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Is That Food or Not?

Several people have written me after noticing this article on Taco Bell’s ingredients. ABC gave me a call, since their reporter remembered my take on the Buzzfeed banned-ingredients stuff, and I was glad to say that although I haven’t eaten at Taco Bell for years, it’s not because their tacos have some potassium chloride in them.
But I also mentioned this post by Chemjobber, where he highlights a letter that showed up recently in C&E News, because I think it makes a good point about the attitude towards food ingredients. As I said to the ABC reporter, I don’t have any patience for the “Ooh, that’s hard to pronouce, so it must be icky” school of thought. Chemical nomenclature sounds weird and technical to people, for sure, but if you give the IUPAC names to the compounds found in the most pristine, all-natural piece of fruit plucked from a distant wild tree, it’ll also sound like a witch’s brew of toxic sludge – that is, if you don’t know anything about chemistry or biology. James Kennedy at Monash University has made this point vividly in his posters of food ingredients. They’re excellent. Here’s his banana poster, and that link will take you to more.
But my guess is that they still won’t convince many people. It’s that same problem I mentioned the other day, about how you can’t use reason to talk someone out of a position that wasn’t arrived at by reason. There’s a very human “ick” reflex, and it has nothing to do with the higher brain functions at all. As that C&E News letter writer says:

“. . .with the notable exceptions of salt, water, and a few necessary minerals, many people, if not most, find the use of ingredients in their food that are not derived by simple processes from living things to be offensive.”

It’s an emotional response, and I suspect that it has to do with a lot of very well-ingrained reflexes about what looks safe to eat, and what doesn’t. Dyeing a piece of bacon green makes it less appetizing, and serving wine out of an Erlenmeyer would throw off a taste-testing pretty thoroughly. As humans, we have instinctual responses to the question “Would I eat that?”, with cultural and learned-behavior ones laid on top of those. The mental picture many people have of “chemicals” as a bubbling vat of toxic waste, paired with the food-or-not instinctual response, is enough for most folks to rule out anything that sounds like it came from a lab bench.
So Taco Bell’s efforts to explain their ingredients list is probably doomed. Telling people that “Hey, you’ve already had this in other food” or “It’s just there to make the meat easier to handle” won’t address those emotional responses. It’s the same problem as azodicarbonamide in bread dough (another good whack at this one is to be found here in the Montreal Gazette). When the “Food Babe” (Vani Hari) goes after something like this, the entire appeal is to the emotional “ick” response, whether it’s valid or not. I don’t think she has any interest at all in going past that point, anyway.
The thing is, azodicarbonamide, trehalose, and other such ingredients are all in the same category: stuff that’s added to industrial-quantity food to make it easier/cheaper to make, mix, handle, store, or ship. That gives these ingredients still another level of unfamiliarity, since no home cook ever uses such things. But scale-up problems are just as real in the food business as they are in the lab: what works on the kitchen counter often does not work when you’re supplying 1100 franchises with a fleet of trucks. Especially when every one of those locations is expected to provide a meal that is exactly the same as every other one, every time. You can have only familiar ingredients in the food, have hundreds (or thousands) of identical locations, and serve everything for low prices – but probably not all of those at the same time.
To add to the emotional response, it’s worth remembering that in the past there have indeed been toxic ingredients added to food. We can go back to the use of lead salts by the Romans to sweeten wine and work up from there. But those sorts of stories have, thankfully, mostly disappeared from the world. The food supply in the industrialized countries is, as far as I can tell, safer than it’s ever been. Even hunter-gatherers, wandering through untouched forests and eating the natural diet of wholesome goodness, manage to consume some things that are borderline by our standards. There are, of course, plenty of poisons in Eden. The emotional response to a beautiful tropical beach is one thing, but the plants growing nearby (and the plankton in the water) can be producing compounds whose use would be banned by chemical weapons treaties, were they only available in enough quantity to have been listed.
Now, given a choice, I do not eat Taco Bell’s food, but that’s because I don’t find it all that tasty. Given a choice, I’ll have a tomato that I raised myself over one from the store, because (again) it’s more likely to taste better. But it’s not exactly tomato season in Massachusetts, especially this week, so if I want one to make my own Mexican food, I have to buy it from a big supplier who hauled it to me from somewhere warmer. More seasonally, no one sells Black-Seeded Simpson lettuce in the stores (it probably doesn’t ship well), but I have some growing out in the back yard right now in a small greenhouse. I’m not eating it because it’s “organic”, though. There’s other fast food and processed food that I’ll eat with no problems at all.
But as a chemist, I’m an outlier (as are most of the regular readers of this site). I’m not going to look at some long chemical name on a list of ingredients and immediately assume that I’m being poisoned, because I know that the chemical name of (say) Vitamin C sounds pretty fearsome by those standards, too: (R)-3,4-dihydroxy-5-((S)-1,2-dihydroxyethyl)furan-2(5H)-one, anyone? But I can understand why people do react that way. They’re wrong, and I’m glad to point that out and to provide details about why I think they’re wrong. But I’m not optimistic that I’m changing many opinions when I do it.

