Eating & Drinking

Eating & Drinking

A Culture of Overconsumption: Portion Control
Monday, 12 December 2016 16:41

A Culture of Overconsumption: Portion Control

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It seems apt, in the midst of the festive season – a holiday typified by consumption to excess of all sorts of goods, after all – to put forward a new topic in this series ‘A Culture of Overconsumption’. In this article, I will be considering the concept of ‘portion size’ and the role it plays in determining how much we eat. By ‘portion size’ I mean the amount of food that is placed on the plate in front of us, as we prepare to eat a meal or snack. This volume of food may be determined by us, or a family member, or a restaurant or a food producer (for example, if we were to follow the manufacturer instructions on serving size).

There’s no doubt that typical portion sizes have increased over recent decades. One classic example is that of the fizzy drink that often accompanies a fast food meal. Since the 1950s, the average size of one of these ‘fountain drinks’ has increased by 500%. And it’s not alone. Products like pies, pizzas and bagels have got noticeably bigger just since the 1990s.

Interestingly, one study looked at depictions of the Last Supper across 52 paintings and found that even that meal had grown exponentially in size. Between the year 1000 and the 1700s, the size of the main meal grew by 69%, with the bread also growing by around 20%. Between 1500 and 1900 was a period of particularly rapid rises in the sizes of the portions, and without a religious reason for the change, it must be considered that this probably reflects popular perceptions of the size of meals across time. In addition to meals, the same thing has happened to snacks. Few people can have failed to notice that we are now handed giant buckets of (sugary, fatty) popcorn when we enter cinemas or that ‘share bags’ (does anyone actually share??!) of crisps or sweets have become infinitely more common in recent years. With greater exposure comes less ability to discriminate an appropriate from a non-appropriate portion size. We’re almost trained by our food environment to shift our thinking on consumption norms to the extent that we may be affronted by a restaurant food portion that is appropriate and not lavishly oversized.

These trends, of course, coincide with increases in the frequency with which we eat outside of the home, and therefore the food industry - playing on our perceived needs for ‘value for money’ and indulgence - has considerable power over our total caloric intake. We are a nation of plate cleaners after all. Who wasn’t guilted into finishing everything on their plate as a child by references to those starving in Africa? Therefore, put more food on our plates and we will eat more. It’s a robust phenomenon that has been shown time and again in laboratory settings and in ‘real-world’ environments.

However, there are some subtleties to consider. Even before the food has reached our plate, certain factors can influence how much will end up there. Plate size is one. In studies, if people are given larger dishware with which to serve themselves, they will take more food (and thus, likely eat more). If a larger spoon or other serving utensil is provided, they will scoop more onto their dish. If a greater number of items of food are available, say at a buffet, then more will be eaten overall. If we buy large quantities of food or drink from a supermarket (for example bulk purchasing or taking advantage of a ‘BOGOF’ deal) then, perhaps perversely, we often repurchase the same item sooner than if we had purchased it in smaller portions, because of the stimulating effect of the presence of the large portion in our homes on our intake.

Importantly, such overconsumption is rarely, if ever, compensated for at later eating occasions. Despite our many, varied and intricately clever systems for regulating food intake (hormones emerging from almost every step of the digestion pathway to tell our brain how the meal is going), we’re just not very good at knowing when we’ve had enough and therefore when to stop. Nor are we any good at saying “I overate at lunchtime, therefore I am going to reduce the size of my evening meal to ensure that my caloric consumption for today is not excessive”.

It just doesn’t happen, the previous load of excess calories is swept under the carpet in our minds (but carefully stored as fat by our bodies) and we continue to eat as normal from the next eating occasion onwards. Thus, the ‘portion size effect’ contributes to sustained overconsumption (the very sort that leads to weight gain). This is true regardless of demographic characteristics such as socioeconomic status, age, body mass index and sex. Worryingly, there are signs that children as young as 2 years of age may be susceptible to the intake-enhancing effects of large portion sizes.

Given the above, it’s clear that self-regulation of portion size, particularly as it relates to eating outside of the home and when snacking, is extremely challenging - particularly for those seeking to manage their weight. There may be things we can do about it. Pressure from public health bodies has led to the withdrawal of many of the ‘super-sized’ options available in fast food outlets. But a major cultural and societal shift has taken place in these ‘consumption norms’ over the last 50 or so years, and it would take a lot of work to reverse the trend. Would consumers be amenable to reduced portion sizes? The food industry is of course motivated by the need to make profits, and as there is already considerable distrust between consumers and the industry with regard to their motives for portion sizes, reductions are likely to be poorly tolerated by many.

As we sit down for our Christmas meals this year, few of us will be thinking we should go easy. Eating until we fall asleep in front of the family festive movie is tradition, and there’s no real harm in that as a once a year treat, but as we move beyond Christmas we might all like to take a look at the culture of the food environment around us in a new, critical light. Do we need 50% extra free? Maybe less really is more. Perhaps, as a start, we could try placing greater value on our health than our wallets. That’s one New Year’s resolution that may just make a difference.

The Pub
Monday, 12 December 2016 14:09

The Pub

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Keith Flett samples some beer and ponders the pub.

Having written on the current state of beer and brewing, together with some historical context, it is perhaps time to take a brief stop to actually sample some beer. This can be done in numerous places but the traditional British venue is the pub.

