Autumn Foraging (I)


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Even if our bees let us down this season, not all is lost around the house.  A good crop of barcode-free potatoes was dug up from the vegetable plot, and we’re still picking the last tomatoes.  Even more exciting is the fact that various mushrooms cultivated over two years ago, finally decided to push out their juicy mycelium through the wax-covered holes in the tree trunks where they had been carefully drilled in.  We learned to our peril that the competition for our mushrooms is fierce.  We have to check regularly if we don’t want to loose much for the crop to a whole host of animals, not only the dreaded slugs.

Like this year with our bees, we made pretty long faces last autumn when none of the different mushroom varieties plugged into oak and birch logs showed any promise.  So it seems that, with a barcode-free kitchen larder, one has to be more patient and flexible than the average supermarket shopper with access to all products year-round.  But the satisfaction from cutting off self-cultivated shiitake and oyster mushrooms far surpasses undoing the barcoded shrink wrap from a plastic container full of soggy “champignons”.



The quality of commercially grown supermarket mushrooms depends to a large extent on the substrate on which they are grown.  The experimentation with a wide range of substrates for profit-maximisation is ongoing and includes materials such as waste paper and cardboard and others that might make consumers slightly nervous.  If you buy dried mushrooms, you may literally be in for a surprise.  That’s at least what these researchers found when they looked closer at a random barcoded package of dried Chinese porcini mushrooms.  Of the 15 pieces picked from the pack for DNA sequencing, they found that three of them came from species new to science which have never before been named or described.  Who said that barcoded food can’t be exciting?!?

Harvesting Hot Air


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It was well before the idea for BarcodeZero was born, that we got a few bee hives to make our own honey.  We got them late in the season last year, and it was clear that everything produced during last summer and autumn had to be left to them for them to survive the winter.  Our bees got through the winter seemingly fine, and were happily collecting from all the flowering thyme, oregano and lavender around the garden.  This year, we weren’t expecting huge quantities from our recently established colonies, but were hoping for enough to fill a few first pots of our own barcode-free honey.  Yesterday, finally, was the big day for our honey harvest: a fine, sunny, warm day with little wind – a perfect flying day for our bees to occupy themselves out in the field, instead of fussing about us sampling their production.

We lugged all necessary gear up the hill to the hives, got all kitted out and fired up the smoker.  After opening the hives, we found that not a single super had been filled with honey.  To say we were disappointed would be a huge understatement!  While the colonies appeared intact and healthy, there was no surplus production for us to harvest.  Bummer.  Proper bee-keepers will of course roll their eyes: they check on their hives every week and would have seen this coming months ago.  Not to mention that they move their hives to help the farmers pollinate their orchards and in return the bees gorge on whatever is in season and quickly fill the supers, which in many cases can even be harvested as early as May and a second lot put in for late summer harvests.  May be we have to revise our hands-off approach to our hives…

Luckily, we are surrounded by more successful bee-keepers in the area and have access to barcode-free honey sold directly by the producers.  As a household with minimal use of sugar, we go through quite a bit of honey in the course of a year.  Next year, hopefully, it might be our own honey.


Like with all barcoded foods, the label on supermarket honey jars tell you precious little about what happened to the product it contains.  Ignore marketing words such as “pure” or “natural” which mean absolutely nothing.  Beware that many industrial bee-keepers – in order to maximise production – harvest the honey before the bees have sealed the comb and extracted water over the course of several weeks.  They also may feed sugar syrup to the bees to boost production, so the resulting honey may not be as rich in health-giving polyphenols and enzymes.  Commercial honey is also often (unnecessarily) pasteurised and may contain fillers like corn-syrup.  When the combs are heated to facilitate extraction, anything above 42 Celsius damages the enzymatic properties of honey, and it will not crystallise.  Raw honey may be filtered (not “pressure strained“) but is never heated, and it will set within a few weeks.  As always, if you want to know what you are actually putting into your body, find a local producer who will happily tell you how s/he made the honey in the barcode-free jar…

Naturally Fresh My Ass!


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We are used to seeing bad barcoded products but, once in a while, we come across truly horrid edible, food-like substances that really make us angry.  Have a look at the “salad dressing” in the photo below, which we brought back from a recent visit to the U.S., where it was served – of all places – at a medical conference on the biology of ageing.  The ingredients list is printed so small, that we only managed to decipher it with the use of the heavy-duty magnifying glasses pictured.  Seeing all the rubbish in the “Naturally Fresh – Ranch Vegetable Dip”, it is perfectly understandable that the manufacturer doesn’t want anyone to see it.  But it is less understandable how they can get away with such a miniscule font!

Anyway, here we is what the magnification revealed:
soybean oil, water, butter, egg, non-fat dry milk, corn syrup solids, salt, vinegar, stabiliser (modified food starch, tapioca flour,  gelatin, mono- and diglycerides, sodium caseinate, propylene glycol monoester, guar gum, carrageenan, potassium phosphate), sugar, buttermilk powder, dehydrated minced onions, monosodium glutamate, acidulant (lactic acid, water, citric acid, natural and artificial flavours), sodium citrate, spices, citric acid, minced carrots, xantham and guar gums (food fibre), onion powder, potassium sorbate (as preservative), garlic powder, maltodextrin, dehydrated red bell pepper, natural and artificial flavour.

To put well over 30 ingredients into an ounce of dip is one thing.  (And since one single flavouring can easily be composed of several dozen undisclosed chemicals, we’re realistically talking about well north of a hundred here.)  But to call it “Naturally Fresh” really rubbed us the wrong way.  There is absolutely nothing “natural” or “fresh” about this product.  Not since our encounter with Premium Frankenfudge have we gasped so heavily over a barcoded label.

Thanks for listening and letting us vent.  And apologies for the strongly worded title … we know, we’re meant to be a family-friendly website.


Around ten years ago, in the aftermath of Supersize Me, salad dressings first started to get a bad wrap in the mainstream media after it turned out that some McDonald’s dressings clocked up more calories than some of their burgers.  In the light of adverse publicity, the company made changes to their recipes but, still, one serving of their “Newman’s Own Creamy Cesar” salad dressing contains 190 calories, 18g of fat, 500 mg of sodium and 4g of total carbohydrates.

If you want to find out how you can get 20 grams of fat by adding two teaspoons of barcoded salad dressing, check out these 20 concoctions on your supermarket shelf.  And remember, it is not the amount of fat that is the problem, but the fact that – invariably – they are all made from highly processed and unhealthy “vegetable” oils, which we already wrote about here.

Barcode-free Junk


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With up to ten children running around the garden this summer, the call for processed “treats” was never far away.  Elderflower cordial helped to dodge to soda bullet, but the repeated request for Nutella was more difficult to diffuse with home-made jams and honey.  So when we came across this barcode-free, “artisanal” hazelnut spread, we relented and put it on the breakfast table.  A closer look at the pretty label, however, revealed a recipe every bit as horrid as the original (click on right photo below to read right hand jar): heavily sugared vegetable oil, emulsifed with soy lecithin a.k.a. E322 (which we wrote about here).  Oh, and some nuts are thrown in too.  Exactly 13%, like the original.  The caramel spread on the left is just as bad.  Ingredient number one: HFCS followed by several other forms of sugar.  Worst of all, we forked out 6 Euros per 245 grams each.

So there you have it.  Just like not every barcoded food item is a highly processed toxin, not every barcode-free, seemingly “artisanal” food is healthy and wholesome.  Labels need to be read, whether they have a barcode or not!


Watching commercials like this one by Ferrero make us fell as nauseous as if we had eaten a whole jar of Nutella in one sitting.  A two-tablespoon serving spread on a slice of toast has 13 grams of fat and over 200 calories.  The second ingredient after sugar is modified palm oil, but it is not clear what happened to the poor palm nuts.  Apart from environmental and social concerns around palm oil, have a look at the chart in this entry to get a general idea on “vegetable” oil processing to see whether you think it’s good for you or your kids.  Modified palm oils is sometimes called “trans fat in disguise“.  Once, Ferrero made Nutella from hazelnut oil, but has long switched to cheaper alternatives.  We ranted about soy lecithin already at the bottom of this page.  Whatever Ferrero says in its commercials, it is NOT a health food, so leave its barcoded jars on the supermarket shelf.  The fact that Ferrero paid US$ 3 million to settle a class-action lawsuit two years ago over misleading health claims is just too small a consolation…

Somethin’ is a Brewin’


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It’s so easy to see all the areas where our food supply has been going wrong.  So how about, for a change, a story which we feel is hugely encouraging?!?


Since the lack of barcode-free beer has been one of our biggest ongoing frustrations, we dived quite deeply into the homebrewing scene, and what we found – especially in the U.S. – is extremely promising.  In a market which four big industrial manufacturers have almost complete stitched up amongst themselves with bland, hardly distinguishable, pasteurised, long shelf-life products, a massive groundswell of micro-, nano- and home-breweries is creating a rich, varied, mainly local, often organic and mostly exciting offerings, which are taken up enthusiastically by increasingly discerning drinkers.  Go to any bar in a larger U.S. city, and you’ll invariably find long lists of local and international brews from small outfits.  The otherwise ubiquitous Miller, Bud Light, Stella Artois and Coors may or may not be mentioned at the bottom of the menu.  There are no less than three different U.S. monthly printed magazines catering to the homebrewing trend, and in this month’s issue the making of seasonal pumpkin fermentations was the most hotly debated topic.


As shown in a graphic in this post, Anheuser-Busch InBev, SAB-Miller, Heineken and Constellation Brands control 86% of the beer market.  While those big four sell more than 60 different brand names, their products are necessarily almost indistinguishable: because proper beer does not travel well, and one has to do horrible things to it in order to achieve a long shelf life and the consistent taste the industrial marketing officials want. A rapidly growing number of Americans are fed up with this and happily guzzle the much more varied and interesting brews from a steadily growing number of microbreweries.  From over 2,000 local breweries in pre-prohibition days, the U.S. went through endless rounds of consolidation to fewer than 90 breweries in the whole country in the 90’s.  Now, the number of commercial breweries is rapidly approaching 3,000.  And that does not include countless homebrewers who turn their kitchen tops, garden sheds and garages into hotbeds of fermentation experiments.  There is still a long way to go, of course.  The diagram below shows just how small all craft beers -even grouped together- still are in comparison to the biggest of the brewing giants, AB InBev.  And yet, the vibrancy and the enthusiastic expansion of the artisanal beer market in the U.S. and elsewhere makes us hopeful that other food and drink categories might, one day, see a similar popular revolt against bland, inferior, industrial, adulterated mass products and in favour of small, local producers who cater to a great variety of tastes and preferences.



We would love to get into homebrewing, but we haven’t taken the plunge yet.  The equipment we fancy is quite pricey and, while we like the occasional beer, just amongst ourselves we would struggle to consume the output of 4-6 brew days per year of 19 litres each.  On top of it, we need to make gluten-free beer, which complicates matters considerably.  Having said that, we enthuse about the health benefits of properly fermented brews and, if we managed to produce quaffable barcode-free stuff, it could be a great currency for barter in a wine-dominated region.  And we already thought of some pretty crazy names and equally funky flavour combinations.  So stay tuned.



