I thought of Lunchbox Lies as a title for this post because I’m a sucker for sensationalist alliteration. Also because it started out as a mother’s earnest quest to analise the content of her son’s lunchbox – an exploration of the toxic-sounding components of modern food, if you will – that devolved into a whole lot of bitching about how small ‘small print’ has become. Almost like it’s not meant to be read.
Before I take you down the preservative-lined rabbit hole, let me say that I am not a health food fanatic. My life has been characterised by pervasive hunger and what I like to think of as discerning taste buds (my mom called it ‘being full of shit’). I’ve always punched above my financial weight when it comes to food shopping. I’ve eaten little organic fruit and veg (limited availability and just too expensive) but I buy the cleanest meat, eggs and dairy on the shelf. I stay away from artificial sweeteners, fruit “juice”, pre-cooked sauces, long-life anything and carbonated cold drinks, unless heavily diluted with hard tack. In short, I think I’m quite balanced.
But the food industry is full of horror stories. Good old MSG was the first scary blip on my radar, then tartrazine, followed by growth hormones causing young boys to grow breasts and girls to menstruate at 9, carbon dioxide-ripened tunnel tomatoes, pesticides, a plethora of preservatives, carcinogenic colourants, mad cow’s disease, BPA-seepage from plastic packaging, the alluminium free radicals in tinned food and let’s not forget those GMO-peddling mofos over at Monsanto. I can’t even begin with the cruelty at the heart of the meat industry. There is a certain poetic justice in humanity being eradicated by a cloud of cow fart.
Jane Goodall said it best: “Someday we shall look back on this dark era of agriculture and shake our heads. How could we have ever believed that it was a good idea to grow our food with poisons?” And whether this is truly a Cree Indian proverb or the work of some stoner college kid, I’m going with it:
Now, reproduce and then try to feed that little person good, clean food. On a budget and a deadline. I know I do my absolute best to feed him a healthy home-cooked meal every day but when it comes to packing a lunchbox, one tends to fall back on more convenient items that won’t spoil in an unrefrigerated backpack. And those seductive little lunchbox-ready packets at the Woolies check-out are awfully expensive. So, this is my 3 year-0ld son’s typical lunchbox.
A sandwich with either ham or cheese, one piece of fruit, yoghurt, juice, a small cheese and some form of dried fuit and/or nuts, plus a bottle of tap water. In a country where millions are bobbing through the bread-and-butter line and trying to stay afloat, this is a feast. But all of it contains preservatives, colourants, flavourants and more. Unfortunately, unless you live close to the land and grow your own, the less money you have, the more preservatives and additives you will consume. I rest my case with polony and those very scary bright pink viennas.
To the uninitiated, ingredient lists read like a recipe for chemical warfare. Or at least a garage bomb that could blow your hand off. Here are some of the ugly-sounding nasties from the food packaging pictured above:
Bread: Calcium propionate, GM soybean flour, non-hydrogenated vegetable fat from palm fruit, unspecified emulsifiers from vegetable origin, unspecified enzymes from non-animal origin
Butter spread: BHA, propyl gallate
Ham: The packet bravely claimed ‘No added MSG’ but did own up to phosphates, dextrose, sodium nitrite, sodium carbonate, HVP, sodium erythorbate, ascorbic acid, unspecified flavouring
Juice: Ascorbic acid, unspecified flavouring, anthocyanine
Full Cream Flavoured Yoghurt: Sucrose, modified starches, unspecified flavouring, stabiliser and colourant, Pimaricin (preservative)
Medium Fat Cream Cheese: calcium chloride, non-animal rennet, Potassium Sorbate
Peanuts and Raisins: unhydrogenated vegetable oil (palm oil & sunflower seed) TBHQ colourant, salt (although labeled ‘low salt’, they’re still quite salty)
Banana: I do not know the provenance of this banana but it certainly was not organic. I found this on the web and it pretty much sums up my gut feel about fruit. Not that I stick to it religiously, my son loves strawberries. “With the sky-rocketing prices of food, buying organic may not be feasible all the time. Bananas, along with avocados, mangos, papayas, and pineapples have been found to have the lowest pesticide residue. However, apples, cherries, grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, raspberries, strawberries have very high pesticide residues so you might want to splurge on organic.” Basically, to my mind, fruit with a thin peel and high water content retain the most pesticides. At R40 a bloody punnet, I expect strawberry suppliers to deliver non-toxic fruit, even if not organic.
