The Food Chain

The Food Chain

United Kingdom

The economics, science and culture of what we eat. What does it take to put food on your plate?


Food Secrets of Centenarians  

People who have lived into their hundreds explain their food experiences and philosophies, to help us explore relationship between food and longevity. We ask whether despite having a greater variety of food available, and an ever growing abundance of dietary information, are younger generations able to replicate the diets of the oldest people on earth? Does modern food culture prevent us from emulating the food habits of centenarians? In Acciaroli, Italy,one of the BBC’s longest-standing reporters visits a village where more than one in ten people live more than a century, to find out their diet secrets. From there to Surrey, England, where 100 year old Helen Clare, a famous war-time singer explains her philosophy to food. Does attitude matter - and have younger generations become too obsessed with what we eat? We meet a man who has visited the oldest communities in the world - and hear their food secrets. What are the similarities between the diet of centenarians in Okinawa, Japan and California, US? Are there certain foods or general food principles that make you live longer? Or is it the company you keep? Plus, what is the scientific evidence for the link between diet and a longer life? With contributors: Helen Clare, singer, Dan Buettner, author, and John Mathers, scientific director of the Institute for Ageing and Health at Newcastle University. Presenter: Emily Thomas (Photo: Woman eating ice cream. Credit: Getty Images)

What time is dinner?  

We are taking a break from talking about what we eat this week, and looking instead at when we eat it. From Ancient Greece to New York hipsters - we’re asking what has determined our mealtimes in the past and who wants them to change now? Paul Freedman, history professor at Yale University in the US tells the BBC’s Emily Thomas that for thousands of years when we eat signified where we were in society. It seems this idea may not have been consigned to history - we ask if the resurgence of a new mealtime might be marking out a new social class. Canadian author Shawn Micallef tells us why he has a problem with brunch. And what of the so-called ‘fourth meal’? We look at the rise of snacking and ask whether the food industry wants you to abandon the three meal model. Is more food choice breaking apart the structured meal? We talk to Tamara Barnett, Vice President of Strategic Insights at The Hartman Group. Finally what exactly is the scientific evidence that any of this matters? Biologist Satchidananda Panda of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, at Harvard University in the US explains how the digestive system can experience jetlag. (Photo: Clock and cutlery. Credit: Getty Images)

Much Ado About Michelin  

For many chefs winning a Michelin star, or two or three, is often considered the pinnacle of their career. It could put them on the path to money and fame. But some critics claim not all stars are equal- and in an industry where receiving one could mean the difference between profit and loss, the stakes are high. In this episode we take a closer look at the Michelin guide and how two brothers made the name of their tyre business synonymous with the highest quality food in the world. Why do some chefs view earning a Michelin star as a curse, and others as a celebration? We’ll get a behind- the scenes look at the life of a Michelin inspector, with an interview with Clare Dorland-Clauzel, who heads the guides. The BBC's Kent DePinto speaks to Michelin-starred chef Tom Kemble on how the accolade has helped his career. Gary Pisano, professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School, talks about the impact of a Michelin star on a restaurant's ability to innovate. The BBC's Ashleigh Nghiem meets the Singaporian street hawker who was awarded a Michelin star. And we hear from food critic Andy Hayler on why he thinks recent partnerships by Michelin with tourist boards may be leading tourists astray. (Image: a Michelin guide on display. Credit: Kazuhiro Nogi / Getty Images)

Talking Rot  

If you found some mould on a slice of bread - would you eat it, cut it off, or throw the loaf away? What exactly is that green fur anyway? In this episode we’re asking whether we’ve become overly cautious about rot, and finding out how our attitudes to decaying food have changed. The BBC's Emily Thomas talks to Chris Wells from Leatherhead Food Research to find out when old food really becomes bad for you. Food historian Helen Zeit from Michigan State University explains how we may have become less tolerant of older food, and Christina Rice of Harvard law and Policy Clinic explains why the consumer is so confused over when to throw food away. Of course many of us are prepared to put our reservations about old food on hold when something’s presented as a delicacy. We’ll meet people who take pride in eating the oldest food they can – from a Sardinian cheese full of jumping maggots to a man who lived off fermented food alone for a year. Finally we’ll get up close to some creatures which you could call the true masters of the decomposing meal. (Photo: Mouldy bread. Credit: Getty Images).