Thus is the power of the internet.  Ms. Vani Hari, a popular food blogger, single-handedly raised such a stink about the shocking ingredients in barcoded beer and the surrounding secrecy, that the public uprising she caused just three months ago forced one big industrial brewer after another to promise to disclose what goes into their bottles.  If you like to hear about the realities of barcoded beer (e.g. artificial caramel colouring, HFCS and fish bladders), there is no better summary than hers.  It turns out that the regulator of the U.S. beer industry (the U.S. Treasury Department!!! – makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?!?) is as conflicted, incompetent and/or corrupt as other so-called food “regulators” around the world.  So leave the barcoded industrial stuff on the supermarket shelves and look out for a small, local brewer, who will happily tell you what s/he put into the latest batch.  And if the bottle does not carry a barcode, please drop us a line!

The Next Logical Step: Virtual Supermarkets


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The omni-present UPC barcode is certainly not the end of the technical food retailing revolution.  We already wrote about the Orwellian nightmare of RFID chips here and about a new generation of digital “Object Recognition Scanners” here.  Meanwhile, a barcode-driven innovation is being tested in South Korea by none other than Tesco, the second biggest and second most profitable retailer in the world (after – yes, you guessed it right – Walmart).  “Every little helps” is Tesco’s infamous slogan, and they are taking this to a whole new level for time-strapped urban shoppers in Korea.

In order to boost sales and profits without the expense of opening new stores, Tesco (under the local brand “Home plus“) installed illuminated billboards of their merchandise in subway stations and bus shelters.  While waiting for their transport, consumers can scan the QR Codes displayed next to the products with their smart phone (click middle photo in bottom row) to put them into their online shopping basket.  If ordered before 1pm, the merchandise will then be delivered to their home the same evening or can be picked up at one of Tesco’s stores.  Watch the company’s short video here in which they gloat how they successfully “turned waiting time into shopping time”.

Image source:

Image source:

We can see the time-saving convenience for those too busy to shop.  We can also see the benefits for Big Food and the few dominating retailers to remove the consumer just one more step away from the barcoded products they are about to eat: product information with long lists of dubious ingredients, currently in barely legible small print, will then be fully invisible on the virtual shelf.  And if people are too busy to shop, they will certainly be too busy to look up online what the 45 ingredients of their “ice cream” are.

If you are keen to give Tesco’s virtual supermarket a go, you don’t have to travel all the way to Korea.  The next time you come through Gatwick Airport, south of London, you can whip out your smartphone and happily scan QR codes in Tesco’s first European trial!

BarcodeZero in the Big City


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Confessions of latter-day foodies:  We realise that a lot of our followers and friends think ‘oh, it’s easy for you to do that where you live’.  True, it poses less challenges to go barcode-free in the countryside perhaps than in a big city or urban sprawl.  However, if you look long and hard enough, and you really want to make a go of cutting barcodes out as a way to eat healthily and support local growers, you can do it.  The farmer’s markets and veg box delivery scenes (here, here and here), not to mention traditional covered or open-air markets, plus your local high street greengrocer, butcher, fishmonger, baker and independent health food store are all there and thriving.

Somewhere on your daily commute or in your neighbourhood, you will find what you are after.  This colourful and satisfying panorama and lifestyle choice is only your decision away from happening, indeed a campaign is being launched as we speak (see here).  There is also the big city advantage of finding gorgeous items that cannot be found for love or for money in the provinces, like fresh galangal, lemon grass or turmeric root, the yams and cassava, any number of Asian or African delicacies from neighbourhood grocers at Peckham Market in London, for instance.

Think how nice it is to go regularly to the same shop and chat with the staff, get their help to select items, order things in advance.  Unlike shelf-stackers in supermarkets, these people have an intimate relationship with the food they produce and sell. They become part of your network, community and extended family.  If you go regularly to visit people in the countryside, well, you can combine it with a visit to their market or greengrocer and turn it into a fun day out.  British produce is exciting and happening – you no longer need to cross the channel for some tasty cheese or charcuterie and, if anything, the Brits make more of a go of heirloom vegetables and fruits than they do on the continent.  The world is your oyster.

Recently in London we found anything from barcode-free vinegar, to herbs and spices, raw cow’s milk and cream (something we do not find here) and even freshly made pasta, if you are that way inclined.  Admittedly, Borough market can be eye-wateringly expensive and, some would say, elitist, but we found there were items for a range of budgets if you look carefully and don’t consider it as your only source of food items for the week.  Other European capital cities also have regular markets and neighbourhood greengrocers, it is just a question of looking.

Watery Dilemmas


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The confusion surrounding drinking water is very telling for how far removed we are from even the most important and basic nutrients.  Every discussion on the topic inevitably becomes animated, with strong views aired on either “our tap water here is the cleanest in the county/country/world”, “I never touch anything but bottled water”, “filtered water is the only ethical supply” and/or “I never understood all that fuss about fluoride anyway”.  It turns out that our life-giving, daily drink of water has become a hellishly complex issue, with huge business interests and our health at stake.

A visit to the supermarket in many countries shows that barcoded water from a bottle can be more expensive or on par with soft drinks and even beer.  The photos above were taken in a WalMart, the Taj Mahal of Barcodes, early this year and show that the cheapest purified water works out as slightly less than half the price of branded Pepsi.  However, a premium water brand like Danone’s Evian compared to a no-brand caffeinated soda reverses the relationship.  And as the decline in sales of sodas continues to accelerate (at least in the U.S.), the dominating soda makers rush to diversify into other foods and drinks, including water.  We find it fascinating that Wall Street is now suggesting to value the shares of Coca Cola not as a soda maker, but rather as one of the world’s largest water purification companies (with often disastrous effects for local communities).  But hey, if the coke on your supermarket shelf is cheaper than bottled water, check out this perfect tool: a new filter that purifies Coca Cola -“the Black Waters of American Imperialism”- into crystal-clear H20.

Here is what most consumers see as their choices (with some of the pros and cons added):
1.  Tap Water.  Inexpensive, readily available, no issues with packaging.  Wide range of contaminants (e.g. various classes of pharmaceuticals in the U.S.; drug-resistant microbes in the U.K.), depending on your location (short video on this here) water may be medicated with the neurotoxin fluoride.
2.  Bottled Water.  Readily available in Western countries, not chlorinated, no fluoride.  Wasteful packaging and transportation, endocrine disrupters leaching from plastic bottles (see BarcodeAlert below), over 100 times more expensive than tap water.
3.  Filtered Water.  Can be installed to water tap, no issues with packaging and transport, reduced contaminants.  Varying efficacy which is difficult to verify, often expensive installation and maintenance contracts, some methods affect water pH and other properties.

There is no obvious and easy choice here, and none of the options is without its own headaches.  On balance, we would tend towards a filtering system, but even after having looked into this quite deeply, we would struggle to make recommendations since all of them have their own problems.

Our barcode-free solution to the modern-day water dilemma?  Glad you asked.  We did what most humans did throughout history: choose a place to settle where there is access to fresh water.  We are fortunate in that our house is furnished by two springs.  Ancient dry stone walls incorporate tunnels (see below) at two different places and, when one crawls into them past the spider webs for about ten metres, ice cold fresh clear water bubbles up from underneath a big rock.


But even what sounds like a perfectly idyllic setup is not entirely without its issues.  Nobody cares about and looks out for the safety of our water.  We decide to drink it, so it’s up to us to regularly test it, which is a hassle and costs money.  The hillside is riddled with old farmhouses and historic cesspits or more modern but cracked septic tanks, not to mention livestock rearing, all of which can produce noxious and contaminated seepage. The same goes for the old piping that brings the water to the house.  We also have no idea where the water is actually coming from.  While it would be nice to think that it comes deep down from an artesian aquifer underneath the chalk mountains, in all likelihood it depends on what happens further up the mountain well outside our control.  In the old days the water systems were interdependent, like people, and there were strict rules about managing the water supplies for the benefit of the entire community.  Not so today.  When we are no longer responsible for sourcing our water or food, and when we instead leave it to unaccountable conglomerates, we become irresponsible towards ourselves, our neighbours and our communities.

Having weighed all the options, we still prefer to take responsibility for our water supply, don’t connect to the chlorinated municipal tap water and leave the barcoded plastic bottles on the supermarket shelves.  Hell, we’ll survive the odd streptococcus floating around … or so we think.  Oh, and there is a serious watery barcode dilemma we face: we run our spring water through a barcoded (!) charcoal filter before drinking, and we agonised over whether this constitutes a violation of our three BarcodeZero rules.  In the end we thought it wouldn’t, but please comment if you think otherwise.



Buying water in barcoded bottles is far from straight forward.  While there is no longer much of a choice other than Nestle, Coca Cola, Pepsico, Danone and The Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, the big water manufacturers still let you choose between table-, mineral-, spring- and purified water, which mean different things in different legislations.  Is that a meaningful distinction?  Well, in a recent analysis of 30 bottled waters by the German consumer protection agency, all four types of water fared equally badly.  None of the “mineral” waters had any higher concentrations of minerals than the other types.  Only six of them had low enough levels of contaminants and pesticide residues to recommend them for babies and immune-deficient consumers.  And those six best waters were mostly no-brand products from discounters.  As always, ignore the images of pristine mountains and the empty marketing slogans on the label and zoom in on the small print.

What the small print doesn’t tell you is what leaches from the plastic bottle into the water, and the chorus of concerned researchers about that is getting louder.  If you think the container does not affect the water, we challenge you to leave a full plastic bottle on your car dashboard in the summer for three weeks.  The main worry is that plastic containers lead to widespread contamination of food with xenohormones which disrupt our endocrine system, and that too few compounds and their mixture effects have been analysed so far.  This 2011 study found virtually all commercially available plastic containers had “estrogenic activity”, including those labelled as “bisphenol A-free”.  And this paper from the same year found “60% of the investigated [water] products induced significant estrogenic effects”.  Snails sensitive to minute estrogen concentrations reproduce twice as much in PET bottles compared to the same water in glass bottles.

If you choose barcoded bottled water, go for glass bottles if anyhow possible, ideally as part of a bottle deposit scheme.  If you can’t avoid plastic bottles, consume the water soon after purchase, since contaminations increase over time.  Keep them out of heat and sunlight.

Freshly Pressed Olive Juice


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Aaaah, olive oil!  No other food is shrouded in such a deep and diverse mythology and, still today, people can get quite passionate on the subject.  Around as a wild fruit for more than 50,000 years, humans have spat out olive pips around archaeological excavation sites for at least 8,000 years.  It has always been a food, a medicine, a beauty product, in ritual and symbolic use by all big monotheist religions, mentioned in holy texts, as well as a lubricant of – amongst other things – Mediterranean trade.  Described by this important Roman food writer as the first of all trees (“Olea prima omnium arborum est“), it was so important to the Athenians that they, under Solon, changed their constitution to assign the death penalty to anyone involved in the felling of an olive tree.  Olive oil fraud has probably existed just as long, but one wonders what would have happened in Athens to all the modern-day criminals who shamelessly profiteer from the growing demand for the oil.  We already mentioned here the adulteration of barcoded “black” olives, and our detailed Barcode Alert below deals with some of the worst practices in the olive oil industry.

