Friday, June 7, 2013

But Is It Food?

A recent article by Dr. Mercola (June 3, exposed the formation of a new group, the Alliance to Feed the Future, purporting to “balance the public dialogue on modern agriculture and large-scale food production.” What they are, of course, is a front group of over 50 corporations and organizations devoted to burying the bad publicity about America’s food production coming from books like Salt, Sugar, Fat by Michael Moss, and Pandora’s Lunchbox by Melanie Warner. Representing multinational food, biotech, and chemical companies who stand to lose billions if Americans ever wake up to the scandal that is the “foods” they eat, the consortium adopts the tried and tested method of public relations bullshit that has given them their billions up to now: pretend to be concerned about the public’s health, about feeding a hungry world, about caring for people—by pretending to tell the “real story and dispel misperceptions about modern food production technology.” Ah yes, dispel misperceptions. Tell the real story. Believe that, and there’s a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you.
            From one angle, though, this is good news. Clearly, the hucksters are worried by the books mentioned above. I’ve already written about Moss’s book. Here I’ll go into some highlights of Melanie Warner’s book, Pandora’s Lunchbox. Like Moss’s, it is at once revealing and infuriating because it lays bare more of the story—this from the chemical additives side—of the crap that is being purveyed to the largely unsuspecting American public. My guess is that in a hundred years, when scholars look back at these times (assuming there is anyone left), they’ll scratch their heads in amazement that Americans could have been so stupid as to eat the adulterated puke sold to them as food. Actually, the question of whether this stuff can be called “food” is a good place to begin. And amazingly, it begins with those conservative darlings, the Koch brothers. Yes, the very same scoundrels who are behind several right-wing think tanks and the election of Scott Walker as governor of Wisconsin, are also behind the fracking process that gave us the Milk Protein Concentrate that now infests cheeses and milk and frozen pizzas and whipped toppings. Not surprisingly, it is an industrial process—a spinoff of the method used to crack crude oil (the Koch’s main business) into various hydrocarbon molecules to give us gasoline. Koch Membrane Systems, that is, developed “highly sophisticated membranes made from a type of plastic called polyethersulfone” to produce the ultrafiltration and microfiltration technology that can take milk apart by “separating it into molecular-sized fractions.” Then it can be made into new ingredients for processed foods: milk protein concentrate to help thicken yogurt and replace real cheese in Kraft’s Singles; whey protein concentrate to give us low-fat ice cream and half and half; casein and caseinate to yield imitation cheese for frozen pizzas and whipped toppings. Of course, the FDA, in a rare moment of conscience in 2002, told Kraft that rules for processed cheese don’t allow the use of milk protein concentrate. Probably figuring that Americans don’t read labels anyway, Kraft responded by simply changing their label: in very small letters, their individually-wrapped Singles now say “Pasteurized Prepared Cheese Product” rather than “cheese food.” Product, not food. It could stand for the entire American food industry—though neither McDonald’s nor Burger King calls their specialties “cheese-product burgers.” People might find that unappetizing.
