Bacon is grey

Reading Who Poisoned Your Bacon Sandwich? by Guillaume Coudray and Hooked: How processed food became addictive by Michael Moss for the Financial Times, 21 April 2021

The story of how food arrives on our plate is a living, breathing sci-fi epic. Fertiliser produced by sucking nitrogen out of the air now sustains about half the global population. Farmers worldwide depend on the data spewing from 160 or so environmental satellite missions in low-earth orbit, not to mention literally thousands of weather satellites of various kinds.

That such a complex system is precarious hardly needs saying. It only takes one innovative product, or cheeky short-cut, to transform the health, appearance and behaviour of nations. What gastronomic historian, 50 years ago, would have ptedicted that China would grow fat, or that four and out five French cafés would shut up shop in a single generation?

To write about the food supply is to wrestle with problems of scale, as two new books on the subject demonstrate. To explain how we turned the green revolution of the 1960s into a global obesity pandemic in less than half a century, Michael Moss must reach beyond history entirely, and into the contested territories of evolutionary biology. Guillaume Coudray, Paris-based investigative journalist, prefers a narrower argument, focusing on the historical accidents, and subsequent cover-ups that even now add cancer-causing compounds to our processed meat. The industry attitudes and tactics he reveals strongly resemble those of the tobacco industry in the 1970s and 1980s.

Ably translated as Who Poisoned Your Bacon Sandwich?, Coudray’s 2017 expose tells the story of the common additives used to cure — and, crucially, colour — processed meats. Until 1820, saltpetre (potassium nitrate; a constituent of gunpowder) was our curing agent of choice — most likely because hunters in the 16th century discovered that game birds shot with their newfangled muskets kept for longer. Then sodium nitrate appeared, and — in the mid 1920s — sodium nitrite. All three give meats a convincing colour in a fraction of the time traditional salting requires. Also, their disinfectant properties allow unscrupulous producers to operate in unsanitary conditions.

Follow basic rules of hygiene, and you can easily cure meat using ordinary table salt. But traditional meats often take upwards of a year to mature; no wonder that the 90-day hams pouring out of Chicago’s meatpacking district at the turn of the 20th century conquered the world market. Parma ham producers still use salt; most everyone else has resorted to nitrate and nitrates just to survive.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that researchers found a link between these staple curing agents and cancer. This was, significantly, also the moment industry lobbyists began to rewrite food history. The claim that we’ve been preserving meat with saltpetre for over 5,000 years is particularly inventive: back then it was used to preserve Egyptian mummies, not cure hams. Along with the massaged history came obfuscation – for instance arguments that nitrates and nitrites are not carcinogenic in themselves, even if they give rise to carcinogenic agents during processing, cooking or, um, digestion.

And when, in 2015, experts of the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified all processed meats in “group 1: carcinogenic to humans” (they can cause colorectal cancer, the second most deadly cancer we face) the doubt-mongers redoubled their efforts — in particular the baseless claim that nitrates and nitrites are our only defence against certain kinds of food poisoning.

There are alternatives. If it’s a disinfectant-cum-curing agent you’re after, organic water-soluble salts called sorbates work just fine.

Crucially, though, sorbates have no colourant effect, while nitrates and nitrites give cured meat that rosy glow. Their use is so widespread, we have clean forgotten that the natural colour of ham, pate, weiner sausages and bacon is (deal with it) grey.

That the food industry wants to make food as attractive as possible, so that it can sell as much as possible is, of itself, hardly news.

And in Hooked (a rather different beast to his 2013 exposé Sugar Salt Fat), American journalist Michael Moss finds that — beyond the accusations and litigations around different foodstuffs — there’s something systemically wrong with our relationship to food. US consumers now fill three-quarters of their shopping carts with processed food. Snacking now accounts for around a quarter of our daily calorie intake. Pointing the finger at Coca-Cola or McDonalds is not going to solve the bigger problem, which Moss takes to be changes in the biology of our ancestors which have made it extremely difficult to recoup healthy eating habits once they’ve run out of control.

Moss argument is cogent, but not simple. We have to get to grips, first, with the latest thinking on addiction, which has more or less dispensed with the idea that substances are mind-altering. Rather, they are mind-engaging, and the speed of their effect has quite as much, if not more to do with their strength than their pharmacology.

