Sympathy for the Devil

One thing that you may have found revealing from this week’s discussion of ice cream is the way in which naturally ocurring chemical compounds can sound synthetic. Talk of “emulsifiers” and “stabilizers” gives the impression of industrialized food, when in fact what these words really describe is a role. A “stabilizer” can be simple table sugar. An “emulsifier” an egg yolk. I bring this up because the way in which descriptive language is so often used to demonize certain types of foods irritates me.

Investigate the composition of the tomatoes in your garden and you’ll find no end of suspicious-sounding things. A partial tomato ingredient label might read this way: water, cellulose, sugars (fructose, sucrose, glucose, maltose), oligosaccharides, starch (amylose, amylopectin), citric acid, malic acid, alcohols, aldehydes, ethylene, aromatic sulfur compounds, aromatic oils, tomatine, furaneol, glutamic acid, carotenoids, lycopene. And that’s only scratching the very surface, as it were.

I suppose it’s the notoriously poor ability of scientists (notably food scientists) to write that’s partly responsible for the suspicion with which so many people greet food labels. Thankfully, with the rise of the natural and organic prepared foods industry, this is starting to change. Label writers are starting to bring a certain panache to the trade. Whereas just a few years ago a food label might have read lecithin (as an emulsifier), dextrin, guar gum (as a stabilizer), sugar, the back panel of a microwavable natural entree might read: egg yolk extracts, corn starch derivatives, natural bean gum, evaporated cane and beet juices. Sounds quite a bit more appetizing, even though it’s the same list (just a little less accurate).

All this is not to say that everything that appears on the back panels of mass-produced foods is good for you. Should you ever come across an ingredient label that reads isolated, partially enriched plutonium extracts, my suggestion is to turn and run the other way. But there’s a lot of needless hysteria circulating in the food world these days, and most of it arises from a simple misunderstanding about what some of these techy-sounding things on ingredient panels are.

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