Cleaning up after breakfast this morning, I was thinking about my homemade bacon (more on that later) versus commercial bacons. My bacon should keep in the fridge for about a week, and in the freezer up to three months, according to everything I’ve read so far. Commercial bacon has a much longer fridge life, judging by the “use or freeze by” date on the package. Some of this may be attributed to differences in the makeup of the cure itself, but I’ll bet that there are also additives and preservatives in there to extend the shelf life.
Additives and preservatives have been vilified in the movement to eat healthier with statements such as “If you can’t say it, don’t eat it”, and I do believe in that sentiment – modern diets contain many chemicals intended to prevent spoilage, extend shelf life, maintain texture, and essentially push food beyond what it would naturally be capable of.
However, my degree is in chemical engineering, and I definitely believe that advances in food chemistry and food science have improved our lives. If I didn’t have preservatives in my foods, I’d almost certainly throw away and waste more food from spoilage. I believe that chemical additives such as citric acid (preservative), xanthan gum (stabilizer/thickener), mono- and diglycerides (emulsifier), and so on are subject to more testing and scrutiny, and while the scientific process isn’t perfect – things once previously believed safe can be later deemed unhealthy – it is a controlled system with a set of regulatory processes in place. On an individual basis, I’ll accept the science behind food additives. (Or, to paraphrase the web comic XKCD: Science. It works, bitches. And for the curious, here’s the reference.)
And that’s the key phrase – on an individual basis. While any of these alone or in a particular food may not be harmful, the fact is that the same set of additives are everywhere, in all sorts of places where you wouldn’t expect it. That makes it extremely difficult to maintain balance and moderation; some of these in your food won’t hurt you, but a lot won’t be healthy for you. Take one of the most sensationalized debates on this topic right now, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Much has been written on the negative effects of the prevalence of HFCS in our food supply, prompting the corn industry to launch its own set of television commercials in rebuttal. At its core, HFCS is made by taking one sugar (glucose) and turning it into another sugar (fructose), resulting in something as sweet as table sugar (sucrose) but much cheaper and stable to produce. You shouldn’t need me to tell you that eating too much sugar will make you overweight, regardless of whether it’s table sugar or HFCS. The problem that HFCS is in nearly everything you’d purchase from the store.
So, what’s the solution? Tariffs and subsidies to change the economics of sweeteners and food additives? Public outcries leading to bans? The radical restructuring of commercial food production in the modern world?
At the heart of this, I don’t believe that it’s the producers we should rail against for the use of additives, but we as consumers and human beings need to be responsible for what we eat. When I cook from scratch, I know exactly what goes into our food. I can’t practically cook every meal of the day from scratch, but I can balance commercially prepared foods with homemade foods and cut back our intake. The point is, it’s my responsibility to maintain this balance – I won’t offload that decision to commercial food companies to watch for me.
Harris, William. "Top 10 Most Common Ingredients in Fast Food." 04 May 2009. HowStuffWorks.com. <http://recipes.howstuffworks.com/10-ingredients-fast-food.htm> 06 September 2009.