The BBC programme “Eat Well for Less” started into its second series two weeks ago. Tomorrow night’s episode is the third of the series. In this programme, presenters Gregg Wallace and Chris Bavin help families slash their food bills (quite considerably) by streamlining their shopping and teaching them how to cook quick and inexpensive meals. A dietician is on hand with healthy food advice, and there is always a group of people trying to taste the difference between expensive and cheaper versions of the same product.
Clearly a programme that would appeal to me and it is watched, of course, not just the general public, but health professionals, too. I know from conversations with colleagues that not everybody loves it. One criticism is that the programme promotes the consumption of junk and processed foods, such as crisps, diet cola, and tinned soups. This is true – although I would perhaps not say that they promote these foods as such, rather they don’t advise against them. They merely encourage families to reconsider whether they really have to fork out for premium brands of such products, or whether a cheaper option is good enough.
At first, the presenters hide in the family of the week’s preferred supermarket and watch them shop, listening in to their conversation via headphones and commenting on their choices. Gregg and Chris then ‘surprise’ the family at the till (who must have been completely oblivious to the camera team following them around the shop). The couple is asked to guess how much they spent on this particular shop, and they usually underestimate the expense by about £30 – more surprised noises.
Next, the television people supply about a week's worth of the family’s favourite foods, but without brand labels. Everything just has a white label or wrapping that tells them what it is (“rice”, “cereal”, “beer”, “cheddar”). Over the next week, the family will be trying to guess whether what they’ve got is their regular (usually expensive) brand or a supermarket ‘value’ product. I suspect that I am not the only viewer watching with glee how they are getting it wrong all the time: Sometimes participants are convinced that what they are eating is definitely their favourite brand when it isn’t, and sometimes they complain about the shortcomings of the ‘replacement’, when it is in fact their favourite brand.
During the week of experiments, participants are shown how to cook some quick, easy and cheap meals for the whole family. After the week, the products in their kitchens are revealed together with the potential savings to be made. Most people find that their attachment to certain premium brands really isn’t justified by the taste of the product and are happy to switch to a cheaper brand. Where they did have their actual brands all week, but didn’t even recognise them, they took that as a sign that it might be worth trying a cheaper one after all. Overall, the savings are considerable and accumulated over a year, it’s usually enough to pay for for a two-week family holiday. Most of the savings are achieved not by replacing a premium brand ready meal by a cheaper one, but buy avoiding convenience food and cooking from home. Buying dried rice and boiling it yourself, for example, rather than using pre-cooked microwaveable rice, chopping your own vegetables rather than buying pre-prepared ones etc. saves a lot of money.
I have to admit that I, too, sat on the sofa yelling at the television: “Just tell them not to drink diet cola at all! Saves them tons of money!”, because it does. Diet cola is not essential to anyone’s diet, and no better than ordinary cola. Yes, sugary cola contains lots of sugar, but diet cola contains lots of artificial sweeteners, and they are just as bad as sugar. They have no redeeming features, are thought to affect the nervous system, gut ecology and insulin sensitivity and do not even help people lose weight, which is – I assume – the reason people buy it in the first place. Just don’t, it’s a waste of money.
In this series’ first episode, Chris Bavin visited a tinned soup manufacturing plant to look at how tinned soups are made. The process was described as the same as home cooking, only on a much larger scale. If this was true, then you might happily eat tinned soup, but – I’m sorry – tinned is not as good as home cooked and considering how quickly you can whiz up your own, it really isn’t worth it. Read Joanna Blythman’s “Swallow This” for more information on how mass-produced ‘food’ is made. The point programme was trying to make, however, was to show that if you are going to eat a ready-made soup, you may as well go for tinned rather than ’fresh’ (i. e. the cooler section), because they are made in the exact same way, but tinned soups are just a fraction of the price.
Having said all of that, I think as nutrition professionals we have to take a step back and look at where people are coming from: These are families who rely very heavily on ready meals and convenience foods, which is one major reason why their food bills are so huge. On top of that, some families order take-aways, adding even more to their bills. At least on this show, participants are shown how to cook tasty, quick meals from scratch. Yes, maybe the rice or pasta are white and not brown, and maybe the diets are generally a bit higher in carbs than we would like, and whatever else we can find fault with.
What matters most, in my opinion, is that the participating families learn that cooking is not difficult, that it may even be fun, that the food tastes better and that cooking from scratch saves them lots of money. Also, families are much more likely to congregate around a table at dinnertime and actually spend some time talking to each other. Moreover, while the presenters don’t generally advise against junk food, they do tend to come up with versions of it that are lower in sugar or additives and sometimes even succeed in persuading families to eat less of those.
The motivation for families to participate – and for viewers to watch it, I would think – is not how to switch to a healthier diet, but how to save money on their food bills. The cooking aspect of the show will invariably lead to not just more money in people’s pockets, but also better health. Getting back into cooking is just the first step for many. The fine-tuning can happen later.
Wednesdays, 8:00 pm, BBC On