September 23rd, 2014
There’s food and then there’s stuff in with your food.
We have words to identify the shades of meaning here. “Additives” are allowable substances, intentionally introduced. “Contaminants” sneak in by accident or neglect. But between those two poles are “adulterants.” This is a tricky one, because they’re intentional like additives, but unwanted like contaminants. What’s more, the line separating additive and adulterant is mutable; sometimes the difference between one and another is simply whether you fess up to it on the label.
Whether it was lead in Roman wine, ground bone in medieval bread, melamine in 21st century Chinese infant formula or simply too much water in African milk, adulterants have been with us forever and likely always will. But there’s a finer line between adulterants in the food itself and the adulterants in how we think about the food. This is nothing so crude as advertising. This is about getting in before you start thinking about your food, about shaping the questions you pose rather than the answers you find.
It can take different forms, some of them ruefully comic, as in the story of how Condé-Nast publishing and Monsanto exploded on the starting line. Their goal was to produce a video series ostensibly about food and sustainability but actually about generating goodwill for Monsanto’s products. It’s a humorous and bizarre tale, and one that’s surprisingly amateurish. But when your whole business is model is about manipulating living things to make them into what you want them to be, I suppose it’s easy to believe that applies to people, too.
Sometimes the conceptual adulterant is much simpler and, in this case, given gravitas by virtue of its age. Artificial sweeteners make no bones about being fake, because that’s the appeal. There are so many downsides to sugar that, for many people, the faker the better. In other words, putting real sugar in a packet of aspartame would be adulteration.
But what if the artificial behaves, in some ways, just like the real thing, only worse? A small but dramatic study reports that artificial sweeteners may well have a schizoid relationship with the microbiome of our GI tract. Specifically, there seems to be a population for whom eating artificial sweeteners suddenly and severely changes the microbiome to one that increases the risk of diabetes and glucose intolerance — the very opposite of the fake sweeteners’ supposed function.
In economic warfare over Russia’s involvement in Ukraine, Moscow has responded to western sanctions with sanctions of its own — specifically banning imports of foods from sanctioning nations such as the US and the EU. The problem is that many of those things are essential to some of the poshest dining establishments in Russia. One solution would be adulterating ingredients on these menus, substituting homegrown cheese, say, for the French original. But the Slavs, with their years of experience under the old regime and a deathless penchant for “cheap and angry” solutions, have maintained quality and solved the problem simply by adulterating identity, if you will. All it takes is some bold (re)labeling in combination with the willingness to turn a blind eye.
And then there’s the “tomAto-tomAHto” kind of adulteration. Hemp — marijuana’s industrial cousin, a veritable miracle plant that produces food, textiles, paper, building materials, insulation, industrial oils, car parts, bio-plastics, perfume and possibly even super capacitors, all while sequestering carbon and growing without pesticides or depleting the soil — has been illegal since the petrochemical industry got it outlawed in the wake of WWII. The ostensible reason, of course, was that some desperate soul might actually get fractionally high before dying of smoke inhalation while puffing away on hemp.
But now we live in a country where the pretext used to outlaw hemp is now old news in some places. Once, where there was the (theoretical) threat of nefarious growers adulterating their hemp with high THC varieties, we now have the spectacle (in Washington and Colorado, for instance) of high THC varieties being legal but the industrial varieties still being controlled substances. How long will it be before someone adulterates industrial hemp with THC so they can grow a textile and paper crop masquerading as pot?