The final weeks of the year are the busiest in the pub trade- January is somewhat quieter- and regular drinkers are confronted with the ‘Xmas drinker’, someone who is often not exactly sure what they what to drink and may be a little unfamiliar with the impact alcohol can have on their behaviour.

What exactly constitutes the traditional British pub can be debated- often in the pub- all night. One widely noted benchmark is George Orwell’s 1946 essay, the Moon Under Water, that appeared in the London Evening Standard. Orwell’s classic pub, often seen in current pub names, particularly from the PubCo J D Wetherspoon, was an amalgam of several hostelries around his Canonbury North London home. One of Orwell’s points arguably was that while it might be possible to define the ‘perfect’ pub- in his case a beer garden and friendly service featured-it was rather unlikely that you would actually find a single pub to match the criteria.
Since Orwell wrote 70 years ago it has become harder in some senses to find that perfect pub or pubs. The number of pubs in Britain has been in decline for decades.

The reasons are well known and quite varied. With changes in industry there is less call for the basic boozer where manual workers went to replace the liquid they had lost during the working day. There is less demand for the beers they enjoyed drinking too but that is for another post. Many others have been lost because owners and developers determined that while they might be profitable even more profit could be made by developing them as flats.

Then there is the impact of changing demographics and competition from the off trade, in particular supermarkets. If you are not well paid but like a drink, the chances are that is a good bit cheaper to buy beer- not just mass produced blandness but also ‘craft’ beer-in a large supermarket and drink it at home. Moreover, and it’s important to recognise the reality, non-drinking is also an important element amongst some sections of the population. Anyone who thinks that the large variety of those who follow aspects of the Muslim faith are all non-drinkers will be in for a surprise, but alcohol consumption is less below the average.

We might balance that against the important point that historically considerable sections of the UK population were absolutely against drinking (at least in theory) as religious supporters of temperance, so there is nothing really that new here. Indeed it is quite possible to find areas of high population with very few pubs because the owners of the land disapproved of drink. The area around London University in central London remains one such.

Enough however about problems with the pub! The reality is that there are still many thousands of pubs in the UK and while ownership, tenancy agreements and the actions of pub companies like Punch are often the cause of concern, numbers of them do continue to thrive. The traditional idea is that pub is the place where people from a variety of backgrounds can be found socialising together. Well, up to a point! At a craft beer house I frequent in Hackney for example you will often find a well-known local builder, someone who works in the financial heart of the City of London, a senior managers from the local Council and myself as a union official to adjudicate on issues of the day. It is somewhat idealised but the interesting point is that all these people are drawn to the pub because of their liking for good beer.

That does raise a point of quite particular current relevance. In his new book on the pub, the beer writer Pete Brown argues, in a sense after Orwell, that the main thing about the pub is its role at the centre of a community. A place where much human life and discourse takes place. Of course in 2016 there are other places where this takes place, sometimes in virtual arenas eg on-line, but the pub remains an important meeting place. Communities that lose their pub are often held to be less cohesive as a result.

Two things have come together to do something to halt the apparently perpetual decline of the pub. Firstly there is now a legal right for community campaigners, often backed by the Campaign for Real Ale, to apply to make an under threat pub an Asset of Community Value. This, where successful, provides a breathing space to see if funds can be raised to allow a pub to be bought by the community and continue in operation. Some recent well known examples where this has happened are the Chesham in Hackney and the Antwerp in Tottenham.

Secondly with the rise of craft beer however defined there has been a new interest in opening or re-opening pubs. There is a new generation of micro-pubs, in effect, beer shops, which are small and resolutely community focused. In addition pubs that have long been shut and left vacant or used for other purposes have started to re-open as pubs. A recent example is The Mermaid in Clapton E5. Previously known as the Cricketers from 1872 it closed in 2008 against a background of declining custom. It then became a restaurant. More recently it has re-opened as a pub selling craft beer. Of course the customers are different and the public bar has gone but there is a wider point.

The pub as an institution that sells alcohol as part of a community hub has survived for many hundreds of years by reflecting what people in the community want. Into that has intruded capital in terms of beer supply companies and pub companies. As elsewhere there is a tension and struggle between the two.

Craft beer and competition
Monday, 24 October 2016 15:00

Craft beer and competition

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Keith Flett continues his selfless quest at beer festivals to identify the economics of producing craft beer in a competitive, capitalist market - and what tastes nice.

Further to my earlier thoughts on craft beer I travelled to Manchester in early October to attend the Independent Manchester Beer Convention (IndyManBeerCon). This event, held in an old swimming baths a short distance from the centre of Manchester, has become one of the key events of what might (or might not) be called a craft beer movement.

It takes place over 4 days and contains (currently almost exclusively keg) beers from well-known and up and coming ‘craft’ breweries in three large spaces. It is not particularly cheap. While the entry price is modest (and tickets highly sought after) this year a beer token cost in the region of £2.25 for which you could buy a third of a pint of beer. That was irrespective of strengths which ranged from 3%ers to above 10%. Even so on the two days I attended there was a mixed crowd there both gender and age wise.

IndyMan is not just about the beer though- interesting as it is. There are also beer tastings and discussions about the industry. A relevant debate on the Thursday evening was about Craft Beer where it is now and where it is going. The panel included Paul Jones, an owner of the Manchester based Cloudwater Brewery, Ian Garrett from CAMRA, Sue Hayward from the Welsh brewery Waen which has just closed its brewery in favour of 'cuckoo' brewing at other sites, Jenn Merrick the brewer at Beavertown in Tottenham, the beer writer Matt Curtis and Claudia Asch from the IndyMan organising team.