24 comments on “Is That Food or Not?”

  1. PPedroso says:

    Great, balanced post.
    Which just gives more credit to your “snake-oil” posts!

  2. Puff the Mutant Dragon says:

    Nice post. It’s difficult to combat this stuff because it’s such a complex problem. You have people like The Food Babe and “Dr.” Mercola out there who are actively spreading chemophobia and misinformation, and you also have a lot of urban legends that spread on Facebook (I saw a post about how baby carrots were supposedly carcinogenic going the rounds not too long ago, for example). That kind of thing is like a whack-a-mole game. And the average consumer doesn’t have the kind of chemistry or biochemistry knowledge they would need to decipher an ingredients list anyway, so they are very susceptible to the misinformation they are getting from these other sources. Also the default human reaction when confronted with an unpronounceable list of things you don’t know is to assume that what you DO know (flour, sugar, salt) is safer than what you don’t (potassium sorbate, soy lecithin, EDTA).
    This is the same kind of problem we’ve had with vaccines — there is abundant data to support their safety, but a combination of active misinformation + ill-informed consumers = continued mistrust. I think that more information and better education is the only way to solve it (if there IS a way to solve it, but I like to be optimistic).

  3. In Vivo Veritas says:

    Umm…. I found absolutely no problem consuming “beverages” from Erlenmeyers in grad school. But, then again, I’m a biologist….

  4. Morten G says:

    Well maybe you should have made an effort to get Yahoo to include the fact that you wouldn’t eat at Taco Bell.
    Also your link should point here:
    The anti-caking agent in the cheddar is unnamed. What is it?
    Only in one case does it say trans-fat free so I assume everything else isn’t.
    Most things are packed with benzoate and sorbate (why do we think the gut flora is super-important but gut flora killers in our food are irrelevant?).
    The roasted corn salsa actually has more than one ingredient and still sounds nice. Well done Taco Bell.
    Like you said Derek, it has to be cheap and fast so the people developing the items on the menu are probably extremely pressed for time and anything that’s “okay” probably ships. Otherwise there probably wouldn’t be gluten in the beans.
    And don’t forget that the dose makes the poison – phosphate is everywhere but in what dosage and how much is in the Taco Bell food?

  5. Carl 'SAI' Mitchell says:

    Disgust is dependent on familiarity. Most people only use sodium chloride as a food salt, so other salts which taste different are seen as disgusting. For example, most people not raised with it hate salmiakki (liquorice flavored with ammonium chloride.)
    Or, as another example, the Nordics and their fish dishes. The Danes like pickled herring but hate the Swedes’ fermented herring, and both find Iceland’s Hakarl (poisonous shark fermented by burying it in a hole by the beach for 8-12 weeks to remove the toxins) disgusting. It’s all about familiarity.
    If they called it “Potassium salt” it would likely be accepted. Potassium is good, and in bananas. Salt is fine. What’s not to like?

  6. Bender says:

    I’d love to see bread manufacturers take azodicarbonamide out of bread for a month and see what the public does when the prices spike. Guarantee the backlash would become about how the food companies were greedy and trying to price gouge. People are all on board with changing things for the better, as long as “change” involves nothing more than re-Tweeting or sharing on Facebook. Remember how outraged people were when they found out how Foxconn treats their workers? At least, they were outraged until the new iPhone came out; then they forgot.
    The average American gets forcefed their opinions from sensationalist blogs and news outlets. And they’re not motivated enough to check the validity of those opinions themselves. That’s why people will freak out about Starbucks using red dye derived from insects, but won’t ask a single question about anything else they eat that’s dyed artificially red.

