Feeding the student body
I have a few heroes, one of whom is author Michael Pollan. He has written foodie books such as "The Botany of Desire" and "The Omnivore's Dilemma." His latest, "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto," is about the industrial food industry and how to eat healthier in the age of processed foods. He has a general rule of thumb that states one should not eat anything with more than five ingredients, or "if you can't say it, don't eat it." But Pollan has also been caught by readers buying Coco Puffs cereal in the grocery store, which has about 24 ingredients. If the experts cannot avoid processed foods, how can we normal eaters be expected to do so?
With popular phrases thrown around like "government subsidized corn," 100 percent natural ingredients and certified sustainable and organic ingredients, it is easy to get overwhelmed and give up caring about what is in your food, as long as it is in your belly. But it is possible and necessary for consumers to be informed. It is especially important when it comes to what they eat, where it comes from and what in the world those long ingredients lists mean. Can you picture hydrolyzed corn gluten or riboflavin? Why would Nestlé put that in our Hot Pockets?
Take a normal college breakfast — well, let us just say there is such a thing. Stopping at McDonald's right before they stop serving breakfast, you order the scrambled eggs. The name has one ingredient, and it appears to be just that — eggs that the nice McDonald's workers scrambled for you. It was a late night, so you add in an order of the hash browns too, which seem to just be potatoes even though the grease makes the paper container quite window-like.
Even though McDonald's breakfast is obviously not healthy by any means, when in the arc of time did scrambled eggs start to include things like pasteurized whole eggs with sodium acid pyrophosphate, citric acid, monosodium phosphate and nisin, which are the first ingredients. Hydrogenated cottonseed oil, soy lecithin (sounds like a dance-move), mono and diglycerides (sounds like chemistry class), sodium benzoate (sounds like medicine) and potassium sorbate also are thrown in there by some food-Frankenstein laboratory worker. McDonald's is even kind enough to tell you they are made with liquid margarine, instead of plain old butter. More of the same — and worse — went into your innocent hash brown.
How can you be a savvy foodie? Start by decoding all of these ingredients like you would a huge vocabulary word on the Graduate Record Examination. Partially-hydrogenated vegetable oil shows up in everything from peanut butter to saltine crackers, and it will kill you slowly while expanding your waistline and shrinking your arteries. It is made from healthy vegetable oils in liquid form, injecting some hydrogen into it so it becomes solid and easier to cook with. Somewhere in that science experiment, trans-fats pop up. A lot of negative spotlight has been shown on PHVO, and we as a society know it is bad, but do we check if we are consuming it? Rarely. Do we ask restaurants if they have it? Doubt it. So we eat it.
When a friend pours that powdery fake sugar into her coffee, I am always tempted to reprimand. I have never researched studies on fake sugar; it just intrinsically seems terrible. You know the words saccharin, aspartame and all of their friends. Saccharin has been involved in countless studies, the results of which found it causes cancer of the urinary bladder of rodents, as well as uterus, ovaries, skin, blood vessels and other organs. The National Cancer Institute even found it was associated with a higher risk of bladder cancer.
Aspartame, which is in the same vein, has been linked to brain cancer, leukemias/lymphomas and breast cancer. The Food and Drug Administration have curiously deemed both saccharin and aspartame as safe, after the diet-food industry pressured the U.S. and Canadian governments and the World Health Organization to take saccharin off their lists of cancer-causing chemicals. The industry acknowledges that saccharin causes bladder cancer in male rats, but argues that those tumors are caused by a mechanism that would not occur in humans.
High-fructose corn syrup can be seen as the most prevalent of all processed ingredients and can now be found in everything from pickles to pasta sauce. Basically anything that can be made a little bit sweeter so our caveman taste buds like it more. As Michael Pollan says, "Do you know anyone who cooks with high-fructose corn syrup? It's not an ingredient you'll find in a home pantry. It's a tool of food science."
We as consumers must always be wary of the food industry. For example, now that it is common knowledge about the ills of high-fructose corn syrup, Coca-Cola and Snapple are marketing their products as ones with none of that, just all natural products. OK, well they are just telling us that other kinds of sugar are healthy, when that is not true either. This brings us back to Pollan's point to avoid these chemical catastrophes — just eat and drink things you can picture in your head. Häagen-Dazs has even co-opted Pollan's five ingredients idea, with their "Häagen Dazs five" product. It is a step in the right direction, but we cannot live on ice cream alone, unfortunately.
Joanna Cirillo is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in journalism and media studies. Her column "So Fresh So Green" runs on alternate Mondays.