Canned Food In the UK: A Convenient Alternative To Healthy Eating?

If you’re reading this in your kitchen, could you pause for a moment? Now go to the cupboard where you store your supermarket shopping. What’s in there? Probably a loaf of sliced bread, your choice of tea, coffee and cereals, some sugar, salt, cooking oil & spices, a couple of jars of marmalade & jam and a bottle of HP sauce.

However, according to Adrian Lee in the “Daily Express”, the shelves will be “bulging” with canned food. He cites a new survey by the “Canned Food UK” organization which has indicated that 5.5 billion cans of food are sold annually in the UK. Although this figure is slightly less than the peak of 6 billion in the 1980’s “the overall market is still growing thanks to the increasing popularity of drinks in cans”. Baked beans continue to dominate this sector, with around 49.3% of the market, followed by the nation’s other two “favourites”, tuna and tomatoes.

Last year, say Canned Food UK, consumers in Britain spent £2.4 billion on canned goods – more than the total of “frozen meals, cheese, alcohol and fresh meat categories combined” – and 58% of the country’s population will have “up to 10 cans in their kitchen cupboards at any one time”. The “tinned food capital of the UK” is apparently Birmingham, where “640,000 cans of food are eaten each day”, followed by Glasgow, Manchester and Newcastle. In Southampton, however, the figure is just 113,000 cans a day, and Londoners are “equally sniffy about canned produce, eating on average only 2.9 cans of food a week”.

In the opinion of Canned Food UK, metal cans are “a great modern way to package our food”. They are “convenient, fit in with today’s busy lifestyles and have nutrition locked in without the need for preservatives except for a few cold meat products” which means that they “provide us with a quick, affordable, healthy option that has a long shelf life”. In addition to being “good value for money”, cans also have “among the highest recycling rates of any food packaging material. It can take as little as sixty days for a can to be recycled and back on sale in a convenience store or supermarket”.

Yet canned produce, as Lucy Siegle has acknowledged in The Guardian, continues to have “an image problem”. She observes that this may be partly due to the considerable energy expended in the canning process, turning gas into steam: “The Heinz canning site at Kitt Green, near Wigan, which processes around 1.34 billion cans a year, needs around 140 tonnes of steam per hour”. She nevertheless prefers canned food to “the chilled goods that increasingly stock our fridges”.

Not everyone accepts Canned Food UK’s statistics. Analysts at the research firm Key Note have predicted that parts of the UK canned foods industry are “doomed” due to the “threat from cartons and re-sealable pouches, as well as bottles and jars, which may not have all the advantages of cans but are more convenient for some consumers”. Ian Marber of the Daily Telegraph, though, agrees with Lucy Eagle that “food in cans used to have an aura of general poor quality, but that’s not always the case these days”. If you know what to buy, he points out, “you can have a healthy meal, low in fat, rich in protein and fibre, all for under £2 per person and ready in 20 minutes”.

Much of the concern about cans is related to the chemicals added during the manufacturing process and  whether it’s safe to eat the ingredients if the can has been damaged. Although the “Frosha Healthy Food” website contends that “rust or dents do not affect the contents of the can”, the “Modern Survival Blog” takes the view that rust will weaken the integrity of the can and may allow air and bacteria to enter. They advise that the can should be thrown away if it is “bloated”, if it sprays when you puncture the lid with a can opener, or if it makes a “popping sound”. Any of these will suggest that the seal has probably been broken and the food contaminated. Nestle recommend that canned food should be kept in a dry place with a moderately cool temperature: “High-acid canned foods such as juices, tomatoes, fruits and pickles will store well up to 12-18 months and low-acid canned products such as meat products and vegetables for 2-4 years.”

Cans which will contain acidic foods like tomatoes or rhubarb need to have a “thin coating or laquer” applied to the inside while still in the factory: “More than 25 lacquers and 30 tin coatings have now been developed for use with different foods” (cannedfood.co.uk). Far more controversial is the use of the Bisphenol-A (BPA) industrial chemical not only in cans but also (among others) food & drinks packaging, storage containers, water and milk bottles, plastic tableware and cutlery, fizzy drinks and alcohol.

As Sue Quinn wrote in the Daily Telegraph on 28th April, “Food Safety UK” has stated that the chemical is “rapidly absorbed, detoxified and eliminated by the body and is therefore not a risk to human health at current levels. Similarly, other global regulatory officials, including the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), say low exposure to the chemical is not harmful. However: “The subject is contentious among scientists: There’s a lot of evidence that BPA can have an effect on the human body at even very low levels”.

Among the many international brands still using BPA are Del Monte, Green Giant and Ocean Spray. The Guardian’s Arthur Neslen reported on 2nd April that Campbell’s, the US soup manufacturer, have announced they will stop using BPA in their cans by 2017 “after the hormone-mimicking chemical was found in all 15 of its cans tested in a US survey.”

The first airtight tin was patented by an Englishman, Peter Durand, in 1810. Unfortunately, the first tin opener wasn’t invented until 1855, by another Englishman, Robert Yates. In the interim (notes The Daily Express).“soldiers had to open Durand’s revolutionary container with bayonets or smash it with rocks. Civilians who didn’t have easy access to either of these had to use a hammer. There are now around 3,000 patents listed for different types of can opener.”

Filed under: Healthcare | Posted on April 30th, 2016 by Colin D Gordon

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