Hands Off My Food!  

When it comes to aspects of cultural life being shared, adopted or borrowed in an increasingly globalised world - where more so than food? But should a culture be able to claim ownership of a cuisine, and should you profit from food that isn’t culturally your own? In this episode we discuss the cultural appropriation of food. Cultural appropriation can be defined as the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of another culture. Some define it as the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of those elements - which reinforces historically exploitative relationships. We start in Ottowa Canada where a group of New Zealanders are objecting to the marketing of an energy drink. From there we go to Tennessee in the US where Rachel Martin, a food historian tells us how Hot Chicken has become Nashville’s favourite dish, and why she’s a little uncomfortable about how this happened. So where do you draw the line between appreciating food and appropriating or misappropriating it? The BBC’s Emily Thomas is joined by four people from the food world who have a real stake in this hot and divisive debate: Michael Twitty, a chef, food writer, and historian; Alex Stupak, a chef and founder of the Empellon Mexican restaurant chain in New York, Rachel Lauden, a food historian, based in Austin Texas, and Clarissa Wei, a food writer from Los Angeles. (Photo: Tacos being put on display by street vendor. Credit: Getty Images/ Milkos)

The Real Value of a Cup of Tea  

Coffee addict Dan Saladino sets out to understand what a cup of tea is really worth. Do we pay enough? In south west India, food writer Vanessa Kimbell gets up close to the leaf and hears the reality of a hard day’s work from a team of tea pluckers 6000 metres above sea level. From there we move to the Assam region in the north east to hear about an investigation into working conditions on a tea plantation. Will Battle, author of the World Tea Encyclopedia and a professional tea taster, explains how the global demand for tea has shaped where it’s grown and how it’s traded. Next, after the long journey from field to cup – what’s the best way to consume a cuppa? Tea tutor Caroline Hope is visited by people from all over the world to learn how the British drink tea. Finally, we enter a new realm of tea-drinking. Tim Doffay of Postcard Teas in London tells us about some of the world’s most expensive brews. (Photo: Cup of tea and saucer with gold spoon. Credit: Getty Creative)


A forensic look at food and its crime-solving powers. We start with one of the most challenging cases London’s murder squad has ever faced. The BBC’s Emily Thomas meets the Metropolitan Police’s former head of homicide investigations, Andy Baker, by the banks of the Thames, to hear how a murder victim’s stomach contents can prove vital to detectives. We meet some hungry criminals – a bank robber with a burger and a thief with his hand in the biscuit tin. Former crime scene investigator Dennis Gentles, from Abertay University in Dundee, Scotland, explains new research to identify fingerprints on food. Plus, David Foran, director of Michigan State University’s forensic science programme, tells us how a half-finished meal left at a crime scene can be a rich source of DNA. But why would a criminal stop for a snack? We speak to criminologist Richard Wright from Georgia State University. Plus, we find out how food industry technology is being used by detectives. Sheriff Todd Bonner from Wasatch County in Utah tells us how a case that haunted him for 18 years was eventually solved by a vacuum designed for use on food. Finally, the Food Chain’s own Simon Tulett, explores the mystery of the disappearing sausage stew. Please note - a couple of the cases we describe are of a graphic nature and might be upsetting for some, particularly younger listeners. (Photo: Apple and outstretched hand. Credit: Getty Creative).

I Don't Cook  

In the antithesis of a cookery programme, we meet people from around the world who can’t, don’t or won’t cook. Cooking from scratch will bring us health and happiness. Well that’s what we hear from countless cookbooks, magazines, TV shows, celebrity chefs, and even government initiatives. But studies suggest that in countries like the US and the UK people are cooking less than they did in the past. Is preparing our own food the realistic and logical choice for all of us? What are the social consequences if we don’t? Who better to tell us than the people who don’t cook? We start in the leafy London suburbs, where the BBC’s Emily Thomas meets some men who have spent most of their lives staying out of the kitchen. From there to a swish hotel in Lagos, Nigeria, for tales of a marriage torn apart by a wife’s inability to cook a certain soup. The non-cooking continues with Chilean actress Silvia Novak, journalist Bill Saporito in New York, and mum-of-two Melanie Dunn in Connecticut. Might they know something you don’t? Finally we talk to Sarah Bowen, associate professor at North Carolina State University. For her, the reasons people don’t cook tell us a lot about society and inequality. She thinks the ‘the food evangelists’ are partly to blame. Yes, there’s no space for master chefs in this week’s episode of the Food Chain.

