m not here to review a place that closed in the mid-Naughties and which probably ain’t coming back.

So, yeah, post-Carrot Cake the best option became Marks and Spencer, whose range of sandwiches became a lunchtime dietary staple. There was a roasted vegetable wrap which, amazingly, scored all green, and a ‘The Club’, which was mostly, if not all, red and which contained almost three times as many calories. It had bacon and cheese. Bacon and cheese are good.

But, the thing is, it definitely wasn’t three times as satisfying as the veggie wrap, and as far as taste goes, the two were, although quite different, roughly comparable in being ‘fairly tasty but not Carrot Cake-ian’.

I could eat two roasted vegetable wraps and feel fuller than having one ‘The Club’, while ingesting significantly fewer calories and taking on board a far greater proportion of my ‘five a day’.

The 'Satiety Index' of the roasted veggie thing was far higher than it’s rival, see. And I could eat more while still eating less. Did the packaging point this out to me? Did it fuck. I had to figure it out for myself.

That’s another thing – the traffic lights system seems not to acknowledge that people consume different amounts of stuff.

Just a couple of squares of chocolate (probably all red apart from salt content) is probably better for you than drinking a quart of orange juice (green/amber with quite a lot of natural sugar), but the lighting system fails to take this into account, and if people do follow it to the letter, they could end up doing just this.

Of course, my Satiety Index will never happen, because taste is completely subjective, and our bodies response to different food types probably likewise varies.

I’ve never quite understood why I struggle to finish one large portion of haddock and chips (with the holy trinity of pickled onion, egg and gherkin, obviously) unless I’m really hungry, but I can polish off a pizza intended to serve 3-4 people all on my own!

I also know that traffic lights probably aren’t going to stop me doing so either, but a system that reminds me that I can have a similarly satisfying experience but be healthier in doing so might just make me stop and think.

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