Most of us probably consider ourselves to be fine, upstanding citizens. Maybe we are. We live our lives out in the open, just trying to make an honest living and go about our day-to-day business. But more and more I am aware of a seedy side to the honest, industrious American dream. The products we come into contact with on a day to day basis, everything from our breakfast cereal to our facewash to our lunch to that after-dinner snack, goes through its life cycle as covertly as possible, hoping not to get noticed by alert or informed consumers. We spend our modern lives surrounded by junk.
Take an unassuming package of cookies I was recently given after donating blood. "Grandma's Homestyle Fudge Chocolate Chip Cookies," to be exact. Frito-Lay bought Grandma's Cookies in 1980 and boasts that "today, Grandma's Cookies is the most popular cookie brand sold in convenience stores and vending machines in the US." What a selling point!
As I was perusing the Frito-Lay website, I noticed a section under "For Your Health" entitled "Ingredient Concerns." Under that subheading I noticed a "Products Not Containing MSG" list. As you might know, MSG or monosodium glutamate is a chemical best-known for its use in cheap Chinese food. It's marketed as a "flavor enhancer" and is now included in many of the processed foods we encounter every day. Basically, it tricks your brain into thinking something tastes good when it doesn't. It also causes reactions in some small amount of people, but is classified as safe by the FDA [which is not exactly the shining standard for regulation, but that's another post]. "Why do Frito-Lay snacks contain MSG? Monosodium glutamate (MSG), found naturally in many foods, is merely a flavor enhancer. Only very small amounts of MSG are necessary to enhance the spices and seasonings used in flavored Frito-Lay snacks. Extensive consumer testing indicates that consumers prefer the taste of chips with MSG." Duh, because it's tricking their brains into preferring it! I wonder if those people were told what MSG is and what it does before they took those surveys.
So, that aside, here I am on Frito-Lay's website looking at a list of products that don't contain any MSG and wondering which ones do. By the way, Frito-Lay refers to itself as a "leader in the convenient food industry," as if apples were somehow not convenient.
What I really want to do here is call attention to the creepy nature of the food these kinds of companies sell. MSG aside, we are ingesting all kinds of alien "ingredients" each time we eat this stuff. In my bag of Grandma's Cookies, the ingredient list is long and filled with 4+ syllable words. So as I was staring at it, I began to wonder how it would compare to real homemade cookies. Probably not at all. But I thought it was worth investigating.
Ingredients for Grandma's Fudge Chocolate Chip cookies: enriched flour (bleached and unbleached wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), vegetable shortening (partially hydrogenated soybean and/or cottonseed oil), sugar, high fructose corn syrup, semisweet chocolate chips (sugar, chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, anhydrous dextrose, milkfat, soy lecithin, natural and artificial flavors), dextrose monohydrate, light and dark cocoa processed with alkali, malt syrup, modified corn starch, salt, leavening (ammonium bicarbonate, sodium bicarbonate), propelyne glycol, mono- and diesters of fats and fatty acids, mono- and diglycerides, soy lecithin, BHT (to protect flavor), citric acid (to protect flavor), powdered swiss chocolate flavor (natural and artificial flavor, nonfat milk solids, modified food starch, dextrose, maltodextrin, gum acacia, partially hydrogenated soybean oil), natural and artificial flavors, and whole eggs.
For the purpose of comparison, I just searched for cookies with a similar name. I couldn't find any double chocolate chip cookies in my Joy Of Cooking or Better Homes cookbooks, so I googled it. The first recipe I came to seemed like it would do.
Ingredients for Absolutely Deep Dark Chocolate Fudge Cookies (from massrecipes.com): unsweetened cocoa, all-purpose flour, baking soda, salt, semisweet baking chocolate, unsweetened baking chocolate, light brown sugar, unsalted butter, eggs, vanilla, semisweet chocolate chips.
Look at the difference! And what is all that extra crap in the first list anyway? BHT, or Butylated hydroxytoluene, which was apparently used to protect the flavor of the cookies, is used as an antioxidant food additive as well as in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, jet fuels, rubber, petroleum products, and embalming fluid. It prevents changes in food's color, smell and taste— I wonder if it does the same thing for corpses? BHT is found in cereal, chewing gum and food high in fats such as potato chips and shortening, and has been banned for food use in Japan and Australia. Gum acacia (aka gum arabic) is at least a natural product. It's used as a food stabilizer, and also in soft drinks, paints, inks, cosmetics, pyrotechnics, shoe polish, and postage stamp adhesives.
I always wonder, too, what exactly is meant by the "natural and artificial flavors" ingredient. According to Eric Schlosser, author of the fantastically disturbing book Fast Food Nation [read it!], the flavor industry in America rakes in about $1.4 billion annually. Schlosser writes, "Many of today's highly processed foods offer a blank palette: whatever chemicals are added to them will give them specific tastes. Adding methyl-2-pyridyl ketone makes something taste like popcorn. Adding ethyl-3-hydroxy butanoate makes it taste like marshmallow. The possibilities are now almost limitless. Without affecting appearance or nutritional value, processed foods could be made with aroma chemicals such as hexanal (the smell of freshly cut grass) or 3-methyl butanoic acid (the smell of body odor)."
So really, the cocoa in those seemingly innocuous cookies may very well have been added as a token ingredient, a nod to the simple recipes of yesterday and a way of pacifying consumers who expect cocoa in chocolate cookies. But does it need to be in there? Who knows. Maybe for color purposes?
My solution to this kind of scary ingredient list has been to quit eating it! I stopped shopping at Meijer and now do all my grocery shopping at the local food co-op. There's a lot less junk food there, and what is on the shelves consists of natural ingredients and less of the unpronouncable stuff. And anyway, when I'm there I'm so tempted by the real food I usually don't look too hard at the processed stuff.
If you're interested in this kind of thing, I would recommend Michael Pollan's newest book, In Defense of Food: an eater's manifesto. I actually haven't read it yet [my mom has it right now], but it focuses on what the subject implies— defending food. From the website:
Food. There's plenty of it around, and we all love to eat it. So why should anyone need to defend it?
Because most of what we're consuming today is not food, and how we're consuming it -- in the car, in front of the TV, and increasingly alone -- is not really eating. Instead of food, we're consuming "edible foodlike substances" -- no longer the products of nature but of food science. ...
But if real food -- the sort of food our great grandmothers would recognize as food -- stands in need of defense, from whom does it need defending? From the food industry on one side and nutritional science on the other. Both stand to gain much from widespread confusion about what to eat, a question that for most of human history people have been able to answer without expert help.
Or, to condense it all, Pollan gives us a simple motto to live by: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
By the way, if those Deep Dark cookies sounded delicious, try them for yourself!. The recipe included a ganache for dipping. Yum!