I started googling calcium propionate and propyl gallate and anthocyanine. The latter sounds like something Daisy de Melker would have carried around in a little pouch, tucked away in the vertical folds of her bossom. It’s very hard and frustrating work, googling all of these ingredients. Mainly because, with the exception of preservatives, ingredients are often listed as ‘unspecified’ colourant or flavourant or whatever. Or just ‘acid regulator’ or ’emulsifier’, which could be either natural or synthetic. So I decided to email a friend who also happens to be a food scientist. Let’s just call her Margaret*.
I must have sounded like yet another neurotic mom with too much time on her hands because Margaret’s reply was brief and contained this website link with the hardcore scientific low-down on every additive and preservative tested by man. If only I’d continued with science after standard 6, instead of typing! I needed answers in plain language and Margaret kindly agreed to talk me through some of my concerns.
KV (that’s me, Kitchen Vixen): Are all additives bad for you?
Margaret: Generally speaking, no. People are against it because it’s foreign. Take for example calcium propionate, the preservative in bread. Without it, the cost of a loaf of bread would double and shelf life would shrink from 10 to 2 days, resulting in higher distribution costs and more wasted, mouldy bread.
KV: But what about fears that preservatives cause cancer?
Margaret: You must remember that SA’s food safety legislature is of the strictest in the world. Everything must be WHO-approved and testing is done on people to determine safe consumption levels. For example, there has been talk that sweeteners cause bladder cancer.
KV: Yes, I’ve always told anyone who’d listen that they’re carcinogenic (based on the awful aftertaste… I’m scientific like that)
Margaret: Exactly, well, that originated from a study where they fed rats the equivalent of bucket loads of aspartame per day – which in practice would never happen. Of course the rats got sick. There are standards for virtually everything, from bread and mayonaise to meat, in terms of the quantities allowed. Take the cal prop in bread for example (by now we’re talking about calcium propionate like we were varsity drinking buddies), if you eat a kilogram of it, it will affect you.
KV: Ja, I get you. I don’t like preservatives but I understand why they’re in our food. God forbid a customer finds a spot of mould on a loaf in the shop. It would be all over Twitter in seconds. So food manufacturers are also in a tight spot. I just don’t understand, if all these colourants and things cost money, why don’t they use less of it in our food?
Margaret: The food industry responds to public demand and always tries to keep costs down. Take colourants for example, they are expensive but people like their cooldrinks and yoghurts to be bright red, orange or green. I guess it’s similar to us prefering bright red, ripe-looking strawberries to paler ones.
KV: I struggle to find natural-tasting and normal-looking yoghurt for my son. Kids are supposed to eat full cream and low sugar with no artificial colourants but all of the kids’ yoghurts are bright and sweet, with the exception of the Woolies kids’ range.
(I wish the other dairy companies would catch a wake-up regarding kids’ yoghurt!)
Margaret: Because that’s what people want. Years ago a large dairy manufacturer tried to introduce European-style yoghurt (more creamy, less sweet) to the local market and it failed. People want to see low-fat on that container as they perceive it to be healthier or less fattening.
KV: Even with banting? I thought everyone had cottoned on to full cream by now.
Margaret: Banting pertains to about 1% of the population. The point is, the food industry is aware and would supply these products if the demand existed. Currently the demand and priority is for cost-efficient food, which equates to long shelf life and the need for preservatives and other additives.
KV: Also, we South Africans generally like our food quite sweet.
Margaret: Exactly, but new legislation was published in 2010 and for example by June 2016 the salt content in many products must be reduced by up to 30%. Most have already started decreasing salt, for example soup powders, stock cubes, bread and margarine. And the law demands another decrease by 2019.
KV: That’s wonderful news. I didn’t even know this! So the government is weaning us off sugar and salt.
Margaret: Yes, sugar regulations are also now being put into place. Just remember that that the greatest health dangers in food are still the basics like salt, sugar and fat.
KV: Let’s talk about the whole butter vs margerine debate. I hate margerine. It looks plastic and tastes gross. So obviously I subscribe to the ‘margerine is one molecule away from plastic’ story. I recently saw this scary diagram on Facebook. What do you think of this?
Margaret: That’s complete bull shit. Margerine is nothing more than blended and emulsified oil and water.
