Joanna Blythman
Fourth Estate
2015 | 312pp | £14.99
ISBN 9780007548330

I have the greatest respect for Joanna Blythman and her project to uncover the lack of transparency in the food industry. Sadly her new book Swallow this is more chemophobic propaganda than political exposé.

Blythman is on a quest to lay bare the horrors of the food industry. Approaching the task with ardent zeal, she proceeds to list all the various ingredients, additives and processes used in food factories with disgust and indignation in equal measure. In fact, prepare for lists – you will find them in ridiculous excess.

Assuming, perhaps unwisely, that the reader has no chemical knowledge, Blythman takes on the responsibility of telling you exactly what all this means, with mixed results. One might raise an eyebrow over her narrow description of ethanol as a ‘petrol replacer’. 

This very much sets the tone as Blythman stumbles over some rather tired scientific misnomers. She incorrectly conflates ingredients with industrial-grade chemicals (‘[this preservative is] also an ingredient in embalming fluid and jet fuel’) and questions nature’s indifference (‘why would Mother Nature create such deviant fats to shorten life expectancy?’).

And this isn’t just a book of misguided passion – no, there’s a distinct scent of stubbornness. A prime example is Blythman’s decision never to engage with the content of an opposing argument (chemicals make up everything around us). Instead, she inserts a technical-sounding excerpt presenting said argument and then, still assuming her readers oblivious, translates it into something offensive (‘the subtext here … is that those of us who worry about additives … are scientific incompetents’). 

And as one might expect, the main reveal in Blythman’s investigation turns out to be that food manufacturers are chiefly interested in profits – hardly shocking. It’s equally unsurprising that they use chemistry to extend shelf-life and improve colour, texture and the smell of cheap ingredients.

That being said the book does contain some very valid points. Throughout, Blythman hints at the intimate relationship between regulatory bodies and lobby organisations, the suspect use of ‘experts’ and the total lack of industry transparency. That’s important stuff. Regrettably, it drowns in a sea of chemophobia, leaving you unconvinced and with a bitter aftertaste.

Purchase Swallow this – serving up the food industry’s darkest secrets from