I didn’t quite last for the entire debate (I had to visit the toilet- this does happen at beer festivals) but it must be said that a good deal of the discussion was quite familiar to me. Not just the beer bit but also questions about what makes businesses tick and what doesn’t. As a trade union officer in the private sector I often have these discussions with employers.

I wasn’t taking either minutes or notes so my discussion of what was said is firstly only a summary (not in order) and secondly unreliable. Not however hopefully so unreliable as to attribute to someone something they didn’t say.

While I wouldn’t be quite so evangelistic about craft beer as Matt Curtis, preferring to see the world in neither black or white but shades of grey, he did make a very good point that in the US even the most depressing of bars usually offered a good range of craft beer. That is far from the case here. But is beer drinking so different in the US that this could not reasonably be expected to happen here?

Paul Jones noted that Cloudwater had never styled itself as a ‘craft’ brewer focusing instead on brewing ‘modern’ beer- styles that appeal to changing tastes in the beer world.
Jenn Merrick, previously the brewer at Dark Star, one of the UK’s most well-known producers of cask beers such as Hophead, took a broader view. Beavertown produce mainly keg beer but she felt that they were very much in the same marketplace as the large scale producers of cask beer. Further she didn’t think cask was particularly on its way out (Sue Hayward argued that the future was keg) and that there was a possibility that new developments in cask could put current trends towards keg in the shade. Interestingly she also noted that the largest selling beer in Fuller’s pubs was often a Beavertown brew- probably Gamma Ray which is unpasteurised but sold under light gas pressure.

Ian Garrett added an important corrective by underlining that the vast majority of beer currently drunk in the UK is in cask and this can’t simply be ignored. The point was made during discussion that larger and better capitalised ‘craft’ brewers were one thing but many smaller, microbreweries found difficulty in getting on bar tops in a very competitive market. Sue Hayward felt that many smaller brewers struggled to get by, but this is often the case with small businesses in general. They are squeezed out by larger competitors.

In the case of beer we have been here before. It was in large part what led to the formation of CAMRA in 1971. A Company like Grand Metropolitan which had no history in brewing managed to acquire both Trumans and Watneys breweries, merge them and in due course destroy them. No doubt the thirst of shareholders for value was satisfied. Drinker's thirsts were not.

An attempt at a Craft Brewers Alliance a couple of years back- with some of the larger brewers at its core- has not been taken forward. Perhaps not least because one of the brewers, Camden, sold to mega-giant ABInBev. The reality is that without a sustained campaigning effort to keep and protect breweries that produce good beer- however defined- rather than good profits with an industrial product tasting vaguely like beer as the commodity concerned- the pressure for takeovers and closures will remain.

The elephant in the room was of course the now completed takeover/merger of SABMIller by ABInBev to create mega giant brewing concern operating in 70 countries across the world. SABMiller is quoted on the London Stock Exchange and it was the largest ever takeover deal there.

The Editor of the Good Beer Guide, Roger Protz, is certainly right that the big picture in beer is the battle between ABInBev and much smaller breweries whose concern is making excellent beer not huge profits (welcome as the latter obviously are).

Views on the matter of craft beer are as numerous as those who drink it. CAMRA has decided to delay the decision of its Revitalisation Project because there is so much to consider.
As someone who stays resolutely on the drinking side of the bar, I have a simple test though. If a beer tastes good (looking good is another matter) then I’m not too bothered how it's dispensed or what it’s called. This should be about enjoyment.
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Wednesday, 05 October 2016 14:38

Marketing a culture of overconsumption

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Dr. Emma Boyland continues her series with a look at marketing strategies by Big Food to promote overconsumption.

A drum-playing gorilla. An orange tiger saying “grrrreat!”. Even the simplicity of a jingle and “I’m loving it!”. What do all of these things have in common? They’re all television adverts that have entered our homes and our consciences in recent years. They’re also all promotions designed to persuade us to purchase and consume products high in fat or sugar or both. And therein lies the problem. We are eating too much of this stuff, and it is literally killing us. Several large scale prospective studies (the type that watches for outcomes such as disease development during the study period and then relates that outcome to suspected risk factors) have shown that overweight and obese individuals have a much greater risk of death than individuals of a healthy weight.

Another recent study also demonstrated that the current, massive, diet-related disease burden reflects a larger contribution from poor diet than tobacco, alcohol and inactivity combined. So while those other issues (smoking, drinking, and exercise) are clearly very important, we really need to get thinking about what determines why we eat the way we do, the foods we choose and the amount we consume. What can be done to make our choices better, healthier and supportive of a long healthy life? Of course, our diets have a complex set of determinants, crossing socio-economic, demographic, environmental and cultural domains.

This article will focus on one aspect of the current ‘obesogenic’ food environment - that of food marketing. It’s a contentious topic, with the food industry regularly squaring up to the public health community when restrictions are called for. Policy progress has been slow, there are few politicians in the capitalist economies of the west willing to truly take on so-called ‘Big Food’ and perhaps this is not a surprise when one considers that the fast food industry alone generates revenues of over $500 billion per year globally. That’s greater than the economic value of most countries. No wonder the Government’s recent childhood obesity ‘plan’ (downgraded from a strategy) spoke so pointedly about “economic realities” when leaving out proposals for further marketing restrictions and why efforts by four federal agencies in the US to enact better nutrition standards for foods marketed to children were scuttled in 2011 by corporate lobbyists.

