Wanting all-natural processed foods seems like an oxymoron.
There is nothing fun about being told how to do your job by someone who has no idea what it's about. Food scientists have found themselves in this boat lately, pressured by consumers to remove artificial, and even artificial-sounding, ingredients from the products they make.
As reported by Annie Gasparro and Heather Haddon for the Wall Street Journal, the food industry is trying its best to satisfy consumer whims about chemical additives in foods, but often those whims are clueless and uninformed. Take, for example, a study done by InsightsNow, which found that one in 10 young adults would like to see dihydrogen monoxide banned in foods -- an impossibility, considering it's H20, or water.Other additives that consumers shy away from include cyanocobalamin, a.k.a. vitamin B12, which is good for cell and nerve function. Xanthan gum gets a bad rap just for having a name that "doesn't sound like something your grandma would use," in the words of Charlie Baggs, a 'clean label' research chef from Chicago. “Who wants to eat that?”
Some chemicals may not be as harmless or necessary as water, but their replacement is a long, drawn-out process that can take years, often never achieving success. Mars has been working to replace Red 40 in its Skittles with a natural alternative, experimenting with purple carrots, radishes, and red cabbages, but so far hasn't had any luck.
"Mars now says it might not retire its original candies after all, and instead sell less-vibrant, clean-label candy along with the original version. General Mills Inc. last year also brought back synthetically colored Trix cereal after loyalists complained about the naturally hued alternative."
Gasparro and Haddon depict a food science industry that's mired in struggle and grief, as products free from preservatives, artificial colors, and high fructose corn syrup make up 30 percent of food and beverage sales and are rapidly growing. Phil Shepherd of Mars calls it a "freak-out moment" for the industry, saying people have no idea how complex food science is.
While it's understandable that food scientists would feel nervous right now, this shift in public opinion is not necessarily a bad thing. No doubt it will shake up the industry, but perhaps that industry has been complacent for too long, its established practices unquestioned by consumers.
Part of me, though, wonders why people are so preoccupied with cleaning up the ingredients in processed foods when these aren't even things we should be eating in the first place. A diet comprised of frozen pasta dinners, microwave meat casseroles, and colored breakfast cereals isn't ever a smart idea, even if they are free from preservatives.
The key is not cleaner ingredient lists; it's better, fresher, homemade food. And that's not something any food scientist can manufacture in their lab.