Thursday, June 29, 2006

Additives

You know, I started thinking about this when Ali commented in my last post that I'm a food scientist, rather than a chef. I largely believe this to be true. I mean sure, I like good food and all, but I daresay I'm more interested in the physics and chemistry of it all than the food itself. This has probably the cause of several of my views towards food.

I've decided that a lot of Americans have been duped by buzzwords. For instance, have you seen this new "all-natural" 7-up? I want you all to remember something: if a food substance has been derived from a natural source, it can legally be called natural. Example: high fructose corn syrup. Corn is good for you, right? I mean, it's a vegetable and everything. And where does fructose come from? Things like apples. I mean, it's a pretty common substance found in fruit. So that means that high-fructose corn syrup must be a) all-natural and b) good for you, right? Of course not. Most of us aren't that stupid.

Shifting gears here, I remember once when I was working at a bakery, I had an idea for a pastry of some sort. I don't even remember what kind. I was asking the executive pastry chef about various means of getting something to work with it and she told me that a certain ingredient was out of the question, because it was an additive. I've never forgotten that. I do admire her valor in creating all-natural foods, but I don't believe that just because an ingredient is an additive makes it bad. I mean, it's not like it's not there for a purpose. Manufacturers don't just throw things into their formulas willy-nilly. I thought about this extensively as I worked on Ali's focaccia recipe, which calls for things like gelatin, which is not normally found in bread. Technically, it's an additive. But it's one that helped maintain a structure that would normally have been performed by gluten, which was not an option, for medical reasons.

This brings me to an article I found on a food blog that tensai sent me to. This article talked about 8 of the worst foods you could eat. It was referring specifically to health, not flavor. The one that caught my eye was this: "Pasteurized, processed cheese food - No, we don’t care how well they melt. These melty, spreadable, day-glo orange 'cheeses' have to be labeled as 'cheese food' because of the addition of preservatives and liquids. Yum."

Okay, I will be the first to tell you not to buy that junk. I don't care if it's convenient or melty or produced by one of the world's largest tobacco corporations; it's just plain disgusting. But did this person even think about that last sentence? Well, the one before "Yum"? Preservatives? Liquid? I hate to tell you this, but most cheeses have a very common preservative added. We in the biz call it salt. I suppose if you wanted to make it sound chemical, you could call it sodium chloride. What are some other preservatives? Well, sugar is a big one. How about smoke? You cure foods with smoke to make it last longer and to keep off the flies, right? And... liquid? That's the worst of your worries. Don't tell me, let me guess: you were one of the ones that got all uptight over that dihydro-oxide, weren't you? Yes, I will agree with you about everything in that statement except for your reasoning.

Another favorite is monosodium glutamate, aka, MSG. People still get uptight about this one, and Chinese restaurants are still getting a bad rap over it. There's the headaches, the dizziness, all that fun stuff. My favorite part is how many of these people love mushrooms. Vegetarians, and especially vegans, will readily decry MSG, while ever so willingly offering you mushroom burgers and seaweed wraps. I've got news for you people: the Chinese have been getting their MSG fix from seaweed for years. And Shiitake mushrooms have one of the highest concentration of MSG of any plant. The Japanese have even discovered that there are actually five basic tastes that the tongue can detect, not four. In addition to sweet, sour, salty and bitter, they've discovered "umami", which describes that metallic taste that we sometimes pick up in red meat, mushrooms and MSG. Did I mention MSG occurs naturally in meat? Dairy too. And let's not forget peas. Don't forget to eat your peas.

I guess I don't know what point I'm getting at, except that maybe people should start doing some more research on things, and maybe try and re-evaluate a few of your biases. Stop listening to everything you hear on TV, the radio, the Internet. I don't even want you to take my word for any of this post. I'm just a cook that's trying to figure things out for himself. But at least I'm taking that first step. Now it's your turn.

1 comment:

  1. You're totally right. I have MSG in my cupboard and we use it occasionally. Never caused any problems for me, so I don't care that the guy at the supermarket gave us a funny look when we bought it.

    I used to be biased against filtered water. For the longest time I used to tease my wife because she wouldn't drink water out of the tap, and those filters ain't cheap. So we had a blind taste test. I ate crow on that one. I could definitely taste the difference and now I'm hooked.

    At some point my goal is to go through all the items we normally get at the store and do a taste test of the store brand verses the major brand. Whichever is better wins, otherwise I buy the cheap stuff. So far I've discovered that Cheerios really does beat the Walmart brand, so we shell out the extra cash.

    Now don't get me started on canned mushrooms. That's not even food.

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