Apologies in advance for disturbing the cordiality of the festive season, but beware the ingredients in your shop-bought Christmas cake.
Not just those tooth-cracking, ‘edible’ silver ball decorations either, it’s the long list of weird and distinctly un-wonderful industrial ingredients that turn up in yuletide cakes, puddings, mincemeat pies. I’m talking delights such as ‘gluten-free breadcrumbs’, with their secondary ingredients list of water, potato starch, maize, vegetable oil, guar gum, methylcellulose, salt, plus a dash of mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids.
Anything with dried fruits is a safe house for synthetic flavourings, such as caramel, colourings, preservatives, shelf life-extending humectants, and various forms of glucose-fructose sugar: a highly suspect ingredient increasingly being linked to the obesity epidemic in the US.
Fruits are usually described as ‘mixed vine fruits’, code for the cheapest, most anonymous, pedigree-free product available. You’ll have to hunt down nuts. As they are pricey, manufacturers are truly stingy with them and keep their use to a minimum.
You’ll struggle to find a pie, cake or pudding made with freshly shelled eggs, let alone liquid ones. It’ll be pasteurised egg if you’re lucky, a substance called ‘dried egg albumen’ if you’re not. Even Heston uses dried egg in his mincemeat pies. Be sure to go for ‘all butter’ items, otherwise you’ll be chomping your way through margarine and vegetarian suet made with rapeseed, and rainforest- depleting palm oil. At Christmas, ethical ingredients go out the window. Anyone who’s looking for Fairtrade nuts or raisins will have to head to Oxfam.
I have often wondered why shop-bought Christmas offerings never taste quite right. For an explanation, look no further than items you’d never use at home, such as citric acid, lemon juice ‘from concentrate’ and industrial orange oil.
I did flirt with the idea of buying, rather than making my own, but the sobering list of ingredients I’d rather avoid soon re-motivated me. My home-made pudding looks and smells fantastic, made with organic raisins, sultanas, and home-made candied orange peel, Fairtrade African sun-dried mango and Palestinian dates, plump Agen prunes, a decent amount of pecans, freshly cracked organic eggs, freshly squeezed orange juice, grated windfall apple, freshly ground spices, sour-dough breadcrumbs and lashings of Somerset apple brandy. Call it cocky, but I’m cautiously confident that it will taste a whole lot better than anything I could buy.
First published in The Grocer 3rd December 2011 and on Joanna Blythman’s blog