“IS tofu processed?” was the irritating question that inspired first-time author Ayla Marika to find out.
Turns out it’s not so bad, says Ayla who gets to the bottom of it in her book, “How Food is Made: An illustrated guide to how everyday food is produced”.
“It had been bugging me. Where does it come from?” she says.
“My diet is mostly vegetarian so tofu features a lot in it and sometimes when I talk to people about it, they say: ‘How can you eat that? You don’t know what’s in it compared to a steak’.
“For fun and to satisfy my own curiosity I thought: “I’m going to find out and because I enjoy doing illustration and design, I’m going to put it into an infographic so that I can share it with those friends that I have those conversations with.”
But the curiosity didn’t stop there. That one infographic turned into more, and five years on – two that involved really knuckling down – Ayla, 36, of Collector, had finished the book, which uses illustrations and text to show how everyday food is produced.
The most shocking revelation for the author/illustrator was what’s in chewing gum.
“I wouldn’t have chewing gum anymore. It’s basically just plastic,” she says.
Another food that’s “pretty scary” is gummy bears, with Ayla saying: “A lot of people don’t associate sweet foods with meat but that’s basically what gummy bears are from.”
Being gelatine-based, she says they’re usually made from pig or cow offcuts, which have been boiled, reduced and processed in various ways to produce gelatine.
While Ayla was confronted by some of these ingredients, she says her background in drawing and graphic design was helpful to illustrate them in a less confronting, more accessible way.
“Even though you can talk about things, sometimes those messages don’t get through just through conversation,” she says.
“If you tried to do the same thing through photos or video it might be too confronting, especially with, say, some of the meat ones where you have to actually see the processing of the meat.
“I’ve really tried to strike that balance between communicating those concepts but not making people go: ‘That’s too difficult to look at.’”
However, Ayla assures that the book isn’t too confronting to read, saying she hasn’t really changed her eating habits much – except for chewing gum and gummy bears!
“On the flip side, one that I thought was going to be really bad but wasn’t actually that bad at all was fish fingers,” she says.
“I thought fish fingers were going to be super processed with all sorts of weird offcuts and who knows what, but turns out fish fingers are basically blocks of frozen fish cut into fingers which are breaded. They’re actually not very processed at all.
“I also found that almost all of the brands used sustainably sourced fish, even if they don’t put it on the carton.”
This surprising discovery saw Ayla more inclined to eat fish fingers, and feed them to her two-year-old.
But, she says it’s up to the reader to make their own judgement on the food mentioned in the book.
“I really tried to keep my wording very balanced [and] not to bring in any personal bias on anything like that,” she says.
“I just want to present the information and then they can use that to think about these things for themselves and come to their own decisions.
“The main thing I’d like people to take away from this book is I’d like everyday food and food processing to start to appear in people’s conversations. I’d like this to spark discussion with people and bring that topic to life because people just don’t talk about how processed food and the food we eat everyday is made.
“My main aim is to get people thinking about it and talking about it. Being more open about it, not treating processed food as taboo.”
And now that the book is out in bricks-and-mortar stores such as POP Canberra, Dymocks Belconnen and the National Library as well as Ayla’s website – what’s next for the new author?
She says a follow-up might be on the cards, but this time on a different subject.
“How Food is Made: An illustrated guide to how everyday food is produced” ($30), available at howfoodismade.aylamarika.com