In our previous entry Americans and Their Food, we discussed the possibility of having the price of food reflect its health, environmental, and social impact. One obvious way to do this would be through taxation. We tax cigarettes and alcohol; why can’t we tax junk food? According to a New York Times story, we aren’t too far off from this pipe dream becoming reality. In this story, Zeke Emanuel (Rahm Emanuel’s older brother), who is joining the Obama team under the title Special Advisor for Health Policy, “has expressed interest in the idea of taxing junk food or banning it from schools to combat obesity.” Although this seems like a no-brainer, politically speaking it’s a difficult plight to take on (especially when we hear about food giants taking in profits of $120 billion annually). With such profits these companies may have a few more bargaining chips than the “Special Advisor for Health Policy.”
The guidelines for such taxation could follow something akin to the “Rule of 1900.” This rule proposes that anything containing something we would not recognize as food in the year 1900 should not be eaten. Therefore, processed foods containing ingredients listed as “TBHQ” would be subject to taxation. To demonstrate this rule, we have decided to unpack the pre-packaged lunch, which is by far the greatest violation of the Rule of 1900. To illustrate just how far this product is from the rule of 1900, we have listed some of the ingredients below and done our best to describe what they actually are. In general, food additives are either completely man-made through a combination of once-natural chemical extractions, or extractions and altered byproducts of edible oils or plant matter.
Just reading the ingredients doesn’t really help you if you haven’t taken a course (or twelve) in chemistry, so we’ve asked a chemist to help us out with a few of the highlighted winners… here are descriptions of some of the more unidentifiable ingredients:
High Fructose Corn Syrup: Corn syrup that has undergone enzymatic processing to increase its fructose content, and then it is mixed with more pure corn syrup (100% glucose). So basically, high fructose corn syrup is refined corn sugar with corn sugar extract sauce.
Pear Juice Concentrate: Aside from not being the most ideal way to get your vitamins, all concentrated juice is derived from an energy intensive process. Juice is commonly concentrated with a piece of equipment known as a Thermally Accelerated Short-Time Evaporator, or TASTE for short. TASTE uses steam to heat the juice under vacuum and force water to be evaporated. Concentrated juice is discharged to a vacuum flash cooler. The pulp is separated from the juice by ultra-filtration and pasteurized. The clarified juice containing the ‘flavorings’ is concentrated by reverse osmosis and the concentrate and the pulp are recombined to produce the appropriate juice concentration. It's then stored in refrigerated stainless steel bulk tanks until is ready to be packaged or reconstituted. That’s a lot of heating, cooling, transporting and storing for something that doesn’t really taste anything like it did originally, or provide even close to the same amount of nutrients it may have at one time contained.
Calcium Disodium EDTA: Man-made salt product. ZING!
Modified Cornstarch: Cornstarch is, by nature, starchy and sticky. But when you extract the starch from corn and use it as a food ingredient, it quickly loses that stickiness and can actually cause bakery products to become stale. So they have to chemically modify it to keep things "together".
Sodium Lactate: Produced by chemically modifying (neutralizing) lactic acid (which is produced by fermentation from a sugar source). Sodium lactate is commonly used in meat and poultry products to extend shelf life and increase food safety because it is effective at inhibiting most spoilage and development of pathogenic bacteria.
Sodium Phosphate: Added to foods as an emulsifier to prevent oil separation. Or, in layman’s terms: keeps your food from becoming a gloopy mess-o-funk.
Potassium Lactate: Commonly used in meat to extend shelf life and increase food safety due to its potent antimicrobial action that inhibits spoilage and pathogenic bacteria. This stuff won’t break down in nature so what do you think happens when you put it in your body? Why bother with the refrigerator?
Sodium Acetate: May be added to foods as a seasoning, and to alcoholic beverages to decrease the risk of a hangover.
Sodium Erythorbate (made from sugar): When used in processed meat such as hot dogs and beef sticks, it reduces the rate at which nitrate reduces to nitric oxide, thus retaining the pink coloring. Oink Oink!
