I have a bad memory with names. Terrible memory. Last night, in fact, one of my daughter’s ballet friends said hi to me and I completely blanked out on her name. Only on the ride home did it dawn on me. “Ella!” I yelled out suddenly. “That’s your friend’s name! For the life of me, I couldn’t remember her name when she said hi to me!” My daughter giggled.
In a food-related book that I read (but I don’t, for the life of me, remember the book’s title—again, my problem with names), it mentioned how “real” food is on the perimeter of every supermarket: produce, meat, seafood. The center of the grocery stores have “lab food.” Not that there aren’t problems with produce, meat and seafood, but the processed food that makes up all of the center of supermarkets is certainly the worst culprits in our fight for better health.
I’ve avoided the “lab food” shelves as much as I could since reading that book (what on earth is the title???). But now I’ve read more evidence about why it’s so bad. In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell talks briefly about food tasters. Gladwell’s book (which I happen to remember the title only because the book is right in front of me) discusses food tasters for a different reason than health, but when I read it, it forged in my mind yet another reason to avoid “lab foods.”
Here is Gladwell (my emphasis in bold):
Expert food tasters are taught a very specific vocabulary, which allows them to describe precisely their reactions to specific foods. Mayonnaise, for example, is supposed to be evaluated along six dimensions of appearance (color, color intensity, chroma, shine, lumpiness and bubbles), ten dimensions of texture (adhesiveness to lips, firmness, denseness, and so on), and 14 dimensions of flavor, split among three subgroups—aromatics (eggy, mustardy, and so forth); basic tastes (salty, sour and sweet); and chemical-feeling factors (burn, pungent, astringent). Each of those factors, in turn, is evaluated on a 15-point scale. So, for example, if we wanted to describe the oral texture of something, one of the attributes we would look at is slipperiness. And on the 15-point slipperiness scale, where 0 is not slippery at all and 15 is very slippery, Gerber’s Beef and Beef Gravy baby food is a 2, Whitney’s vanilla yogurt is a 7.5, and Miracle Whip is a 13. If you taste something that’s not quite as slippery as Miracle Whip but more slippery than Whitney’s vanilla yogurt, then, you might give it a 10. Or take crispiness. Quaker’s low-fat Chewy Chocolate Chunk Granola Bars are a 2, Keebler Club Partners Crackers are a 5, and Kellogg’s Corn Flakes are a 14. Every product in the supermarket can be analyzed along these lines, and after a taster has worked these scales for years, they become embedded in the taster’s unconscious. “We just did Oreos,” said Heylmun [a professional food taster], “and we broke them into 90 attributes of appearance, flavor and texture.” She paused, and I could tell that she was re-creating in her mind what an Oreo feels like. “It turns out there are 11 attributes that are probably critical.”
Ninety stinkin’ attributes for Oreos?! I, for one, can’t even come up with 20 different food attributes if you put a gun to my head, much less 90. But here’s the thing: “food scientists” are modifying each of those 90 attributes to get the perfect combination of “taste” before a processed food hits the store shelves! If that doesn’t spell out “lab food” to you, I don’t know what will.
My family started making our own mayonnaise from scratch. Call us simpletons but we evaluate the taste by only one attribute: does it taste good or not? We don’t worry about the six dimensions of appearance, the ten dimensions of texture or the (rolling my eyes) 14 dimensions of flavor. We don’t care about color intensity, chroma, shine, bubbles, adhesiveness to lips, burn, astringent or any other kooky attribute. We simply either like it or don’t like it. (And, yes, our mayonnaise tastes good.)
We know exactly what ingredients go in our homemade mayo (just four; Hellman’s has ten, including some chemical called “calcium disodium EDTA” and the vague word “spices”). Most lab foods are a littany of lab ingredients. Try this exercise: read aloud from the following ingredient list for Quaker’s “Strawberries & Cream” oatmeal:
Whole Grain Rolled Oats, Sugar, Flavored And Colored Fruit Pieces (Dehydrated Apples [Treated With Sodium Sulfite To Promote Color Retention], Artificial Strawberry Flavor, Citric Acid, Red 40), Creaming Agent (Maltodextrin, Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil**, Whey, Sodium Caseinate), Salt, Calcium Carbonate, Guar Gum, Oat Flour, Artificial Flavor, Citric Acid, Niacinamide*, Reduced Iron, Vitamin A Palmitate, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride*, Riboflavin*, Thiamin Mononitrate*, Folic Acid*; *One Of The B Vitamins; **Adds A Dietarily Insignificant Amount Of Trans Fat
I bet you had to slow down to read some of those chemical ingredients properly. Yuck. Now imagine swallowing that every morning.
Welcome to the world of lab foods. The ingredient list is a start in helping us decide what we should or should not buy, but there is so much more going on than what is listed in the ingredients because not everything is listed in the ingredients list. These food scientists are tweaking all sorts of things to alter the different “dimensions” of appearance, texture, flavor and the like. Buyer beware.
Now, what was the name of that food book?…