Fall reading, part II: Food fights

I’m going to make this a quick post. I’m supposed to be grading end-of-semester exams. Or taking in seasonal fun, like making cookies. But since I titled my previous blog post “Fall reading, part I,” I figured I really should follow up with that “part II” before fall solidly gives way to winter!

When I get around to figuring out what kinds of cookies to make, I’ll need to make a list of ingredients. This seems like a pretty simple task, but there are considerations. Food allergies and sensitivities are a concern for some people, so for certain recipes, I’ll be scouring the food labels for the precise list of components. I especially appreciate the summary warnings, such as the one on my jar of peanut butter that helpfully reminds us that such a product contains…well, peanuts. The fact that this may be redundant points to labeling regulations that are trying to be comprehensive in their thoroughness. For people facing a life-threatening peanut allergy, these labels provide not so much a sense of whimsical redundancy as reassuring peace of mind that they can expect to see a complete list of perhaps less obvious ingredients on any manufactured food product.

Some labels are intriguing in their perceived transparency. Take, for example, this simple ingredient found in many cookie recipes: vanilla. I found I actually had two bottles of vanilla in my kitchen cabinet:

Pure vanilla extract vs. imitation vanilla extract. What’s the deal?

The word “imitation” is featured rather prominently on the second bottle. What’s the difference? According to the ingredients panel on the back, pure vanilla extract contains vanilla bean “extractives” in water, plus alcohol (35% by volume). I’m going to assume that’s ethanol, but it’s not clearly identified. Imitation vanilla’s first ingredient is water, then 15% alcohol, artificial flavor (vanilla-ish, presumably), and citric acid. I’ve never given much thought to which of these makes better cookies. A splash of this stuff (usually a teaspoon [~5 ml] for a batch of chocolate chip cookies) is barely noticeable to me in the grand scheme of things. Pure vanilla extract costs more, so for a budget-conscious family, that may be a good consideration. But what about those “artificial flavors” in the fake stuff? Are there any dietary or health consequences to ingesting whatever that is? And how do we know?

This brings me to the book I read last month while enjoying a break from work over Thanksgiving (an American holiday also traditionally spent thinking about food). I’d learned of Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist and author Deborah Blum through the social media grapevine and decided to check out her most recent (2018) book, called The Poison Squad. The subtitle fills in the details: “One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the turn of the Twentieth Century.” Spoiler alert: it turns out that government food safety regulations about 100 years ago led to the types of ingredient lists we take for granted on food labels today. The word “imitation” on my bottle of vanilla likely comes out of this very legislation.

Blum’s book follows the story of food labels through a biographical lens, by profiling one of their biggest champions, a food chemist named Harvey Wiley. Wiley was a native Hoosier (the official term for someone from the U.S. state of Indiana) like me, who ended up in Washington, D.C., working for the federal government on food safety regulations. Like today, such progress was not without its drama and competing groups with highly divergent visions and self-interests. With a meticulously sourced narrative, Blum takes us along the timeline of Wiley’s life alongside discoveries about food safety as processed food became the latest and greatest thing in manufacturing and convenience for consumers. Chemistry was a new science back then, as was microbiology. And so the inevitable collisions of “progress” and food safety in the not-so-distant past is sometimes painful to read about. And yet, for all of its remarkable revelations, it all felt quite familiar to me, since we continue to question the value of various things we call food and figure out how to get calories, nutrition, convenience, safety, and perhaps even enjoyment out of the foods we eat.

I’ve thought quite a bit about the science of food over the years. In some of my science classes with undergraduates, we’ve tackled topics such as transgenic crops or animals, more commonly called “genetically modified,” or “GM” foods. We’ve also discussed the arrival of the organic food movement, and the move away from dissecting all the nutrients in our food to a more “whole food” movement. About 10 years ago, author Michael Pollan summed up this debate with his simple mantra: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” But how true is that? And how do we know what “food” really is? These days, sugar is under scrutiny (though it also was in Wiley’s day). Is it a natural, relatively harmless food component best enjoyed in small quantities, or a scourge on pancreases, brain chemistry, and society fostered by soda companies and cereal manufacturers? (Read here for a good summary from Jessica Brown, writing for BBC Future, about this debate.) How do we know what to eat, what we’re actually eating, and whether or not it’s safe?

Blum’s book gave me some useful historical perspective on the debates that have raged since we started regulating the food industry, sometimes publicly, sometimes just behind the scenes in governments and advocacy groups. I was especially interested in reading about the surprisingly progressive role that government leaders and agricultural experts from Indiana–a state heavily invested in both farming and manufacturing over the past century—played in developing food regulations of the past. Today’s modern food debates—the definition of “organic,” labels for GM products, the definition of “milk,” etc.—continue to illuminate the sometimes confusing, incorrect, empowering, or just heavily lobbied issues we still confront when thinking about what we eat and how it gets from farm to table.

The book was interesting food for thought. And now I can turn my attention to cookie recipes. But they will probably still contain a little ambiguity: the bag of sugar simply says “sugar” on its list of ingredients. (Which sugar? I’ll try not to use too much, I promise…). And you’ll just have to guess which bottle of vanilla I end up using in my snickerdoodles.


(Note: I edited my original entry a bit a few hours later, after finding inevitable typos and such. Ah, the pitfalls of a quick post!)

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