The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Making Processed Food LOOK More Natural

These days, “natural” food is cropping up everywhere. Some of it actually is natural and some of it is just lipstick on a pig – almost literally.

The purveyors of processed food products are pretty adept at riding the latest waves of popularity and there's little doubt that “natural” is at the crest of the current wave. But when average consumers look at a package of, let's say, sandwich meat in the grocery store and see perfectly round, perfectly thin slices of ham or beef or chicken or turkey all neatly and uniformly stacked in shrink-wrapped plastic packages, they're not thinking, “Oh! That looks natural.”

Once upon a time, “modern” shoppers wanted food that looked “modern.” They liked the uniformity, because it said “this is neat and clean and perfect.” But the new “modern” shopper eschews the obviously processed and wants things a little more rustic, a little less formed and molded, a little more “natural.” And so the food processors have set out to give the customer what he or she wants: food that looks natural. Not that it's any less processed or any more “natural” than it was before, but, by golly, it sure looks that way.

In fact, Kraft Foods -- the company behind Oscar Mayer products – has spent years of time and tons of money developing – get this – specialized equipment designed to make processed food look natural by cutting it unevenly. They've got whole teams of people analyzing the way dads hack up turkeys at Thanksgiving and then creating machines to replicate that hacking in order to produce a more “natural” look. They even paint the edges of the slices with caramel coloring to make them look more like something that was carved right off a freshly roasted bird. Never mind that certain caramel colorings were recently determined to be carcinogenic. They just look so darn natural!

They say you eat with your eyes. I tried that and found it extremely messy. I prefer to eat with my

mouth and use my eyes to read labels. For instance, Oscar Mayer's Carving Board Oven Roasted Turkey Breast looks really natural. Right down to the turkey breast, water, cultured corn sugar, less than 2% of salt, sugar, vinegar, sodium phosphates, sodium ascorbate, sodium nitrite, and caramel color that you'll find in those “naturally carved” slices.

Or, you want natural? How about Oscar Mayer's “Natural” Oven Roasted Turkey, containing turkey breast, water, less than 2% of potassium lactate, (from corn), sea salt, evaporated, cane juice, carrageenan, celery powder, lactic acid, and starter culture. Carrageenan, in case you were wondering, is a gelling agent derived from red seaweed. It's considered safe in small quantities, but I don't know about “natural.” And what's a “starter culture? It's a bacterial culture used in cured meats to help develop color, flavor, and aroma. Just screams “natural” to me.

Of course, when compared with Oscar Mayer's plain old unnatural Oven Roasted Deli Turkey and its chemistry lab of turkey breast, water, modified cornstarch, less than 2% of sodium lactate, salt, sugar, sodium phosphate, sodium diacetate, sodium erythorbate, (made from sugar), sodium nitrite, and caramel color, I guess the “natural” stuff looks pretty natural at that.

I'm not just riding OM. Hillshire Farm Deli Select Smoked Ham has water, less than 2% of salt, sodium lactate, dextrose, sodium phosphate, sodium diacetate, sodium ascorbate, vitamin C, and sodium nitrite, and Healthy Choice loads up its Oven Roasted Chicken Breast with potassium lactate, modified food starch, salt, corn syrup, sodium phosphate, and sodium diacetate.

The point I'm belaboring is this; don't be taken in by buzzwords and marketing ploys. Currently, neither the FDA or the USDA has any rules regarding the use of the word “natural” in food labeling, although the FDA does actively discourage it. But there are no legal standards – or legal consequences – so manufacturers can slap the word on anything their greedy, market-driven little hearts desire. And since they know that the American sheeple are flocking to “natural” things these days, they're gonna do their darnedest to fleece them by any means necessary, including engineering processed food to look more “natural.”

If you are cooking at home with fresh, wholesome ingredients that you prepared yourself, then by all means make it look as good and as appetizing and as tantalizing as possible so that people will, indeed, enjoy the sight and eat with their eyes. But when it comes to prepackaged processed food products, don't let your eyes deceive you.

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