Mouth Feel

But coming back to things ‘on the ground’, as I mentioned in the first article of this series, as the number and range of products on the typical supermarket shelf has risen in the last half century, so have efforts from each manufacturer to make their product stand out. Most are highly calorific, intensively processed, and have chemicals added and tweaked to ensure that the product hits the maximum sweet spot for “mouth feel” that makes us keep coming back. It has been suggested that we spend just 6 seconds deliberating over each item before we make a purchase decision, so that product has just those few seconds to convince you. How does it do that? And does marketing really affect us?

Yes it does. Studies have shown that children are able to recognise major food brand logos (such as the infamous golden arches) before they can even talk. I’ll just pause and let that sink in for a moment. Carrying on, by around 3 years of age, children are able to express specific branded product preferences (and in my experience as a parent, they are not shy at doing so!).

There’s not just one outcome of food marketing, it has affects across a broad range of behaviours, from awareness, attitudes, preferences, purchase intent, actual purchasing, and consumption. It doesn’t work in isolation of course, it must always be considered in the wider context of other individual, social and environmental influences on food choice, but it takes all the gall of a highly paid marketing executive to claim that food marketing does not contribute to food choice and, therefore, have a big part to play in obesity.

Experimental psychological research to explore just how marketing affects what we eat has been going on since the late 1970s. As with any field of study, results vary slightly depending on the sample of participants studied, the type of marketing explored, the outcome measure that was used. But time and again, large scale systematic reviews of these types of studies have concluded that food marketing affects food preferences, choices and intake. I recently conducted a meta-analysis (a fancy way of saying all the data from a load of reasonably similar studies was combined and analysed together) that showed the exposure to unhealthy food advertising, whether on the television or on the Internet (i.e. so-called ‘advergames’, games on websites that immerse children in a heavily branded environment), resulted in children eating more calories from subsequently available food than they did following exposure to non-food advertising or no advertising at all.

You all know that our kids are like little sponges. They absorb whatever is around them. But they don’t yet have the ability to question and analyze what they’re told. Instead, they believe just about everything they see and hear, especially if it’s on TV. And when the average child is now spending nearly eight hours a day in front of some kind of screen, many of their opinions and preferences are being shaped by the marketing campaigns you all create.
- Michelle Obama, White House Convention on Food Marketing to children, 2013.

Interestingly, the same effect wasn’t found for adults. But there are a lot fewer studies looking at adults (children don’t understand how marketing works, so are seen as inherently vulnerable to marketing, arguably a form of exploitation of incredulity and lack of cognitive maturity). Also, when they know their eating is being monitored by researchers, adults tend to eat a lot less than they would normally (this too has been demonstrated experimentally). Adults also tend to be better at guessing the true aims of studies, and therefore adjusting their behaviour according to what they believe the researcher wants to find (social desirability bias). So it is probably worth taking these few adult studies with (sorry, terrible food-related pun coming up) a ‘pinch of salt’ for now until a greater body of work has been conducted.

The food marketers really target their efforts at children, anyway. Children have independent spending money - the guilt of the greater proportion of working parents means pocket money is rising at over 20 times the rate of inflation. They have influence over family spending (the bill for the family shop rises by around £5 when a child is taken to the supermarket) and they are adult consumers of the future. Gaining brand loyalty in childhood could result in a lifetime of sales, and that’s the grab the food industry really wants.

Targeting children

So we see children targeted in increasingly imaginative, and frankly, frightening ways. We all know about TV advertising. We all know about billboards, about sports sponsorship and about the ads at the start of a film at the cinema. But are we all aware that food companies are tracking young people online? Every action on social media, for example, every website visited, every device and network used, every geo-location picked up, every personal preference, ‘like’ and social activity is used to build up an online behavioural profile and those data (even when related to child users) are routinely being sold for the purposes of refining personalised advertising, advertising that has the biggest impact on the target demographic. Even the recent Pokemon Go craze has been seized upon as an opportunity to market to young people - McDonalds in Japan teamed up with the makers of the app to ensure that their restaurants were made into key game locations.

The food industry has been named and shamed for their marketing activity before. Their reaction? To continue to market their fatty, sugary, salty foods but alongside a raft of low fat, diet, low-carb, sugar-free ‘healthy’ processed foods! Marketed to the very people made overweight by the former, who are now desperate to lose weight using the latter. So they make even more money from obesity, by generating the ‘diet industry’. Their other response is to espouse the notion of personal responsibility. Any talk of marketing restriction is met with calls of ‘nanny state’ and claims that this would be depriving the consumer of their right to free choice. But true choice is a fallacy when the food environment has such power over what, how, when and how much we eat. This was alluded to by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, back in September 2011, when he said:

It is unacceptable that when lives are at stake, we go no further than soft, promotional measures that ultimately rely on consumer choice, without addressing the supply side of the food chain. [...] Food advertising is proven to have a strong impact on children, and must be strictly regulated in order to avoid the development of bad eating habits early in life.