Sodium Nitrate: Serves a dual purpose in the food industry since it both alters the color of meats and also prevents growth of Clostridium botulinum, the bacteria which causes botulism. Important, but c’mon, do we really need more salt with our modified salty sauce?
Sodium Citrate: Really, more salt? Sodium citrate is used in ice cream to keep the fat globules from sticking together. It’s apparently slightly flammable and handled with gloves, goggles, and a coat in the lab. Talk about titillating texture!
Paprika Oleoresin: A color additive that is “exempt from certification." While it may occur naturally, oleoresin is also used in tear gas.
Annatto: Very common color additive to cheese, butter, margarine, rice, smoked fish, and microwave popcorn. It is often used as a substitute for the expensive herb saffron. And guess what? It’s imported all the way from Central and South America!
Lactic Acid Esters: Produced from monoglycerides reacted with lactic acid. They improve aeration and stability of products. Two thumbs up for aeration!
Palm Oil: Saturated Fat! Saturated fat = heart attack. Many packaged cookies now boast that they contain zero grams of trans fat. However, this may not be the great news that it seems to be. In order to minimize or eliminate the use of trans fat-laden partially hydrogenated oil, some food manufacturers have replaced it with saturated fat-laden palm oil and palm kernel oil—which may not be much better for you! Numerous health authorities have warned against the use of palm oil in packaged foods which put people at risk for heart attack or stroke.
Soy Lecithin: An additive emulsifier that keeps things from separating.
TBHQ: tert-hydrobutylquinone! You know that delicious prepackaged meat smell? Right here baby… this stuff is aromatic. And it's a phenol—often a precursor to unhealthy estrogen release. It’s technically considered an antioxidant, but not the good kind. It keeps fats from going rancid, so you see it in a lot of foods requiring a long shelf life. You can also find it in varnish!
Sodium Nitrite: Same as above, keeping meat lookin’ fresh. A super preservative, preventing the loss of electrons and subsequent degeneration involved in aging meat.
Sodium Phosphate(s): Just another preservative. Notice how much sodium is being metabolized?
BLUE 1: Any blue or green food on the U.S. market gets its coloring from certifiable colors FD&C Blue No. 1 (Brilliant Blue), Blue No. 2 (Indigotine), or Green No. 3 (Fast Green). Blue No. 1 and Green No. 3 are petroleum-derived triphenylmethanes.
Hydrogenated Palm Kernel Oil: Trans Fat!!! The heating process (hydrogenation) brings about isomers (tasty fats) of this molecule. The big problem with Trans Fats is that they have a much higher melting point than regular unsaturated fats. Structurally speaking, they are straight molecules, which have a higher propensity to stack on top of each other oh-so-nicely IN YOUR ARTERIES. But to humans it's oh-so-delicious. F.Y.I., the
Milk Protein Concentrate (MPC): MPC is not an approved food ingredient because there is not enough research for it to be classified “generally regarded as safe.” The FDA does minimal monitoring of MPC as it enters the U.S. because MPC is imported from around the world (read: countries where food regulations are iffy). Big food processing companies save money by buying the less expensive MPC and using it instead of real milk. God forbid they use real milk and would be able to call their product “cheese” instead of “American cheese product.”
Aside from the unbelievable number of hands, cooled storage facilities, and processing this lunch item needs to pass through in order to get it to its edible form, it only costs $2.50, and is awful for children. The sodium content alone consumes 75% of the recommended intake per day (based on a 2000-calorie diet). Some days, it may be the only option, but its cost should better reflect it’s ecological and health impact. Let’s be honest: it’s cheaper to buy these ingredients and pack a lunch than it is to buy it pre-made.
What we're really buying here is convenience. But convenience at what cost, especially for kids? It seems if we all take a deep breath, and examine more closely what we consider food, especially for our kids, we may ponder to live closer to the Rule of 1900. It would save us money, drastically reduce the expenditure of fuels, carbon and waste—and certainly make us all appreciate the food with which we've chosen to sustain our bodies.