In Praise of Chemicals

Why risk a week of nasty-grams by celebrating food additives? Because it’s high time somebody did. I’ll wager there’s nary a food columnist, cookbook writer or blogger working right now that doesn’t in some way, shape or form pay obeisance to the local/natural/organic food movement. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of things I love about the whole foods wave. But when’s the last time you heard someone declare — loudly and unashamedly and for the world to hear — that they love emulsifiers?

See what I mean? Never. And that’s a shame. Because over the last decade or so, the whole foods movement has, like so many well-intentioned movements, created a dogma. One that says that nothing that sounds in the least bit science-y is fit for human consumption. It’s demonstrably wrong, but the basic idea has gotten a heck of a lot of traction in the press and among consumers generally. And it’s got food makers everywhere scurrying around trying to create so-called “clean labels”, i.e. ingredients lists that don’t contain any words that sound like they came from the mouth of a guy wearing a lab coat.

That goes for ingredients that are artificial, but also for ingredients that are entirely natural. Because the fact is that these days words ending in -ase, -ose, -ate and -ene are causing consumers to run away screaming. I can already hear some of you out there saying: serves them right! But let me just ask you something. Can you tell me what this horror show of an ingredients list is?

Water, cellulose, sugars (fructose, sucrose, glucose, maltose), oligosaccharides, starch (amylose, amylopectin), citric acid, malic acid, lactic acid, alcohols, aldehydes, ethylene, aromatic sulfur compounds, tomatine, furaneol, glutamate, carotenoids, lycopene, glutation, vitamin C, vitamin A, potassium, fatty acids and acyglycerols (one or more of the following: myristic acid, palmitic acid, stearic acid, oleic acid, linoleic acid, arachidic acid, behenic acid or other free fatty acids), phospholipids, phytoene, phytofluene, tocopherols, sterols.

Any guesses? It’s a tomato. Which serves to illustrate an obvious but largely ignored point in the foodie world: that everything is made of chemicals. Some of them are good for you and some of them are not so good for you. Some will even kill you. The trick is in knowing the difference before you eat any of them. And the sad thing is that right now, a lot of people aren’t even bothering to find out what a chemical is or where it comes from before they declare it poison. And that’s just silly.

So I’ll say it and I’ll say it out loud: I love emulsifiers! I love stabilizers! I love monoglycerides and diglycerides. I even love sodium benzoate as a preservative. And that’s why I say this week, let’s get additives out in the open, friends. And let us speak of them openly and without fear.

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