And while we are busy with quotes, I think the best way to wrap up this article in the series is by handing over to the WHO Director General, Margaret Chan and the comments she made in her opening address at the 8th Global Conference on Health Promotion in Finland, June 2013:

Efforts to prevent noncommunicable diseases go against the business interests of powerful economic operators…this is one of the biggest challenges facing health promotion. It is not just Big Tobacco anymore. Public health must also contend with Big Food, Big Soda, and Big Alcohol. All of these industries fear regulation, and protect themselves by using the same tactics. Few governments prioritize health over big business. I am deeply concerned by…efforts by industry to shape the public health policies and strategies that affect their products. When industry is involved in policy-making, rest assured that the most effective control measures will be downplayed or left out entirely. This, too, is well documented, and dangerous.
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Wednesday, 28 September 2016 14:26

Class, CAMRA, craft ale and the contexts of consumption

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Keith Flett continues his series with a question: is there a link between class and what you drink?

The upper classes are supposed to drink fine wines and champagne but these days both are available at prudent prices in supermarkets. Besides, as Nye Bevan famously proclaimed, nothing is too good for the workers. Yet when it comes to beer, there are often attempts made to link class and what is to be found in the pint or half pint glass. Beer, mild, bitter, and stout have been seen as the drink of the working man (but certainly not the working woman who may prefer gin according to stereotype).

Refinements on this, what nowadays the Campaign for Real Ale persists in calling ‘speciality beers’ - one, Bingham’s vanilla stout, was voted Champion Beer of Britain in August - are held to be for the middle classes. Beer and class and the link between the two is a constant refrain. The beer writers Boak and Bailey have uncovered a 1960s comment about the time when cask beer was removed from pubs in favour of keg beer. A docker had noted that nearly all of his fellow workers in the East End had immediately preferred the keg. More recently in the Morning Star this summer, a correspondent claimed that pubs were being taken over and ruined by men who wore their hair in buns. The implication here is that they were middle class individuals, no doubt sipping ‘craft’ beer.

Before tap water became safe to drink beer with meals ‘table beer’ was a common drink for all classes. Table beer is available today usually at around 3%. In Victorian times it would mostly have been a little stronger. The rise of heavy and manufacturing industrial production was what really underwrote the link between beer and the working class.

A glance through Raphael Samuel’s classic History Workshop article, Workshop of the World, makes the point. Samuel emphasises that the introduction of machinery into British industry was a lengthy process. Machines are expensive and labour power can be cheaper for an employer. But whether involved in heavy manual labour – mining for example – or industrial processes based on machinery such as steel, the amount of liquid lost by labour had to be replaced. The replacement was often quantities of beer. The link between beer and class therefore had a strong material basis to it, and hat has now mostly disappeared in the UK. In the former industrial heartland of South Wales for example, where there is no deep coal mining left and steel is just hanging on, some of the beers that were popular are in something of a decline. Brains Dark, a relatively low strength, but classic and award winning dark mild, is rather harder to find in bars than it was even 20 years ago.

This leads us to the, in some senses, modern issue of craft. On a train returning from the (craft) Leeds beer festival recently I noticed a group of young men drinking train beers which the can described as ‘crafted’. The beer was Fosters which is produced in a mega industrial brewery. It no doubt has very high quality control to ensure consistency and hence profits, but you might struggle to find a definition of ‘craft’ that covers a mechanised industrial process.

Indeed the beer writer Pete Brown has noted that the Oxford English Dictionary does in fact already have a definition of craft beer:
craft beer (also craft brew) noun (US) a beer with a distinctive flavour, produced and distributed in a particular region. - OED 2003 Edition.

Brown points out that most of those who have a problem with craft beer are not really that interested in a dictionary definition. The idea of a craft beer is often focused on a small scale production of a specialist beer style. It might be a strong double IPA or a low-alcohol Berliner Weisse but it’s not something you are likely to come across in the beer aisle of Tesco.
Except of course confusingly it is. Tesco have long sold an own brand double IPA at 9.2% which is produced by Brewdog, who are generally held to be one of the leading craft brewers.
I prefer ownership as a better benchmark of craft beer. For example Camden Brewery, a well-known North London craft beer producer, was bought by the giant ABInBev last year. The beers are still decent enough and it may be that the accountants and bottom-line watchers of ABInBev don’t focus in too much detail on Camden’s brewing activities. But across industry that does tend to be what happens after takeovers, sooner or later.

To take another example: the UK distributor for the well regarded US craft brewer Brooklyn is Carlsberg. That may well just mean more efficient distribution, but it underlines the point that independent, smaller craft beer production, where the beer comes first, is under constant pressure from those for whom profit matters above all.

How does that fit into class? Craft beer tends to be drunk in third, half or two-third measures rather than pints and would typically in a pub be more expensive than cask beer. Breweries will often suggest that the more expensive price for craft beer more accurately reflects production costs and that the market squeezes margins on cask. All this, it might be said, tends to make craft beer – at least that served in keg – the drink of the middle classes.

Yet that is far from the reality. Many of the new wave of craft breweries have taprooms where they sell their beer direct to drinkers, on and off the premises. At my local Tottenham brewery, Beavertown, the beer is unfiltered and unpasteurised and sold under light gas pressure for £2.50 for two-thirds of a pint. Unsurprisingly, those attending are young and old, the well off and less well off. In short – a beer drinking democracy.
Drinkers, beer and business: the battle for craft beer
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Wednesday, 31 August 2016 09:00

Drinkers, beer and business: the battle for craft beer

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Keith Flett takes a look at how the battle against big business for good beer continues into the era of craft beer.

