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What we eat is a much more intricate subject that it might first appear.
Behind the labels are many troubling issues… and GMOs are just the tip of the iceberg.
The London Guardian carried this interest piece revealing how so much of our foods – even the most natural in appearance – are engineered, manufactured and packaged with invisible processing ‘ingredients’ derived from sophisticated lab processes.
Now, as the food manufacturing industry is keeping up with consumer demand, scary sounding and artificial looking ingredients are increasingly fading from food packages. But as the London Guardian makes clear in this expose from a food ingredients exposition, it is not always because the quality or ingredients improved, but instead because the industry has embarked upon a “clean label” initiative to derive substitutes that fly under the radar of current regulations or – like ‘extract of rosemary’ – sound benign compared with previous industry solutions like butylhydroxyanisole (BHA), which has been classified as a ‘reasonably anticipated human carcinogen,’ despite assurances by many that it is safe in small doses.
Here are just a few segments of Joanna Blythman’s piece, Inside the food industry: the surprising truth about what you eat, well worth a full read for its peak inside your grocery store, food cabinet and assortment of convenience foods:
Anything that comes in a box, tin, bag, carton or bottle has to bear a label listing its contents, and many of us have become experts at reading these labels. But many of the additives and ingredients that once jumped out as fake and unfathomable have quietly disappeared. Does this mean that their contents have improved? In some cases, yes, but there is an alternative explanation. Over the past few years, the food industry has embarked on an operation it dubs “clean label”, with the goal of removing the most glaring industrial ingredients and additives, replacing them with substitutes that sound altogether more benign. Some companies have reformulated their products in a genuine, wholehearted way, replacing ingredients with substitutes that are less problematic. Others, unconvinced that they can pass the cost on to retailers and consumers, have turned to a novel range of cheaper substances that allow them to present a scrubbed and rosy face to the public.
On a bright, cold day in late November 2013, I found myself in the dark, eerie, indoor expanses of Frankfurt’s Blade Runner-like Festhalle Messe. I was there undercover, to attend an annual trade show called Food Ingredients. This three-day exhibition hosts the world’s most important gathering of ingredients suppliers, distributors and buyers. In 2011, when it was held in Paris, more than 23,000 visitors attended from 154 countries, collectively representing a buying power of €4bn (£2.97bn). Think of it as the food manufacturers’ equivalent of an arms fair. It is not open to the public. Anyone who tries to register has to show that they work in food manufacturing; I used a fake ID.
As Blythman points out, this is not just an ingredients trade show for some; the buying power of those in attendance is major. The many ingredient shortcuts and tricks noted in the full article are used by most, and it is very much a case of buyer beware.
Even basic, natural fruit isn’t necessarily what it seems:
Tired after hours of walking round the fair, and, uncharacteristically, not feeling hungry, I sought refuge at a stand displaying cut-up fruits and vegetables; it felt good to see something natural, something instantly recognisable as food. But why did the fruit have dates, several weeks past, beside them? A salesman for Agricoat told me that they had been dipped in one of its solutions, NatureSeal, which, because it contains citric acid along with other unnamed ingredients, adds 21 days to their shelf life. Treated in this way, carrots don’t develop that telltale white that makes them look old, cut apples don’t turn brown, pears don’t become translucent, melons don’t ooze and kiwis don’t collapse into a jellied mush; a dip in NatureSeal leaves salads “appearing fresh and natural”.
For the salesman, this preparation was a technical triumph, a boon to caterers who would otherwise waste unsold food. There was a further benefit: NatureSeal is classed as a processing aid, not an ingredient, so there’s no need to declare it on the label, no obligation to tell consumers that their “fresh” fruit salad is weeks old.
So, the average consumer has no way of even knowing they are eating an extra processed food ingredient, as it is not even put on the label!
Somehow, I couldn’t share the salesman’s enthusiasm. Had I eaten “fresh” fruit salads treated in this way? Maybe I had bought a tub on a station platform or at a hotel buffet breakfast? It dawned on me that, while I never knowingly eat food with ingredients I don’t recognise, I had probably consumed many of the “wonder products” on show here. Over recent years, they have been introduced slowly and artfully into foods that many of us eat every day – in canteens, cafeterias, pubs, hotels, restaurants and takeaways.
Not only are busy moms and convenience shoppers kept in the dark about what is the foods that go into their bodies – sold to them with hundreds of positively-worded market slogans – but much of the information about the real ingredients is also kept secret under corporate trade practices.
Even investigative journalists have a difficult time finding out the truth about what’s in the food:
When you try to dig deeper, you hit a wall of secrecy. For at least the past decade, the big manufacturing companies have kept a low profile, hiding behind the creed of commercial confidentiality, claiming they can’t reveal their recipes because of competition. Instead, they leave it to retailers to field any searching questions from journalists or consumers. In turn, retailers drown you in superfluous, mainly irrelevant material.
The ‘de minimis’ interpretation of the FDA means even less transparency for American consumers than those in Europe and the UK. Trace amounts and amounts less than 1% are assumed to be of little concern for their potentially toxic nature, despite the precautionary principle and despite the effect of cumulative, lifelong consumption of what has become the most unhealthy generation in history.
Despite the best efforts of many people to eat wholesome and healthy foods, the labels are downright deceptive. Industry pros have, after years of controversy for ingredients like MSG, learned to hide the technology employed in creating and preserving the foods, behind vague and tricky wording that they know full well most will gloss over, if they read it at all:
We all eat prepared foods made using state-of-the-art technology, mostly unwittingly, either because the ingredients don’t have to be listed on the label, or because weasel words such as “flour” and “protein”, peppered with liberal use of the adjective “natural”, disguise their production method. And we don’t know what this novel diet might be doing to us.
Food manufacturers combine ingredients that do not occur in natural food, notably the trilogy of sugar, processed fat and salt, in their most quickly digested, highly refined, nutrient-depleted forms. The official line – that the chemicals involved pose no risk to human health when ingested in small quantities – is scarcely reassuring. Safe limits for consumption of these agents are based on statistical assumptions, often provided by companies who make the additives.