As a biology major, I was forced to endure the terribly long laboratories that supplemented organic chemistry lectures. Students donning white lab coats and plastic goggles (think Dr. Nefario from Despicable Me) sat for hours on end at the benches mixing, heating, and synthesizing chemicals. Dangerous substances were present in lab: hydrochloric acid, cyclohexene, diethyl ether. Nothing that I desired to put in my mouth.
Now picture a laboratory of a huge flavor corporation. What do you think occurs there? I imagine its something to similar to my college organic chemistry labs. I read an excerpt from Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation that discussed how these companies produce natural and artificial flavors—it is indeed in a laboratory setting. The scientists that develop these creations, what he calls “flavorists,” mix a multitude of chemicals to achieve just the right taste or smell for specific foods. By a multitude, I mean sometimes twenty or thirty. For instance, artificial strawberry flavoring contains a whopping 48 ingredients, most with names like amyl acetate and hydroxyphrenyl-2-butanone. Um, what? I even think I used a few of them in my organic chemistry class.
Though the chemicals that flavorists employ may not be harmful like the ones used in school experiments, they sound neither appetizing nor healthy. It makes me uncomfortable that most processed foods contain unknown ingredients like the ones listed above. Legally, manufacturers do not have to list components of any scents or flavorings added to food. These companies may not want us to know what exactly is in our food—I feel like they are fooling the consumer. We could be ingesting any number of strange chemicals when we crunch on those Doritos or lick up that Dannon yogurt.
Reading Schlosser’s article really changed the way I think about processed food. Packaged products are tinkered with in laboratories before they are put on the shelves, so customers should be aware before they buy. What I thought was fairly healthy before may not actually be all that good for me. Instead of snacking on pretzels, I should bite into an apple. Rather than grab that handful of pita chips, I could crunch on fresh carrots. I know that now I need to try to incorporate more whole foods into my diet and less foods from boxes, bags, and wrappers.