To make one at home, you need four fresh ingredients. The processed
version isn't so simple.
Britons now spend more than £52bn on food every year - and more than 90%
of that money is spent on processed food. But the canning, freezing and dehydrating
techniques used to process food destroy most of its flavour. Since the end of
the second world war, a vast industry has arisen to make processed food taste
During the past two decades the flavour industry's role in food production has
become so influential that many children now like man-made flavours more than
the real thing. As marketing to children has become more and more important
to processed food companies and fast food chains, flavourists have increased
their efforts to discover what children like. The flavour companies constantly
run "taste tests" for kids - focus groups in which new products are
Fresh fruit and vegetables often have complicated, unpredictable flavours that
combine bitterness with sweetness. When flavourists create additives for adult
foods, they try to imitate nature as closely as possible. When flavourists create
additives for kids' foods, they usually get rid of the bitterness and increase
the sweetness. Children's flavours are often twice as sweet as those made for
"Children's expectation of a strawberry is completely different,"
says one flavourist. "They want something that is strong and that has something
like bubblegum notes."
The phrase "artificial strawberry flavour" offers little hint of
the scientific wizardry that can make a highly processed food taste like a strawberry.
For example, if you wanted to make a strawberry milkshake at home, here's all
you'd need: ice cream, strawberries, sugar and a touch of vanilla.
Now take a look at the ingredients you might find in a fast-food strawberry
milkshake: milkfat and nonfat milk, sugar, sweet whey, high-fructose corn syrup,
guar gum, monoglycerides and diglycerides, cellulose gum, sodium phosphate,
carrageenan, citric acid, E129 and artificial strawberry flavour.
And what does that "artificial strawberry flavour" contain?
Just these few yummy chemicals: amyl acetate, amyl butyrate, amyl valerate,
anethol, anisyl formate, benzyl acetate, benzyl isobutyrate, butyric acid, cinnamyl
isobutyrate, cinnamyl valerate, cognac essential oil, diacetyl, dipropyl ketone,
ethyl butyrate, ethyl cinnamate, ethyl heptanoate, ethyl heptylate, ethyl lactate,
ethyl methylphenylglycidate, ethyl nitrate, ethyl propionate, ethyl valerate,
heliotropin, hydroxyphrenyl- 2-butanone (10% solution in alcohol), ionone, isobutyl
anthranilate, isobutyl butyrate, lemon essential oil, maltol, 4-methylacetophenone,
methyl anthranilate, methyl benzoate, methyl cinnamate, methyl heptine carbonate,
methyl naphthyl ketone, methyl salicylate, mint essential oil, neroli essential
oil, nerolin, neryl isobutyrate, orris butter, phenethyl alcohol, rose, rum
ether, undecalactone, vanillin and solvent.
The chicken nuggets and hamburgers at fast food restaurants are usually the
least profitable things on the menu. Selling French fries is profitable - and
selling soft drinks is incredibly profitable. "We at McDonald's are thankful,"
a top executive once said, "that people like drinks with their sandwiches."
Today, McDonald's sells more Coca-Cola than anyone else in the world.
The fast food chains buy Coca-Cola syrup for about 53p a litre. They add the
syrup to bubbly water and serve it in a paper cup. A medium Coke that sells
for 75p contains about 5p worth of syrup. Buying a large Coke for 85p instead,
as the worker behind the counter always suggests, will add another 2p worth
of syrup - and another 8p in pure profit.
Thanks in large part to the marketing efforts of the fast food chains, Americans
now drink about twice the amount of soft drinks as they did 30 years ago. In
1975, the typical American drank about 120 litres of soft drinks a year. Today,
the typical American drinks about 240 litres of soft drinks a year. That's well
over 500 340ml cans of soft drink, per person, every year.
Even toddlers are now drinking soft drinks. About 20% of American children
between the ages of one and two drink soft drinks every day.
· Read an exclusive
extract of Eric Schlosser's new book, Chew on This, on how the fast-food
industry exploits the very young.