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Luckily for us, getting high-quality olive oil is, so to speak, a low-hanging fruit.  Throughout the whole valley olives are planted and there are several co-operative mills (see middle photo below) in the area.  We even planted our own olive trees two years ago, but they still look rather small and sad, with the first proper harvest probably another decade away.  Worst of all, of the twenty trees planted, half of them have died.  This is certainly one of our more long term projects…

Like all fruit juices, olive oil is a delicate and perishable food.  So we only ever buy small quantities and enjoy sampling different varieties.  We tend to have a couple of bottles on the go simultaneously, adding young, early-pressed, strong, peppery oils to soups, casseroles and hearty dishes that can take it, while using milder, late-harvest oils for more delicate herb salads and vegetables.  The health benefits of olive polyphenols have been widely covered in the mainstream press, and we’re convinced it’s good for us.  Olive oil is certainly far superior to the highly processed, wrongly called “vegetable” oils.  However, some of the claims of olive oil as the ultimate superfood are overblown and deserve a bit of healthy scepticism.


Few foods are subject to as many scams as olive oil.  The “trade” has a long and sad history of adulteration, and beautifully designed labels on barcoded containers are often cleverly conceived for maximum deception.  Tom Mueller’s excellent book “Extra Virginity” published in 2012 offers a brilliant insight into the sad state of affairs.  (His website offers a comprehensive Buyer’s Guide that we highly recommend.)  The problems with industrial olive oil can loosely be split up into three areas:
1. Production Practices:  Very similar to our Barcode Alert on cherries, all mechanical methods to avoid expensive fruit-picking by hand are detrimental to the production of a high-quality oil.  Olives are sprayed with growth-promoters/retardants, are picked with twigs and leaves, can get injured, contact the soil and are mixed with rotten fruit already lying on the ground.  Large manufacturers often use heat, solvents and/or hot water to maximise yields from their presses, thus degrading fragile fatty acids and washing out many beneficial nutrients.  Italy alone has been reported to produce 800,000 cubic metres of waste water annually in that way.
2. Transport/Storage:  Mechanically harvested olives are often shipped and stored in poorly ventilated containers, where they can become mouldy.  The olives (and their oil) are often transported huge distances, since supermarkets and their customers somehow prefer oil bottled in Italy (by the way, most of the big Italian names have been Spanish-owned for years) over the country of origin of the oil, e.g. Tunisia or Syria.  Read here how Filippo Berio, specialist of selling cheap Mediterranean blends as if they were Italian premium products, partnered with Cargill earlier this year to lend it’s “venerable” name (“Since 1867”!) as lipstick on an industrial pig: a concoction of 85% soybean oil and 15% olive oil.
3. Labelling:  Like with most barcoded foods, industrial producers have far too much leeway in what they can say/claim/state on the product label, i.e. the only remaining link between the consumer and manufacturer of food.  For instance, olive pomace oil extracted with solvents from the pulp of the first pressing is still called olive oil, although in some countries labelling restrictions apply.  Don’t believe this is still going on?  This U.S. importer just filed for bankruptcy after labelling pomace oil as “100% pure”.  Refined pomace oil is often blended with first-pressed oil and can still be sold as “virgin”.  The British Food Standards Agency has warned about carcinogenic contaminants (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) in pomace oil.  “Extra virgin” is a label that the International Olive Council assigns to virgin oils with no more than 0.8% free fatty acids.  Bizarrely, “extra virgin” in itself does not mean that it has to be a pure olive oil: it can be mixed with hazelnut, colza or – like recently in Spain – with avocado, sunflower and palm oil.  The U.S. is not a member of the IOC, so “extra virgin” meant exactly nothing there, until a “voluntary standard” was introduced by the USDA in 2010.  In Australia, inferior concoctions made from refined olive oil are sold as “pure”, “light” or extra-light”, thus hiding their true origin and pretending that they have less calories (which they don’t).

Phew.  So what should one go for in the supermarket aisles?!?  If Tom Mueller’s excellent Buyer’s Guide is too long for you, here are our personal short suggestions for the barcoded world:
–  Never buy oil in anything other than a (ideally opaque) glass bottle.
–  If it’s cheap, leave it.  Proper oil is hard to find under 12-15 Euros per litre.
–  Colour isn’t important, but turbidity is.  Go for unfiltered, cloudy bottles.
–  Choose oils that name the estate.  You’re less likely to buy some blend of north African oils.
–  Despite all the industry cons, “cold pressed” and “extra virgin” should be on the label.


‘Free From’ Truffles


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Throughout our experiment this year we have sometimes wondered which foods one simply can’t find in a barcoded format for love or for money!  Agave worms from Mexico?  Mogongo nuts from Botswana?  We were convinced that the “Western diet” would be pretty much covered by Big Food.  We’re not talking foragers or road kill connaisseurs: if something is used regularly in kitchens, some manufacturer will give it an extra long shelf life to sell it to us it via the grocery goliaths and their eternal bumper-to-bumper lorries thundering across Europe.  If you can think of a common food that is not available in a barcoded package, we would love to hear about it!

But when we spent a few days with a friend we thought we might have found a rare enough local food item: his neighbour came around armed with a very long screw driver and asked to train his new puppy to search for truffles under an ancient lime tree which has become a bit of a local legend for its reliable supply of truffles.  So off we went to follow the excitedly wagging tails of three present dogs.

The neighbour knew exactly what he was after and where, and, frankly, could have easily found the impressive bounty without the help of any dog.  He had a keen eye for disturbances in the grass and for Suillia tuberiperda, a small, yellowish fly which deposits its eggs in the soil just above the fruiting body of truffles – and might thereby be the only welcome fly species in the world.

Summer truffles (also known as Burgundy truffle) grow surprisingly close to the surface, especially in flat terrain (click on the left photo of the middle row to enlarge).  We were a bit disappointed with their rather faint, nutty smell and taste which are a far cry from the rich earthy aromas of black truffles.  Given the quantities we used to to make delicious truffle scrambled eggs, a single serving would have cost hundreds of Euros had it been the ‘real’ thing.  And we were even more disappointed when we found that it is readily available in barcoded jars in supermarkets (e.g. here).  However, it is rare enough in shopping trolleys for us not be able to come up with one of our Barcode Alerts.  How long until there will be shrink wrapped and barcoded black truffles in a Sainsbury’s refrigerator?!?  Given the popularity of planting oaks treated with truffle spores in this area, maybe not too long.


All Natural Coconut Milk


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We are never quite sure which of our barcode-free kitchen endeavours merit writing about and which ones are just plain, old-fashioned home cooking practices taking place in millions of homes every day.  Mixing mustard struck us a bit out of the ordinary, and we decided that cracking coconuts might be as well.  Tell us what you think!
Finding barcode-free Asian cooking ingredients is a headache for us and, at this stage, we would pay a king’s ransom for a big bottle of “proper”, naturally fermented soy sauce.

But luckily coconuts can be found once in a while, and curries have therefore stayed on our menu.  We only find brown coconuts from which the outer layer (exo- or epicarp) has already been removed.  Tilting and shaking the nut can give an idea of how dried out it is, and we go for the fullest specimen where the eye markings underneath have not become too soft – an indication that the coconut may have gone sour.  (Check out our Alert at the end to see what has gone sour with most industrial coconut milks!)

For the first three steps of milk preparation, you may decide the work shed is a more suitable venue than the kitchen:

1. Drill hole in nut to drain water  –  we use an old-fashioned hand drill.
2. Crack nut open with axe or hammer  –  an axe produces neater results.
3. Scrape firm flesh from two halves  –  a knife worked best for us.

Then is the tedious task of peeling the hard and somewhat tasteless outer brown layer off the fragments. The white flesh is then pulverised in (thank the gods) a kitchen robot, with the liquid and some additional hot water to encourage the flesh to release the fatty cream.  The pulp and liquid is then pressed through a sieve to collect the resulting rich and tasty cream.

The photo below shows a fragrant, barcode-free chicken curry made from said coconut milk and gleefully hand-ground spices and dried chillies from the garden.



The milk prepared above has just one ingredient.  Well, yes, coconut.  But inspect barcoded packages in the “Asian” section of your supermarket and try to find one without sweeteners, colourants, preservatives, gelling agents, emulsifiers, stabilisers and/or thickeners.  Good luck.   Guar gum is a favourite for most barcoded milk concoctions, since the white powder fulfils several functions.  Sadly for the food industry, the price for it has shot up recently as the boom in hydraulic oil fracking multiplies demand for thickeners.  Good riddance, we say, since guar gum has been implicated in immunological problems as well as in colon cancer.
But there is always carrageenan which is extracted from red sea weed, and is the darling of organic and gluten-free food manufacturers.  The industry claims that it has no nutritional and flavour properties and is eliminated via the South Gate exactly as it was ingested through the North Gate.  While approved for organic food manufacturing, there is a growing body of evidence that it causes gastrointestinal inflammation, ulcers, lesions and malignancies.  Even the industry-friendly E.U. felt that the concerns where grave enough to ban carrageenan from infant formulas in 2003.
Swinging an axe to crack open a coconut might sound dangerous, but at least it is a risk we can understand … unlike the effects of new-to-humans food additives.

Is the End of Barcodes Near?


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While barcodes have revolutionised the way the world produces, sells and eats food, technological advances will continue to optimise the “value chain” of Big Food.  We alluded to the Orwellian nightmare of RFID (radio-frequency identification) as the industry’s new field of experimentation here, but it might be a different type of supermarket scanner which could bring an end to the barcodes on your food packages:  Toshiba has been developing and testing a check-out system which employs a digital camera instead of an optical laser, and the company claims that it can reliably recognize the appearance of every item, including even unpackaged fruit and vegetables, without the need for barcodes.

Have a look at this video to see a Japanese supermarket check-out in action which has Toshiba’s new “Object Recognition Scanner” installed.  It does not yet look super fast to us, and the extinction of barcodes in supermarkets still seems to be a few years away.  But, with time, this could rival cashiers repeatedly waving barcoded packaging in front of an optical reader before the alienating “beep” sound moves them on to the next item.  The bigger question will probably be whether customers will get comfortable with entrusting the scanner to not mistake their tasteless Dutch greenhouse tomatoes for some three times pricier organic heirloom variety.

Well, shopping at market stalls frees us from such worries and, with some luck, we might get to taste a sample after a chat with the person who made or grew our produce.  How refreshing to have a bit more than just a misleading product label and barcode as the only interface to what we eat…


Our Bar Without Barcodes


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Following our posts on wine and champagne as well as as our desperate pleas for barcode-free beer, we’re probably running the risk of coming across as having a drinking problem.  Far from it.  We do however dutifully respect the local French traditions of having an ‘apero’ before and a ‘digestif’ after substantial meals, and we find ourselves having to look further afield for liquor without barcodes.  So, thus far at least, beloved staples like G&T, whisky and the Provencale favourite ‘pastis’ are out.

