Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Book Life 4: Are you sure that's safe to eat?

Twinkie Deconstructed: My Journey to Discover How the Ingredients Found in Processed Foods are Grown, Mined (Yes, Mined), and Manipulated into What America Eats by Steve Ettlinger

Why do I read these things? I have a vague idea what the truth behind what I eat is, and that vagueness is what allows me to keep eating it. But I have this fascination with and obsession for books explaining food. Fast Food Nation, of course, is near the top of this list, and for those who have read it, you know that you never, ever look at fast food the same again. Twinkie has the same effect. There’s only one problem though. While this book is based on the ingredients label from a Twinkie, the ingredients the author tracks for us are in everything. So, not only will I never look at twinkies the same again, all food labels have become suspect, as I am beginning to think they should have been all along.

What I think is most important to take away from Ettlinger’s book is the need for everyone to understand what they are putting in their bodies and the bodies of their children. We all eat so many processed foods, and yet how many of us actually know and understand what things like polysorbate 60 are? Or even how oils become hydrogenated and flour becomes enriched what that means in terms of resources and effects on the earth and us. I would wager to say very few. Even I of the food book obsession had heard very little of the information in this book. Petroleum plays a MUCH bigger role in food production than one would assume. In an age in which we understand some of what our dependence on such products can do, it is beyond irresponsible for us not to learn exactly where we are most dependent and work to reduce that dependence.

Eating local and organic is one solution, but going one-hundred percent or even partially local and organic is not a feasible option for many people. I can tell you from experience that the rural poor in most areas don’t have a farmer’s market just up the street. Some are lucky enough to have access to some locally grown produce through friends or family (my father-in-law grows the best tomatoes and corn on earth), but there are many more that do not. Food stamps have to stretch, and most times that means ramen noodles and frozen pizza rather than fresh fruit and vegetables. I know that in Tallahassee, there are certain farmer’s markets (such as the sellers at the Park Avenue market) that take vouchers from people who live on food stamps so that they can get local fruits and vegetables. But there is also a bus system and taxis for people to get to these markets. However, even if there was such a system in many rural areas, a lot of people would be unable to take advantage of it because of lack of transportation. To me, this is unacceptable. Eating organic and local is best for your body and the environment, we know this by now. Why should that be available only to the more affluent or only to people living in certain areas. I am certainly not an affluent person. We live as we always have--paycheck to paycheck. But I do my best to buy organic, recycle everything that will stand still long enough, and pester the crap out of my mom to do the same. This is only possible because we live where we do. Back home in Alabama, the only local and organic we ate was from Anna’s parents. If there was a store or market that had provided us with the option, I would have been all over it. But there wasn’t. This needs to change…

“…the point of processed food is to have no direct link to a place, or even to time.” p. 3

The quote from Ettlinger above is important. Eating locally isn’t just about your health. It isn’t just about saving the earth for ourselves and future generations and just because we should. It’s about community. Now, I am not the kind of person that feels the need to know every single neighbor I have (though that is generally the case in Alabama whether you want it to be or not), but…When people are attached to a community by more than just an address, they are more likely to take care of it. If you have a vested interest in where you live, you are careful to treat it well. Think about it: are you more likely to care about your house or a random hotel room? Just a thought…

I will step off my soapbox for now and say that despite what this book will do to your shopping list, I learned, as I said, a long list of random but interesting facts. Here are my favorites:

*The disease beriberi gets its name from the Sinhalese word that means “I cannot, I cannot”, because a victim is too sick to do anything due to extreme stiffness of the lower limbs, pain, and even paralysis. (p. 37)
*Twinkies are no longer kosher because beef fat is now a common ingredient in the shortening blend. (p. 91)
*Morton salt uses the little girl in the rain as its logo because they wanted to advertise that they use an anticaking agent that keeps the salt flowing when it’s raining or otherwise damp. (p. 177)
*One food chemical used to make ingredients in twinkies is a highly explosive known carcinogen and was used in the Vietnam War in tunnel-busting shells. (p. 195)
*Vanilla was not the original flavor of the twinkie filling--banana was. (p. 201)

“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.”
-Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste

After reading this book, that scares me--a lot.

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