Don’t bank on this food

ourcupboard.jpgLast Thursday, E. Ho and I took an unflinching look at the ingredients of the food in our cupboard.

Well, we maybe flinched a little. I'm not saying all of the foods pictured here are bad for you.

It's just impossible to tell if they're bad for you.

Inspired by the documentary Future of Food, which focuses on genetically
modified food in North America and its health implications as well as its connection to corporations and government, E. Ho and I prepared to assess our pre-Ethicurean purchases lurking in our pantry. According to the True Food Network, a grassroots network of the Center for Food Safety, 99% of genetically engineered (GE) crops are soy, corn, cotton, or canola. Because these products are used in processed foods, it is estimated that about 70% of processed food (except for those labelled organic) contain GE ingredients.

Not surprisingly, in America there is no label requirement for foods that use GE ingredients. However, GE ingredients are not allowed in organic foods, so that is the only way to be certain that you're not eating GE food.

I found this very helpful list of corn-derived ingredients composed by a person who is allergic to corn. We removed any item that contained these ingredients. Also, we removed anything that had "soy", "cottonseed," "canola," or "miso" in the label.

After researching ingredients like "maltodextrin," "soy lecithin," and "hydrolyzed corn gluten" for about an hour and a half, I have to admit: I'm still confused. What the hell is this stuff? What the hell is aspartame, for instance, and why have I only become curious about it recently? And howcome I keep forgetting what it is after I've just read about it?

I had to remind myself: baby steps. I can't expect myself to understand the complex chemical processes used to make most of this stuff. Not yet, anyway. And the fact of the matter is, it is very overwhelming. After I had a vague idea of what the ingredient was, I had to figure out if it was good or bad for me. Aspartame, for instance is mired in controversy. The FDA claims that after extensive research, they have found aspartame to be "safe for the general public."

squash.jpgHowever, other studies have shown that aspartame may cause brain lesions, brain tumors, and lymphoma. Although research results for studies involving aspartame are controversial, there is evidence that ties to the aspartame industry (i.e. research sponsored by Nutrasweet) are far more likely to reveal that aspartame has no human health effects.

Hmm...maybe Nutrasweet could pay other people to say they paid for the study.

It reminded me of Michael Moore in the Corporation, asking, "Why, as a consumer, should I take any chances?" If aspartame MAY cause cancer, why should I work at believing it is safe?

On the other hand -- dammit, why did I have to look into my damn cupboard? I like Diet Coke. I drink like, two of them a day. They have aspartame galore. I was wondering if I should actually stop drinking it, and while looking for more information, I found out that Coca-Cola kills people. According to the site, people who work for Coca-Cola in the bottling factories in Columbia are being assassinated for involvement in unions.

Fuck Coca-Cola then. Maybe they're not killing people, but if they're gonna sit there and look like they're killing people, I'm not buying from them. And I don't feel bad for them, either. They're a rich-ass corporation, they don't need my pity.

After E. Ho and I finished over-exhausting our speech-articulation muscles from reading the polysyllabic ingredients on the labels of our cupboard food, we started looking stuff up online. I can really only write about a few of them per week. It's like writing a research paper, dudes.

Xanthan gum

According to the website of a chemistry professor from London South Bank University, xanthan gum is a "microbial desiccation-resistant polymer prepared by aerobic submerged fermentation from Xanthomonas campestris", a bacteria. This is food? While it is not made out of corn, the media used to grow the bacteria is often corn, soy, or other plants.

It is used to increase viscosity in liquids. Typically the biopolymer (another fancy word I picked up) is used in salad dressings and sauces. It was developed by the Department of Agriculture in order to replace natural gum, which is found only in trees. Also, it is used in oil drilling in order to retrieve more oil from the ground. That sounds cool.

But I don't really want to eat it. Until the US starts labelling GE food, I don't want to eat anything corn-related.

Monosodium Glutamate

I remember seeing signs on Chinese restaurants that said, "No MSG!" I didn't really know what that meant. I thought it meant "No message," sort of like "No UPS" signs. According to Wikipedia, MSG is a sodium salt of glutamic acid. Produced by fermentation of starch, sugar beets, sugar cane or molasses, it is used to enhance the flavor of food. According to a report by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), which was delivered to the FDA in 1995, an unknown percentage of the human population may be intolerant to MSG, and may experience symptoms such as chest pain, headache, nausea, and rapid heart beat.

Yikes.

Okay, so I haven't had any of those symptoms. But it's also a chemical that has been found to cause obesity, brain lesions, and damaged nerve cells in rats. Again, why should I, as a consumer, take the risk for something that is supposed to make my food taste better? And indeed, why does my food need to taste better than it does? Perhaps because of all the other crap that's been ground up into a fine powder along with it. My squash doesn't need MSG. My basil doesn't need MSG to taste good. Neither does my chicken.

MSG products are going in the pile.

chickenroast.jpgI asked E. Ho if we should donate the food to the food bank. "It seems kind of shitty to find out about all of the poisonous crap in our food and give it to poor people."
"Yeah," he said, "but crap food is better than no food."

We did donate our box o' GE food, but I'm going to follow up by finding out how I can donate some Real Food, or find a way for it to be donated. It seems really unfair that people who probably can't afford good health care in this country are forced to eat this junk because they have no choice. Maybe I could donate a CSA somehow. Maybe I could start an organization that can donate CSAs. I wrote an email to the director of the Austin food bank -- we'll see what happens. Tune in next week.

3 Responsesto “Don’t bank on this food”

  1. Ryan says:

    I lived in Asia for two years and found out that they use MSG in everything, yet there are never symptoms like in North America. I would guess that part of it might be from the introduction of a spice so different than what our bodies are used to?

    I wrote an entry on this many moons ago here, if you're interested.

  2. Omniwhore says:

    Ryan,

    Your MSG research is way sexier than mine. I tried to comment on your blog, but alas I could not figure it out.

    I appreciate the objectivity and also the introduction of the idea of Western prejudice. I was wondering if the tomatoes you talked about in your famous scrambled egg thingie were local and fresh -- if they were you probably wouldn't feel the need to add MSG...

    But I can also get behind your rationale that it has been consumed for many years in Asia without the same health problems as cited in N. America.

    However, I still feel a little shaky about ingesting things that are controversial -- that is, if the FDA says its safe and other people don't. The more I'm learning about food, the more I'm suspicious of anything that can't be grown without an engineer of some kind. Call me radical, but I prefer a steward to an engineer.

    I also think "explosive diarrhea" is hilarious -- as long as it's not happening to me...

  3. Joe says:

    Great exercise, going through one's pantry and looking for questionable ingredients. Finally saw The Future of Food myself last week and found it a great re-motivator to buy from local, known sources or organic.