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Food Preferences

March 8, 2015

Two articles on the web recently came together to raise some questions.  One mentioned that apricots were domesticated thousands of years ago in China.  How are foods domesticated?  The other was a report on a scientific study.  It indicated that certain food additives were bad for our health.  Why are these things in our food anyway?

With a little thought, you will realize that almost everything we eat comes from domesticated fruit, vegetables, or animals.  A few come from wild sources, of course, but not many.  The fish we eat are mostly wild, but this is changing as wild stocks are depleted and fish farming grows.

If you look at a seed catalogue, you will quickly discover that there are many varieties of each plant.  All of those varieties have been developed by selective breeding.  They have been selected to be superior in the marketplace or appealing to the gardener.  Fruit varieties are generally selected for sweetness.  Varieties of domestic animals were also developed by selective breeding.

My brother gave me a package of dried apricots as a Christmas gift.  According to the nutrition label, they are about 60% sugar.  No wonder they taste so good.  Those much maligned chocolate covered cerial bars are only about 35% sugar.  Dried apricots, or any dried fruit for that matter, is not the healthy snack you thought it was.

Of course, the food companies know exactly what we prefer.  They use panels of ordinary people to rate foods according to sweetness, texture, flavour, and mouth feel.  They produce foods to meet our preferences exactly.  We get what we like.

In the grocery store, fruit and vegetables have to be perfect or we leave them on the shelf.  We won’t buy misshapen vegetables or spotted fruit.  We also won’t buy things like fruit drinks that have separated in the bottle, even if the label tells us to shake well.  We are very particular in what we will accept.

That article on food additives used ice cream as an example.  Why are emulsifiers even necessary in ice cream?  Apparently they are.  In addition to preventing separation in liquids like fruit drinks and salad dressings, they improve the texture of many foods.  That ice cream may appear more creamy because of emulsifiers.  They can also substitute for higher cost ingredients while retaining the appeal of the food.  It may seem like homemade ice cream, but cost a lot less.

Some people say that all processed food is full of chemicals.  Names that you can’t pronounce are usually called chemicals in this context.  I suppose that they mean manufactured unnatural ingredients with scientific names.  They presumably equate unnatural with unhealthy.  This attitude can’t be correct; most food additives are beneficial and harmless, regardless of their names.  Some, of course, might be harmful, but this can only be established by scientific study.  The food producers are counteracting this fear of chemicals by finding natural-appearing names for them, and by switching to natural-source additives.  They are doing this, not because these additives are harmful, but in an effort to make the food more appealing to customers.

We all expect food to be attractive, healthy, and low in cost.  Much of this drive for quality is a result of competition between food companies.  We like food to be just like homemade, but quicker and cheaper.  Certainly companies want their products to be as healthy as possible, and want to let you know this is so.  All of their ingredients have been approved by government agencies.  Approved additives should not be harmful, but some may turn out to be harmful in ways that nobody suspected.

Generally, we get high quality food and low prices, as a result of competition between food companies.  However, our food choices can be manipulated by advertizing or swayed by fashion or fad.  In general, though, we want what the companies believe we want.  We value sweetness.  We want quality, as it appears to us.  The companies are correct, at least for the majority.  Other people may want something completely different.  I’m sure they will have a harder time finding what they want.


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