Writer in Training


Writer in Training

Thin(k): The Philosopher's Diet


Today I'm delighted to be able to share with you an extract from the upcoming book : Thin(k): The Philosophers Diet by Dr Martin Cohen. Thin(k) is currently being crowdfunded on Unbound. Click the link to read more about the project and order your copy.


Day 3 Searching out Imitation foods

Public Enemy Number 1 is... Bread

The first thing you will notice about the semi-fast is that there is no bread. Now actually, I don’t think there’s anything wrong at all with eating bread, in fact, I’d consider any strategy that permanently excluded it to be very unwise, depriving the dieter of one of the great pleasures of life.

But the trouble with most breads we come across is that they are not really bread.

When I was very small, I think about eight or nine, my school departed from its usual routine of reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic, to have us all make both bread and butter. The butter was made by shaking milk up in a bottle. Both the butter and the bread tasted delicious, and I was particularly puzzled as to why the bread I had at home tasted completely different. Only years later did I find out that in those days, the early 1970s, ‘bread’ had become almost completely controlled by a stock market listed company called ‘Premier Foods’ who inflicted the evil ‘Mothers Pride’ brand on innocent consumers ‘Crumbs so smooth and crumbs so white,/ With freshness baked inside....’, as the slogan ran.

Coincidentally, ‘Mothers Pride’ centre of operations was in the hills just near my house, a squat aircraft hanger of a factory that churned out three kinds of bread: thin, medium and thick cut - all of course from white flour. The thick bread was for toast, and it lasted about one week before going mouldy. The bread we made that day in school, by comparison, came out of the oven as little loaves that you broke open, and was delicious with butter melted into it. Rousseau describes this simple pleasure very well. (See Day XX)

You see, real bread is made of ground up wheat (flour), a bit of water and a pinch of salt. That’s it! The magic of a spoonful of yeast makes it rise and become soft.

But what is shop bread made of? This is an interesting question. Most industrial bread (80% of the UK market) is now made using something called the Chorleywood Bread Process (CBP), invented in 1961. It uses high-speed mixers and a witch’s brew of chemicals to make a very white loaf out of budget-grade grain in double-quick time. Why? ‘Because Mother knows best!’.

Additional magic is achieved adding fat, emulsifiers and enzymes to the traditional ingredients, all of which are then pounded to death in about three minutes by the mixers.

In the 1970s the bread included various chemical additives but since the 1990s manufacturers prefer to use enzyme-based ‘improvers’ which they don’t need to even let you know are there because the law says that ‘processing aids’ do not need to be declared on the label. But whatever those enzymes do to the bread they may equally well do to our tummies.

So what are the ingredients of a typical ‘modern’ loaf? An organisation dedicated to ‘real foods’ called Fooducate recently analyzed the ingredient lists of over 2,000 breads. Their survey found that the average bread had more than twenty ingredients!

Here is a list of the ‘modern bread’ ingredients, which although long, is I think ‘very revealing’. In fact, it quite puts you off eating bread - but that’s not the right response. Rather you want to avoid industrial ‘imitation’ breads and spend a bit more time and money buying ‘real bread’.

First though, the ‘real ingredients’, because even modern bread still includes them. Even ‘Mother’s Pride’ was made with flour, because, of course this is the key to bread. Indeed ‘control of the flour market’ was something that the giant food companies almost achieved – thereby preventing small companies selling real bread. Their iron grip was broken fortunately, but today, less than half of breads include ‘real’, meaning whole wheat flour, the rest use refined or enriched flours.

Salt These days, manufactured bread often does not have enough salt in it, owing to a strange and misguided perception that ‘salt is bad’. As far as bread goes, the salt has an additional function of balancing the fermentation by the yeast.

Water. It’s cheap, so ‘real water’ is still used.

Yeast. The yeast ferment the carbohydrates in the dough producing carbon dioxide (yes, helping to overheat the planet! But that’s another story...), and making it expand and rise. Manufacturers often add extra wheat gluten, which is naturally present in flour, to the mix to speed up the process and reduce the amount of kneading required. A lot of people today worry that they may be allergic to gluten, so this manufacturing trick won’t help, but in fact research has found that barely 10% of those who think they have a gluten intolerance actually do.

  1. Vitamins and iron. Now this sounds okay, but when products have vitamins and iron added, it means someone has removed them first. Whole grain flours do not need the addition because they contain them - and more - in the bran and germ. Typically, Vitamin B1 (thiamin), Vitamin B2 (riboflavin), Vitamin B3 (niacin), folic acid, and iron are added. Vitamin C (Ascorbic acid) is added to bread not for your benefit but to help feed the yeast.

A big question mark over all such supplements is whether they work in the same way once abstracted from their original chemical and physical context. Put another way, when you see vitamins and iron being added to a product, it really means you are NOT getting them in the natural way that your body is best able to benefit from – or indeed cope with.

