Behold the mighty Triscuit: Symbol of Whole Food. Mostly unchanged for 100 years. Ingredients: whole wheat, soybean oil, salt. Compare that to heavily processed, science-fair, “home-style” monstrosities like anything from Pepperidge Farm. I know … delicious. But read the ingredients of their cookies with a Tylenol chaser. Interesterified Oil? Huh? Wow … uh, how interest-ing. How terrify-ing.
Of course I recognize that Triscuits are a processed food: Triscuits don’t occur in nature. At least with the Triscuit it’s pretty easy to imagine the steps between harvest and your snack cabinet. And I’m ok with certain, low-tech processing: when we pull a fresh-baked loaf of bread out of the oven, we are eating a processed food. I don’t have any qualms about saying that cooking technology improves on nature. After all, when God visited Abraham and Sarah, they didn’t just pour a handful of wheat into the hands of the Holy One. They kneaded it into dough and baked fresh bread, and my guess is that God said something to the effect of “it was good”. Fresh bread is a benefit of technology. If fire isn’t a technology, then the oven that harnesses it to make bread is.
But there are processed foods, and then there are processed foods.
Recently, I did some writing for a friend who is importing mediterranean-style snacks for sale in the U.S.. He’s going to be selling to retailers, so to get a line on the language and concerns in the marketplace, I did a little investigoogling on snacks. Yummy? Not so much.
It’s always a little disorienting when entering a completely foreign culture, and this was no exception. There are risks to peeking behind the curtain that separates the food on our table from it’s origins.
My first stop was the Snack Food Association web site (sfa.org) where I was tempted by such mouth-watering foodie writing as The Essence of Quality Potato Chips … the authoritative 3rd edition of the Pretzel Quality Manual, and the SFA/AOCS Edible Oils Manual, 2nd edition. It is not only not appetizing to listen in on the corporate back-room talk about foods I share with my family: it’s creepy. It’s a little bit like suddenly realizing there’s a one-way mirror in your dining room hiding lab-coat-wearing technicians who watch how you chew. You say, “Mm. I love these chips, they taste great.” … they say, “optimized mouth feel and end-flavor target-mix”.
It gets weirder. The Snack Food Association has a magazine: Snack World.
In the August 2009 issue of Snack World, I found a news-item for J.R. Short, A family business that wants a seat at the dinner table as your “maker of extruded intermediate pellets”. What is an extruded intermediate pellet, you ask? Extruded intermediate pellets are known in the business as half-products, because they still need to be cooked, or as J.R. Short so appetizingly puts it, expanded. Extruded Intermediate Pellets, says their web site, “deliver on whole-grain/multigrain and fiber nutritional content claims with a great tasting crunch … available in a variety of pellet shapes that can deliver great bag fill and perceived value”. Pellet shapes?? Bag fill?? Did I just click through to the UPS store?
Maybe we should just take a step back. Deep breath. See, here in America, we’re trying to end a decades-old addiction to refined grains in our diets. We’re learning that too much white bread is bad for us in the same way that too much sugar is. We know we need to eat more whole grains. Easy to say, but how do we do that? I don’t know about you, but I have never in my life been in the same room as a whole grain … not that was still whole anyway. For the majority of us, if the supermarket doesn’t feed us whole grains, we will likely die in our wonder-bread sins. So in order to satisfy our new passion for whole foods (and for living more ‘naturally’ in general), the food companies must provide products that contain mostly whole grains (mostly, because all that’s required for the food to be labeled “whole” is for the first ingredient to be a whole grain of some kind … the rest of it can be sawdust and saccharine. Most people do not know or care if the thing is really ‘whole’, only that the package speaks authoritativly to the problem). A company that provides whole grain snack foods is church-like in our pseudo-enlightened world. We secretly imagine them to be providing food for the body and soul.
The J.R. Short company is not actually that company. They are the company that provides the extruded pellets to the company that provides your whole grain snacks. J.R. Short takes powdered grains, seeds, and vegetables–any kind you want, in any combination–and processes them into a paste. And then they squeeze that paste into whatever shape is required by the food company, which then expands them and tosses them with some powdered flavor. When you browse the products on the J.R. Short company web site, with a little imagination you will recognize things you’ve eaten out of a bag recently. These are not your father’s cheeze puffs.
You may have noticed that what used to be trashy snack food is now yuppie feel-good health food. What’s the difference? Simply that processors like the J.R. Short company have replaced whatever was in the cheeze puffs with sexier raw materials. Now, grains or legumes like lentils, flax, barley, and soy join the old standbys– corn, wheat and rice. Add in vegetable powders from seaweed, carrot, beet, or broccoli and various other “complimentary” ingredients, and J.R. Short will squeeze your custom easy-bake play-do into twists, tubes, shells, ribbons, chips, little balls and beads, even a custom logo-shape … all of which they call pellets. Hungry yet?
I’ve got to admit I find this kind of cool in a dial-a-product sort of way. We’re not just living in the age of easy information, but the age of easy productization. I can dream up a design and be wearing it on a t-shirt within the week, then sell it in my online store, where you can get the same brilliant design on a teddy bear or a coffee mug. I can write a book and be reading my own first-edition hardcover within a week of uploading the content. Buy my album on MySpace … watch my movie on YouTube.
Now–brave new world–I can decide that I want a snack chip in the shape of my face made of organic beets, buckwheat, defatted soy, triticale, and sea salt, choose between a “hearty crunch” or a “light and airy crisp” and in no time take delivery of little plasticized extrusions–ready for me to “expand” into a finished food product by frying, hot air popping, or microwaving–in 20 or 50lb bags. Got a party coming up this weekend? Choose the “2,200 pound super sack”. Woo.
I should have known that the warm feeling couldn’t last. You know what I’m talking about: I’m eating whole grain foods! I’m in touch with the earth! I’m living an authentic life! My foods are crafted by flour-dusted artisans who shuffle around a kitchen warmed by a wood-fired brick oven! Innocence dies hard.
As an antidote to this unappetizing and slightly callous peek behind the food processing curtain, I offer this video of a real flour-dusted bread-making superhero.
Warning: contains some salty language, appropriate to the subject matter but maybe not to your dining room. That said, to which of these enterprises would you rather give a seat at the dinner table?