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Book Review– Wendly Nissen’s Supermarket Companion

September 4, 2012

I’ve been making some of Wendyl Nissen’s ‘Green Goddess’ recipes for home cleaning and back-to-basics kitchen-y things for a while, now. I read, several months ago, that she was putting out a book about food additives in supermarket food and that it would include an index explaining the mysterious ‘numbers’ in food additives. I immediately thought: Ooh, must get that. Then, last week, a blogger mentioned that she’d received her copy in the post and that it looked nice in the bookshop, too. I went against my usual MO of wait-for-the-special-or-buy-2nd-hand-or-online-for-cheaper and went to the mall and got it.

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Nissen intends for us to take it to the supermarket in our voluminous handbags so we can check things. To this end it is quite a compact book, if quite a fat one. It weighs 432g, (so a quick comparison reveals it weighs just a bit less than Catching Fire, the second Hunger Games book -paper back edition) so it is quite heavy. I found the binding very tight and had to firmly hold it open while I read it. For supermarket reference, I would prefer a phone app, honestly. Not that I have a phone that can run apps at this point… but, if I did, it would be more convenient than a brick in my handbag. Also, I don’t carry a handbag if I can help it.

As previously stated, I primarily bought the book because of the index at the back. The rest of the book sets out things to look out for in packaged food– The chapter headings include Meat, Chips & Nibbles, Milk & Other Matters, Dips & Spreads, Breakfast, Bread, Meal Solutions, Cakes & Biscuits, Treats, Drinks, and Sugar. Nissen has taken an anecdotal approach to her topic, which saves us from both the overly technical or dramatically breast-beating approaches one can find elsewhere, while making the book very readable as well as entertaining. I have read a number of Nissen’s other books and feel confident that she has done her research, thus saving me a lot of legwork that I would never get around to. She also includes a reading list, should we feel like reading further on these things. I judge it to be well worth the $30 I spent.

Now, as a lifelong (and I mean lifelong– beginning before I could talk) migraine sufferer, over the years I have worked out what I can’t eat and drink. As a general rule, anything brightly coloured or with too many ‘numbers’ in it is not good for me. I never drink soft drinks and I don’t like tea or coffee or alcohol or most fruit juice, so I am severely limited in the beverage department. One thing I do like is ‘Ovaltine Light Break’. It has nineteen ingredients, including eight ‘numbers’ (not counting the two either/or numbers). I usually have one or two of these drinks a day. I was dreading looking up everything in Nissen’s Very Useful (colour coded) Index, as I knew that, should it prove to be full of Bad Things, I’d never drink it again and I’d be left with apple cider vinegar and honey. That’s quite nice, but not very indulgent.

So. Today I got on my Big Girl Pants and got out a piece of paper and listed all the ingredients. I worked out that there is about 11% of every serving that is not milk solids, malt and barley extract, glucose solids or cocoa. Of the eight (or ten) ‘numbers’, all are under ‘no known adverse effects’ except for 951, which is aspartame, an artificial sweetener, and should be used with caution if it can’t be avoided (said me). It is third-to-last on the list, so there must be just a wee bit in there. I can live with that. So I breathed a sigh of relief and blessed my Supermarket Companion for letting me find out I’m not slowly murdering myself with my one indulgent beverage.

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After that, just for kicks and giggles, I had a look at my food colouring. I have three- a red, a yellow and a green. They are for colouring icing on cupcakes, occasionally. Very occasionally as it turns out, as the first thing I noticed was that, while they are all expired, they are all nearly full. The second was that all of them- sourced in the baking isle at the big yellow supermarket– are made of Very Bad Numbers.

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Some might say that the one or two drops used in icing or whatever won’t hurt and they could be right. However, as a voracious reader of recipes everywhere, I’ve been reading Red Velvet Cake recipes and, just recently, Red Velvet Cheesecake. I’ve never made one simply because Red Velvet Cake contains at least 15ml of red food colouring and the Red Velvet Cheesecake called for two one-ounce bottles of red food colouring. I got my OMGs on over that. I could be wrong, but if a cup is eight ounces, one ounce is one-eighth of a cup, and that is two tablespoons or 30 ml, so two of them is 60ml, which is a quarter of a cup. OMG indeed. You would want to be very sure that your chosen food colouring wasn’t 122, 124, 127, or 129. Even 120, which is cochineal and is made of crushed beetle wings and is therefore relatively natural (if a bit gross) is linked to hyperactivity. Plant ones seem to be the better options, but probably won’t give the intense colour these people seem to think is necessary. Why must the cake be violently red, anyway?

So I am left with trying to find a spot on my bookshelf for a very informative and well set-out book– it even has nice illustrations throughout. It is a worthwhile resource for anyone trying to make sensible choices at the supermarket.

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