It was not long ago that bread came from the local bakery, milk could be had from the dairy, and the idea of a grocery store was new. Most meals were prepared in the house, there being few restaurants and the notion of “eating out” in any case having an exotic character. Were those better days? Probably not — but they were different from this day, in ways we may not fully understand.
It occurred to me some years ago that there is enough toxin in a modern grocery store to kill an adult human. The food one ate as a child has been engineered into a tinned simulacrum of the same, a chemistry project of sorts in which generally unknown and unpronounceable substances constitute the smoke-and-mirror foundation of contemporary food industry. Or, better yet, there emerge from the laboratory “foods” with no correspondence in the natural world: pizza pockets, chicken nuggets, pop tarts, Irish Egg Rolls, or a whole rotisserie chicken in a can. Just as it would be impossible to successfully mass-produce and distribute worldwide the five-ingredient spaghetti sauce you ate as a child, so too is it impossible for the ordinary individual to cook the twenty-five ingredient version you will find in a grocery store. What, for instance, would you make of a recipe calling for:
phenethyl alcohol, amyl acetate, heliotropin, cinnamyl isobutyrate, methyl heptine carbonate, phenethyl alcohol, dipropyl ketone, ethyl methylphenylglycidate, hydroxyphenyl-2-butanone, g-undecalactone, maltol, 4-methylacetophenone, anethol, butyric acid, and solvent.
These of course are all substances commonly put into things sold as food. The topics of food engineering and its related concerns have been ably written and spoken upon by many, among them Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan. There is neither need nor occasion to rehearse their theses and arguments here. I merely wish to reflect upon the many cases of food crime as I encounter them in the day-to-day world. Consider this a personal list prepared in advance of a citizen’s arrest. Here then are the crimes, with cursory gloss as required.
The chief food crime today is the “serving of fries.” Whatever you order, and wherever you order it, there will attend this greasy helping of empty calories and carcinogens. Near effortless and highly profitable, the mound of chips is edible cynicism. It is how a restaurant indicates that they really don’t give a shit about you or your food. Eat and get out, already.
High-fructose corn syrup – also called glucose-fructose — a highly processed form of sugar, added to everything from “soft drinks” to bread, salad dressing, and soups. In this case the crime is the responsibility of a single crooked corporation, Archer Daniels Midland, who used political manoeuvering to make high-fructose corn syrup a staple of the American diet. Soda, a highly profitable sector of the glucose-fructose market, is another ubiquitous empty calorie staple of the modern meal. But in every category, food is being engineered to suit the tastes of those who demand everything be sickly sweet.
Sodium, added in superabundance to everything, for the principal reason that processed food is without flavour. Salt, and indeed all food additives, are perhaps less a crime than an indication of the crime.
Deep frying. It seems everything has to be deep-fried nowadays, even when there are better-tasting food preparation alternatives, such as baking, pan frying, poaching, grilling, or smoking. Looking back over the list thus far, it is depressing how many meals consist of deep-fried something-or-other with a soda and plate of fries.
Complicated food. Here the principle is to substitute for a simple food of a few ingredients a complicated multi-ingredient version. Less raw vegetables and fruits, more cooked food with chemical additives. It is much harder to find a banana than it is a bag of chips.
I am not suggesting that there is no place in this world for french fries or soft drinks. They serve well, for instance, at children’s birthday parties. But please note that they are not food. The propaganda campaigns of Archer Daniels Midland and so on to convince us otherwise are as nefarious as the campaigns to convince millions cigarettes taste good and that Richard Nixon will make a fine President. All around us, every day, crimes of food are being committed. The only beneficiaries are the companies who put dollars before every other concern. Not only do we allow it to happen: we are spending our good money on these cheaply manufactured scams — Pretend Food which is poisoning our children here while elsewhere destroying rivers, forests, and indigenous cultures.
Categories: Personal Essay