            Melanie Warner caps this rather horrifying story with the question: But is it cheese? Loaded with twice the amount of sodium as Cabot Cheddar (no less than 10 sodium-based chemicals are used as emulsifiers, acidity regulators, preservatives and god knows what else), the “cheese” product called Singles is made to last. Possibly worse than the additives is what gets destroyed in the machining of such a product: the beneficial bacteria, called probiotics, that real cheese has as a consequence of its formation in the first place, and its aging in the second place (the longer a cheese ages, the greater the number of living organisms it has). These living bacteria in cheese feed on lactose, breaking it down so we eaters don’t have to. They contribute in other ways to our stomach microbiota, which aid in digestion to such a degree that some researchers call the microbiota of the gastrointestinal tract “an essential organ on par with the brain.” The bacteria there outnumber the cells in our entire body, and contain a hundred times more genes than the human genome; we could not eat without them. Cheese bacteria are even thought to ward off infection and stabilize blood pressure. And the process that produces “processed cheese product” is specifically designed to kill them off. Insane? Of course; but a “cheese product” whose bacteria is killed off doesn’t spoil. It lasts forever. So that’s what you get in your gut from Kraft.
            This is the central idea in Warner’s book (she calls it a paradox; it is really a massive understatement): “the fact that nutrition and convenience are sometimes deeply at odds” (59). And the conflict happens because of the violent industrial processes that are used to convert real foods (like oats, milk, wheat, chicken) into malleable and long-lasting “products.” The fracking of milk is one example. Another is what happens to grains to make Cheerios, Froot Loops, and Cheetos. As I said in my last post, my father refused to allow American cereals in our house, instead buying us wheat germ, which he insisted was the healthiest part of the wheat and which was routinely removed from commercial grains and flours. He was right. Though Harvey Kellogg—who invented the original Corn Flakes—was a health nut, his brother W.K. was a marketer who really built the giant company. First he ‘improved’ Corn Flakes by removing the germ as well as the bran from the corn, leaving only the starchy center. He did this to make the cereal longer lasting: the enzymes in the beneficial germ cause corn and wheat oils to go rancid. But that was only the beginning. The real killer process came later. Known as “extrusion,” it takes place in huge machines that Warner describes as “oversized jackhammers.” Inside a long barrel, “starch, sugar and protein molecules are ripped apart by twisting screws that generate large amounts of heat and pressure” in a process referred to as “plasticization.” (You couldn’t invent such apt terminology!) This precisely describes the “harsh and nutritionally devastating way of processing cereal”, which “swells the starch granule,” until it breaks, “spilling its guts into the solution it’s in,” thus forming a thick, homogenized mass that can then be molded into any “fun” shape the maker wants. Cheerios. Alpha Bits. The only problem is that the nutrients that are lost in the process are those essential vitamins A, B1, C, E, and folate. Nor are the nutrients the only things that “flash off” in the production: so too does natural flavor, color, and everything else of value. All these are then put back in—in their industrially isolated form, of course—so the resulting construct tastes and looks less like cardboard, and can be advertised as “super-nutritious” cereal.
            Nor is this all. The “mush” that is shaped into “cereal” no longer has the crunch or fiber our stomachs have evolved to work on in digestion. Warner writes that this