Luckily, local substitutes e.g. in form of a delicious, oak-aged ‘marc‘ (the French answer to grappa) are at hand directly from regional producers, and sympathetic German relations continue to provide us with high quality spirits from small distilleries who mostly only distribute their wares directly to restaurants.  The Austrian Hochstrasser family e.g. have been making award-winning fruit ‘schnaps‘ (pictured above on the right) for three generations, and we have always enjoyed the excellent fruit brandies made by the jailbirds in a Swabian prison, which has a licence to distil 300 litres of alcohol per year (see bottom left).  As an aperitif, we found a well-chilled ‘ratafia‘ from Burgundy (pictured below right) brought by other well-meaning guests most agreeable.

We even managed to find barcode-free pure alcohol (almost) to make our own fortified concoctions, but limited time has pushed this project into the summer months, when local fruit will hopefully be abundant.  Any suggestions for home-made liquors to fill up our barcode-free bar are most welcome, of course!

A Major Shopping Spree


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With friends staying for a week and three teenagers visiting for a long weekend, small shopping trips like recently described simply do not suffice.  Instead, we have to hit the weekly Saturday food market in a serious way, festooned with shopping baskets.  This means being there early, i.e. well before 8 am, prior to the best producers being sold out.  The queues in front of the most popular stands get too long and tourist groups crowd the narrow streets of this famous market.  We usually split up who goes where and rush out to complete our respective missions before settling in an outdoor cafe with a newspaper, watching people haggling, prodding anything prod-able and debating over the delicious wares.

Barcode-free shopping at markets allows for informative chats with the producers, sampling before buying, and learning about the origins of what we eat.  Compare that to the experience of a metal trolley pushed past anonymous, disengaged and underpaid stackers, piling barcoded boxes of industrially manufactured, edible, food-like substances onto the shelves of an artificially-lit and aired, oversized warehouse called a ‘supermarket’.  Not having done it for a while, we now find it is somehow scary business when we buy the occasional barcoded cleaning item.  We are wondering what our next year’s shopping will look like after this BarcodeZero experience.

P1020180Above is a shot of what we carried home on this particular expedition.  Cheeses, yoghurt and meats (like the rabbit on the photo) come either from the village above (2 km) or from near the local town (4km).  Fruit and vegetables normally come from local producers within a 10 km radius, unless we walk the 50 metres to our little vegetable plot (except the lemons that is, as citrus does poorly here).  The chestnut bread and eggs come from around the Rhone Valley may be 30-40 km away.  The egg cartons will get re-filled next week, and the yoghurt pots will be brought back to the producer who will knock off 50 cents from the next purchase in return.  A shopping spree like this beats Sainsbury, Wal Mart or Carrefour hands down in terms of food miles, packaging and quality as well as the sheer sensorial pleasures of sourcing ones food.  Best of all, no Euro spent on this trip went to any of the Big Food conglomerates and retailers who control how we eat but went to the local, thriving food economy instead.

The Illusion of Choice (IV)


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At the risk of boring you to tears by flogging the ‘illusionary choice’ horse once more and of burying you under a flood of barcoded, landfill-only packaging, events last week just confirmed that the concentration in Big Food is far from over.  In order to compete with the even smaller number of retailers dominating food sales and controlling what consumers are presented with in terms of “choice”, big food manufacturers are outbidding each other for smaller brands to secure their access to supermarket shelves.

According to the FT, another food fight is erupting on Wall Street after Hillshire Brands (“Ball Park” hot dogs, “Jimmy Dean” sausages) is offering to pay US$ 6.6 billion for Pinnacle Foods (“Vlasic” pickles, “Birds Eye” frozen foods).  Not to be outdone, the world’s largest meat packer, JBS from Brazil (via its U.S. subsidiary Pilgrim’s Pride) and the second largest, Tyson Food from Arkansas quickly entered the fray and are offering even more money for the company.  Big food wants to become even bigger to get a fatter cut from the oligopoly of retailers.

Feel free to raise an eyebrow if you’re struggling to think of any synergies deriving from combining the world’s dominating meat and poultry processors with a maker of pickles.  (Erm, compressed abattoir-floor offcuts ‘n’ aspartame pickles, anyone?)  In the last couple of months there have been too many similar deals to list here, where Big Food is just reshuffling and further concentrating their “brand portfolios”, rather like a dwindling number of gin rummy players around a card table.

Why should I care, we hear you ask?  Well, have a look at the chart below and see whether it doesn’t make you ever so slightly uncomfortable.  It highlights the dominance of Big Food by product groups and, further down, their overall presence in the barcoded grocery market.  This level of concentration is (literally!) unhealthy – for us and the environment – and we’d never dream of trusting this handful of companies to fulfil our nutritional needs.  Readers of our “Barcode Alerts” might feel – like us – that reliance on these kind of barcoded, industrially fabricated substances makes them complicit in a massive unregulated and uncontrolled chemical experiment.

Food Conglomerates_Infographic_Final 2

A Minor Shopping Spree


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Amongst all the scribblings about our barcode-free eating and links to scientific and technical documents, we forgot to mention a rather important and basic activity so far: shopping.  So what does a barcode-free shopping basket look like?  Below is a snap of a minor, mid-week spree to the local bio co-operative to cover for anything we could not find or forgot to get at the big Saturday market.

A wooden crate serves as our basket (no trolleys or caddies) and paper bags hold any dry goods.  (France luckily outlawed free plastic bags at supermarkets, so most people routinely bring their own shopping bags.)  No shrink wraps, no styrofoam trays, no plastic containers.  No subliminal stress from recycled air, humming machinery, beeping scanners and underpaid, stressed out cashiers.  The paper bags and crate are recycled and used around the house or to start our wood burner on cold winter mornings.  Since BarcodeZero, hardly any packaging goes into our bin.  We’ll describe in a separate entry how little goes into our rubbish these days and how the compost bin has taken over.


The ginger and cashew nuts went into the making of a not-yet-perfected no-cream ice cream – more on that once the recipe has been further refined.  We haven’t found any barcode-free cream all year, so if anyone knows of any good approaches to dairy-free ice cream, don’t hesitate to send them our way.

Scrumptious Scrumping


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What’s there not to love about cherries?  The flowers are delightful and announce the arrival of spring and, several weeks ago, the blossoming orchards around us transformed the valley we live in spectacular fashion. The ripe fruit is a visual magnet and totally irresistible to the 21st century hunter-gatherer-at-heart.  Every year at this time we get into a cherry frenzy, with German friends coming to visit specifically to help us pick and gorge on Prunus avium.

Being surrounded by farmers producing cherries made us understand why they can be such a pricey fruit.  Simply put, a lot can go wrong during the short growing season and, despite good husbandry, the trees age very quickly and need precise irrigation of their root system.  The trees are prone to wood worm infections and the leaves and fruit to fungus, but the biggest dread of any grower is the fruit fly Rhagoletis cerasi.  All of this leads to heavy use of chemicals (see our Barcode Alert below).  We remember last spring when, just days before picking was scheduled, all surrounding orchards were so devastated during a brief, two-minute hail shower that the demoralised farmers didn’t even bother to try to pick the undamaged fruit.  What was a commercial disaster for our local farmers turned into a cherry bonanza for us.

Similarly, this year, an orchard nearby planted with an early-ripening eating cherry called Burlat had been left un-pruned and un-treated (!!!, see BarcodeAlert below) for various reasons, and our neighbour invited us to help ourselves before they start rotting.  Despite a hectic travelling schedule we dropped everything instantly and got into our oldest rags to get down and dirty picking and de-pitting.  Awash in a sea of dark red juice, jams, alcohol preserves and compotes were frantically made into the wee hours to preserve some of the bounty for later in our barcode-free year.  The long-lasting stains are produced by cherry anthocyanins, red plant pigments studied e.g. for their anti-hypertensive, anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties (for the geeks, this PDF offers a good overview on such matters).



Have a good look at your barcoded plastic container filled with cherries in the supermarket.  Countless pesticides (check out the “Top 50” here) are registered for use on cherry trees, and usage tends to be heavy.  We can vouch from first hand experience that cherry picking is hard manual labour which has its price of course.  The industry’s ‘solution’ is to first spray a plant growth regulator such as ethephon to speed up ripening just before harvest, so the cherries fall off easily by mechanically shaking the trees.  Industry jargon: “reducing fruit removal force”.  For the resulting “reduced fruit flesh firmness” industrial growers luckily have yet another synthetic plant growth regulator in 1-MCP which, as already mentioned in our entry on apples, contains carcinogenic impurities.  If all of this diminishes your appetite for barcoded supermarket cherries from far-away lands, try to find organic cherries which are not mechanically harvested.  Or plant your own cherry tree or two?


Is Fast Food Really Cheaper?


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Amazingly enough, we’re already coming up to half time with our BarcodeZero project in just six short weeks, when we planned to look into an initial cost comparison between our barcode-free food budget versus last year’s.  Our first impression is that we are probably spending more, especially if we include our food miles and travel times which have undeniably increased since we now have to source things from more places than one supersize warehouse (otherwise know as a supermarket).  Having said that, we disagree with the general and often-voiced view that processed fast food is cheaper than healthier non-processed alternatives, and we like this New York Times graphic below – not just because it confirms our viewpoint.


The barcode revolution is often credited with making our food more affordable, and there is no question that in the 40 years since barcoded food, calories have become ever cheaper.  As already pointed out here, Americans currently e.g. spend just 5.7% of their disposable income on food compared to 10.0% in 1974.  Prices for highly processed foods declined, while unprocessed, barcode-free ingredients appear to cost ever more.  The chart below illustrates well how in between 1978 and 2008 the prices for fresh fruit and vegetables increased by around 40% while the price for sodas dropped by a third.  How wrong is that?


But despite all of this, it is in our experience still quite feasible to feed a family on less than what a fast food meal costs, and Mark Bittman‘s arguments here support our observation.  There are only two pre-requisites.  One has to have some basic cooking skills and time.  Both seem to be in short supply.  Plus, so far we only talked about the basic economics, ignoring the health benefits, the emotional satisfaction and the freedom which go hand in hand with preparing one’s own food.  Who better than Michael Pollan to make the case for returning to home cooking … “Ideally with barcode-free items”, we would add.  Cook and safe.

Cooking has the power to transform more than plants and ani-
mals: It transforms us, too, from mere consumers into producers. Not
completely, not all the time, but I have found that even to shift the
ratio between these two identities a few degrees toward the side of
production yields deep and unexpected satisfactions. […] The regular
exercise of these simple skills for producing some of the necessities of
life increases self-reliance and freedom while reducing our dependence on
distant corporations.  Not just our money but our power flows toward them
whenever we cannot supply any of our everyday needs and desires ourselves.
And it begins to flow back toward us, and our community, as soon as we
decide to take some responsibility for feeding ourselves. This has
been an early lesson of the rising movement to rebuild local food
economies, a movement that ultimately depends for its success on our
willingness to put more thought and effort into feeding ourselves.
Not every day, not every meal—but more often than we do, when-
ever we can.
Cooking, I found, gives us the opportunity, so rare in modern life,
to work directly in our own support, and in the support of the people
we feed. If this is not “making a living,” I don’t know what is. In the
calculus of economics, doing so may not always be the most efficient
use of an amateur cook’s time, but in the calculus of human emotion,
it is beautiful even so. For is there any practice less selfish, any labor
less alienated, any time less wasted, than preparing something deli-
cious and nourishing for people you love?