The Fish Japan Ate  

The wild bluefin tuna is being eaten to extinction, but this hasn’t curbed the global appetite for this valuable fish in Japan and across the globe.In the last 70 years the fish has become a staple of high-end sushi restaurants and celebratory meals. It sells for up to hundreds of thousands of dollars–as to eat bluefin caught in the wild signifies quality. It is the apex of the sushi platter across Japan, which eats about 80% of all the wild bluefin consumed. But the tuna’s popularity is actually a relatively new phenomenon, as tuna was once regarded as a waste product until the middle of the 20th century, and even used for cat food. But recently, the appetite for the huge ocean-going fish has led to an ecological crisis, with projections that wild bluefin will no longer exist in the coming decades. The BBC’s Edwin Lane visits the iconic Tsukiji fish market, the hub of the global tuna trade, and speaks to a sushi chef who can’t bring herself to stop preparing the fish despite the extinction warning, and visits one of the world’s only functioning bluefin farms to talk about why it’s so difficult to raise bluefin tuna in captivity. (Photo: Bluefin tuna on ice Photo credit: Kindai University, Japan)

Liberte, Egalite, Gastronomie?  

Ahead of the French national elections, we’re looking at the food and politics of a country that for many is the epicentre of gastronomic excellence, with a tradition stretching back hundreds of years. Some see this crucial ingredient of the country's national identity being nibbled away by global competition. We talk to French chefs, producers and historians about what the state of French food tells us about the state of French politics. To understand a changing France, do you need to understand the changing French meal? We’ll be exploring the earliest origins of French cuisine, the foundations of the word ‘gastronomy’ and the advent of 'gastronationalism'. (Photo: Man holding bowl of croissants. Credit: Getty Images)

Little Kitchen of Horrors  

** The content in this week’s show requires a fairly strong stomach. So if you’ve got children with you, or you’re a bit squeamish yourself, best to look away now. ** Listen if you dare to this episode of The Food Chain, as we explore the scary, creepy, and spooky stories that people like to tell about what we eat. Why are some of our scariest stories about food? From the man-eating giants of Ancient Greek mythology, to the real story of Hansel and Gretel, the BBC’s Kent DePinto discusses why some of our scariest stories are about food and what that tells us about the societies that like to share them. We will also hear why many of those stories have their origins in agriculture and early economic systems. Watch out for the BBC's Regan Morris in California – as she finds out how horror films create their visual effects using bananas and gelatine, and Bryan Fuller, the creator of the television show Hannibal, on how making a programme about a villain with a gruesome diet made him question his own food habits. And what are we so afraid of? The social science behind why our bodies react to scary stories. You may just want to leave the lights on. (Photo: Selection of food and candles. Credit: Getty Images).

Orthorexia Nervosa: When 'Healthy' Food becomes Harmful  

When does a ‘healthy diet’ become unhealthy? This week the Food Chain looks at Orthorexia Nervosa - an unofficial term used to describe an eating disorder where people restrict their diet based on the quality and purity of food, rather than its quantity. The BBC’s Emily Thomas talks to women who have suffered from following extreme healthy diets, and hears how their internet use influenced their eating behaviour. We also hear from the people trying to help those whose quality of life is being destroyed in their pursuit of quality food. If you or someone you know has been affected by eating disorders please see the links to resources at the bottom of this page. Photo: Woman rejecting water and lettuce Credit: Getty Images

Hey, Hey We're The Food Chain  

You can now listen to Food Chain starting on Thursdays, so to welcome new listeners, we’re offering up some of the best bits of our award-winning programme exploring the culture, science and economics of everything you eat. Could you survive at sea for two months on a small raft, relying on your wit to feed you? Steven Callahan did just that. But he had some difficult choices to make when the fish became his only friends. It's no secret that there is a fierce rivalry between Ghana and Nigeria over who makes the best jollof rice. Singer Sister Deborah talks to The Food Chain about the history of the dish - and what the redness of your jollof says about your culinary skill. Plus we revisit Chinatown and its chequered history. From Johannesburg to London, the BBC’s Dan Saladino, explores Chinatowns around the world, and hears about the attitudes Chinese workers encountered when they first set up shop in the US. (Image: A world map made of baking flour. Credit: Roberto David/ Thinkstock)

