When I was a young adult living under my parents’ roof, my late father always made sure I had Beanee Weenees, Vienna sausage, potted meat and other such snacks to take to my graveyard-shift factory job.
Of course, I appreciated the display of paternal love; but Chris van Tulleken, author of “Ultra-Processed People,” would probably be aghast.
Granted, van Tulleken is not alone in sounding alarm bells about today’s ultra-processed foods — groceries characterized by arm-long lists of additives, kaleidoscopic clashes of dyes (“Mambo Number 5 is a color, right?”) and whole grains replaced with the assurance that “We allowed the shadow of a stalk of barley to fall across the vat.”
I suppose one turning point was when bags of crushed ice started containing more ingredients than all the letters in the extended version of LGBTQ+.
Remember when Mom would insist that her secret culinary ingredient was love? Today’s assembly lines double down on emotions and throw in envy, gluttony, avarice, lust, pride, sloth and wrath for good measure.
According to van Tulleken, the chemical modifications necessary to pacify our addiction to salt, sugar and fat can amplify risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, depression and dementia.
No, we’re not far from the touchscreens in convenience markets asking us, “Are you paying with credit, debit or funeral insurance?”
With the normalization of artificiality, Costco will have to be more vigilant about passing out free samples. (“No, wait – that’s not the onion dip! That’s the scan gun! What? Oh, I’m glad you like the crunchiness.”)
I’ll wager there’s a food-industry chemist somewhere in America telling a buddy, “Hypertension? That’s kid stuff. Here, hold my beer. I’m three processes away from this microwaveable entrée causing spontaneous combustion in left-handed Midwesterners! As for the San Andreas Fault...”
I know – I’m being too hard on the R&D people. I salute the amount of trial and error required to guarantee our packaged foods target all the taste sensations: salty, sour, sweet, bitter, umami (savory), Chernobyl-icious, etcetera.
I realize consumers can be infuriatingly demanding about getting the preferred texture, flavor and appearance; but it took Goldilocks only three tries to get everything “just right.” Read a storybook, guys!
Sure, preservatives are needed to ensure reasonable shelf life, but some products have an existence longer than that of the continental shelf! Look for boxes to be stamped with messages such as “Best if used by...someone who is on Death Row, anyway.”
To his credit, van Tulleken isn’t all about guilt-tripping or crusading for massive governmental intervention in the food industry. He is more interested in tweaks and nudges to produce a healthier culture, rather than one where “Hi, friend” is heard less often than “high fructose.”
Maybe new product names will make us think twice about our unchecked caloric intake. I Can’t Believe It’s Not Marginally Better Than a Poke in the Eye with A Sharp Stick has a vibe you can sink your teeth into.
Perhaps a soccer mom will brainstorm a way to balance the convenience of Cheetos and Beanee Weenees with the sort of edibles Grandma used to slave over.
(“Relax. We can still make it to soccer practice, the dance recital and the karate lessons; but first, we need to swing by the South 40 to harvest a wholesome snack. Oops. I’m sorry the scythe punctured your soccer ball, Amber.”)
Danny Tyree welcomes email responses at firstname.lastname@example.org and visits to his Facebook fan page “Tyree’s Tyrades.”