Wednesday, 4 April 2012

On the misanthropic nature of Pic 'n' Mix

How the desire to avoid artificial food hints at a deep distrust of our own creations

I was in a shop the other day and saw a display of pic 'n' mix sweets: full of cola bottles, jelly beans, chocolate peanuts and all the usual sort of thing. On top of it, in big obvious letters, was a sign proudly proclaiming "free from artificial colours or flavourings".

Now, this is a pretty common sight these days. Our food packaging seems to be in a perpetual arms race to declare the vast number of things they do not contain.  However, that it is a virtue so boldly and confidently extolled for such sweets as these, the kind of thing you would expect to be full of sugar, jelly, flavour and fat, and all brightly coloured and generally "fun" (i.e. it's not exactly  health food) is a telling example of how intolerant we appear to have become of anything 'artificial'.

Of course, what defines something as being artificial is rather ambiguous; every ingredient will have been harvested, extracted, processed, augmented, or synthesised in some way, before being assembled into ever more ambitious concoctions, unless we are talking about the most basic of raw foods. This is akin to the pejorative use of the word "chemical" for anything which we don't like or don't understand (often with hilarious results). But merely accuractely defining terms isn't going to alter people's aversion to scary 'food additives' and 'E-numbers'.

This is part of a general trend to distrust anything which has been added, or done to, food: preservatives, additives, flavourings are all generally getting a bad press, and portrayed as one of the great evils of our time. This feeds off fears of health risks and carcinogens, hyperactivity in children and allergies to everything. Much of this is not necessarily supported by actual evidence, more hearsay and urban myth; and ongoing research on additives such as aspartame seem destined to throw up concern and controversy whatever the results may be. But the evidence behind these health risks is another story for another day.

My point here is that this widespread desire to avoid artificial ingredients seems to suggest a strong distrust in our own creations.  Do we really have so little faith in ourselves, as a species?  Do we instinctively feel that what we have created is defective or inferior? I think that's partly what all this is about: motivated on the face of it by valid health concerns (which are not necessarily irrational or reactionary, but evidence certainly has a hard struggle), yet part of an underlying fatalism that whatever we are doing, we are doomed to fail and will only harm ourselves.

This ties in with the naturalistic fallacy - the idea that because something is natural, it is therefore good, wholesome, desirable - conveniently forgetting the fact that nature conspires in ingenious ways to kill or injure us (arsenic is natural; being mauled by a lion is natural; dying painfully at a young age is natural). But it goes further than this - it's not just a fuzzy, idealistic desire to be close to nature, otherwise the pic 'n' mix would be focusing on telling us how it's made of naturally occurring moss and wild salmon eggs or something.  Obviously there are innumerable such claims, on everything from health foods to 'medicines', for exactly that reason: but the emphasis on what it doesn't contain is equally telling. It's not just the urge to cry "nature is wonderful!" but the misanthropic moan of "man is dangerous".

Now history has certainly given us a few examples to motivate such concern. Recent decades have given us thalidomide, PCBs, CFCs, cigarettes, trans-fats and vegemite, so we certainly have good reason to ask probing questions and be careful to evaluate new creations. Indeed, I'm certainly not advocating that we blindly assume everything we do is great, and eagerly await the advent of new products and technologies as a universal panacea, an attitude which would be equally unwise (I'm looking at you, Ray Kurtzweil).  A good healthy skepticism is the best way to deal with any new development in food science, agriculture, medicine, and so on - not the near hysterical fear over each new scare story.

There's an interesting double standard in all of this. We seem to instinctively recoil from whatever arcane creations our mad scientist overlords are force-feeding us, while at the same time fully expecting our brave new world to be completely safe, clean, reliable. We have developed a love for sterile, child-friendly surfaces, where dirt is not just undesirable but evil itself; an expectation that we are in a world of predictable outcomes from known causes... and yet, a desire to be a part of nature, to live our lives as intended; to be at one with the universe and avoid all toxins. But nature is the exact opposite of what we're striving for: it's messy, deadly, unpredictable, harsh and full of things that will kill or enslave given half a chance.  We can't simultaneously covet a natural, peaceful, idyllic existence while demanding it must be entirely safe and free of nastiness: it makes no sense.

An interesting example of this conflict is in the recent Starbucks food-colouring incident.  Bug Girl gives an excellent summary of it here, but in short: Starbucks, in an effort to use more natural and sustainable ingredients, were using Cochineal as a red colouring in various products including soy milkshakes.  Cochineal is a widely used dye, extracted from the crushed bodies of the eponymous beetle [EDIT: not a beetle]: it feeds off sap of the prickly pear and its innards are a bright, vibrant red. It is easy to obtain, long-lasting and resistant to discolouration, non-toxic, and has a long history of use in foods and cosmetics.