(Taken from Pollan’s latest excellent book “Cooked“.  You can read the Introduction, from which the quote above is cited, in its entirety here.)

Chocolate. Finally! Chocolate.


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Readers who have checked out our Help Us page might have seen our desperate pleas for help to find barcode-free chocolate.  We wouldn’t call going without a true hardship, but chocolate is a popular indulgence in this house, not only because of the countless health benefits of its flavonoids.  Well, we finally came across our object of desire in a health food shop.
It is made into 1 kg blocks from cocoa beans sourced from this Peruvian cooperative by a French company dedicated to the development of Latin American communities through “fair trade”.  The dark chocolate in particular is outstanding, and you can order this organic and lecithin-free treat directly online.  Like with our last entry on wine, the barcode-free economics work in our favour once more: at Euro 14.80 and Euro 18.80 per kg, the two varieties compare favourably to premium brands found in supermarkets, and we would rank the quality above most of them.

To celebrate this discovery, a yummy chocolate cake (without gluten) was produced, and it disappeared within 48 hours.  In case you are interested, the recipe is added below before our “Barcode Alert” which focusses on how big food tries to substitute pricey cocoa butter…

1.  CAKE
130g chestnut/almond/rice flour
200g finely ground hazelnuts
3 eggs separated
2 tspn gluten-free baking powder
natural vanilla extract or vanilla sugar to taste
200g unrefined golden castor sugar
100ml milk or almond milk
150g butter or coconut butter, melted and lukewarm
Oven: 180C/350F
Pan: 23cm/9″
100g butter
125g melted 70% cocoa dark chocolate
60g icing sugar
Beat egg yolks, sugar and vanilla till double the volume. Add the hazelnuts, sifted flour and raising agent and fold in gently alternating with melted butter and milk until achieving a soft, dropping consistency. Fold in the firmly beaten egg whites, pour into tin and cook in oven for 50min. Cool the cake in the tin at first and then on a plate always covered with a clean tea towel to retain moisture.
Beat the remaining butter till soft, stir in icing sugar, then lukewarm melted chocolate gradually, adding a tiny bit more icing sugar if the mixture looks a little liquid. Spread around cake with a palette knife and you are ready to go. Enjoy one of our family favourites!



Whenever we see cocoa pods offered anywhere, our jaws drop at the price of them.  No wonder that the food industry continues to explore every avenue to find cheaper substitutes in addition to the already widely used extenders derived from fractionated palm and shea oils.  Through processing these oils, the factories obtain a cheap butter-like fat with a higher melting point.  Not content, food science pushes on relentlessly, and recently published industry research investigates mango seed fat, the waste products of Indian kokum kernels and crystallised sunflower stearins.  But our absolute favourite is the Optimization of enzymatic synthesis of cocoa butter analog from camel hump fat in supercritical carbon dioxide by response surface method.  Yes, you read that correctly: highly processed camel hump fat as cocoa substitute.  But hey, if it only is cheap enough, it’ll end up in barcoded wrapper on a supermarket shelf near you.
Most industrial chocolate is made with soy-derived lecithin (or E322), an emulsifier which is firmly in the Top Ten of food additives, as it prevents water and fats in food from separating and extends the all-important shelf life.  While lecithin as such (e.g. found in egg yolks) has multiple health benefits in e.g. lipid and brain metabolism and is sold as a nutritional supplement, cheap soy lecithin is a by-product of extensive processing of (mostly GMO) soy beans and often extracted using hexane as a solvent.  Organic chocolate should be made from non-transgenic soy.



Barcode-free Wine for Less


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While we struggle to source barcode-free champagne (see here) and beer (see here), getting hold of wine is easy for us.  And it is a pleasurable activity too!  Being surrounded by vineyards, we are spoilt for choice in the wine department.  Some small farmers press their own grapes and all that can be seen on the bottle is a scribbled “2012” with a marker pen.


But some of the local, grenache-heavy reds are a bit harsh, and we prefer to travel 40 km to the south of the Rhone valley of Gigondas and Chateauneuf-du-Pape fame.  Nearby are smaller, less-known and therefore cheaper “appellations” of comparable quality, and we regularly go to the wine co-operative of Vacqueras to fill several of our 5-litre containers in a set-up which resembles a bit a small petrol station with a cheerful service.

Then, back home, we fill the delicious wine into saved old bottles and, with the help of our neighbour’s corking device, seal them until consumption with a barcode-free meal.  This is one of the instances where defying barcodes actually saves us money: the litre from the co-operative’s tap costs us 6.90 Euros, while a 0.75 litre bottle with a barcode of exactly the same wine retails for Euro 11.90.  A saving of over 50% by dis-intermediating big retailers and by-passing wasteful packaging is not to be sniffed at.  If only the numbers would always work out that well in our favour…



If you ever wondered how supermarkets can offer bottles of wine from half around the world for a few bucks or pounds, we encourage you to read this eye-opening calculation made by an independent wine merchant in the UK.  Most of your money goes to the retailer and the government, and only pennies are left for the wine grower.  But the supermarkets make even higher margins on “premium” wines, and one of the ways their psychologists came up with to have you reach for the pricier bottle has been studied here: classical music.



The Illusion of Choice (III)


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While this story of barcoded marketing mania is almost tragically funny on several levels, it also highlights that food manufacturers will stop at nothing (in this case literally!) to increase profits, and that food consumers appear to be a very credulous bunch.  It also perfectly illustrates the illusion of choice in processed foods we wrote about here and here.  So the next time you marvel at the 40,000 or so barcoded packages in your local superstore, consider that some of them might be truly false choices…


In order to lift sales of their “Shreddies” breakfast cereal, Kraft Foods contracted the marketing agency Ogilvy & Mather in 2007 to “reintroduce” the by then 67-year old product.  They suggested to turn the picture of the square cereal on the box by 45 degrees and renaming the identical, highly-processed wheat wafer “Diamond Shreddies”.  And how did consumers react to this gimmick?  They rewarded Kraft Foods for their cheap marketing stunt by buying 18% more of the “All new and improved Diamond Shreddies” in the months following their launch.  To believe it, watch in this video, how members of focus groups testify that the “new” shreddies taste superior to the “old” ones.


But wait, it gets even better.  To give us food purchasers an even bigger “choice”, Kraft brings us the “Diamond Shreddies Combo Pack” with 66% diamonds and 33% squares, allegedly after consumers complained that their packages only contained half of the “new” squares.  This is how moronic marketing gives us the choice between the same processed product in three different barcoded boxes.  And if this farce does not make you angry enough, have a look at this compilation of advertising clips aimed as pushing sugar- and additive-laden cereals and other junk food to children.

No champagne in France?!?


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We don’t want to be alarmist, but there is NO CHAMPAGNE in France!  No barcode-free champagne, at any rate, which amounts to the same thing for us.  Whoever has lived in France for any length of time can confirm that champagne commands a special place in French culture, psyche and society.  We had worked hard to avoid getting caught up in all that, but we’re sorry to say that we have eventually fallen prey to champagne mania – we are more than partial to a good drop of Brut.  We know several people who never touch alcohol but somehow very happily make an exception for champagne, plus everyone is staunchly convinced of its multiple magic health benefits.  For some many most occasions only the real stuff will do, and cheaper variants like e.g. “Cremant” can be interpreted as a serious affront.  Knowing all this, the pressure to find a champagne with no barcode has been on ever since we emptied the last bottle a few minutes before midnight on New Year’s Eve, the official start of BarcodeZero.

The best we have found are local “Blanc de Blanc” sparkling wines which, although quaffable, failed to excite us.  So when our good friend Jacques announced his arrival with a bottle from a small family producer in the Champagne region, allegedly without barcode (see photo below), our spirits rocketed.  They rose even more after trying it, since it is a truly fine drop.  But, alas, our bubbles were brutally burst after we saw a rather faint, dark golden QR-code on the black metal sleeve around the cork.  It appears to be there purely for innocent general marketing purposes, but sadly a QR-code is a type of barcode and so, with a heavy heart, the Barcode Vigilantes that we are had to decide to continue our desperate quest…

Meet Your Meat


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We wrote here how we took a closer look at the barcode-free meat we are consuming, and the photo of the calf sacrificed in January still graces our fridge door.  This time, we went a step further and accompanied a year-old sheep on its way to the slaughterhouse.  Since our order for a lamb (to be shared with another family) directly triggered the death of a living creature, we thought we might as well share its last trip to its fate we caused.  After all, coming to terms with the consequences and responsibilities of being a carnivore also means to acknowledge and to accept the ugly realities.  We prefer to know the animal we eat and the farmer who looked after it, rather than buying some barcoded, neatly shrink-wrapped industrial meat portion from a refrigerated supermarket rack.  From all we can tell, the family looks very well after a small family flock of sheep they hand-rear and keep on a local pasture.  They regret it every time one of their animals goes to the slaughter house, but somehow the bills need to be paid.

The bureaucracy involved is tremendous.  Impossibly strict EU regulations require record keeping on every animal which needs to be archived for 5 years after its demise.  The paperwork at the slaughterhouse even includes the vehicle registration plate and driver’s name and address.  A special carnet for transporting an animal on the roads has to be presented.  The costs for getting the sheep slaughtered and the paperwork signed off in the regional capital are considerable and, as consumers, we normally never realise the bureaucratic burden on farmers on top of all the hard daily graft they do to fill our plates.  While big industrial meat producers regularly escape monitoring of their horrific practices (and in the U.S. even had gagging laws passed recently which make reporting from factory farms illegal), small and local producers appear to be disproportionately controlled during every step of the way.


No plastic to recycle here, the cuts are plopped into a wooden crate with greaseproof paper.

Once at the slaughterhouse, men in green overalls and white boots take the animal off the van instantly and there is no bleating or time to think.  The building itself is unremarkable, a modern industrial hangar in a small semi-industrial estate on the outskirts of town.  But when consumers treat the death of the animals that feed them as unremarkable, this somehow seems fitting.



The U.K. government made headlines last year for working on behalf of the meat industry to allow supermarkets to sell minced meat which containing more than 50% collagen, connective tissue, fat and other fillers.  Minced beef is routinely adulterated with turkey meat (if you’re lucky) or other unidentifiable animal species.  The only way to know what meat you eat is to strike up a relationship with a good butcher who takes a keen interest in where his produce is coming from.  A good butcher shows you the piece(s) of meat before he grinds it in a machine before your very eyes.  Only if we properly care where our meat comes from, will livestock be properly cared for.

