Taste, Process, and the Hypocrite

I don’t think it’s very uncommon these days to find people whose unintended but self-fulfilling mantra seems to be “I don’t have enough time to do anything”. In my attempt to realign my life according to my values and priorities, I have been spending my lunch hours at work reading books that I previously “didn’t have enough time to read”. I picked up Alissa Hamilton’s Squeezed off my bookshelf and decided to put a more concerted effort into reading it. It also helps that in the one year plus since my last attempted read through her book, I’ve done a lot of questioning, discussing, and learning around food and feel that I’m coming back to her book with broadened horizons, so to say. In essence, I’m that much more interested in finding out how food is produced, why it is produced a certain way, and what the driving forces are behind the foods I see at the supermarket today.

Alissa’s book recounts the US Food and Drug Administration’s “trial” on orange juice back in the 1960’s. It wasn’t really called a trial but it involved examinations and cross examinations of industry and a very select number of consumer representatives around the definition of a standard of identity for orange juice. I hadn’t heard about standards of identity until reading her book; these are essentially descriptions of what must be in something to constitute <insert name of food here>. For example, what should be in an orange-coloured fluid for it to be called orange juice?

Processed Products Regulations, Schedule II, Standards of identity for specified fruit and vegetable products (don’t skip over this just because these are Regulations; it’s actually quite interesting scrolling through)

Food and Drug Administration, 21 CFR 146.135 – Orange juice

The rhetoric and questions that were brought forth as part of this “trial” were quite interesting and are making me think about food production from yet another perspective. For example, as a consumer, does the final taste of the product you purchase trump how the product came to be? In other words, does taste trump process? No…right!? I thought about it some more and if the taste isn’t what you were expecting, then you question the process, but if the taste is just as you expect and are accustomed to, then do you question the process?

Several years ago, I don’t think I would’ve questioned the process nearly to the same extent that I do today, especially if the product always tasted the same every single time I consumed it. I don’t expect I’m alone in stating this. Maybe you question what ingredients went into your food, how it was processed, and where your food is coming from when you hear about the newest dietary fad (e.g., reduce sodium, ingest more omega 3’s, MSG is bad), you get food poisoning, or someone you are feeding has a dietary restriction…but I’m sure that most folks don’t question every single time they come in contact with a food item. And I’m not even talking about nutritional content, which I think many people are relatively concerned about these days.

After some pondering, I’ve realized that I question the food that I see around me, whether it be raw ingredients or processed foods, but to differing extents. For me, I think it boils down to the question of the level of control that I feel I have over the food item:

  • For chocolate, there are a huge variety of options commonly available in Canada: Locally produced, bean-to-bar, foreign-produced, exotic flavours, fair trade, organic, dark, white, milk, and so on. Therefore, I question where the cacao beans were grown, who picked them, how were they processed, what the ingredients are, and who (and what) am I supporting if I buy chocolate bar A over chocolate bar B, C, D, E, F. And my choices reflect my values. The process is just as important as the taste and without both being acceptable in my mind, I don’t think it’s worth buying or eating.
  • For bananas, there is less variety in options commonly available in Canada compared to chocolate. There is one main eating variety (the Cavendish), most bananas are under a limited number of multinational brands (Dole, Del Monte, or Chiquita), and most bananas are produced in a handful of countries that support the ideal growth conditions. The treatment of the people who work on banana plantations is of concern to me and I’ve learned that fair trade bananas exist but the issue is that they aren’t commonly available in Canada. There isn’t even an option on the degree of ripeness, just what is available on the store display that day…although banana ripening post-picking sounds rather disappointing and one day I hope to eat a banana that has ripened on the tree and not after being sprayed with ethylene gas. Realistically, when I want to eat a banana, the only usual option is organic or not organic. That isn’t to say that there are just as many ethical issues as there are with chocolate but the options just aren’t as vast…so I question but my choices don’t necessarily reflect my values.
  • For some common Japanese food ingredients which I grew up eating, such as mirin, furikake, and kamaboko, I can only provide a vague description of what they are and I have only a vague notion into how they are produced, mostly guessed upon the characteristics of the final product. These were ingredients that my mother always bought at the Japanese food store (bless Vancouver) and the variety in options within these product types was typically limited to the brand. There really wasn’t much choice, I haven’t been exposed to any other way of obtaining these ingredients except at an ethnic store, so I seem to complacently consume them. Taste has been the driving factor with these types of products, not the process.

I admit, my own analysis reveals that I’m a hypocrite but this concept of taste versus process isn’t as clear cut as I thought.

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