Wondering What Weird Stuff Is in Our Food?

March 30, 2012 in Foodland Chronicles, Health, Nutrition, Nutritionism by Joyce Bunderson

Have you glanced at the ingredient list on the side of a box? Have you seen a list of mysterious ingredients; some making you lose your appetite? Have you been slimed? Who you gonna call? Maybe Ghost Busters, but certainly not the food processors or the USDA, who say ‘pink slime’ is a perfectly safe, cost effective and nutritious product even though it is largely being pulled from the market in response to public outcry. The ‘Pink Slime debacle’ as the food processing industry is referring to it, makes me feel that our message of knowing what is in our food and eating food that is not highly processed has been adopted my many.

Since I rarely eat burgers, I was not as emotionally impacted by the ‘pink slime’ news as some of my friends. But I’m the first to admit that, after seeing the pictures and reading the materials about pink slime, I was grateful that I rarely eat hamburger. It is, in all honesty, not only icky, but also disgusting. It seems to me, that taking all the little bits and pieces of beef (tailings), which are very fatty scraps, rendering out lots of the fat and micro-grinding the resulting product; stirring in some ammonium hydroxide to kill the very likely microbes – should cause many to say “Eww, that sounds gross, I’ll pass on the beef filler!”

The food processors are worried about the moniker that was chosen for ‘lean finely textured beef (LFTB).’ Certainly, the consumer groups that popularized the “Pink Slime” name (I think it is aptly named.) were trying to get our attention. The food processors that named it LFTB were trying to make it sound healthy, or at least innocuous. The consumer groups have been successful – they got our attention. The moniker was a clever choice. The LFTB name stands as a typical example of the crafty practice of misdirection by food marketers. Lean? Only by rendering out lots of fat from very fatty scraps involving connective tissue. Finely textured? A euphemism about grinding it up so small as to disguise its origin. Beef? The processor says its 97% - 100% beef. The former USDA Official, Microbiologist Gerald Zernstein, who gave it the name “Pink Slime” says it was connective tissue, not muscle, and the main reason he objected to it was it was not meat. So the truthfulness of the name Lean Finely Textured Beef strikes out on all the words it includes.  What about what it omits? It is a marketing rule to say nothing about additives like ammonium hydroxide unless required. Food labels today abound with chemical names. Unconscionably, it has not been required to list LFTB on ground beef labels.

Response by the Food Industry

You may want to take a moment and read a fairly short response, “Pink slime: Safe, nutritious – and icky written by industry spokes-person Caroline Scott-Thomas and published in Food Navigator on March 27, 2012. She says that the “pink slime” “debacle should serve as a lesson to the industry to become more transparent about its ingredients and processes.” I will applaud that transparency if it ever appears. But as you will note if you read Scott-Thomas’ article, the industry is having a difficult time influencing its constituents; she says, “I’m looking at you, nanotechnology.” In addition, she points out that scientifically based publicity about trans fats and their increased risk of heart disease has not stopped their use. “But there are still manufactures using trans fats in their products. Is it any wonder consumers don’t trust the food industry when some manufacturers consider cost to be more important than switching out a dangerous ingredient?”

Are you wondering what weird stuff is in our foods? Although I had classes in food technology and food science, I’ve been wondering for a long time – “What is some of this stuff?” I’ve written quite extensively about eating real foods, and avoiding highly processed foods. It seems to me that when we’re choosing real foods we recognize at the market, we position ourselves to be a little safer from the next surprise ingredient of the food processors.

Of course, there are hundreds of ingredients that are added to foods, so it’s just about impossible to keep up with all of them. But if we eat very little of the highly processed foods, we may be able to avoid that disgusting feeling of, “Yuck! What have I been eating?”

What is thickening and gelling your processed food? National Public Radio published (NPR) a wonderful list of 10 food ingredients that are used to make the texture and ‘mouth feel’ of low fat foods acceptable to the public.  Certainly the ten chosen by NPR are not the only additives; there are thousands of other ‘food ingredients.’ If you want to know which food ingredients are on the USDA prohibited and allowed list they are posted publicly.  But I still think the easiest method of managing all of the food additives is not to eat the highly processed foods. Just say NO. Or short of that, to eat the majority of your diet prepared from real whole foods.

I’ve added a book to my reading wish list, Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back, by Michele Simon. I haven’t read it yet, but it sounds like she’ll be preaching to the choir I sing in. I’m already confident that by making most of our meals from fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, low-fat dairy, fish, poultry and occasional beef or pork, that I’m reducing our opportunity of consuming lots of additives and avoiding a ‘pink slime’ style scare.

Food processor marketers as a group have the ability to give me a good laugh. Their creative dance of misdirection and deceit is endlessly entertaining.  Laughter is better than tears, which could also be shed for the victims of these deceits, but as those who know me realize, I love a good laugh. One of the new classifications of processed foods is called, “better for you.”  The food industry is very excited, as the ‘better for you’ products are reportedly driving more than 70 percent of food company sales growth in the last five years. But what I want to know is, “better than what?” Is it better than clearly defined junk food? “Better for you” is relative to what you are comparing it with. Just because the food processors are calling it better for you, doesn’t mean that it’s good for you. Be careful! Think about The SnackWell Syndrome and WhoNu? Cookies to get your mind rolling in the right direction.

Some of the companies being lauded for doing such a good job in the ‘better for you’ category are: Coke, Quaker, and Lean Cuisine. The reason that they’re being so highly praised is that the stockholders are seeing better operating profits and better shareholder returns. One of the ‘poster products’ for the ‘better for you’ classification is Vitaminwater, which seems to keep the Coco-Cola corporate attorneys busy in the courts. (You may remember that I nominated Vitaminwater to be the ‘poster child’ for nutritionism.)

What can we do?

Continue on the road to improving your diet one day at a time. Eating an additional serving of vegetables or fruit at each meal. Switch from junk food chips and dips, to fruits or vegetables dipped in yogurt, peanut butter or hummus. Possibly keep a bag of nuts or a piece of fruit with you to protect you from a fast food stop. Try to adjust your schedule to avoid eating too many restaurant meals. Begin moving away from the ‘sugar cereals’ and sugary drinks. Take a whole-wheat muffin, a piece of fruit and a little yogurt with you as you’re running out the door in the morning rush (skip the cheesy fast food croissant). Like all changes, it’s better to choose a specific goal. Think of the steps to actually make it happen; you will increase the likelihood of getting to that healthier eating place – a place with less added, weird, or icky-but-profitable ingredients.