By this measure, food is an incredibly powerful drug (A taste of sugar hits the brain 20 times faster than a lungful of tobacco smoke). But does it make any sense to say we’re all addicted to food?

Moss says it does — only we need to dip our toes in evolutionary biology to understand why. As primates, we have lost a long bone, called the transverse lamina, that used to separate the mouth from the nose. Consequently, we can smell food as we taste it.

No one can really explain why an enhanced appreciation of flavour gave us such a huge evolutionary advantage, but the biology is ungainsayable: we are an animal obsessed with gustatory variety. In medieval France, this inspired hundreds of different sauces. Today, in my local supermarket, it markets 50-odd different varieties of potato chip.

The problem, Moss says, is not that food manufacturers are trying to addict us. It is that they have learned how to exploit an addiction baked into our biology.

So what’s the solution? Stop drinking anything with calories? Avoid distractions when we eat? Favour foods we have to chew? All of the above, of course — though it’s hard to see how good advice on its own could ever persuade us all to act against our own appetites.

Hooked works, in a rambunctious, shorthand sort of way. Ultimately, though, it may prove be a transitional book for an author who is edging towards a much deeper reappraisal of the relationship between food, convenience (time, in other words), and money.

Neither Moss nor Coudray demands we take to the barricades just yet. But the pale, unappetisingly grey storm clouds of a food revolution are gathering.

Tally of a lost world

Reading Delicious: The evolution of flavor and how it made us human by Rob Dunn and Monica Sanchez for New Scientist, 31 March 2021

Dolphins need only hunger and a mental image of what food looks like. Their taste receptors broke long ago, and they no longer taste sweet, salty or even umami, thriving on hunger and satisfaction alone.

Omnivores and herbivores have a more various diet, and more chances of getting things badly wrong, so they are guided by much more highly developed senses (related, even intertwined, but not at all the same) of flavour (how something tastes) and aroma (how something smells).

Evolutionary biologist Robb Dunn and anthropologist Monica Sanchez weave together what chefs now know about the experience of food, what ecologists know about the needs of animals, and what evolutionary biologists know about how our senses evolved, to tell the story of how we have been led by our noses through evolutionary history, and turned from chimpanzee-like primate precursor to modern, dinner-obsessed Homo sapiens.

Much of the work described here dovetails neatly with work described in biological anthropologist Richard Wrangham’s 2009 book Catching Fire: How cooking made us human. Wrangham argued that releasing the calories bound up in raw food by cooking it led to a cognitive explosion in Homo sapiens, around 1.9 million years ago.

As Dunn and Sanchez rightly point out, Wrangham’s book was not short of a speculation or two: there is, after all, no evidence of fire-making this far back. Still, they incline very much to Wrangham’s hypothesis. There’s no firm evidence of hominins fermenting food at this time, either — indeed, it’s hard to imagine what such evidence would even look like. Nonetheless, the authors are convinced it took place.

Where Wrangham focused on fire, Dunn and Sanchez are more interested in other forms of basic food processing: cutting, pounding and especially fermenting. The authors make a convincing, closely argued case for their perhaps rather surprising contention that “fermenting a mastodon, mammoth, or a horse so that it remains edible and is not deadly appears to be less challenging than making fire.”

“Flavor is our new hammer,” the authors admit, “and so we are probably whacking some shiny things here that aren’t nails.” It would be all too easy, out of a surfeit of enthusiasm, for them distort their reader’s impressions of a new and exciting field, tracing the evolution of flavour. Happily, Dunn and Sanchez are thoroughly scrupulous in the way they present their evidence and their arguments.

As primates, our experience of aroma and flavour is unusual, in that we experience retronasal aromas — the aromas that rise up from our mouths into the backs of our noses. This is because we have lost a long bone, called the transverse lamina, that helps to separate the mouth from the nose. This loss had huge consequences for olfaction, enabling humans to search out convoluted tastes and aromas so complex, we have to associate them with memories in order to individually categorise them all.

The story of how Homo sapiens developed such a sophisticated palette is also, of course, the story of how it contributed to the extinction of hundreds of the largest, most unusual animals on the planet. (Delicious is a charming book, but it does have its melancholy side.)