I searched Youtube for margerine videos and found a man and a bored cow debunking the one-molecule-away-from-plastic myth with a few strings of fairy lights. There’s also Margerine is Satan Spread by a terrifically long-winded chef who goes on and on about how clarified butter is made. Talk about a misleading title. Personally, I don’t care if margerine is the elixir of eternal youth and happiness. I shall never eat it.
Margaret: You have to watch out for preservatives and colourants because of intolerance issues. That’s why tartrazine must always be specified. And ingredients that could cause reactions generally have to be written in capital letters.
KV: I don’t understand how NikNaks and Oros can now be tartrazine-free, when it looks and tastes exactly like the tartrazine bombs of our youth.
Margaret: They’re just using another colourant like Sunset Yellow instead of tartrazine (at this point I realised that I always thought tartrazine imparted flavour, when in fact it’s a colourant. So great, that packet is tartrazine-free but what the hell’s in Sunset Yellow? Gah!).
KV: So what about MSG? And what does it mean when the ham packaging says ‘no added MSG’?
Margaret : There is absolutely fuck all scientific evidence globally to support that MSG is bad for you. I was at an international convention recently where Chinese Restaurant Syndrome was discussed (alleged headaches due to high MSG content in Chinese food) and this whole debate can be traced back to the hypothesis of one person, which has never been proven. MSG occurs naturally in many products. Parmesan is laced with natural MSG. All the ham packaging claims is no MSG has been added to the natural MSG in the product. MSG is a wonder product because it allows food producers to omit much more expensive ingredients.
KV: What about all the nitrates and stuff in bacon and cold meats?
Margaret: Nitrates and nitrites are not my area of expertise. I’ve heard the WHO or FDA – not sure which – recently claimed bacon is as carcinogenic as smoking. I can connect you with an expert, if you like?
KV: Rather not. I’m not giving up bacon.
KV: My son loves raisins and dried fruit rolls. What about the sulfur dioxide used as a preservative?
Ag fok, dis so min dis punt zero zero fokkol. I wouldn’t worry about it. The amounts used are minimal.
Like a tub of briskly whisked margerine, Margaret had reached saturation point with my questions. But here are a few pointers to better understand food labels:
- Ingredients are listed from greater to lesser in terms of percentage present in the product.
- Preservatives must always be specified by name.
- Emulsifiers and flavourants do not require specification.
- Certain colourants, like tartrazine, must be specified by name due to intolerance or reactions in some.
The bottom line is that we the consumers dictate the content and quality of our food. Society demands long shelf life, perfect produce without a blemish or god forbid a speck of dirt, plus we want it at the lowest possible prices. Unfortunately a large sector of society has been raised on additive-rich foods laced with unnatural flavour, resulting in complacency about potentially harmful ingredients – because we actually think it tastes good! Most people wouldn’t even notice when their chicken tastes like fish. And just watch how fast those NikNaks disappear at a braai… smacks of childhood.
A good rule of thumb is longer shelf life equals more preservatives. Although Margaret reassured me that the quantities used are safe to ingest, with regular consumption over several decades, I’m not convinced. When I lived in Spain I was shocked by the shelf life of certain baked goods. An entire confectionary aisle containing doughnuts and fruit-filled pastries that could last for up to 6 months. COOKED FRUIT THAT LASTS FOR SIX MONTHS ON THE SHELF. People, that’s just asking for trouble.
Margaret conceded that of course it would be ideal to make everything from scratch, as naturally as possible.
“You mean I should kill my own pig and cure my own bacon?” I screeched.
We’ve at least started baking our own bread from unbleached, stone-ground flour. And I’ve replaced Ben’s salty roasted nuts with venison droëwors (bloody expensive maar nouja). The sulfur-soaked raisins are staying for now. Let’s hope the benefits of the iron outweigh the dioxide contamination.
Please do share your healthy, funky, funny or scary lunchbox ideas with me on Twitter and Instagram @kitchenvixenish or on my Facebook page.
This is by no stretch of the imagination a scientific exploration of preservatives. I tried, and it got too scary. Margaret provided valuable insight into why our food is what it is. There are many healthy options out there but sadly, most require a lot of time, money or space. While we work at becoming
Gwyneth Paltrow self-sufficient, could you please stop buying brightly coloured food? It tastes like nothing and just sticks to your poop.
*With special thanks to Margaret for her patience.