  1. Soybean oil or fat. These are used to make the texture of the bread more smooth and tender , as well as extending the shelf life slightly (the bread doesn’t go ‘hard’ so quickly). Adding olive oil has a similar positive effect, but soya bean oil is much, much cheaper. Just a pity that it is highly fattening, and possibly cancerous.
  2. Calcium sulfate. Also known as... plaster of Paris. This is literally ground up pieces of the white rock. Natural, in a sense! Bread companies use it to speed up the fermentation process, to increase shelf life and to make the dough stick less to their machinery.
 But is it really something you want to eat?
  3. Mono and di-glycerides, ethoxylated mono and di-glycerides. These strange-sounding chemicals are added to make the dough blow up bigger (think less of the other ingredients, cheaper!) as well as for practical things like making it easier to get the bread out of the baking pan. Most fats are tri-glycerides, meaning three fatty acid chains chemically bound within a kind of glycerol syrup. When you eat these fats, enzymes in your pancreas that split first one and then another of these fatty acids off of from the molecules, which then allows your intestinal brush border cells to absorb them and enter them into your blood stream.
  4. High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Even ‘real’ breads sometimes use a sweetener to improve taste and help the dough rise (because yeast loves sugar ). HFCS is the cheapest sugar, and that is why manufacturers use it.
 Just a detail, then that together with soybean oil, corn syrup seems to be a good way to kill yourself! This is what one critic, and author, Joseph Mercola, says about them:

‘Completely unnatural man-made fats created through the partial hydrogenation process cause dysfunction and chaos in your body on a cellular level, and studies have linked trans-fats to health problems ranging from obesity and diabetes to reproductive problems and heart disease.’

  1. Calcium propionate. Think ‘fungicide’. This is added to inhibit mold and bacterial growth. Considered safe for mice, and we’re supposed to accept that what’s true for mice in this case is also true for humans.


BOX: Don’t Believe the Safety Tests (They’re done by drunks.)

It’s become almost a social science cliché, but it’s true nonetheless. The vast bulk of medical and therapeutic testing follows the same pattern: products are tested not on people, which is complicated, dangerous and expensive - but on animals - usually mice. This is despite the fact that there is no reliable or predictable correspondence between how a mouse reacts, to say an antibiotic, and how a human will.

Like the proverbial drunk searching for the dollar in the wrong street (because the light’s better there’), pharmaceutical companies will test drugs for say, their bacteria or inflammatory response properties, in face of the fact that mice, unlike humans, tolerate millions of live bacteria in their blood before the induction of severe inflammation or shock, and are thousands of times more resistant to most inflammatory stimuli than humans.

  1. Soy lecithin. The farmers friend, genetically engineered soya, invariably grown using the controversial pesticide ‘Roundup’, which some research shows having toxic effects even in almost infinitesimal proportions. Whether it is Soya itself or the way it is grown, or the way it is processed, Soya is accused of upsetting the hormonal balance and even, yes, into confusing the body into putting on weight!

9. Sodium stearoyl lactylate. Lactylates are organic compounds that are used everywhere! In foods from pancakes and waffled to vegetables and ice creams – and in packaging and shampoos too. Used in bread it maintains texture, as well as (count those pennies,!) increase the volume of the loaf. It also increases the ability of the mix to absorb more water – remember, water is the cheapest ingredient!

  1. Monocalcium phosphate. Phosphates – usually made from ground up bones – are things that farmers value as fertilisers. Bakers use them however merely as a leavening agent and preservative, but still... ground up bones!
  2. Enzymes. These are added again just to speed up the time it takes dough to rise. Time is money! The two most used ones are Amylase and Protease.
 Amylase can be produced from three different sources: bacteria, fungus, and pigs! In other contexts, enzymes like these come with numerous health warnings about unexpected side effects.
  3. Ammonium sulfate – another agricultural fertiliser that pops in the most unexpected places. Here, it is used as extra food for the yeast.
  4. Honey. Okay, it’s a popular sweetener.
  5. Azodicarbonamide. Only half okay... This is added to make the dough easier to handle and because it bleaches the flour (makes it whiter). Why half okay? Curious to say, it is considered safe in the US, but is banned from use in Europe where it is accused of causing allergic reactions or asthma attacks)
  6. DATEM. Last but not least, Diacetyl Tartaric Acid Esters of Monoglycerides. Yet another dough conditioner used to improve volume and uniformity. KILL’EM, correction, DATEM actually failed a safety study in 2002, which found it caused ‘heart muscle fibrosis and adrenal overgrowth’ in rats. But as I say, we’re not rats – so just keep your fingers crossed!


