There’s a lot of finger-pointing going on in the food world about the role of what we eat — specifically processed food — in modern problems from metabolic disease to depression. Steve Ettlinger doesn’t take sides, but he’d appreciate it if there were a little less noise and a little more science.
“I think it’s important not to freak out — as some bloggers have — that something in food also has an industrial use,” he says. “It’s important to turn down the chemophobia; and yet on the other hand, it’s healthy to be fascinated by the fact that some of these things are made in chemical plants.”
His new book, “Ingredients,”highlights 75 of the most common additives (there are thousands) with periodic table-like photographs by Dwight Eschliman to explain how they were invented, where they’re made and what they do. Ettlinger describes the writing process as having to become the “determined ecological detective” of“The Omnivore’s Dilemma” to tell the stories of these ingredients on a high school science level. “Just as there’s a terroir for Beaujolais, I wanted to see if the same was true for polysorbate 80,” he says.
What “Ingredients” doesn’t do is take sides on whether an additive is healthy or not. “An observational perspective can help educate people without conclusions and emotions,” explains Eschliman.
Without the baggage of hysteria, what’s left is admiration for the ingenuity of additives — and surprise at how the “natural” and “artificial” worlds can blur. Many additives are derived from sources like kelp, while products once thought of as waste now have rock star status, like whey.
Additives also evolve — partially hydrogenated vegetable oil no longer contains trans fats — while lab-made ingredients could be doing the heavy lifting that would be much more expensive, and possibly more harmful, than their natural alternatives, like artificial sweeteners versus sugar.
Though the book acknowledges that “everyone should know to eat mostly fruit, vegetables and whole grains,” that doesn’t justify knee-jerk “chemophobia” just because an ingredient sounds “chemical-y.” Take, for example, dihydrogen monoxide. Sounds sinister, doesn’t it? As “Ingredients” points out, it’s in everything from paint to acid rain. It’s even fatal in large enough doses, and inhaling it can kill you, too. Yet, none of us would be alive if it weren’t for good old water.
The forces that decide what foods end up on shelves are both scientific and political, with a patchwork of agencies trying to keep up with the pace of innovation. If “Ingredients” has one call to action, it’s this: Being an educated consumer is the healthiest choice you can make.
Or, as Ettlinger puts it, “You can chill out a little bit if you know what’s behind those names on the labels.”