Late summer, after the Great British Beer Festival, is a good time to take stock in the UK of where the beer world is.

For most of British industrial history what campaigning there was about alcohol was done by those who thought people should drink less of it and sometimes none at all. The temperance movement was mainly focused on spirits and often saw beer as an acceptable alternative but in recent times matters have changed.

Temperance is not a word used by drink campaigners now and many who are active on alcohol abuse issues are ultimately after people not drinking at all. They tend to focus on health rather than moral impacts. There can be no doubt that excessive drinking is not good for the health but the debate about what this might mean continues.

Meanwhile, since the 1970s there has been a different, popular, movement campaigning primarily on beer. The Campaign for Real Ale was formed in the early 1970s and now has 180,000 members. It is easily the biggest consumer movement in Europe. Each year sees the Great British Beer Festival organised by CAMRA, currently held at Olympia. It is a massive event with attendance in the 50-60,000 people area.

There are controversies every year too and an important one in 2016- highlighted in the Financial Times- was how far the campaign is attracting the new young generation of drinkers attracted to craft beer. On the day after the GBBF concluded, on 14th August, the BBC’s Food Programme, broadcast an extended interview with Roger Protz of CAMRA. Protz is the Editor of CAMRA’s flagship annual Good Beer Guide which lists pubs around the UK which in the view of local CAMRA activists sell the best beer.

Protz, now in his late 70s, has been associated with campaigning around beer for decades but his background was on the political far left. He made the interesting and reasonable point that work to improve the quality of both drink and food has often come from those on the left.

Raymond Postgate, the founder of the Good Food Guide, had briefly been a Communist and the presenter of the Food Programme. Sheila Dillon noted that the original presenter of the programme, Derek Cooper, had seen himself very much in the campaigning style of Postgate, what the Guardian obituary of Cooper described as a ‘public stomach’.

Of course it would be absurd to claim that everyone who enjoys good food and drink is left-wing. Indeed traditionally these are often thought to be the preserve of the rich and right-wing, hence Nye Bevan’s well known ‘nothing is too good for the workers’ slogan.

But as Protz underlined, the idea that good drink and food is best produced not by huge companies with a focus on profit and the market, but by smaller producers who are genuinely interested in what they are doing, (though hopefully not the exclusion of making enough income to live on), is an important one.

At the end of the programme he focused on where those interested in seeing good beer in particular for the future should look to be campaigning now.

The battles of decades ago against giant brewers like Watneys and Whitbreads have been won. It is worth reflecting on that for a moment because there are not that many areas of British life where big capital has been forced to retreat by people power. Those companies refocused their business activities into the ‘leisure industry’. Whitbread is behind Costa Coffee and the Premier Inns hotel chain, for example.

But nothing, and particularly not the dynamic of capital, stands still. The beer battles of today are not about whether or not keg is a good method of dispensing, or if beer in cans is the best way to retail it. Rather they are about the new big battalions of beer. A merger between two already giant brewers, ABInBev and SABMiller is set, subject to Court approval it appears, to complete later this year.

So what, you might reasonably say? Surely they will just continue to produce and market the big beer brands they already have but do so with greater economies of scale - that makes profits.

They will of course, but they will also be doing something else. There is a move away from bland mass market beer towards what are termed ‘craft’ products (I’ll return to this in a later piece). The mega breweries are industrial, not craft affairs. They are missing out on the sales and profit that craft beer is generating

Fortunately for them a solution is at hand. They have the money to buy craft breweries and industrialise them. This process is quite new and not always straightforward. Often it appears to involve injections of capital to allow craft brewers to expand in ways they otherwise could not.

A number of US breweries that are known as craft beer producers in the UK are in fact owned or financially backed by very large multi-national leisure companies. For example, one of the best known, Ballast Point, founded  20 years ago, was taken over by Constellation Brands at the end of 2015. Recently, the founders of the brewery have cut relations with the new owners.

In the UK ABInBev have acquired Camden Town Brewery, while SAB Miller had owned Meantime though they have now sold it as part of the merger process. There is nothing automatic about multinational companies destroying the ethos and quality of craft beer companies they come to own. But the logic of profit and branding indicates a probable direction of travel.

Who will take on this battle against the new big brewers is as yet undetermined. CAMRA doesn’t tend to engage in the physical protests against brewery closures that were a hallmark of its early decades, preferring lobbying and pressure in Parliament. That brings results, for example on protecting pubs. But will it be up to protecting the new generation of UK micro and craft breweries against predators?
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Tuesday, 30 August 2016 17:28

A culture of overconsumption

Written by

Dr Emma Boyland starts a new series for Culture Matters about eating and drinking, and the politics and economics involved in moulding a culture of overconsumption.

It seems that barely a day goes by without mention of obesity in the news. It is called an epidemic, or even worse, a pandemic. Television generally is obsessed with the topic - programmes revolve around groups of overweight individuals trying to achieve weight loss, or show the extreme end of excess weight, highlighting the plight of those who cannot even leave their homes without drastic intervention. Though television of course has a flair for the dramatic, it is fair to say that excess weight is no longer something strange and unusual. Over 60% of adults in England were overweight or obese at the last count .

