As those who know me best will attest, I am far from crude. If anything, I tend to err the other way -- with an excess of Monkish fastidiousness. It is in deference to that inclination, and on the chance you may share it, that I warn you in advance of a departure this conversation requires. I am about to use the word "snot" in a less-than-pleasant context.
I was having dinner in an airport restaurant last week, around the time nutrition news was slathered in pink slime. Two young businessmen were sharing a meal and spirited conversation at a nearby table. I was not listening in, and don't know what their conversation was about. But I couldn't help but notice, out of the corner of an eye, that one of them was repeatedly dipping a fork into a small plastic container of salad dressing, before spearing some portion of his salad.
That's a good practice, by the way, because dressing on the tines of a fork imparts flavor to the salad with a lot less dressing, and many fewer calories, than if the dressing douses the salad. But the relevant consideration was something else. As he raised his fork from the container of dressing, it hung down from the tines in strands each time, looking for all the world like long strings of purple snot. Sorry -- I warned you.
What WAS it? The purple was, presumably, imparted by balsamic vinegar -- no problem there. But I'm sure you know as well as I that the consistency of vinegar is not remotely snot-like. What gives salad dressing the consistency of the mucopolysaccharides we do all we can to banish from our nares, sinuses, and bronchi? I don't know.
I received a plastic cup of "balsamic vinaigrette." It was pink, and slimy, and I ignored it. I asked for olive oil and balsamic vinegar -- and made use of those. No slime, or snot, was involved.
I have been reflecting on pink slime, and purple snot, ever since, and think there are five important implications here, only one of which -- and the least important -- has to do with pink slime, per se.
1. Pink slime is rather yucky. As you likely know by now, this less-than-flattering but well-deserved moniker applies to lean finely textured beef, a widely-used food additive. Some of you now know that you have been eating the stuff all along, in blissful ignorance.
Whether or not pink slime is bad for health -- a topic generating impassioned debate -- may be moot. If people don't like the idea of eating it, it will go away. I have an opinion about the likely health effects of pink slime, but there's no need to go there. What I know best is that the foods best for health are generally not prone to any such adulterations.
2. Pink slime is the visible tip of an invisible iceberg. I know this from working in nutrition for 20 years. I know it, in particular, from work related to NuVal, which has required that over 100,000 foods -- literally -- come over the transom, with full ingredient lists on display. I had much better-than-average knowledge of the food supply before this, but looking at ingredients in 100,000 foods, I certainly have learned things I never knew I never knew!
Pink slime tells us much about the character of a modern food supply comprising hundreds of thousands of packaged foods, and a whole industry devoted to additives. Pink slime has been "outed," so you can get it out of your diet. But how many other variations on the theme of pink slime might there be? What IS that purple snot salad dressing, anyway? How many food components have yet to be outed, and thus are still finding their way into you -- and your family -- as a matter of routine? Food for thought.
3. Beware the post-apocalyptic Twinkie. Jokes abound that little other than cockroaches and Twinkies will survive the apocalypse. But this is only funny up to a point. Many studies show that higher intakes of pure foods -- mostly plants -- enhance the length and quality of life; while diets of mostly processed foods generally mean less years of life, less life in years. In other words, if it lengthens the shelf-life of foods, there is a good chance it shortens the shelf-life of people eating those foods! When the "people" in question are, for instance, your kids, suddenly it's not at all funny. What we eat matters!
4. If you want to know what ISN'T in your food, you only need to know what is! OK, so you didn't know about pink slime before last week, and you don't know what makes purple snot either. And neither of us knows how many other things there might be in our food that we don't really want to eat. But we don't have to. The immune system doesn't know every pathogen in the universe -- it just knows "self," and what belongs in the body. But knowing what belongs on the reservation, it can do a pretty good job of keeping everything else off. We can do the same -- by eating foods with ingredients we know, recognize, can situate in some part of the plant or animal kingdom, and can pronounce. Don't assume that what you don't know about food can't hurt you. There is some evidence to suggest that in some instances, it has been engineered to do exactly that. Or at least to make sure... that you can't eat just one.
5. Demand -- or lack thereof -- trumps supply! The major supplier of pink slime to the food industry is filing for bankruptcy. This did not require any legislation -- just widespread consumer outrage. If you won't buy it, they can't sell it. Of course, I feel badly for any factory workers losing jobs over this -- they are the innocent, collateral damage in the war for food integrity. But the real message here is that the food supply is not some inviolate, immutable thing. When the food demand changes, the food supply changes! We have real power, folks, so let's use it. If every loving parent and grandparent in the nation took a real interest in, acquired a working knowledge of, and made purchases in accord with what's in our food -- the food supply would get better in a big hurry.
Pink slime happens to have been outed. But what other things that you never knew you never knew were in your food are still finding their way into you, and your kids? "You are what you eat," combined with either pink slime or purple snot, make a rather unappetizing recipe.
So let's know what we eat, and eat what we know. The most important thing this tale reveals is that when we do so, we're in charge!
For more by David Katz, M.D., click here.
For more on diet and nutrition, click here.
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