Back to Basics

In this column, I will mount my soapbox to pontificate upon an issue which seems to grow larger day by day. I know that many readers would much rather read a lighter, spirited piece, perhaps a discussion of spring veggies or an ode to my Weber. But, unfortunately, I think that we all have to come to the sad realization that there are new and increasing dangers to the security and safety of our food supply, most of which are caused by our own eating and buying habits. These are serious issues that must be addressed before we can talk about those veggies and grills.

In the past few years, we have seen ever expanding news coverage of various recalls due to salmonella, E. coli, tainted meat products, and many others. As consumers, we seem to have developed almost an acceptance that there are certain problems that we must accept because of our reliance upon prepared foods and kitchen shortcuts.

The most recent news stories, however, expose the dark side of our food supply system in stark terms. Granted, the events to which I am referring relate to pet food: specifically, a chemical contaminant that was found in materials (wheat gluten and rice proteins) imported from China. Melamine, the contaminant, is an industrial chemical similar to cyanide. It has a variety of industrial, and some medical, uses. It is, however, highly toxic. To date, deaths from the ingestion of this chemical have been limited to our feline and canine family members and, while there has been a great deal of upset and some outcry, there has been very little recognition of the possible contamination of the human food supply. Scientific studies have found the effects of human ingestion of animal flesh that has been tainted by contaminated feeds to be negligible, but the problem, nevertheless, is something to consider.

Over the past half-century, we have grown further and further away from “scratch cooking.” In general, people no longer feel the need to blend olive oil and vinegar with herbs and spices in order to make salad dressing when there are hundreds of varieties on the grocery store shelves. Toaster strudels, microwave sandwiches, and all manner of prepared foods enable us to spend less time in the kitchen. With this trend comes a lack of concern as to what ingredients may have found their way into a dish and, even more importantly, from where those ingredients have come and how they have been inspected, imported, and approved. We tend to believe that the FDA undertakes rigorous inspections of imported items, but, by and large, that simply is not the case.

One of the problems with imported goods is that the items themselves are innocuous. It’s one thing to inspect tons of farm-raised Thai shrimp and Chinese catfish, but much of what we import are component part ingredients found in many prepared foods - guar gum, lecithin, rice protein, wheat gluten, and dried herbs and spices. Lecithin is an emulsifier; it keeps products such as chocolate from separating. Rice protein is favored as a substitute for animal protein and has the benefit of being hypoallergenic. Wheat gluten has been used as a meat substitute for many years in China and is frequently utilized as an additive to bread to make it chewier.

In addition to these food additives, the chemical additives (such as colorings and preservatives) make the list of potential ingredients mind-boggling. But, generally speaking, their use (and the use of a myriad of other additives) is common because they can extend shelf life or enhance texture and color. In short, these additives are gratuitous, but, because of our reliance on prepared and packaged foods, necessary. I would challenge any reader to page through their copy of Joy of Cooking and find a call for lecithin. Last time I looked, my copy of Julia’s “Way to Cook” had no mention of guar gum. In other words, these commercial additives are absent from our “scratch” preparations.

Now, I am not saying that we can’t mishandle our own “scratch” cooking and end up with a case of food poisoning (one way that comes easily to mind to accomplish that is a slow-cooked Thanksgiving turkey). But, those conditions are within our control. Assuming we use a level of common sense, wash our hands, and keep cold foods cold and hot ones hot, we should be okay. The same is not true of the occasional convenience food that happens to contain poison as an additive.

What makes this situation so deplorable is that it is also so avoidable. Some pet owners, the recent recipients of huge vet bills, have taken action. They have elected to prepare their pet food from scratch - with no additives and with absolute control over what goes in. We need not wait for the same tragic contamination to occur to our food sources and, if we do away with the convenience items laden with additives, we may avoid such an issue altogether. While some might call for more thorough inspections, I prefer to know what is in my food by way of adding each ingredient myself. The current state of affairs should be a wake up call to bring our kitchens back to basics, to know what ingredients are going into recipes, and to take back control over what goes into the food we eat.
Read More on Chef Geoff
Volume 3, Issue 10, Posted 2:28 PM, 05.08.2007