We live in a world where things are not as they seem. So much so that we are no longer able to decipher reality from mere illusions.
It all started with methyl anthranilate. Thought to be the first artificial flavor, this was discovered by accident in a lab by a German chemist who found his lab suddenly smelled like grapes. Since then it has been used to make numerous sweet things taste deliciously purple and strangely is also an effective bird repellent.
Last November 60 Minutes did an interesting segment on the Swiss-based flavor company Givaudan which develops and manufactures chemical flavorings and aromas for foods. Here’s a link to the Youtube video:
This is an uber-secretive industry with carefully guarded trade secrets. They will not reveal who their clients are or certainly their formulas. So you mean to say that they’re putting chemicals in our foods and won’t tell us what chemicals or which foods? Yeah, pretty much. By their own admission they are trying to create habit-forming flavors to keep the user coming back for more. They formulate the flavors to be intense but short on the finish. These flavors overstimulate the brain and cause the consumer to seek them out again and again. When you’re used to shooting up meth every morning it’s hard to go back to waking up with just a cup of coffee.
Call me a luddite, but if I’m trying to introduce an orange flavor in a food that I’m preparing, I’m going to start with a goddamn orange. And the chicken hose in the 60 Minutes video defies my definition of food. I must confess I watched with a sense of indignant satisfaction the chefs that had sold their souls even worse than I have.
To further complicate things, there is no clear definition of what can be labeled as ‘natural ingredients’ on a food label. Even a synthesized chemical can be called natural if it otherwise exists in nature. In the US there have been calls for the FDA to offer some clarity on the matter but they still have not yielded any success. So if you want eat natural foods there is nothing on a food label to tell you if you are eating food of the earth or of the chemistry lab.
But I regress. The overwhelming majority of us are guilty and I’m a hypocrite too. We are all willing accomplices to this trend that could obsolesce my own craft. I come from the country that invented Nacho Cheesier Doritos. I would wager to say that most people don’t give a rat’s ass.
So what’s the point? Why bother simmering bones for hours to extract flavors when all it takes is a small amount of super-umami-meaty powder to blast your taste buds into slobbery Pavlovian submission? Because it’s all fake. And because we are all guinea pigs in a giant experiment. Are these chemicals edible? Are they carcinogenic? Does your body process them the same way whether they are synthetic or naturally occurring? I don’t know and neither do you because it’s all still new. There’s very little case study to draw from and those with the information aren’t sharing.
I know these things aren’t going anywhere so the best strategy would be to manage it. I’m not an activist or an absolutist but I would like to know what I’m eating and what I’m feeding my son. We should demand to know and share information. So I say buy fewer processed foods and more natural foods. Go to your local farmer’s market. Eat less fast food. And don’t take the red pill.