To take one dizzying example, the Clovis peoples of North America — direct ancestors of roughly 80 per cent of all living native populations in North and South America — definitely ate mammoths, mastodons, gomphotheres, bison and giant horses; they may also have eaten Jefferson’s ground sloths, giant camels, dire wolves, short-faced bears, flat-headed peccaries, long-headed peccaries, tapirs, giant llamas, giant bison, stag moose, shrub-ox, and Harlan’s Muskox.

“The Clovis menu,” the authors write, “if written on a chalkboard, would be a tally of a lost world.”

Visit a hydrogen utopia

On Tuesday 3 December at 7pm I’ll be chairing a discussion at London’s Delfina Foundation about energy utopias, and the potential of hydrogen as a locally-produced sustainable energy source. Speakers include the artist Nick Laessing, Rokiah Yaman (Project Manager, LEAP closed-loop technologies) and Dr Chiara Ambrosio (History and Philosophy of Science, UCL).There may also be food, assuming Nick’s hydrogen stove behaves itself.  More details here.

Sausages of the Anti-Christ

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A visit to Cravings, at London’s Science Museum For New Scientist, 28 March 2015 (Incredibly, the subs let that headline go through on the print version)

SOME years ago, I was friendly with a family who ran a venison smokery. They were expanding their product line to include a venison salami. On one visit, they presented me with piles of sliced sausage: which recipe did I prefer?

My first mouthful was a disappointment. The sausage tasted of generic salami, hardly even of meat, and though I knew otherwise, it was hard to imagine that any deer had perished in the making of it. My second was just as bad. The body language of my hosts was revealing. My weak-beer praise simply confirmed what this conscientious family already knew: no tweaks were going to save their experiment.

The keen home cook’s first-aid kit includes fat, salt and sugar. But the food industry also uses (among many other extras) acids, enzymes, texturisers, blood plasma and grim-sounding powdered dairy essences. In Swallow This, the latest of a string of superior industry exposés, food journalist Joanna Blythman explains how far manufacturers will go to produce cheap foods that taste consistent, while retaining that “just-cooked” feel.

Her page about salami, for example, features company literature describing a meat glue made from the enzyme transglutaminase, blended with animal protein and vitamin B9: “Salami Dry Express B9 decreases ripening time by up to 20 per cent, creates a more… appealing colour in less time, offers improved casing peeling and… sausage aroma. Improved slicing properties reduce wastage by up to five per cent, while shorter processing and storage times also provide financial advantages.”

Each promise listed sounds reasonable. But taken together, they suggest an approach to food that can only disgust consumers. And this, chiefly, is why the food processing industry is growing ever more secretive, ever more insincere, and, more worryingly still, ever more removed from the real science of nutrition. Its prime concern is not food, but keeping up appearances.

Everyone imagines they want an authentic home-cooked meal, even as they “require honeyed cakes, unguents and the like”. This nice turn of phrase belongs to the Greek Cynic Diogenes, one of the philosophers in Michel Onfray’s slim, sly volume of essays called Appetites for Thought. Rather in the spirit of Bruces’ Song, Monty Python’s dipsomaniacal summary of the Western philosophical tradition, Onfray dishes out morsels under chapter headings like “Nietzsche; or The Sausages of the Anti-Christ”.

His simple thesis, that our minds are ruled by our stomachs, acquired a graphic reality in 2006, when Molly Smith, a 16-year-old from Cambridgeshire, UK, received a life-saving transplant. She had been born with much of her intestinal tract missing, and had never experienced hunger, thirst or any food cravings. When Molly finally ate her first solid food – a banana – she felt the stirrings of new sensations. Her guts were beginning to talk to her.

Molly’s is one of the more startling stories told in Cravings, at London’s Science Museum. The rich, mysterious, two-way dialogue between gut and brain that so entertained Onfray is its central theme, and serves as a playful entrée to health advice.

Though the exhibition is full of cautionary information about fat and sugar levels in many processed foods, it left this visitor hankering for the museum café. This is no bad thing. Food, any kind of food, is better than the alternative. And an exhibition about appetite ought to pique it.

Swallow This: Serving up the food industry’s darkest secrets, Joanna Blythman (4th Estate).
Appetites for Thought: Philosophers and food, Michel Onfray (Reaktion Books).