“appears profoundly to alter energy metabolism and the dynamics of hunger and satiety. When starches arrive in our stomachs already broken down, they enter our bloodstream rapidly (sugar rush), causing a spike in insulin and potentially fostering a dynamic that can lead to the condition known as insulin resistance, which is a precursor to type II diabetes (64).

Rats fed on 40 brands of such cereal for 12 weeks showed countless nutritional deficiencies, lacking among other things the key phytochemicals like carotenoids, flavonols, and polyphenols. Of course, food scientists are busy synthesizing all these things, including a fake fiber that is now being added to cookies and other snacks—this time by rescuing waste water from french fry factories, isolating the starch leached off from the fried potatoes, and then treating the starch with chemicals to “strengthen the joints between molecules so they can’t be broken during digestion.” This synthetic “fiber” mimics the action of fiber requiring more digestive action, but is it really fiber? The World Health Organization has doubts, as does the Institute of Medicine; though the FDA, of course, approves.
            I could go on. I could write about the GRAS (generally recognized as safe) scandal, where the FDA, faced with the 5,000 or so additives in food, decided in 1958 that some of these, like spices, salt, vinegar, and yeast, were well-known enough to be GRAS, and therefore wouldn’t need to be submitted for full review. Except that food companies began slipping other chemicals through this loophole. As if this weren’t bad enough, in 1997, the GRAS rules were eased even more, so that a company using a new additive could simply assess its safety on its own, and notify the FDA that it was safe. So at this moment, just about anything goes. Or the horrors of soy, especially soybean oil—now used almost exclusively to fry those French fries everyone loves so much, but which has toxic aldehydes “so reactive that they can interfere with both enzyme and hormone production as well as protein synthesis” (137). Soy oil, by the way, is made with hexane—the fraction of crude oil used to make gasoline (again, not because it’s the only process, but because hexane allows the extraction of 99% of the oil from soybeans, rather than the previous 70%!) Not to worry, though; Monsanto and DuPont are even now creating a genetically modified soybean to make the oil’s profile more like olive oil. Of course, that won’t help the omega 6 problem, but then, one can’t have everything. Oh, and soy protein, produced mostly by a corporation called Solae, is used everywhere to “bulk up” meats and keep them juicier longer—which Solae describes as being necessary for meats going through “high abuse circumstances.” Like the chicken made by Tyson, which is pounded and beaten under high pressure to the point where the resulting mush can be bulked up with soy protein (no one knows in what amount) and shaped to make its dinosaur nuggets, BBQ Chicken Chips and Popcorn Chicken Bites all the kids in school lunch programs love so much.
            But I think you get the picture. The American food industry is a virtual war machine, beating and pounding and extruding natural foods (well, sort of natural; the mayhem that’s perpetrated on natural grains in GM and pesticide and herbicide farming constitutes a crime against nature even before it gets to the Kellogg’s and Kraft’s of our world) into the living death that is processed food. No wonder those who eat it come to resemble zombies so much. This really gets to the final point of Warner’s book. She points out that even where the rare food executive tries to focus on nutrition and health, the deck is so stacked in favor of profits that it is impossible. In 2011, for example, a new head of Pepsico named Indra Nooyi, tried to remove artificial ingredients from their snack products like Tostitos, emphasized sales of fruit and vegetable drinks, and gave talks about healthy snacks and drinks. Then, according to Warner, “investors and Pepsi bottlers freaked out.” In a 2011 report in Beverage Digest, Pepsi-Cola, the company standard, had slipped to third most popular beverage behind both Coke and Diet Coke. Analysts attributed the drop to “increased focus on its better-for-you portfolio.” And one Pepsi bottler put it all in perspective with this complaint: “Is she (Nooyi) ashamed of selling carbonated sugar water?” Nooyi, as expected, did a 180, initiating a huge advertising campaign to restore the primacy of “carbonated sugar water.” The moral of the story: morality is for losers. The only path for an American corporation is the constant battle to be Number 1.
            What Warner does with this story, though, is to let corporations off the hook. She essentially ends her book with the truism that Americans cannot expect corporate food manufacturers to do anything other than what they are now doing—giving the public what it appears to want, and seeking ever-larger profits doing it. Those that try a different tack are quickly punished by loss of sales and profits and revolts from their stockholders. Therefore, it is up to mothers and families to get healthy: “the choice about what we feed ourselves and our children is ultimately ours,” concludes Warner.
            This is true, of course. But Warner herself has shown, chapter and verse, how the deck is heavily stacked against the consumer. Corporations invest billions of dollars to con harried mothers into buying easily prepared (mostly pre-prepared) foods, processed foods heightened with chemicals that mimic and often out-perform natural tastes, in a massive fakery that few can resist. They are aided by government agencies that fear antagonizing the huge businesses that they depend on, and thus validate their piracy. What is needed, in the face of all this, is outrage. American consumers need to be outraged by the selling and promotion of “carbonated sugar water.” They need to be outraged by the massive advertising that convinces their children from their earliest years that food is “fun,” that food is “sweet,” that food comes in plastic from machines rather than from the good earth. They need to be outraged by being the subjects of a massive experiment in the chemicalization of food, of the poisoning of their bodies. Then they need to be make their outrage known—to the representatives at both the state and national levels, to the agencies charged with protecting their food, the FDA and the USDA, to the reporters who mostly remain silent about the scandal that is the American food industry, to the food industry itself—up to and including demanding jail terms for executives who continue to feed them poison. And then they need to stop buying the shit that is fed to them and return, by whatever means necessary, to the knowledge of what real food really is. And the practice of preparing it, eating it, enjoying it as it was meant to be enjoyed before these purveyors of adulterated slop got a prime place at their table.

Lawrence DiStasi


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