Bad boy chef and best-selling author Anthony Bourdain called the first two decades of this century “The Era of Crazed Oral Gratification.” In other words, the fetishization of food has reached new heights; we cook and eat, we Instagram photos of what we cook and eat, and we have a voyeuristic fascination with watching other people cook and eat. As Bourdain said, it’s “crazed.” But if consumers really understood the ins-and-outs of the food industry, would all that cooking, eating, watching, and Instagramming be gratifying?
The American food industry is rife with more dark secrets than the KGB. Don’t order fish on Mondays –it’s four or five days old. Skip the hollandaise sauce -and therefore brunch -because it’s a breeding ground for bacteria and never made to order. The beef at fast food joints is injected with ammonia, a chemical used in glass and window cleaning products –supposedly it kills E. coli. Panera’s pasta is microwaved. Doughnuts and other baked goods arrive at Dunkin Donuts pre-frozen. While some of these anecdotes are probably urban legends, conspiracy theories spun by disgruntled workers seeking revenge for poor wages, it’s difficult to differentiate between a tall tale and the sordid underbelly of the American food industry. If you are what you eat, then here are ten things to think about next time you have a meal.
How closely do you read the labels on snack food items? Or, better yet, would you even know what carminic acid is if you saw it on a food label? Most consumers have no idea what is in their snacks, and the food industry likes it that way. Carminic acid is a fancy, less offensive way to say boiled, ground up beetle carcasses. Beetle carcasses are used in candy, fruit juice, and ice cream for coloring; the boiled carcasses create shades of purple and pink. While the Food and Drug Administration deem crushed beetles safe, they have been known to cause anaphylactic shock.
9. McDonalds Took Advantage of the 2008 Recession
As the Dow Jones Industrial Average plummeted 34 percent during the 2008 recession, McDonalds saw its fortunes soar. America’s favorite burger chain is recession proof. Even if you’re laid off and your home is in foreclosure, there’s always spare change in the cushions of the couch to buy something on McDonald’s Dollar Menu. According to the Huffington Post, McDonalds had higher sales growth in 2008 than in 2007 or 2006. Americans flocked to the Golden Arches as a cheap alternative to fancy sit down meals, making McDonalds Corp. one of the world’s most successful big businesses during the recession.
8. Junk Food Companies Spend Big Bucks Targeting Kids
According to the American Heart Association, one in three American kids are overweight or obese. Our children are drowning in calories, sugar, and fat. It doesn’t matter how many Snickers bars are replaced by healthy snacks in school vending machines, kids are gaining weigh at an alarming rate. Perhaps it has something to do with the junk food companies. The Federal Trade Commission states that junk food makers spend over $1.6 billion targeting children through advertising. At the same time, fast food companies spent $4.6 billion advertising unhealthy products to kids in 2012. How is Michelle Obama’s nutrition campaign going to combat those numbers?
7. There Are More Food Trends Than Runway Fashions
Remember the Cronut? People lined the streets of New York City at 4 a.m. to get a chance to purchase Dominique Ansel’s confectionary concoction. How about Korean barbecue? Artisanal toast? Seaweed? Do you remember when food trucks were all the rage? Kimchi? Kale? Listening to a group of foodies discuss the latest trends is like trying to keep up with the banter at the Mad Hatter’s tea party. Unless you’re a foodie too, it’s hopeless. There are more food trends than runway fashions. If you believe Bon Appetit, designer oatmeal is destined to be a cool food trend in 2016, as is turmeric, chickpeas, and koji.
6. Clean Ingredients and Ethically Minded Menus
Despite America’s obesity epidemic, consumer demand for clean ingredients and more ethically minded menus is increasing. A recent Zagat survey found that 19 percent of respondents said it was very important to them that fast casuals offer GMO-free food, while 35 percent said it was somewhat important. Iconic brands such as Kraft, Tyson, and Campbell’s are giving their foods a modern makeover, stripping recipes of additives and artificial dyes. Fast food is becoming more health-conscious, too; McDonalds and Chick-fil-A are committed to sourcing chickens raised without antibiotics, and Panera has a “No-No List” of ingredients that it keeps out of its recipes, which includes artificial sweeteners and trans fats.
5. Food Contamination
Here’s food for thought: according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 3,000 Americans die from consuming contaminated foods and beverages, and another 128,000 are hospitalized. Unsanitary conditions at food manufacturing facilities have been linked to a number of food-born illnesses and salmonella outbreaks. In 2012, Sunland recalled more than 100 peanut butter products after its items were linked to 41 salmonella outbreaks in 20 states. In one of the most high profile food contamination cases, the federal government brought felony charges against Stewart Parnell, the owner of Peanut Corp., after hundreds of people were sickened and nine died after a salmonella outbreak linked to the company’s products.
4. Enriched Means Processed
The cookie label says enriched wheat flour but what does “enriched” really mean? While the terms enriched means that vitamins and food minerals have been added to the food, what food manufacturers don’t tell consumers is that these ingredients have been added only after they’ve first been removed. In other words, enriched means processed. According to Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Science and Public Interest, “enrichment really ought to be called partial restoration.” Who knew America’s food industry had a doctorate in semantics? Moreover, while the enrichment process partially restores nutrients like thiamine and niacin, a good deal of fiber is typically left out of most foods.
3. Fructose Fuels the Growth of Cancer
Findings published in the journal Cancer Research suggests that people who consume more sugar have a higher risk of cancer, especially breast and pancreatic cancer. Lorenzo Cohen and his team at the Anderson Cancer Center studied the effects of sugar on mice. According to Cohen, findings indicate that when mice get more fructose, they grow larger tumors, and they grow them faster. “It seems from these series of experiments that it really is fructose that is the driver of the tumorigenic process.” Trade groups representing the food and beverage industry were quick to argue Cohen’s findings, saying that fructose and sugar in general are safe ingredients.
2. Fast Food Nation’s Poor Pay
According to CNBC, the average hourly pay at McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy’s, and Taco Bell is less than $8 an hour. How is anyone supposed to live on that kind of wage? Luckily for fast food workers in New York City the hourly pay is $9 an hour, which means they still won’t be able to afford that claustrophobic micro-apartment in the Bronx (the median rent in NYC went up 75 percent from 2000 to 2012). Nine bucks an hour comes to roughly $18,500 a year. If that wasn’t bad enough, most fast food workers don’t get paid sick days. In fact, about 40 percent of private sector workers don’t earn paid sick days.
1. Soda Fountains Squirt Fecal Bacteria
Restaurant soda fountains are notoriously dirty and unsanitary. In a 2010 Virginia study, half of all soda dispensed from a sample of 30 machines in the Roanoke Valley contained fecal bacteria. Ice is a known source of pathogenic bacteria, but it is not the only thing that makes soda fountains dangerous. The nozzles and plastic tubing of the machines become a hotbed for mold and bacteria if they are not cleaned thoroughly; sugar and air create an ideal environment for bacteria to colonize. While microbiologists weren’t surprised that coliform colonies were discovered in soda fountains, the Coca-Cola Company quickly disputed the claim. Still, experts worry that a virulent strain of E. coli could grow in soda machines and believe restaurants should take the same measures as cruise ships to avoid Norovirus outbreaks.