24 May, 2009

'Food Investigators' - SBS TV

7.30 pm Wednesday, SBS

SBS earned themselves an appreciative following with their luscious series Food Safari. Maeve O'Maera has so far presented three series in one of television's most coveted roles, scouring Melbourne and Sydney for the best purveyors of a giddying range of national cuisines.

The series spawned its own website and mailing list. The website in particular showed that the producers of the program understood their audience: each featured recipe was available to download as a video or in written form, and contacts for each of the shops and venues Maeve visited were listed. This was a show about discovering the best of cuisine, and one that enabled its viewers to pursue opportunities to sample more, whether at restaurants or in their own kitchen.

Food Safari is now in hiatus, and in its stead SBS has been spruiking a new food-related show for the 7.30 Wednesday timeslot, Food Investigators. The show promises to 'investigate the food on our plates, revealing the facts behind the food we eat that will surprise you, shock you, and definitely affect your appetite'.

The first episode featured an exposé on salt. Australians eat, on average, twice the recommended daily intake of salt (ie 8-10g per day, rather than 4g). Co-presenter Joe Avati, the show's 'average Joe', opens his pantry to Dr Renee Lim's scrutiny, and agreed to a salt-free day.

The Investigators tell us that salt is prevalent in processed food (no!). Joe approaches breakfast. He can't have any ham; it's got salt in it. Turns out fresh fruit is his best bet. Did you know that a family-sized supreme pizza has twice the recommended daily intake of salt? That's one replete with sauce, cheese, salami, ham, bacon and olives. Average Joe heads to his Italian mum's for dinner. Darn! He forgot to tell her to get gluten-free pasta, so as he tucks into her spag bol he's ruined his salt-free day. It's tougher than he thought!

Now, I've hardly taken a neutral tone in reporting on the show. But that's because I was so stunned by their sensationalism. I assumed the show would be building on the existing Food Safari audience. I certainly didn't learn a lot about food, or supermarkets, or diet that I didn't already know. Instead, they seem to have taken an approach of shock and misrepresentation.

Let's look more closely at their claims. It's hugely significant that processed food contains a large amount of salt, and it really shouldn't be a surprise. It's an indictment on our relationship with food that that's not common knowledge. So why not present a positive message of all the fresh food - and there's plenty of it - that we could be eating that's lower in salt than most things out of a packet? (Especially since nearly every one of Coles' Meals for Under $10 features packaged/frozen food.)

Ham full of salt? Who would have thought? It's a cured meat, for heaven's sake - you couldn't sell it if it wasn't full of salt (if you want to talk sodium nitrate though, that's another matter). And his mother's pasta? A bit of salt in pasta is not the bane of our healthy existence, and homemade spag bol would probably be better than the majority of options Average Joe considered for lunch. And as for the pizza...well, why would anyone be surprised to learn that a supreme pizza is full of salt? An artisan, vegetarian pizza probably wouldn't be, but according to the show, pizza = supreme = salt.

An article in The Sunday Age looked at the fact that our obsession with food information - which foods have more antioxidants, folates etc - has swamped the simplest, most important messages about food. The article references Food Investigators as a show that is trying to cut through misinformation and educate people about food. I applaud that as an aim, but I don't think mentioning ham and breakfast cereals in the same tone in terms of salt content is going to achieve it.

I wondered afterwards why this show made me so angry. There's plenty of crap on television - why had this particular example got me so riled? It's because it seemed to be blaming something I hold very dear - food. Somehow it's the pizza's fault it's so salty, rather than our choice of a large, meat-laden one. Ham is 'full of salt' - I'd counter that to say it's the process of curing pig thigh that requires.

Similarly, going salt-free for a day is not the answer to cutting back on salt. Our shopping choices could easily allow us to do that. Why not focus on the production of food, rather than the food products, to reveal where all this salt comes from? Or, in order to actually be helpful, why not show what is comprised in a typical day's diet that equates to about 4g of fat, rather than just the extremes of way too much or none at all?

In an ongoing segment, the show gets a couple to try the paleolithic diet, which eschews all processed food, including caffeine, cheese, alcohol etc in favour of lean meats and nuts. The program asks, 'Could it be possible that our ancestors were eating more healthily than we are today?' Could it possible that SBS has underestimated the intelligence of their audience? Two days into their new diet the couple are looking pretty grumpy. Caffeine withdrawal anyone?

Why not, and this is a serious suggestion, make a food program about diets relating to food intolerance? Show us what someone with kidney failure, who can't process salt, is eating. Show us what a coeliac eats when they're craving bread. People who suffer from food intolerances limit their diet every meal of every day - so let's make a positive program about alternatives, rather than presenting the conclusion that cutting out something we eat too much of is all too hard.

Another segment, 'Trolleyology', revealed that supermarkets deliberately separate essential items such as milk and bread, to force shoppers to cover more aisle distance and increase the opportunities to tempt them to purchase. I'm as anti-supermarket as they come, but this kind of reporting obviates the shoppers' responsibility for their over-purchasing: we can assuage our guilt knowing it's actually the fault of the supermarket layout that we go in for bread and come out with $40 worth of salt-laden, processed product.

It wouldn't make for much of a TV series, but almost all of what Food Investigators are trying to encourage us to do can be summed up in the words of John Portelli, co-owner of Enoteca Sileno in Carlton, whose founder introduced Australia to coffee machines and ravioli: 'In Italy they cook with the least amount of manipulation for the greatest amount of satisfaction'.


  1. I agree. I tuned in expecting a show suitable for the food safari viewers. But instead it was a sensationalist lot of hype targeting the commercial tv audience, not the kind of show you would expect from SBS. Please!

  2. Cool post- haven't seen the show but sounds like I might not want to! Seems odd given the SBS audience is presumedly better educated and a bit more sophisticated than the average Joe that they take such a simplistic approach.
    Interested in the Coles $10 meals- it frightens me that people's cooking skills are so primitive that they need processed food to get a meal on the table (yes, I think I'm a food snob!). Similarly the success of "4 ingredients" kind of shocked me- makes it so clear how basic people's skill levels are. Feel sorry for the kids growing up in those households!

  3. I really liked reading your post and admit to having the same doubts when I saw the ad for these food investigators a few weeks back.

    The concept is interesting, but it shouldn't insult the audience's intelligence...

    If you take the toxicologists viewpoint- everything is bad for you, it's just a matter of when it'll get you.

    Food above all should be prized for all the positive things it produces-enjoy it!

    ps. You're idea to follow the diets of folk with restrictions would be really interesting - you should think about making the pitch for it! :)

  4. Hi all. Thanks for your comments, and for affirming that I wasn't the only one who felt affronted!

    Maree - I agree that Coles have missed a trick in not promoting good eating along with cheap eating. Eating fresh and in season is a certain way to cut down on food bills and feel healthier; stocking up on Continental and Masterfoods is not.

    And Nemesis - you're so right, these shows are convincing us that food is the enemy. Processed food may be, but there is so much pleasure to be savoured elsewhere!

    I must see if I can get the ear of a producer to pitch my new show idea...