The Illusion of Choice (II)


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The great variety of barcoded packages on shelves gives the illusion of choice, when in fact, as highlighted here, a few dominant players in manufacturing and retailing control most of our food supply.  What we haven’t touched upon thus far is how Big Food wants us to rely on an increasingly small number of crops, which is easier for them to control.  While supermarkets on average now carry in excess of 38,000 barcoded articles along their aisles, we tend to forget that the vast majority of them merely contain re-arrangements of different constituents of highly processed wheat, corn and soy.

Like shopping in a well-lit warehouse

Choosing between re-compositions of processed wheat, corn and soy components.

This recent research paper is the first to quantify the narrowing diversity in crop species as a result of diets around the globe becoming more alike.  When pizzas and burgers are eaten in every corner of the world, the calories and the protein part in this new “standard global diet” based on corn/soy/wheat increases, together with waistlines.  At the same time, micronutrient content and resilience of the world food system against crop diseases or droughts declines, thus endangering global food security.  The vulnerability of dominating crops was highlighted in a recent study on wheat fusarium ear blight, a fungal disease of this global staple which is expected to increase over coming decades.  The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) believes that “the diversity of cultivated crops declined by 75 % during the 20th century and a third of today’s diversity could disappear by 2050”.


In a world, where e.g. four companies control 88% of the banana market (Chiquita-Fyffes, Dole, Del Monte, Noboa) and just three companies between 60-80% of soy crushing facilities (Cargill, ADM, Bunge), it is pretty obvious who is profiting from the reduced crop diversity.  Hint: it’s not the farmers and it’s not the consumers…

Meet Your Milk


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After ‘Meeting our Meat’ here, we had to wait three months until meeting our first barcode-free milk of the year.  Goats cease lactation during the winter months, and with no cows anywhere near us, we had to bide our time.  But finally, we could walk up the hill to a neighbour’s farm, witness the milking and purchase the fresh, warm, raw milk, as well as some cheese.  The first three bums ladies from the left in the photo below are Io, Gélinotte, Fest-Noz, and they generously donated their milk to our barcode-free cause.


The very first squirts from milking these beauties went to the patiently waiting cats, official tasters at the goat farm.  We queued behind them with our own litre bottles, happy to know once more exactly where our produce comes from, exchange ideas with the producer, see their hard work and respectful, intimate relationship with their healthy, glossy animals.  To celebrate the occasion, a vast gluten-free leek, bacon and goat’s cheese quiche, all barcode-free of course, was baked.

In most countries it is possible to obtain raw, barcode-free milk, although in many parts of North America creative labelling is required.  If you ask around local farms and farm shops or go to e.g. this umbrella organisation website, you may find a producer near you.  The ‘Real Milk’ movement encourages re-establishing direct links with local milk farmers, finding out about their lives and market pressures and respecting the work that puts milk on our tables.  We are happy to pay our goat farmer, Marianne, a very fair price (Euro 1.50 per litre, in this case) rather than support a misguided system that forces many farmers to pour milk away as happens far too often.  She says that milk now is plentiful while kid goats are suckling, and she’s happy to sell some to us.  Later in the year, however, every bit will be used to make cheese, which gets her a far better price per litre.  We’ll enjoy her milk while we can…


If you are interested in the health benefits and possible dangers of consuming raw milk, have a look here for what we consider a rational discussion in an otherwise heated debate.  Under any circumstance, ultra-high-temperature (UHT) milk should be avoided, in our opinion.  With all potential health benefits processed out of milk, the dairy industry often adds flavourings to UHT milk in order to mask the burnt taste, a.k.a. “high cooked flavour” in industry parlance.  Putting UHT milk (or soy milk for that matter) into a refrigerated display is simply a ruse to make consumers think it is fresh – both are as dead as a dodo and happily last for months under any condition.  A sensible shopping guide to milk can be found here.

Barcode Vigilantes, Beware!


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After returning from our travels, we gladly hit the local market today to stock up on barcode-free food, when we came across a tricky dilemma we had noticed before. A market vendor displayed a great variety of olives in different shapes and colours and marinated in all sorts of spice mixes.  Beautifully presented in earthenware bowls, it first looked inviting enough for some barcode-free browsing…

P1010128…until our glance dropped below the tablecloth, where big plastic barcoded tubs are hidden from view.  So innocent barcode-avoiders like us have to be constantly on the watch to not fall for seemingly unprocessed, local fare, which actually comes from resellers who simply display packaged products on their market stalls.  We are certainly not suggesting all olives are suspect foods, but as barcode vigilantes, we are necessarily curtailed in our purchases this year!



Some claim that no food is as prone to scams as olive oil.  But your barcoded jar of black olives might also contain something most shoppers are unaware of.  Green olives turn black, of sorts, and soften when fully ripe.  Machine-pitting soft olives is difficult, so in order to create a pittable homogenous night-black olive, many manufacturers give nature a helping hand.  The industry calls it “curing”, but most pitted black olives sold in supermarkets are in fact dyed green olives treated with caustic soda and ferrous gluconate (a.k.a. as iron(II) gluconate or E579).  Does the label on the jar/tin indicate that these are NOT black olives ripened on a tree but dyed green olives?  Of course not.  Once you have tasted the former, the bitter and simultaneously flavourless stuff from the jar should be enough of a give-away.

Premium Frankenfudge, Anyone?


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As nutritionists, we confess to be compulsive label readers.  Even now, when we are avoiding packaged and barcoded food, we can’t help picking up items and studying the ingredients lists wherever we go.  We recently highlighted a bread(-like substance) here with over 20 ingredients, but were even more stunned by our hosts in the U.S. who dug out an ice cream from their freezer with no less than 45 ingredients.  This is after eliminating all double counting (e.g. cottonseed and soybean oils appear in various components of this concoction) and after counting “natural flavours” and “artificial flavours” as just one ingredient each (see Barcode Alert below).

We’ll leave a discussion of the over 10,000 chemicals allowed in food and the lack of regulation for a future post.  Also the discussion of why any kind of vegetable oil, soybean, cottonseed or other, should be in what is nominally a dairy product.  In the meantime, we encourage readers to email us legible labels of barcoded food items with more than 45 different ingredients to  The top three qualifying entries (using the counting method above) will be published here and have an open invitation to an al fresco, locally sourced, barcode-free, real food meal with us, should they make it to our part of the world.


“Artificial flavours” could theoretically mean the addition of just one substance, but in reality these are cocktails of undisclosed chemicals.  E.g. this website claims that one “artificial strawberry flavour” alone consisted of 49 different chemical sub-ingredients.  The reasons for using flavourings rather than the real thing are very clearly stated on one (random) flavouring manufacturer’s website: reduce costs, mask unwanted flavours, enhance ‘mouth-feel’ to simulate the original real ingredient, in this case butter.  A recent study links butter flavourings (also present in the “ice cream” pictured above and in most popcorns) to beta-amyloid plaques, found in Alzheimer’s disease.

Not for Human Consumption


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Even in the U.S. – birthplace of barcodes – unprocessed, unadulterated and barcode-free food can be found, like in this lovely and busy organic farm and market in downtown Fort Lauderdale.  We particularly enjoyed some of their raw milk products, but were struck by the labelling.  Check it out below by clicking on the photos to enlarge.

In order to circumnavigate perverted food laws concerning unpasteurised milk, producers in Florida have to resort to this type of tactics in order to legally sell their produce and to satisfy growing customer pet demand.  In Canada, raw milk is labelled as body lotion and unpasteurised cheese cultures as body cream.

So the few locally and sustainably produced, unprocessed, unadulterated, organic and barcode-free real food products available in North America have to find legal loopholes and to hide underground as pet food or cosmetics.  Let’s hope Europe is not heading in the same direction.

The Sugar-coating of HFCS


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During our recent stroll through a Walmart store, the spiritual home of barcodes, we couldn’t help noticing that high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) appears to have got such bad rap in the U.S. now, that food processors have started to prominently advertise its absence on their products.  Back to good old fashioned (and more expensive) sugar, it seems.  But “no-HFCS” doesn’t stop the maker of the “Nature’s Own” loaf below on the right from using well over 20 ingredients (including sugar, of course) and additives in their bread-like substance.

The stakes in the HFCS debate for the food industry are high.  It is contained in the majority of barcoded food products because of many processing benefits: HFCS is heat stable, withstands wide ranges of acidity, allows better control of crystallisation and browning in baking, blends easily with other additives, lowers the freezing point for pourable frozen drinks, ferments better in breads and has better antimicrobial properties.  Not to mention a critical issue: thanks to government subsidies for corn it is much cheaper than tariff-protected sugar.  So it is not surprising that its use has risen over 1000% in the 20 years between 1970 and 1990, and that the Corn Refiners Association spent big bucks on their “Sweet Surprise” marketing campaign (see sample clip here).

Sugar_GlucoseFructoseSucroseHFCS is the result of high-intensity processing of mostly transgenic corn.  If you are wondering how it is made and are sufficiently adventurous, we found suggestions for a home-made recipe here.  But, away from the manufacturing, how much worse is HFCS really than ordinary table sugar (sucrose)?!?  Sucrose is a disaccharide consisting of one glucose molecule linked by an esther bond to one fructose molecule.  HFCS has a very similar ratio of fructose (55%) and glucose (45%), but in the form of unconnected, individual monosaccharides.  How significant this subtle difference in molecular structure is for our metabolism is subject of a long-standing and heated scientific debate and, given the heightened rhetoric on both sides, a conclusion is nowhere in sight.

While we await the outcome with great interest, our advice is pretty simple: fructose is a very bad actor in our bodies, and overconsumption is probably the leading cause for obesity, diabetes and many other chronic diseases in the developed and developing nations.  (If you have 90 minutes to spare, we highly recommend this lecture on fructose metabolism.)  In the end, whether fructose comes from sugar or HFCS or honey or fruit juices does not matter.  It is bad, and we eat too much of it.


When inspecting barcoded food packagings for sugars and high fructose corn syrup, be aware that food processors now try to avoid the name on labels, e.g. “glucose-fructose”.  Premium “health” product manufacturers often add agave syrup, the result of extreme processing with even more fructose then HFCS.  The Corn Refiners Association also is advocating a name change from HFCS to “corn sugar“.

Salt of the Earth


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It is sometimes claimed that the roots of the words salary (salarium) and soldier (sal dare) are linked to a Roman practice of paying troops in salt.  True or not, salt always had a high value attached throughout human history as an essential electrolyte, source of vital minerals, method of food preservation and means for barter, just to name a few.  In ancient times humans, like animals, used to travel hundreds of kilometres to obtain salt from the seaside or known inland mineral deposits.

Some barcode-free, unprocessed salt options we found for our cupboard

Some barcode-free, unprocessed salt options we found for our cupboard

A basic ingredient like salt can easily lead to some head-scratching when avoiding barcodes.  Luckily, we have some artisanal products from the nearby salt-pans in the Camargue marshes to fall back on, but their prices in the local markets are eye-watering and make their use in cooking prohibitive (the little bag lying in the foreground set us back €5.60).  While we are somewhat sceptical of the various and often unsubstantiated health claims (e.g.) of Himalayan rock salt, we are glad we stocked up on some barcode-free bags in time.  The absence of preservatives, anti-caking agents and other additives as well as the presence of trace elements may be beneficial in the margin.  We have also collected our own sea salt (see jar on left) from pans along the Mediterranean coast anywhere from the Camargue through to Perpignan, a favourite spot being on the windswept coast near Narbonne.