One Potato More  

In our second and final episode on the humble spud, we meet the people who see the global economic future as being potato powered. The potato is the world's most produced staple food after rice, wheat and corn - yet historically, it was seen as the root of filth, misery and obesity. In our previous episode we heard how over time it came to be used as a tool of power by the state, to create a healthy and robust workforce. This week, food historian Rebecca Earle, tells us that history is repeating itself in China, which is now the world's biggest producer of potatoes. China's central government sees the potato as key to food security, but it's got some work to do to produce a cultural shift away from rice. We'll be serenaded by one of the country's potato champions, the operatic 'new farmer' Sister Potato, who says she is changing hearts, minds and cuisine with her songs. Then we'll head to the streets of Beijing to gauge enthusiasm and ask can the spud shake off its lowly reputation? Africa and developing countries have the biggest predicted growth in potato production in the coming decades. But is the world in danger of putting all its spuds in one basket? We’re asking whether the potato is the answer to food security or if the vegetable’s patchy history doomed to repeat itself. Plus we head to Peru to visit the scientists protecting thousands of varieties of potato, and meet the man who ate nothing but potatoes - for a year. (Image: A farmer eats a potato in China . Credit: Spencer Platt/ Getty Images)

Poor Old Potato  

In its time, the potato has been called the root of filth, misery and obesity - but is it fair to call it the 'food of the poor'? In the first episode of a two-part series, The Food Chain goes to the very roots of the world's most popular vegetable, digging up some new perspectives on its history. We visit the British Museum to meet Bill Sillar from the Institute of Archaeology at University College London. He explains how the early Andeans and Inca developed innovative ways to cultivate potatoes, but preferred to celebrate maize instead. From there we move to the kitchens at Henry VIII’s Hampton Court Palace, and find out how the spud was met with scepticism in Europe when it first arrived. Food historian Marc Meltonville tells the BBC's Emily Thomas how the humble spud was made into pasties and pies. By the 19th century, the potato had firmly taken root in the west, but it was still subject to widespread disdain. The journalist and farmer, William Cobbett said potatoes should be fed to pigs, not people, and that they were the root of "slovenliness, filth, misery and slavery". We speak to food historian Rebecca Earle at the University of Warwick, who explains how despite its reputation, the potato has played an important role in agricultural and economic development. The tuber was perhaps one of the very first products of globalization, and we hear how it became associated with capitalism, being equated with a robust and hardy workforce. Finally, we ask what the future holds for the potato, and if it will ever be able to shake off its unsavoury reputation. Is history repeating itself? (Image: A variety of raw potatoes. Credit: Ernesto Benavides/ AFP/ Getty Images)

The Food We Breathe  

As part of the BBC wide #SoICanBreathe season, The Food Chain explores how the ways we grow and cook our food can affect how we breathe. From the indoor pollution generated by cooking, to how farming practices change the air for miles around, our food can have a big impact on how we breathe. We come full circle to find out how air pollution can get in to our food and why your lettuce might have spots. But it's not all bad news, and we'll also visit India and Ghana to explore developments that might help us all breathe a bit more easily. Plus, if our diet is potentially part of the problem when it comes to air pollution, could it also be part of the solution? (Image: A Pakistani woman blows on a small cooking fire to bake bread at a makeshift camp. Credit: Rizwan Tabassum/ Getty Images)


What can fast food tell us about the changing global economy? This week Karishma Vaswani, the BBC's Asia Business correspondent, takes a closer look at the history and the future of McDonald's in Asia. For many the company is a symbol of globalisation and food. To globalise though, the company has had to localize, and with that comes challenges. From Beijing, to Hong Kong, to Delhi, we explore the changing tastes of Asia, and what the future might be for a market many multi-national companies have set their sights on. Is the business model of franchising still an effective way to export a food business? And as countries modernise is it getting harder for a global brand to compete with local rivals? (Photo: Ronald McDonald at the opening of a McDonald's in Beijing. Photo credit: STR/AFP/Getty)