  7. Justin says:

    Great post, Derek.
    Chemophobic, lazy and stupid is no way to go through life.
    – Dean Wormer

  8. Anonymous says:

    @2 “Also the default human reaction when confronted with an unpronounceable list of things you don’t know is to assume that what you DO know (flour, sugar, salt) is safer than what you don’t (potassium sorbate, soy lecithin, EDTA).”
    This reminds me of a great video on the dangers of dihygrogen monoxide. It’s everywhere so we must do something! /sarcasm

  9. Hap says:

    You can have only familiar ingredients in the food, have hundreds (or thousands) of identical locations, and serve everything for low prices – but probably not all of those at the same time.

    That’s pretty much it, in a nutshell. Given the choice of ingredients, taste, convenience, and price, ingredients usually rank last. (If food companies took a profit hit to add better ingredients without raising prices, there would probably be fewer of them left, which would probably kill both convenience and price, anyway).
    Hectoring people to not want to do what they do is a bad strategy that doesn’t work well. Scaring them works better, but generally is more evil (both requiring dishonesty and working only when people do not think). Perhaps simply living well would be a better strategy?

  10. Hasufin says:

    People get so very panicked about food. I wrote this little bit back in 2009:
    The “Center for Science in the Public Interest” has released a report on the ten riskiest foods regulated by the FDA
    If you look beyond the bombastic, panicky rhetoric (choice quotes like “a prefect storm of unsafe food”, “hazards come from all areas of the food supply”, and “this report represents the tip of the iceberg”) and actually look at the numbers, there’s an inescapable conclusion: food in the US is exceptionally safe.
    The report breaks down some 48206 cases of food-related illness, mostly salmonella but several others as well. Let’s call it 50,000 cases. That sounds like a lot, doesn’t it?
    But if you read tot he last little bit, you’ll find that they were using figures from 1990 to 2006. A sixteen-year timespan! That comes to a mere 3125 cases per year. By way of comparison, the CDC estimates that each year roughly 36,000 Americans die of regular influenza outbreaks.
    Got that? In one year, almost as many people die of normal (non-pandemic) flu as come down with foodborne illness over a sixteen-year period*. And the vast majority of the people with foodborne illnesses don’t die. They usually have nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, but they recover just fine.
    But we’re not done with the numbers. Because let’s consider your real chances of getting foodborne illness. The US census figure for 1990 was 248 million. In 2000 it was 281 million. Let’s be conservative and call it a nice even 260 million. Continuing to lowball it, I’m going to guess that each person eats two meals a day. So each year that’s 189,800,000,000, or about 190 billion meals consumed in America each year. In the time period in question that comes to 3,036,800,000,000 – about 3 trillion meals consumed. Remember, I’m being very conservative with my estimates here.
    So out of those 3 trillion meals, 50,000 of them caused foodborne illness. That’s one in 60 million. Your odds of being struck by lightning are 1 in 576000.
    “Perfect storm of unsafe food”? Not even close. This is a bunch of panic-mongers looking at a clear sky and calling it a hurricane.
    * I’m being a bit disingenuous here. Realistically there are a LOT more foodborne illnesses. These figures are only for the top 10 causes, and only the cases tracked by the CDC, which means the people sought medical treatment and the cause was actually linked to food.

  11. Wavefunction says:

    Latest Foodbabe post: “Don’t eat Taco Bell. It contains potassium chloride which is USED IN LETHAL INJECTIONS”.

  12. featherson says:

    James Kennedy omitted the radioactive potassium in his banana poster.

  13. Teddy Z says:

    So, in the URL above is another perfect example of this. Organic weed spray has acetic acid, magnesium sulfate, and probably stuff like triclosan, poly-whatever-ol, and so on.

  14. Anonymous says:

    I’m surprised the news reporter didn’t ask a real doctor like dr. sanjay gupta or dr. oz….since they know more about everything than “philosophy” doctors. Besides the viewers are only going to believe the type of doctor that touches you and asks you to cough.

  15. DCRogers says:

    While I agree wholeheartedly with your larger point (the ick factor of chemical names), there’s still a valid underlying concern here about ingesting compounds that have not been fully vetted for human consumption.
    Chemophobia aside, it’s not unreasonable for people to be concerned about being made into test subjects for compounds that may serve their interests marginally, if at all. Given our obesity epidemic, ‘cheap food’ seems a weak argument for why we need a distribution and packaging system that needs all that stuff.

