April 12, 2015

Oops! Unless you are one of the two readers who frequent this locus on bi-weekly to monthly basis, it seems that a random web-search may have landed you right in the midst of a long stream of consciousness rant on ethical dietetics. It began with some thoughts on being hospitable, but turned quickly to the overriding concern that we (and by “we” I mean humans) have with the effect of what we eat on ourselves. We are, it seems, predominantly self-interested when it comes to what we are and are not putting into our mouths. And then we veered over to emphasize the impact of dietary choices on our personal health. Moving right through the obvious thought that what we eat is primarily up to us (and hence it’s oneself you should blame when things go badly), last week we looked at the equally obvious thought that the food industry’s constant exhortations and inducements for eating more, more, more provide an alternative hypothesis for assigning blame.

We said then (and by “then” I mean last week) there was not one but two ways that the food industry could be held accountable for the bad dietary decisions that people have been making of late. And the other one, the alternative to making us eat more, more, more, has to do with what it is that we are eating. I think (and by “think” I mean suspect) that this hypothesis is a bit less obvious than the “more, more, more” hypothesis, but in the wake of dietary exposes by Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation), Marion Nestle (Food Politics), Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma & In Defense of Food) and David Kessler (The End of Overeating) mentioning it in the Thornapple blog may be yet another instance of futile redundancy. Everyone already knows.

Neither of my regular readers will be surprised to find me saying that this turns out to be a more complex hypothesis than might at first appear. First, it overlaps with “more, more, more” quite a bit in that the shift in what people eat coincides with the food industry’s promotion of a “cheap, cheap, cheap” dietetics. They had allies here, not the least of whom would have been Calvinists who believed that spending money on something so base as food was just a form of showing off. Piety is to be found in penny-pinching and in avoiding the display of wealth or good fortune. But that’s a story for a different blog. For now we are maintaining that laser-beam focus on the food industry. In that context, “cheap, cheap, cheap” meant potatoes, potatoes, potatoes, as well as cooking absolutely everything you can in the deep fat fryer.

The more interesting ways in which the food industry changed what we eat have a basis in science. To wit, a good half century or more of research in flavor chemistry, augmented by studies of bizarre things like “mouth-feel”. I’ll bet you can take an entire course on mouth-feel at my university, but I’m too lazy to sort through the catalog looking for it. All the authors listed above talk about this, but Kessler is particularly good on the way that food science searched for that perfect combination of the sweet-salty-crunchy-fatty goodie that would be absolutely impossible for a creature with the evolutionary history of homo sapiens to resist. I blogged about this a few years back in connection with a donut special I happened to pass during one of my too-frequent visits to a large metropolitan airport.

The take-home point here is simply that the food industry has deployed the tools of chemistry, medicine and behavioral science to figure out recipes that are going to pull our chains. It would have been comparatively rare for humans to encounter these combinations of tasty and appealing foodstuffs during the caveman days, or even in 1952, for that matter. It might have even made sense to put on a bit of fat when the chance is right in front of you when human societies were encountering food shortages once or twice in every decade. How can we possibly be expected to do anything but consume these products today?

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University


4 thoughts on “Chemistry

  1. Its like you read my mind! You appear to know a lot about this, such as you
    wrote the e-book in it or something. I think that you just
    can do with some p.c. to pressure the message home a little bit, however other than that, this is wonderful blog.
    A fantastic read. I’ll certainly be back.


  2. Learned Expounder (not to be confused with Quarterpounder),

    All I know is , I will pay you a finder’s fee if you can get me a plain ol’ greasy cheeseburger with sweet pickle relish and mustard and a little onion and that’s all — one hamburger patty, not three and
    without coming on an Asagio cheese or otherwise Italianized bun with a bunch of salad and bacon and stuff I have to take off to get to my burger.

    You can get a plain burger at Dean’s Garden Cafe in Springfield because we call it the Richardburger and he and his wife Cindy fix it just right.


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