Post-Truth Food  

Remember the great bacon shortage of 2012? No? What about the one earlier this year? Still no? Well maybe that’s because they didn’t happen. The Oxford English dictionary defines post-truth as: "relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief". This week we're looking at why stories about food shortages take hold so quickly – whether they are true or not. We’ll start with a popular food story from recent weeks, which warned the US could be running out of bacon. Brad Tuttle, journalist with Time Magazine separates the facts from the fiction. But why do stories like these spread like wildfire? We speak to Michaela DeSousey, Assistant Professor of Sociology at North Carolina State University, who says it’s not just our brains that react to food shortage scares – our behaviour changes too. And Paul Buckley, a psychologist at Cardiff Metropolitan University in Wales in the UK, explains why an abundance of information leaves the consumer confused. What can be done about all this confusion in a world where we are bombarded with information - and increasingly hear that we shouldn't believe much of what we are told? In a post-truth world, are we even more susceptible to exaggerated or untrue stories? We speak to Dominique Brossard, professor and chair in the Department of Life Sciences Information at the University of Wisconsin. Finally - in a week where famine is officially declared for the first time in six years by the United Nations (UN) - we turn to the most worrying headline of all: that the world could run out of food. We speak to Joel Cohen, professor of populations at the Rockerfeller University and Columbia University in New York and Abdolreza Abbassian, senior economist at the UN Food and Agricultural Organization. (Image: A long-nosed figure with a carrot dangling off the end leading people off a cliff. Credit: wildpixel/ Thinkstock)

Wheelchair Fajitas and Talking Scales  

Food is how we structure everyday life. For some people living with disabilities, the smallest of culinary tasks can be very frustrating and difficult. As part of the BBC’s Disability Works season - exploring the experiences of disabled people in the workforce and as consumers - the Food Chain looks at the important role food plays for people who have, or acquire, a disability. We hear what it’s like to grow up in a tribe when you can’t take part in the most valued activity – farming. Kudakwashe Dube had polio as a child in rural Zimbabwe and is now the CEO at the African Disability Allowance. He explains how people with disabilities can be discriminated against when it comes to taking part in agriculture, and receiving food aid. The BBC’s Kathleen Hawkins hears stories of how technology, like mesh gloves and talking scales, can create an adaptive modern kitchen. She also takes us to her own home where we hear how she cooks from her wheelchair which struggles to fit between the kitchen cupboards. How can the kind of problems she faces be resolved? We speak to occupational therapist assistant Ann Kelly and registered dietician Juliette Harmer from the UK’s Ministry of Defence to find out. Plus, we’ll discuss how modified chopsticks in Japan can be life-changing for people with disabilities. Katsuyuki Miyabi, a craftsman, doesn't think anybody should be excluded from using this age-old tool which is so important in Japanese society. Finally, Emma Tracey from the BBC’s Ouch programme visits a café where food is made by a blind cook and his autistic helper. (Image: A man in a wheelchair in a lowered kitchen. Credit: Huntstock/ Thinkstock)

The Plankton Problem  

You've swallowed many of them throughout your life without realising, and some look like aliens: we look at plankton, the sea's smallest living creatures that have a big global impact. At the centre of the food web, and responsible for most of the air we breathe, these microscopic plants and animals are eaten by fish in our seas, which are eaten by bigger creatures, and eventually eaten by humans. But what happens when new problems hit these ancient critters, which have existed for millions of years? And how does it affect our health - and our plates? We speak to Jeff Herman in the US, whose skin was left crawling and in sweats after he got Ciguatera food poisoning from eating a hogfish. He tells us how his nightmarish symptoms were linked to toxins created by plankton. We share a voyage with the crew in charge of the world's oldest plankton recorder in Plymouth, England. They have been monitoring the world's seas since the 1930s to check on the health of these tiny creatures so vital to our food chain. Plankton scientists tell the BBC's Emily Thomas that new types of plankton not seen since the Ice Age are moving in - prompting questions around how plankton will adapt to new challenges like pollution and climate change. And what would you do if the sea around you turned bright red? So-called red tides can blight seasides and devastate fishing industries from Florida to the South China Sea. Hong Kong journalist Ernest Kao tells us about the devastation created by an overpopulation of algae, another kind of plankton. And Professor Lora Fleming tells us about the movements and patterns of these tiny creatures, how toxins from some can skew with your sense of hot and cold, and how new research is helping us to harness the power of plankton in a more sustainable way. (Image: Man swimming towards a 'red tide' or algal bloom in Sydney. Credit: William West/ ThinkStock )

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