One thing that has struck me very forcibly ever since beginning my Slimming World weight-loss regime last November is just how much manufactured and packaged food and drink is sold by every supermarket. Surely 90% of their shelf space - more, probably - is laden with stuff that has been through some factory process and ended up in a standard-sized package. What you might strictly call 'fresh food' is confined to (a) the aisles where fresh fruit, vegetables and eggs are located, and (b) the speciality counters for meat and fish. In some stores, there's a very decent choice of 'fresh food', some of it exotic. In others, not nearly so much. Generally speaking, it seems that the cheaper the store, the less 'fresh food' is on display.
I'm not against processed goods. A lot of food has to be processed to make it safe or hygienic to consume - milk, for example. And things like bacon and cheese undergo a necessary process to convert them from the raw item to the distinctive edible form in which we eat them. But the proportion of heavily-processed goods on supermarket shelves is staggeringly high, and you do wonder what food value has been lost at the factory, and what has been added by way of flavour enhancers, appearance-improvers, and shelf-life lengtheners that might impact on human health.
It sounds as if I have taken a pure-food standpoint and am ready to wage war on the food industry. Not so. But I am indeed against the notion of unnecessarily 'adding value' to anything and charging extra for a dubious 'improvement', even if the 'market research' done, or said to have been done, lets the manufacturer claim that 'this is what the public wants'. The riposte is that 'what the public wants' is whatever clever and biased questioning brings out. And funnily enough, I have never been stopped in the street to give my opinion on, say, cooked-in-the-bag chicken made expensive by the addition of a sauce (I should say jus) developed in consultation with some well-known TV chef. I do see the convenience of 'ready meals', and for those with busy lives they may have their place, but I have a disinclination to pay for them, not much faith in their nutritional value, and I'm suspicious of their chemical content.
I'm a fresh-food fan, and that's mainly why the Slimming World approach - in which, for best results, you have to personally prepare meals from carefully-selected raw ingredients and cook what you eat using at least minimum kitchen skills - has been something I can easily embrace. In fact the main changes in my food and drink since last November have been to banish certain items from my regular diet that I knew weren't good for me, and consume a bit more of what is. On the cusp of older age, it was time to get my weight in hand and safeguard my general health. How else could I hope to live into my nineties? My view was in fact starkly this: two-thirds of my life hadn't been lived as well as it could have been: I need the make the last third the best part.
Slimming World came to me at exactly the right moment. I've learned what I need to do. I've permanently changed my eating and drinking habits, I'm very comfortable with the regime I'm devised for myself, and I'm in a position to follow it indefinitely. Chatting about this recently, one friend - who had tried a boatload of different diets, but not the Slimming World method - warned me that once I'd reached my target weight, I should expect a reaction from my body as I return to eating foods I've been denying myself. But it won't happen, as I won't be returning to my old ways. I'd have to break well-established habits to do so. And the sense of shame, and unwillingness to throw away all I've achieved, would stop me too.
Sadly, most supermarket shoppers are clearly not taking their weight and health so seriously. I know this because I see what they buy when standing at the check-out. Whereas most of my purchases consist of fresh meat, fish, vegetables and fruit, with only stuff like milk and chopped tomatoes and household goods in packages and plastic containers, most other people's trolley-loads seem to consist of things in packages and boxes and wrappers and cans, mostly factory products of course. And they will have bought sweets and chocolates and biscuits and crisps and savoury nibbles of all kinds - none of which I ever now have in the house. The difference between my stuff and the others' is often bizarre.
I sometimes wonder what the man or woman on the checkout thinks. I wouldn't be surprised if they consider me to be a daft fresh-food nut, an eccentric. Hey-ho. I say to myself: who has been eating very well, but has still lost two stone in the last nine months? Who gets complimented on their slim appearance? Who has done all this without a subscription to a gym? Who has clean white teeth?
Getting back to all the packaged things on supermarket shelves, I sometimes try to imagine how these stores would look if all they sold was fresh food. They'd be almost empty! They'd need only the shelf space of the small, old-fashioned corner shop. Or the market stall.
I also sometimes wonder whether one day, a decision will be made to stock only packaged goods, and eliminate all the logistical problems of selling fresh foodstuffs that have such a short shelf life. This would make commercial sense in a world increasingly inclined to order online with delivery to one's home address from a giant warehouse. However, that might well encourage the rebirth of small shops, for everyone who wanted to buy fresh, locally-sourced items. Small shops on street corners in towns, and in villages, and a host of farm shops. Places where you can get personal service with a human touch. That sounds nice.