In preparation for my upcoming interview with Carlo Besozzi, I thought I should take a few minutes to make a passionate appeal for honesty and transparency on ingredient lists.
Let’s face the facts, the U.S. does not do a very good job promoting accuracy in food labeling. Terms like organic, free-range and, my personal favorite, “all natural,” are tossed around meaninglessly – and consumers eat it up.
Take, for example, the term “free range.” According to the USDA, free range means:
“Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.”
That’s not an excerpt from their definition. That’s the whole thing. No provisions on the amount of time spent outside, the type of “outside” (cement slab?), the amount of room afforded per chicken. It’s not exactly a secret that most so-called free range chickens don’t spend their lives roaming green pastures.
Anyways, assuming the vast readership of this blog isn’t so much interested in buying meat, let’s discuss something a little nearer and dearer to our hearts – ingredient lists.
“Artificial flavors” and “natural flavors” are the crux of the problem, in my opinion. What do those phrases mean? What do they exclude? Where do they come from?
One thing that is clear, 2/3 of those “flavors” come from chemical factories in New Jersey. Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, gives a bit of an inside look into the whole process. An excerpt dealing with this topic be found at PBS, but here’s an interesting excerpt from the excerpt (the whole book is worth a read, by the way):
In addition to being the world’s largest flavor company, IFF manufactures the smell of six of the ten best-selling fine perfumes in the United States, including Estée Lauder’s Beautiful, Clinique’s Happy, Lancôme’s Trésor, and Calvin Klein’s Eternity. It also makes the smell of household products such as deodorant, dishwashing detergent, bath soap, shampoo, furniture polish, and floor wax. All of these aromas are made through the same basic process: the manipulation of volatile chemicals to create a particular smell. The basic science behind the scent of your shaving cream is the same as that governing the flavor of your TV dinner.
In a world where half of the ingredients are created in factories, it can be hard to decipher exactly what it is you are eating. In the last few months, it came to light that several large snack food companies had been using something called “porcine enzymes” in the culturing of their cheese (if you can even call the Cheetos dust “cheese”).
I didn’t know what porcine enzymes were, and most people don’t. Turns out, porcine enzymes are extracted from the carcasses of pigs through a process requiring liquefaction, boiling and evaporation of certain piggy fluids.
I’ll spare you the rest of the gory details, but the point is – these snack foods aren’t vegetarian, vegan, kosher or halal, and the snack food companies didn’t feel it necessary to make that clear.
Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but if they’re putting pigs in my Doritos, I’d prefer to know about it.
And it wasn’t just Doritos and Cheetos. It was Fritos, Ruffles, Lays – even Sun Chips. Plus lots of smaller brands.
Last month, Frito-Lay put up a list of pork-free snack foods on their website (in a way, it’d be easier if they put up a list of pork-infused snacks, but that can’t be a good marketing strategy).
Several years ago, McDonald‘s was sued for their use of beef flavoring in their french fries – something they lumped (all within USDA guidelines) into the term “natural flavoring,” despite publicly pledging that the fries were cooked only in vegetable oil. The use of beef flavoring continued for at least 11 years before becoming public in 2001, much to the dismay of vegetarians, vegans and Buddhists.
New ingredient revelations come about all the time, and they all point to one thing – the need for honesty and transparency in the food world. The USDA cannot stand by and allow large companies to produce food behind a veil, and consumers need to demand change.
Ya know, maybe not all consumers care about the nitty-gritty details of their diet – but some do. And food producers owe it to us to be honest and upfront about what’s going into their products.
If you want more information on the pitfalls of food labeling, I’d encourage you to check out Michael Pollan‘s book “In Defense of Food.” In case you haven’t heard of Pollan, he’s become a sort of food-journalist superstar (and deservedly so) over the last few years, with appearances on everything from Oprah to The Daily Show, and several best-selling books.