Sunday, 10 April 2011

The food's so bright, you gotta wear shades

Anyone who's ever read Eric Schlosser's extraordinary 'Fast Food Nation' is more than aware of the tricks that manufacturers will pull to get us to eat their nutritionally void products. Workers are exploited, safety laws are flouted, and child-focused marketing campaigns are managed with military precision. Food has become a scary business.

When the book was first released back in 2001, it was the exploits of the meat-packing industry that garnered all the headlines. But just as scary, if not quite so feces-focused, was the expose about the practices of the chemical companies responsible for colourings and flavourings. You might like to think that you have a cultured, sophisticated palate, but actually it's easier to fool than a sheep with learning difficulties.

Just recently, the American FDA ruled that artificial food colorants pose no real threat to consumers, despite concerns that they may be linked to hyperactivity in children. But not everyone's convinced by the ruling, maintaining that we might be better off with a diet that doesn't include a regular intake of FD&C Yellow Number 6.

Unfortunately, it's not as simple as just switching to more natural colouring solutions. In an attempt to understand the role that these chemicals play in the way we select and consume our food, test subjects at Cornell University were asked to try a variety of colourless samples of popular snacks.

Although the ingredients were exactly the same, the taste tests confirmed that people found the products bland and lacking in 'fun'. According to the study, eating a bag of Cheetos is a decidedly underwhelming experience if it doesn't leave you with the yellowed fingers of a life-long chain smoker.

It seems that our brains connect the colour of the foods we consume with our perceptions of their flavour. And since most comestibles are as grey as a wet weekend in Bradford, it's hardly surprising that the big food companies prefer their products to come with an instantly recognisable Pantone reference.

Talking to the New York Times, food chemist and spokesperson for the Institute of Food Technologists, Kantha Shelke explained “Color is such a crucial part of the eating experience that banning dyes would take much of the pleasure out of life. Would we really want to ban everything when only a small percentage of us are sensitive?” Hear that sound? That's the kerching of corporate logic.

Since the addition of yellow colouring to vanilla pudding can convince consumers that it tastes of banana or lemon, she's right when she says that "Color can actually override the other parts of the eating experience." The problem is, another crucial part of the 'eating experience' is flavour. Shelke's view seems to be: "When life gives you lemons, drop yellow colouring into water and call it lemonade."

Some manufacturers are bucking the trend, and turning to natural colourings instead. But as the NYT warns, "They are generally not as bright, cheap or stable as artificial colorings, which can remain vibrant for years. Natural colorings often fade within days." Weirdly, I'm OK with that - after all, we're talking about food, not furniture. It's supposed to have an expiration date, so I'd like to think that I'm going to eat it long before I need to worry that it's losing its lustrous hue.

I guess that, for some foods, appearance matters more than flavour. Take Coco Pops, for example, which used to promise that they were "so chocolatey, they even turn the milk brown". Interestingly, Kellogg's have just announced plans to replace their long-standing box mascot Coco the monkey with Irish bad seeds Jedward. At first the pairing seemed a little incongruous. Then again, since the cereal looks like a bowl full of little shits, maybe this is a match made in heaven.

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