The modern mistrust of food additives and multisyllabic ingredients is reinforced every day with sensational headlines and blog posts from self-appointed evangelists like the Food Babe. There are yoga mats in your Subway sandwiches! Your gingerbread latte is made with carageenan and caramel color and probably beaver glands!
Even Michael Pollan, high priest of the whole-food ethos, fueled this fear with his dictum: "Don't eat anything with more than five ingredients, or ingredients you can't pronounce." You can hardly blame him. Increasingly, the Western diet is littered with additives that seemingly require a degree in organic chemistry to decipher.
Scientific journals can certainly help the curious eater, but there are few resources that centralize all of that information for the layperson. Now, however, photographer Dwight Eschliman and writer Steve Ettlinger have compiled a new book called INGREDIENTS: A Visual Exploration of 75 Additives & 25 Food Products. Published by Regan Arts, it's both a illustrative guide to the powders, syrups, and extracts that make up most processed food, as well as a reference book for those ingredients' many uses and abuses.
I called up Eshliman to discuss whether we should cast a weary eye toward additives like acesulfame potassium, and why it's so damn hard to get your hands on uncut high-fructose corn syrup.
MUNCHIES: Hi, Dwight. So what was the impetus for this book? Dwight Eschliman: The interest came from more of a visual perspective at first. I'd had a sense of the abstraction that would occur if you take things apart. You know, I've made pancakes in my own kitchen and I've done just enough to realize that ingredients are ingredients—they look nothing like the final thing.
I was doing a food shoot for the New York Times Magazine. The writer I was working with is a chef and a friend of mine, and we just got to talking about … what we put in our bodies. He likes to make fun of me because I'm what I like to call "Texas vegetarian"—fish and chicken—but grew up vegetarian; whereas he's absolutely an omnivore and that's important to the food he makes. He posed this question: "You deconstruct a lot of stuff in your work—have you ever considered doing it with food?"
So I landed on the Hostess family of ingredients. That was my first introduction to the white-powder-and-clear-liquid world of food manufacturing. I created a self-published little book and sent that out to a few people, and it got online, and it caught fire. And the book deal sort of landed in my lap at that point.
And then I heard from Steve Ettlinger, who wrote this amazing book on the Twinkie. So we'd kind of lived parallel lives with the Twinkie. He'd found out about my project … and I immediately realized that we had a somewhat similar perspective. Most of the book was already in place, in terms of the 75 additives and the deconstructed foods, and he just took it to the next level. What he and I both share is a strong feeling that there's a place for an expository or gnon-soapbox view [on food additives]. I'm not a scientist, so I'm not qualified to have a soapbox to begin with.
I started with a list of 200 or so interesting ingredients that I categorized into three categories, simply [based] on my perception of what they were. I wanted to include some things that are good for you, because it's inevitable that when you talk about processed food … it's impossible to avoid the negative perception of "it's a chemical, it must be bad."
Has the book changed the way you look at certain additives? I don't know that my eating habits have changed—I'd say that my shopping habits have not. [The additives] that worry me the most are the ones that can be used to replicate [other] food. Now, I love meat analogues. We eat vegetarian hot dogs and vegetarian patties, which I included in the back of the book. And I still love those foods. But the additives that worry me the most are those that are there to replace things that are more expensive, more perishable. I certainly look at artificial colors. When I'm shopping for the kids, that's one of the [first] things I go to.
I think food science has done wonderful things, but if you look at the example of partially hydrogenated fats, that didn't go so well!
I was really glad to see that you included both sugar and salt in the book, because for all of the fear-mongering about artificial additives, the scientific consensus is still that salt and sugar are really not good for us in the quantities that we typically consume. It's all about portion control. A lot of people blame [obesity] on certain ingredients, but we just eat too damn much.
In logistical terms, were any of the ingredients difficult to get your hands on? When I first deconstructed the Hostess baked goods, we didn't have any issue getting any of the ingredients or additives. For high-fructose corn syrup, we called up a manufacturer in Omaha and said, "Hey, can we get a sample? We're doing a photo project." Just totally up-front with them. And they said, "Sure. We'll send you whatever you want."
So we sourced that, and luckily we kept it, because when we started procuring the ingredients and additives for this book, things had changed a little bit. Corn growers and the corn industry have been under the microscope, and it's been pretty hard on them. So this time around, we called up multiple manufacturers, and [they just said], "No, we can't do that for you." End of conversation.
I even asked a friend of mine in the food industry to ask for some samples—she's legit, she makes desserts—and she couldn't get it either. That blew my mind. High-fructose corn syrup is in everything we eat, absolutely everything. We consume so much of the stuff, and yet you can't get it.
Were there any additives that were particularly difficult to shoot? I will never feel the same about butter flavoring. Diacetyl is extraordinarily noxious. You know how you smell a skunk from a half-mile away? It smells like a skunk. But if you or your dog get sprayed, it doesn't even resemble that smell anymore. It becomes more of a full-body experience. You just want to hurl. Diacetyl is a little bit like that, but just in this amazingly concentrated way. If you expose it to oxygen and just get the tiniest whiff, you're like, "Oh, I get it, it smells like butter." But it was out for three or four minutes and … it just permeated everything. I ended up shooting it at night when no one was there and aired out the studio for about three days before it got back to normal. I don't think that's an indictment of diacetyl necessarily, but more an observation about the power of concentration. It does smell a bit like vomit. And according to the research that Steve did, it's the primary aroma in blue cheese as well.
Considering that you've spent all of this time enmeshed in additives, I have to ask you what you think of The Food Babe. I don't want to attack her personally, but I think [we have] a culture of fear and sensationalism. I do worry when The Food Babe coins something "yoga mat material" and suddenly Subway is forced to remove it from their bread because of this perception. I think that's dangerous, not just in the food world. Which is not to say that I think azodicarbonamide should be in bread, but I do fear the effects of mob rule, and oftentimes I think it's not justified. You can't always reverse the damage.
That being said, I love her intentions. I think we'd all be happier with "the bad stuff" removed. There are a lot of functional additives that may sound scary but are great. We don't worry about going to the grocery store and getting poisoned.
We don't worry about vitamin-deficient breads or getting thyroid problems because our salt isn't iodized! Exactly.
Right. There's a lot of crossover use. We probably got 10 percent of our additives from beauty suppliers. Polysorbate, for example. But it doesn't necessarily mean it's bad. Even as your book points out, sugar is used in concrete mix. The ingredient itself isn't necessarily bad just because it happens to appear in a product you wouldn't want to eat.
Thanks for speaking with me, Dwight.