  16. MoMo says:

    No one is forcing Americans to eat at Taco Bell and the ingredients listed for its meat are still edible and non-toxic compared to even “natural” foods, so all this conspiracy-induced whining is getting old.
    But Yum brands should talk about the research into shortening of the addiction cycle of the foods themselves, as they are acting as legal substances that break down normal feeding behaviors, causing overeating and hence obesity.
    Food is a legal drug, and Yum has figured out through sensory engineering how to hook millions of addicts.
    Ingredients and frequency are 2 different issues.

  17. gcc says:

    I definitely agree that “hard to pronounce” doesn’t necessarily mean “bad for you,” but I do think there might be some merit to avoiding foods that contain long lists of chemical additives.
    Heavily processed foods from fast food restaurants or in packages you buy at the grocery store tend to be very calorie dense and often high in simple carbohydrates and sodium. They’re also often designed to be consumed quickly, so you can eat a lot before your stomach signals your brain that you’re full.
    So even if the chemical additives themselves aren’t bad for you, a lot of the foods that contain them *are* bad for you. The “chemicals” in Taco Bell food don’t scare me away… but I’m pretty sure most of it isn’t good for me anyway.
    That’s why I try to avoid foods that contain chemical additives, even though I’m not at all “chemophobic.”

  18. PrairieBoy says:

    “Dyeing a piece of bacon green makes it less appetizing, and serving wine out of an Erlenmeyer would throw off a taste-testing pretty thoroughly.”
    Remember the Heinz experiment with purple ketchup? Kids may have thought it was cool, but parents put out the money and most refused.

  19. hn says:

    What does this say about the green ketchup boss at NVS?

  20. gippgig says:

    The azodicarbonamide story made the Washington Post: Unearthed
    Processed foods: It’s the subtractions, not the additions
    April 30 Food section F4

  21. DensityDuck says:

    #17 you seriously need to look at that banana poster, because it has “a long list of chemical additives”–longer, in fact, than the list of additives on the bottle of Diet Coke that’s sitting right next to me.

  22. gcc says:

    To #21, maybe I didn’t make my point clearly. Of course, all fruits, vegetables, grains, meats, etc. are entirely composed of chemicals, but I do think it’s worth distinguishing food *additives* from “food”. I see food *additives* as a surrogate marker for heavily processed foods, many or most of which aren’t very good for you.
    I’m my earlier comment, I referred to the fact that many highly processed foods are high in calories, simple carbohydrates, and sodium, but what is probably just as important is what they *aren’t* high in… nutrients. The article by Tamar Haspel in the Washington Post referred to by #20 makes this point very nicely.
    I could be wrong, but my guess is that if you took a random selection of foods from the grocery store, there’d be a reasonably good inverse correlation between nutrients per calorie and the number of chemical additives in the food item. Diet Coke would admittedly be an outlier, since it has essentially no nutritional value, but also no calories.
    There’s nothing intrinsically good about so-called “natural” foods or intrinsically bad about processed foods, but I do think most traditional whole food diets tend to be more nutritious than those based on highly processed foods that more often than not contain multiple chemical additives.
    (BTW, Tamar Haspel has a whole series of articles about food and health in the Washington Post that I think are pretty balanced and interesting.)

  23. Gene says:

    On the other hand, companies do put nasty stuff in food like butyric acid in Hershey’s bars, which is why they smell/taste like vomit.
    There’s also PGPR (polyglycerol polyricinoleate) in things like KitKat bars, which is a cheap-ass substitute for cocoa butter, and why they taste a little like motor oil, and why the “chocolate” is rubbery and flexible.
    These aren’t “bad” for you, they’re just ways to make it cheaper and crappier, so I have not eaten at Taco Bell since I was a student.

  24. steve says:

    I thing @gcc has a valid point. The problem is years of being told by experts that medicines, food additives and tons of industrial chemicals that have been released into the environment are safe only to find out later that they aren’t. To quote myself in an earlier thread, we’ve dumped CFCs that destroyed the ozone, chemicals that may cause cancer and alter hormonal systems (BPA, perchlorate, asbestos, and most recently glyphosphate, which WHO says probably causes cancer).

    One problem is that there is no regulation for these chemicals. See Here is their conclusion:
    “The Panel was particularly concerned to find that the true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated. With nearly 80,000 chemicals on the market in the United States, many of which are used by millions of Americans in their daily lives and are un- or understudied and largely unregulated, exposure to potential environmental carcinogens is widespread.”

    Is it any wonder that people are questioning what’s been added to their food?

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