How have we got to this point? What has changed? Why can’t we seem to stop rising levels of obesity, never mind reverse them? If we can’t, is it really that much of a problem? This series of articles will seek to explore a range of issues related to eating and drinking culture, and the political maelstrom within which this issue sits. Politics influences so many things in our lives; can it really affect what we eat, when we eat, how much we eat?

In starting to understand how we got here, it usually helps to consider where we came from.

CM emma article

Feast and famine

Our ancestors had to contend with feast and famine. When food was seasonally available, they were well versed in eating as much as they could in order to lay down fat for the inevitable famine that would follow. The best and easiest things to gorge on were dense sources of carbohydrates, such as fruit. The sweet taste meant it was palatable and pleasant to consume, and the sugar content raised blood sugar and, therefore, insulin. Insulin worked to make sure immediate energy needs were serviced and most of the rest of the sugar was converted to body fat for longer term storage. Insulin is one of many contributors to the biological system (sometimes called the satiety system or satiety cascade) we have inside us that tells us when we’re hungry, and when we’re full. But who can’t remember a time when they’ve been in a restaurant, feeling full from the main course, and then seen the dessert menu and realised they could really do with some chocolate gateaux…? Clearly, the system is not fool-proof.

The energy balance equation tells us that if energy in > energy out (through exercise yes, but also our basic metabolism), then over time, weight gain will occur. And so the problem is fairly clear - we eat more than we need (we also do less physical activity than we need, but that’s perhaps for another series). We don’t have a period of famine to lose the excess weight accrued through this ‘gorging’, so we keep that weight and add to it as the years go by.

We’re not hunter gatherers anymore, but what sort of food culture do we have now? We have energy dense foods available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. And we find it VERY difficult to resist consuming too much. The foods themselves have changed (become more energy dense, less fibrous and therefore less filling) and there is also more of it. Twenty years ago, an average serving of popcorn at the cinema would comprise around 250 calories, today it’s over 600. If there is more food available, we will eat more (and that’s not even going into the so-called “hidden calories” in such seemingly innocuous things as a Starbucks Latte). We’re a nation of plate clearers after all. But why do we need to eat when sitting watching a movie anyway? Because food has become inextricably linked to most of the pleasant things in our lives, socialising, celebrations, entertainment, and is also thought of as welcome solace when things are a bit dull (“here, take some sweets on the train, it’s going to be a long boring journey”) or not going so well (“broken up with a partner? Eat some ice cream and you’ll feel better!”).

Neoliberal capitalism

Many of these associations are a result of highly effective and immersive food marketing, which has successfully infiltrated our minds and affected our relationships with food and eating. Budgets devoted to food marketing have risen exponentially (or, where they haven’t, this is usually a reflection of the marketing getting cheaper - e.g. on the Internet - rather than there being less of it) whilst food production costs have fallen. Improved farming practices, mechanisation of food production, and efficiencies in global trade, buoyed by the power of those with neoliberal capitalist ideals, have all meant an increase in the range of foods available and a relative reduction in their cost. These days, maintaining a food product or a brand in a competitive and crowded market requires substantial investment in commercial promotion.

CM emma 2

Over the past 50 years the food industry has developed products which have met our needs for convenience, taste and budget in a competitive market which has heavily promoted these factors. And we bought into this vision of ‘more is better’ and have paid the price with our health (not to mention our environment, we’re the biggest nation of food wasters in Europe…while we’re still in Europe, that is…but I won’t get started on THAT). Government efforts to allow the food industry to the table to make decisions about public health initiatives, unsurprisingly, meant that legislation to improve the food environment have been shouted down and self-regulatory schemes abound. Is there evidence that these schemes achieve anything? Ask the industry themselves and they say yes. Ask objective researchers, they say no. So food marketing, and the wider food environment, remains resolutely “obesogenic” or obesity-promoting.

But even before the food marketers can get hold of us we can be exposed to factors that affect our susceptibility to weight gain. Is it all down to genes? Well, yes there is a genetic contribution to body mass, but our genetics have not changed dramatically in the 40 or so years in which the obesity epidemic has taken hold. So whilst our genetic blueprint may affect our risk of developing obesity, if the food environment does not permit (or more accurately, actively promote), over consumption, the obesity will not occur. You will also be familiar with the regular debates around women breastfeeding in public and how acceptable this is in our society. Well, in terms of obesity, it’s important that women are empowered and encouraged to feed their infants this way. Evidence suggests that whether or not we are breastfed may affect our ability to self-regulate intake, as with formula there can be a tendency for parents to encourage the child to finish the bottle. Also, we are more likely to be accepting of flavours if we have had more exposure to them - so an infant who has been exposed to vegetable flavours in the womb (transmitted through amniotic fluid) or during breastfeeding (transmitted in the milk) is more likely to accept those vegetables at weaning. We all want the best for our children, but it can be difficult, or impossible, to meet all of these challenges and mitigate the effects of the modern food environment in order to set our children up for a healthy life.

So what does all of this mean for us as a society? There are real economic costs at stake. Of course there are direct costs of prevention work, diagnosis and treatment services for those with overweight and obesity, but there are also indirect costs from lost output due to cessation of work or reduced productivity due to ill health and overall this adds up to several billion pounds each year in England. Can we afford to ignore this? And at an individual level, people with overweight and obesity are likely to experience weight stigma, have a higher incidence of anxiety and depression, and generally report a lower quality of life than normal weight individuals. With mental health budgets (along with all other budgets) being slashed, is this not a ticking time-bomb?