As nutritionists we can sympathise with anyone who is frustrated with our science that still struggles to clearly formulate how much of which salt is good or bad for us.  We don’t want to get into this heated debate here, but suffice to say that we feel that salt is probably less of a problem than it is often made out to be and, for evolutionary reasons, the answers might be different according to genes and ancestry.  However, it may well be that the 50+ different sodium-based additives in processed food are an under-appreciated cause for concern.  As this recent research paper states, “sodium additives almost completely account for the excessive consumption of sodium throughout the world”.  Much better to stay away from them.  Who are they?  Glad you asked:

In the Taj Mahal of Barcodes


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During our current travels, we had the occasion for a pilgrimage to the spiritual roots of the barcode revolution.  Our shrine:  Walmart store #1349.  The packaged food section was a surprisingly small part of the floorplan, and we were told by friendly staff that we should visit Supercenters to find fresh food produce.  Well, we will marvel at the full range of edible, food-like substances at world’s largest grocery store another time.

Inside the Tah Mahal of barodes - Walmart shop #1349

Inside the Tah Mahal of barodes – Walmart shop #1349

No other retailer views itself as much as a technology company like IT-driven Walmart, and its eager embrace of the emerging barcode sytems 40 years ago hastened the rapid and global success of both barcodes and Walmart.  According to Edna Bonacich, sociology professor at the University of California, “The shift in Walmart’s power was when it started to really develop its control over information technology”.  And it is Walmart with its largest commercial satellite system in the world, constantly analysing all supply chains for its over 10,000 outlets worldwide in real-time, that keeps pushing the envelope of barcode technology.  (Walmart owns ASDA in the UK.)

There are at least two barcode innovations on Walmart’s mind right now.  First, it is already rolling out its Scan & Go program which outsources the checkout process as well as the checkout equipment to its customers (watch here how it works).  Industry insiders however remain sceptic how well Walmart’s “BYOD” (bring your own device) experiment will pan out, given that consumer smartphones are not equipped to comply with the ANSI/ISO specifications of supermarket barcode scanners, possibly leading to scanning problems.

Secondly, Walmart is at the forefront of implementing RFID tags (radio-frequency identification).  After announcing in 2003 that it had mandated its top 100 suppliers to ship their goods on RFID-tagged pallets or crates, it started to attach these to individual clothing items in 2010.  While RFID can improve warehouse logistics over traditional barcodes, some observers have suggested (see Patel R, pg. 228) that the real motivation for Walmart may be reducing employee theft and gaining additional information about consumer behaviour.  But do not worry: in case you are concerned about your privacy and want to protect your RFID-tagged passport and credit cards while walking past Walmart’s in-store RFID readers, the company sells you various RFID-proof wallets

The Right Fat for the Job


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A culinary tradition in our household which ties in well with our barcode-free year is the roasting of an organic free-range goose or duck, which probably happens around once a month.  It is a delicious treat, we get three or more meals out of a bird (not counting even more for the happy cats), it provides bones for proper stocks and we pour off and refrigerate the fat for cooking and frying.

We already highlighted the many questionable industrial processes involved in making so-called “vegetable oils” here, but few consumers appreciate just how toxic unsaturated oils become when brought to high enough temperature for bluish vapors to form (smoke point) .  The scientific literature has identified many health problems associated with heat degraded oils (see e.g. this reference list), especially if they are repeatedly heated and re-used as happens in the making of many processed, barcoded food items.  Frying with the more heat-stable saturated fats is far healthier and we feel that roast potatoes made in goose fat simply taste much better.  A plant-derived saturated fat for healthy frying is coconut oil which we regularly used (back in our happy barcoded days) in Asian cooking.

Mustard Mania


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As far as making your own barcode-free condiments goes, mustard is the low hanging fruit seed.  Our first batch took a whole 10 minutes to make (excluding 2 hours of soaking the seeds) and less than two weeks to consume.  There are countless recipes on the internet, of course, and we felt inspired by these suggestions.  But mustard is much older than the author suggests: with traces found in 6,000 year old pottery, it is probably the oldest spice of European pre-historic cooking.  The allyl isothiocyanate contained in the seeds is an effective wide-spectrum antimicrobial, thus confirming once again that ancient cooks often knew exactly what they were doing.

The colour of the seeds (beige = mild, black = firy) and the temperature throughout the mustard-making process (cold = strong, hot = mild) determine the zing of the final product.  We found that even with lightly coloured seeds a very strong concoction can be produced, as long as all ingredients, tools and the end product are refrigerated.  We lightly crushed 2/3 of the seeds and pulverised the remaining 1/3 in the coffee grinder, and this mix will form the basis for future experimentations.  The yellowish tint comes from the turmeric we added, and not from the mustard itself.  Our guests and us found the first home brew far superior to the barcoded competition, so we doubt we’ll ever go back to industrial varieties once our barcode-free year is over.

The mustard’s antrimicrobial properties automatically give it a long shelf, but a little poke around our local supermarket showed that for some reason industrial manufacturers still feel they need over ten ingredients, when five are plenty.  To appeal to general taste, most barcoded mustards are attenuated by heat, thus removing the health properties of the seeds.

The industrial competition - smooth, bland and oily

The industrial competition – smooth, sweet, oily and bland

The Illusion of Choice (I)


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As readers may have probably gathered by now, we are not great fans of supermarkets.  The perceived “freedom of choice” is a carefully managed illusion in which every detail (shop layout, shelf arrangements, displays and so called ‘atmospherics’ like lighting, colouring, smells, music) is carefully designed to direct shoppers to certain aisles (e.g.), to cruise as long as possible and to spend more than they intended.  And it works: 55% of grocery purchases are unplanned impulse purchases.

Furthermore, supermarkets use barcode data from loyalty cards to target shoppers with customised newsletters and magazines specifically tailored to his/her past habits (see Patel R, pg. 225).  So what the consumer thinks s/he wants to choose is in fact what the supermarket has decided s/he should buy.

IllusionOfChoiceAnd then there are the edible, food-like substances on offer in supermarket shelves.  While a dazzling display of different barcoded packages suggests a wide choice, most of the brands are controlled by a dozen of dominating food manufacturers.  The choice: Pepsi or Coke?  Despite certain inaccuracies, the graphic above still illustrates this point well.  And this very recent analysis of how food monoliths influence consumer choice is highly recommended in this regard.

But at least we can decide which supermarket we go to.  Or not?  Well, few U.S. shoppers will be aware that the retail outlets with the following names are all owned, run and controlled by The Kroger Co.:  Kroger, Ralphs, Food 4 Less, FoodsCo, Jay C, Ownen’s, Pay Less Super Markets, Scott’s, Ruler Foods, City Market, King Soopers, Fry’s Food & Drug, Smith’s, Fred Meyer, QFC, Dillon’s Food Stores, Baker’s.  What a “choice”!

Butter, Delicious Butter


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We are very keen on butter, but butter with no barcodes is a tricky item to come by during the winter months in our goat and sheep-rearing part of the world.  Luckily, we did find some “beurre d’Échiré” at the market cheesemonger, who cuts it from an enormous wheel.  At Euro 17,90 per kilo ($23.40), we gingerly ask for a fine slice to have as a treat on the weekends.  The rest of the week, we drown our sorrows in olive oil and cook with duck fat.

Posh, pale winter butter, lacking the typical rich yellow from spring pasture cream

Posh, pale winter butter, lacking the typical rich yellow from spring pasture cream

A lot of people are still wary of butter and, given the relentless margerine-marketing and ill-guided demonisation of saturated fats for over five decades, this is not surprising.  But the butter tides are finally churning, and the harmful effects of vegetable oils omnipresent in barcoded food (more on this in a future post) is now more widely acknowledged by conventional medicine.  Readers believing that margarine is a natural product should watch how it is made, and then consider how the misnamed “vegetable oils” (in fact they come from beans, grains or seeds) have been industrially processed in the first place, following the diagram below.  Trans-fats anyone?

Extracted from an excellent article on canola oil at

Extracted from an excellent article on canola oil by the Weston A. Price Foundation

Call us old-fashioned, but we prefer an age-old product that comes with a quite simpler flow chart: take milk cream and churn.  Shortly we’ll beat our own butter – once we can source our barcode-free spring cream!

Being routinely stored for up to a year, the main issue with barcoded butter may be its age.  Over the months sitting in cold storage, butter loses important aroma components, develops lipid peroxidation and may build up hazardous levels of  styrene from wrapping materials (source).  A point we made previously with inferior meat coming from grain-fed cattle also applies here: the cow’s diet determines the fat composition of butter in a linear relationship.  So look for butter from grass-fed animals (ideally organic) as your best barcoded choice.  This recent article may be useful in this regard.

Coffee Crisis Averted


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Now coffee is a big topic for us, and it had us seriously worried when contemplating our BarcodeZero project last year.  Not only do we thoroughly enjoy a fresh brew with our breakfast (we reside firmly in the “French press” camp), but we’re also aware of the multiple, possibly life-extending health benefits of (limited) caffeine consumption.  So it was to our great relief that we found this coffee roaster and wholesaler in the centre of Nice, where big sacks of coffee beans – seemingly directly from the plantations – are displayed.  From affordable “house blends” to exorbitantly priced, single-estate Jamaican “beach coffee”, everything is weighed into barcode-free bags.  We now have four different varieties on the go and are still figuring out our favourite beans.  Thank god we hung on to that old coffee grinder!

Barcoded or not, there are numerous health benefits (see two recent medical reviews here and here) of caffeine, a bitter alkaloid that acts as a natural insecticide for 60+ different plants.  Robusta beans contain more caffeine and are hence a lot more pest resistance than arabica beans (botanical comparison).  And here is the research that we found to scientifically justify our preferred method: brews made in what the French call a “cafetière à piston” contains more benefitial diterpenes (e.g. cafestol, kahweol) and caffeine than percolated coffee.  Give it a try…

All non-organic coffees – with or wothout barcode – may contain pesticide residues, some of which are heat-stable and persist after roasting.  Two varieties almost exclusively available in barcoded packages, however, are problematic:  1) Decaffeinated coffees are most commonly treated with solvents containing methylene chloride (also found in paint stripper) or ethyl acetate (also used in nail polish removers).  Producers claim that these will be completely removed by washing, but that does not explain why more toxic solvents like benzene and chloroform had to be banned.  Labels rarely disclose the chosen method, so choose organic decafs which have to use the Swiss Water Method, a seemingly less toxic process.  2) Also problematic and  deceptive may be instant coffee, which loses much of the aroma during the freeze-drying of brewed beans.  Inexplicably, producers are allowed to add volatile oils and other substances to reproduce the characteristic smell when opening the dealed package (see Lawrence F, pg 175).