Mother’s Pride bread: 1969

With Dusty Springfield


I’m a happy knocker-upper and I’m popular beside

‘Cos I wake ‘em with a cuppa … and tasty Mother’s Pride,

Then they’re up in a flash and a rush (it’s the bread)

And a dash and a push (it’s the bread)

With a flash and a dash and a rush and a push (I can say it’s the bread).

It’s the Mother’s Pride bread! It makes them love work!

They’re going berserk to get off to work!

It’s in the way I wake ‘em by bringing to their side —

The bread (we freshly bake ‘em!) …

Fantastic Mother’s Pride!



 Diet Tips of the Great Philosophers: John Locke (on the dangers of fresh fruits and the virtues of Real Bread

John Locke (1724 1804) is a great English philosopher celebrated for his political philosophy which is all about legal rights. He is credited with inspiring both the American and the French Revolutions in the name of fundamental rights and freedoms. Locke’s influence is there in the American Declaration of Independence, in their constitutional separation of powers, and the Bill of Rights. It is there too in the doctrine of natural rights that appears at the outset of the French Revolution, and in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, ‘All being equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions’, declares Locke, firmly.

It is often noted that he was lived through the English Civil War between Parliament and Royalists – and hardly ever mentioned that he travelled to the Americas and played a key role in setting up (of all things) a legal framework for the exploitation of slaves!

So much for his political philosophy then. But at least he also had strong views on eating. These he set out in the form of advice to young people in an essay called ‘Some Thoughts Concerning Education’ and penned in 1692. It is here that we find his key dietary advice:

‘I should think that a good piece of well-made and well-bak’d brown bread, sometimes with, and sometimes without butter or cheese, would be often the best breakfast… I impute a great part of our diseases in England, to our eating too much flesh, and too little bread.’

Tall and thin, with a long nose like a horse, and what one biographer has called ‘soft, melancholy eyes’, his 1689 ‘Essay Concerning Human Understanding’ described knowledge as nothing more than ‘the perception of the connexion and agreement’ of ideas. In diet terms, his approach rules out following our natural instincts and recommends instead taking in ‘simple or complex ideas’ via the senses, perhaps by reading, perhaps by eating, before assembling this information to create knowledge. Locke’s approach, you see, also reflected the mechanistic science of the time.

So much for the theory, then. How did it affect his views on eating?. Well, Locke, who suffered from health problems for most of his adult life including respiratory ailments which were exacerbated by his visits to London where the air quality was very poor, starts by stating:

‘How necessary health is to our business and happiness; and how requisite a strong constitution, able to endure hardships and fatigue, is to one that will make any figure in the world, is too obvious to need any proof.’

And then he offers his recipe for a healthy life.

For breakfast and supper

‘Milk, milk-pottage, water-gruel, flummery, and twenty other things, that we are wont to make in England… let care be taken that they be plain, and without much mixture, and very sparingly seasoned with sugar, or rather none at all; especially all spice, and other things that may heat the blood, are carefully to be avoided...’

Locke offers the practical insight that ‘Our palates grow into a relish and liking of the seasoning and cookery which by custom they are set to; and an over-much use of salt’ This, he thinks, in turn makes us thirsty and ‘over-much drinking’ has other ill effects upon the body. And then he offers his dietary tip:

‘I should think that a good piece of well-made and well-bak’d brown bread, sometimes with, and sometimes without butter or cheese, would be often the best breakfast… ‘

Locke, in his way, was being quite subversive. ‘Out’ with all the rich, posh foods – and ‘in’ with well, ‘peasant’ food. Not for him the English favourite of ‘Bacon and eggs’, far less kidneys or liver steaks. He states plainly: ‘You cannot imagine of what force custom is; and I impute a great part of our diseases in England, to our eating too much flesh, and too little bread’. So why do we do it? Locke ventures to explains why.

‘I do not think that all people’s appetites are alike; some have naturally stronger, and some weaker stomachs. But this I think, that many are made gormands and gluttons by custom, that were not so by nature; and I see in some countries, men as lusty and strong, that eat but two meals a-day, as others that have set their stomachs by a constant usage, like larums [meaning alarm clocks, really], to call on them for four or five. The Romans usually fasted till supper, the only set meal even of those who eat more than once a-day; and those who used breakfast, as some did, at eight, some at ten, others at twelve of the clock, and some later, neither eat flesh, nor had any thing made ready for them. Augustus, when the greatest monarch on the earth, tells us, he took a bit of dry bread in his chariot. And Seneca, in his 83rd Epistle, giving an account how he managed himself, even when he was old, and his age permitted indulgence, says, that he used to eat a piece of dry bread for his dinner… The masters of the world were bred up with this spare diet; and the young gentlemen of Rome felt no want of strength or spirit, because they eat but once a day. Or if it happened by chance, that any one could not fast so long as till supper, their only set meal, he took nothing but a bit of dry bread, or at most a few raisins, or some such slight thing with it, to stay his stomach.’