Obese children become obese adults, and therefore early intervention is crucial. Can politics help here? The Government’s long awaited childhood obesity strategy was due to be released in January 2016, then spring 2016, then summer…and now autumn is being suggested. In the meantime, a leaked version has already been severely criticised by public health groups for not going far enough. Add to this the post-Brexit fall out and a new Prime Minister, and frankly, it will be a surprise if it even gets launched at all. If it doesn’t, a real opportunity to get a handle on these issues has passed us by.

I hope this opening article has ‘whetted your appetite’ (pun almost entirely intended) and I, and my colleagues, look forward to unpicking some of these issues in greater detail in future pieces. Thanks for reading!
Beer Street and Gin Lane
Tuesday, 19 July 2016 15:20

As Soon As This Pub Closes

Written by

Keith Flett starts a new series on drink, pubs and politics.

My title comes from a song in the play Close the Coalhouse Door, written by Alex Glasgow and Henry Livings and perhaps sums up the awkward relationship between drink, pubs, the left and the wider labour movement.

The singer of the song, in the pub, talks about all the things he plans to change in the world, but as the drinking goes on, the song concludes with the line ‘I think I’m going to be sick’.


Hopefully not too many readers of this piece drink in such quantities to provoke that. The idea here is to touch on a range of issues related to drink, pubs, culture and the left over a series of articles. The subject is so vast that one couldn’t possibly hope to cover all of it, yet at the same time one is struck by how little specific literature there actually is on it.

There are classic texts about the history of drink and British society such as Brian Harrison’s Drink and the Victorians which certainly touches on both the working class and drink and the labour movement. There are  works on temperance (which Harrison also focuses on) and more broadly there is what was termed the ‘tavern drinking school of history’. This is usually social history focused on radical working men (rarely if ever women) meeting in pubs, discussing ideas and strategies and then putting them into practice. It is quite a romantic picture, at least for some, but probably for that reason, not necessarily all that accurate either.

So it’s probably best to start a piece on drink and the left by acknowledging that while it will certainly cover key parts of the labour movement and the men who were active in it, not all men went into pubs or drank, and rather fewer women did. I will go into more detail on this later in the series but let’s start by noting that the Working Men’s Club was called that for a reason. It was largely frequented by men, with women (or as Jim Callaghan noted ‘trade unionists and their wives’ coming in at weekends).

I’m almost 60 and men only bars in pubs existed within my memory. That didn’t appeal to all men by any means. The Tolpuddle Martyrs for example were active Methodists and they most certainly did not take the oaths of trade union membership that led to their transportation in a pub.

As Britain has become a more diverse society the numbers of those that don’t drink and don’t go into pubs is probably on the increase. But just as it’s lazy to think that all men drink, so it is equally mistaken to imagine that all those who, for example, see themselves as Muslims, never drink alcohol. They may not be propping up a corner of the saloon bar with Nigel Farage, but they may enjoy the social atmosphere of a pub as much as anyone else.

It is worth reflecting too that if the drink in question is beer, historically speaking this was not what temperance campaigners were on about anyway.

Their campaign slogan (and complaint) was that ‘strong drink is raging’. They meant cheap spirits and they had a point. Hogarth’s depiction of ‘Gin Lane’ is well known but alcohol could well be a way of distracting oneself from what Engels called 'the dull compulsion of economic reality.'

Obviously I do enjoy a drink (I joined the Campaign for Real Ale in 1975 and remain a slightly active member) but in a lifetime of labour movement activism and organising I do frown upon meetings where drinking has taken place beforehand or indeed is going on while one is in progress. The result is often less than happy. Drinking afterwards is fine and often essential.

Beer was not the focus of temperance (and it was usually a good deal stronger pre-World War One than it is, in general now). Indeed drinking beer when water was not always as safe to consume as it is now, was a matter of common sense. Lower strength ‘table beer’ often took the same place that water would do today on the dining table.

So teetotallers could and sometimes did drink beer but the total abstinence movement was about not drinking any alcohol at all. Prohibition in the United States was arguably its greatest success in a market capitalist society.

We can’t leave the pub as it were, without considering those who brew the beer.

The division between Tories as the party of the brewers and the Liberals as the party of temperance, with Labour preferring to focus on the social factors that lead people to drink in the first place, is not clear cut historically.

Indeed it was Gladstone’s 1872 Licensing Act which introduced the offence of being drunk in public, and restricted evening opening hours to midnight in town and 11pm in rural areas, that really caused the lines on politics and drink to be drawn.

The brewers resented Government interference with their activities and many decamped to the Tories. So much so that by the early twentieth century the Tory back benches were known as the ‘Beerage’ because they contained so many brewers who had become Tory MPs and who were destined for the House of Lords.

The 1872 Act led to some riots over the enforcement of the new closing times and without doubt there was a link forged between the now Tory brewers and working men and women who liked a drink.

Churchill when a Liberal MP in the early years of the Twentieth Century is reported to have accused the Tory Party of ‘drawing a brewers’ dray across the road of progress’.

His point may well have been that after the 1872 Act the Tories had constructed something of a popular political tradition based on Beer and Britannia. That is the defence of beer as a traditional drink together with the right to enjoy a glass of it without Government interference as something the ‘freeborn Englishman’ should have as part of their heritage.

As I hope I have indicated above, there is much to discuss on drink, and I hope to cover more ground in future pieces.