So on the one hand, great, Starbucks have switched from nasty-sinister-chemicals to natural ingredients... and is immediately met with a backlash of "eeew there's bugs in our food!". An entirely predictable reaction of course - yeah we wanted "natural", but we didn't mean squished insects, that's just... eew. They may be safe and sustainable, friendlier and less of an environmental burden than the petrochemical equivalent: but all of a sudden nature is the disgusting, brutish, archaic antithesis to our clean and civilised world of tomorrow.

Now a lot of the objection came from vegetarians and vegans, unhappy to discover they had been chewing down on the remains of so many innocent creatures - and so I'm not dismissing the reaction to eating insects as entirely irrational or motivated by the yuk-factor. I'm a vegetarian, so I'm also somewhat concerned at such news (I'd previously tried to avoid cochineal where possible). I realise these are no cute fluffy lambs or anything, and that the death of insects is not something I'm going to get too upset about: but it's still an issue to consider.  I remember being similarly frustrated a few years ago when blue smarties re-appeared, after the introduction of a natural alternative to the previously used artificial dye - which was also derived from the innards of some hapless arthropod. Thus in some cases, natural may be safer or more acceptable, but necessitates the use of undesirable animal products. It seems that on the one hand we expect animal-derived ingredients to be a relic of a more primitive era (whalebone corset, anyone? horse hoof glue?), with their replacements by synthetic equivalents being A Good Thing... and yet it is completely counter to the drive to re-naturalise everything.

I'm not saying that we should never use or kill insects at any cost (some might, and there's plenty who will choose to avoid honey, silk and shellac... but that's an argument for them to make); but rather that it should be part of the consideration, instead of just jumping to the "natural therefore it's fine" excuse. Then again, the inclusion of insect parts in food is seemingly unavoidable, but generally considered safe; and I am neither squeamish or idealistic enough to really mind (and I really like figs). Furthermore, in this case there is a pretty valid argument for reverting to cochineal over synthetic alternatives, rather than simply the implied naturalistic fallacy. It is easier to produce and with fewer unpleasant pollutants than the coal-tar or petroleum alternative, and provides gainful employment for cochineal farmers. One could argue that the death of untold millions of tiny beetles scale insects is a lesser evil compared to the habitat destruction associated with oil and coal mining (obviously, not just for this one product).

So there's no easy answer to this dilemma; it's a conflict which has plagued us since we first began playing god, taming fire, and putting ourselves apart from nature. Clearly, we can't reply on nature to be benevolent and caring, but neither can we a priori assume that all of humankind's output will be safe and worry-free. It makes no sense to fanatically promote anything that might have been made by bees or grown in a forest; or to crusade against anything invented in a lab or derived from oil (hey, that's natural too!). Both positions are idealistic nonsense, and are not grounds for safety or sound ethics.

The best solution is skepticism (isn't it always): to treat each ingredient on its own merits and assess every health or toxicity claim carefully and free from bias. Jumping to either extreme will have unintended harm, and only by thinking rationally about what we do, and examining the evidence of what it leads to, will we be able to make safe and sensible decisions about food.

Which sounds great, and is easy for us to say; but an important part of being rational, which we forget at our peril, is that most people are not rational most of the time. We will go with gut instincts, yuk-factor reactions and be swayed by hyperbole, because it's what our survival heuristics have told us to do.  Deeply ingrained prejudices on both sides of the debate are not easily subverted (the ongoing GM debate is another potent example). This is not a criticism nor a resignation though, but another part of the puzzle. People react in certain ways, and we need to take this into account.  The revulsion at artificial flavourings did not come out of nowhere, but of experience of other less benevolent additives; the love for natural remedies (or, for the fruits of our scientific endevours) come from the love of being surrounded by beautiful trees and landcapes (or our desire for flying cars).

To conclude, neither opposing position can be reasonably upheld, and we need to think carefully and be rational for any decision, be it food, cosmetics, medicine, manufacuring and so on, and there is no easy answer or reliable heuristic. As always, evidence must be weighed up, regarding health concerns, environmental imact, and potential use of animal products; but for this to have any appreciable impact in the real world, it is essential that the ideology and gut reactions people have, to both humanity and nature be taken into account. Otherwise, our simultaneous love of our ingenuity and mistrust of our darkest creations, of wonder at nature and primal fear of contaminans, will perpatuate confusion and misinformation, whetever the evidence may say.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Join in! Say things!