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.