Edible, Food-like Substances


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One of our food heroes, Michael Pollan, has coined the phrase “edible, food-like substances” to describe processed supermarket food and ready meals, all of which – yup! – carry a barcode.  When we came across this brief video of him talking about what constitutes food, ending with a plea for home cooking, we decided to post it here (click link below).  By the way, the introduction to his excellent recent book “Cooked” is available here and well worth reading.

For us, avoiding barcodes implies a vote against having corporations cooking for us (and for their own profits, of course) and to divert our money and energy away from them towards the local food production we might still comprehend in and around the community we live in.  BarcodeZero is therefore not only about improving our nutrition and about regaining control over what enters our bodies, it is also a minor political statement and act.

The Perfect Protein?


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Here we pay Euro 1,45 (US$ 1.06) for six gorgeous eggs to Marianne, the poultry farmer who has been selling organic, free-range eggs and chicken, guinea fowl and rabbits at the market for the last 30 years from her small-holding in the Drome region.  Her farm eggs are wonderful and even cheaper than the barcoded organic varieties sold in supermarkets.  Eggs are a big part of our diet, so we’re glad to have an affordable, high-quality supply without barcodes.



Finally, as the whole “cholesterol-is-bad-for-heart-disease” health scam unravels and the risks of low cholesterol for dying early become clearer, the good old chicken egg is at long last being rehabilitated.  And, contrary to conventional opinion, a very recent research article from last month confirms again that a daily egg does not even raise serum cholesterol.  As eggs provide an almost perfect mix of essential amino acids and other nutrients, we’ll be back queueing at Marianne’s market stall next week.

Face-to-face with Your Meat


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This post is not for the faint-hearted.  In the supermarket era, when urban children are unable to identify common vegetables, their parents are just as unlikely to identify where a piece of shrink-wrapped, barcoded meat is from and might not have seen a live farm animal in recent months.  In order to avoid barcodes, we have gone for the opposite extreme.  We tried to find out exactly which calf’s life was sacrificed for our sustainance and wellbeing, albeit only via a photo we asked the cattle rearer to bring, as we did not go all the way to the farm in the Auvergne to witness the slaughter.

 ‘Our’ young Aubrac, photographed by Cecile Pedroza. A nagging questions remains: does that yellow tag in its right ear have a barcode?!?

‘Our’ young Aubrac, photographed by Cecile Pedroza. A nagging questions remains: does that yellow tag in its right ear have a barcode?!?

The photo now graces our fridge door, so that we are not forgetful of the sacrifice and that we pay it due respect whenever we eat a slice of meat or a stew that came from it.  (By the way, this was the first moment we regretted not to have gotten a bigger freezer … and we’re only three weeks into the project.)

We feel satisfied ‘our’ calf knew the outdoors, ate its natural diet of grass and lived the best life possible within the framework of rearing ‘organic’ domestic cattle.  This should also mean its meat is of higher nutritional value, especially a superior ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats when compared to industrial, grain-fed specimens.  The Aubrac is a cross of older hardy cattle that may even be traced back to the original European wild cattle, the auroch, finally made extinct in 1627, in a Polish forest.  It is reared predominantly for meat and forms the livelihood of this beef-farming family.

Apples & Squash


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Fruit is relatively easy for us to obtain here at local markets.  But we are exploring alternatives and really getting in touch with regional producers directly.  We heard of a local farmer, M. Augier, a few years ago who sells his crop of organic apples and squash from a purpose-built cold room and storage facility on his farm.  You can buy by the kilo, but most people go straight for whole crates, as his popular produce sells out quickly each autumn.  One needs to find somewhere cool to store them, which would not be so easy in urban spaces.  (In our case, an old caravan parked in the garden serves as our winter cold storage.)   These apples (Malus domestica Borkh florina) are perfect keepers and are still crunchy until the end of March.  M. Augier had less squash this year because the wild boar came down from the mountains just a few weeks ago and raided his fields just before harvest!

Barcoded apples from supermarkets are often up to a year old.  As per the USDA, “apples not intended for fresh market are stored at low temperatures, with low levels of oxygen and high levels of carbon dioxide.  While this slows the apples’ natural production of ethylene and its effects, fungicides must often be applied to prevent fungal rots from taking hold.”  The application of a pesticide (1-methylcyclopropene) reduces the need for fungicides, but it is known to contain carcinogenic impurities.  Depending on apple variety and storage conditions, nutrient loss is documented to accelerate after three months (see e.g. here and here).

Spicy Bill for Spices


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Shriek: the vocabulary of any cook, spices with barcodes are evacuated

Shriek: the vocabulary of any cook, spices with barcodes, are unceremoniously evacuated as part of our Big Clearout

Spices are expensive and precious.  Once wars were fought over them, trade routes charted and countries invaded.  They are an essential part of any cook’s vocabulary, yet with today’s availability we take them for granted.  And more often than not, they are well past their barcoded prime before we chuck them out.  In Northern Europe we just check to see if there is nothing growing or living inside the jar as the sell-by-date has long since been erased by oily fingers…

Missing items, like mustard seed to make mustard, as well as black peppercorns and turmeric are sourced at the market spice stall

Missing items, like mustard seed to make mustard, as well as black peppercorns and turmeric are sourced at the market spice stall

In other cultures, fresh spices might be bought weekly or even daily to incorporate into any kind of savoury or sweet food or beverage, and tongues will ‘tsk’ disapprovingly of anything a day too old.  The lonely spice stalls in European markets are habitually very expensive, and we paid an eyewatering €14 for just three items.  Hence a longterm habit of stocking up whenever there is an opportunity in any country which pays homage to this provender with whole dedicated markets, like Istanbul’s Spice Bazaar.

Empty jars are cleaned and precious home-grown coriander and chillies, Balinese cinnamon and Turkish Grand Bazaar delicacies are properly bottled and labelled

Empty jars are cleaned and precious home-grown coriander and chillies, Balinese cinnamon and Spice Bazaar delicacies are properly bottled and labelled

The Big Clearout


The mission is straightforward: everything edible carrying a barcode has to go.  Well, we have to say, it’s rather disconcerting to empty one’s cupboards without quite knowing what to replace it with.  However, there is also the satisfaction of the clean sweep and of unearthing long-lost items.  Most food is donated to friends and neighbours.  And goods which do not expire until well into 2015 are confined to boxes for storage.  But will we want to eat them when the time comes?!?

Once all the barcoded food is gone, the fridge and our shelves look rather bare: time to go to market.  Luckily, homemade jam is in ample supply thanks to a fond granny’s efforts, a modest amount of wise foresight had lead us to preserve some of our last vegetable harvest and the odd jar of homemade pickles has been donated to the cause.  So not all is lost…

And isn’t it amazing how those barcoded spice jars creep into any available space in your cupboards?

Why BarcodeZero?


“If it has a barcode, don’t buy it.”  We have used this simplifying soundbite many times during nutrition consultations, when clients enquire which processed foods to avoid.  Last autumn, we were challenged on the practicalities of this suggestion in a heated discussion amongst friends.  Time to eat our own medicine, we decided, and planned our year without.

Barcodes are not all bad.  The technology and the logistical advances are par for the course of our technology age.  Barcodes mean tracking, stacking, mixing, extruding, shipping, consuming in ways unimaginable only a generation ago.  As a result, calories have become more affordable for the average consumer, and e.g. Americans, in the epicentre of the barcode revolution, now spend just 5.7% of disposable income on food, half of what they did just before barcodes were stamped onto food packages.  Some perfectly good foods carry barcodes: if a traditionally produced wine or cheese has a barcode on the label to facilitate distribution, that doesn’t make it problematic.

However, barcode technology has revolutionised our diets in profoundly negative ways.  The advent of barcodes and the concurrent decline in the way we eat in the West is no coincidence in our opinion:
– Food chains have become ever longer and complex.  Packaging has now become obligatory.
– There are tremendous environmental, social and health costs hidden behind clean, bright, barcoded packaging.
– Food distribution and sales are dominated by just a handful of grocery goliaths in most countries.
– Marketing experts at fewer and fewer, big industrial manufacturers command food scientists in their labs to design “edible, food-like substances” to suit the logistics of supermarket shelves and not consumers’ health.
– The path to obesity and ill health, it seems, is paved with barcodes.

Sixty years ago, 50-60 pence from every £ spent on food in the UK went to farmers, and in 2004 the figure stood at 9 pence in every £1.   (Felicity Lawrence)

Barcodes for us are a prism through which to examine the (processed) food industry which is something we have been doing professionally and something we are very committed to.  Above are just some of the multiple aspects we’ll explore throughout 2014, as we try to avoid having any barcoded food or drink cross our lips for 365 days.  After 40 years of barcoded food, will it be possible and what will be the biggest challenges?  How can one find substitutes without slaving in the kitchen all day or blowing out the food budget?

Is there still a way around barcodes, 40 years on?  Subscribe to this blog to find out…

Barcode Basics


How business publications can get it so wrong sometimes.  On March 22nd, 1976 Business Week ran a highly sceptical article, panning the then emerging barcode technology under the headline “The Supermarket Scanner that failed”.  Only eight years later, WalMart, K-Mart and other big US retailers mandated their suppliers to fit all products with barcodes.  Now, every day an estimated 5-10 billion transactions involving the ubiquetous UPC barcodes (Universal Product Code) are executed.

UPC-A Barcode

UPC-A Barcode

While a common definition of a barcode is “a machine-readable code in the form of numbers and a pattern of parallel lines of varying widths, printed on a commodity and used especially for stock control” and only refers to the linear UPC, barcodes come in various different formats and shapes.  The invention of barcodes is attributed to N. Joseph Woodland, who was granted this US patent for a “Classifying Apparatus and Method” in 1952.

To say that barcodes have revolutionised supply chains and logistics would be an understatement, and everything – from airline luggage to hospital patients – are being fitted with them.  And food items, of course.  Lots of them…

Barcoded Food


If you do your food shopping in a supermarket, every single item you consume will be graced with a UPC barcode.  After all, it was the big food retailers who first embraced and commoditised the technology, and the inaugural commercial transaction involving a UPC took place on June 26, 1974 in Troy, Ohio when a 10-pack of Wrigley’s “Juicy Fruit” chewing gum (pictured below) was passed by an optical scanner and the attached till produced an invoice for US$ 0.67.  This little event had such lasting and revolutionary influence on how food is manufactured, stored, transported and sold that the Smithonian Institution, to this day, displays both the Wrigley’s gum and the bill produced 40 years ago.

Barcode_Wrigley'sJuicyFruit10Pack_1974Barcodes bring immense advantages to food manufacturers and retailers: e.g. warehouse, stock, shelf and inventory management have become much more effective; slow- and fast-selling items are identified quickly and can automatically be reordered accordingly; continuous repricing of already stacked merchandise maximises profits; customer data can be analysed in detail (via loyalty cards) and is sold on as valuable data;  food chains have become increasingly long and unfathomably complex.  In essence, barcodes helped create corporate food giants and allowed them to thrive.  The advantages for consumers are probably limited to lower prices … which comes at a high price.