Ignorance is fear: or, “it’s gross” is not an argument

A former “food industry insider” named Bruce Bradley has started a blog to tell the world about all the terrible things the food industry does. In his most recent post, he lists some of the disgusting things that industry passes off as natural products. “Unfortunately,” he writes, “big food companies have cast a spell over most regulators that allows them to manipulate us with advertising, make deceptive claims, and mislead us with ingredient labels.”

I appreciate the effort to speak truth to powerless, but here’s the problem: Three of the five things he lists have been commonly used for centuries or, in some cases, millennia. Not only are they, in fact, natural; they’re traditional and originally handmade.

First, he reveals that cheese is made with cow’s stomach. Well, yes: rennet has been used to clabber milk in cheesemaking for thousands of years. You can clabber milk with an acid, or you can use natural fermentation to make yogurt and then drain and press it, but most traditional European and American cheeses were made with rennet.

Next up is “crushed bugs,” otherwise known as cochineal, which was used in the ancient world for cosmetics: Cleopatra’s lipstick was supposedly colored red with it. Nineteenth-century cookbooks call for it to make pink cake frosting; it only disappeared from recipes when artificial food coloring was invented. (You remember Red Number 5, the stuff that caused cancer in lab rats? That made red M&Ms red, until they were yanked from the bags in the early 1970s?)

Then “beetle juice,” or shellac. Which is actually secreted from the female of a particular species of beetle; it isn’t obtained by crushing them, but never mind. Shellac has been used as a furniture finish for hundreds of years, at least. Whether it ought to be used on candy is another question, but it isn’t some newfangled nastygram from a corporate laboratory.

The guy’s point is that people ought to know what is in their food. Point taken, but I wish he knew what was in food before he started telling everybody else about it. The problem here is not corporate marketing. We are not victims of a grand conspiracy to prevent us from knowing that the production of our Velveeta Shells ‘n’ Cheese involves the use of calf’s stomach. Nor is it the responsibility of a product label to define rennet or cochineal. The problem is that people have become so alienated from the sources of our food that they have no knowledge at all to start from, no frame of reference to provide perspective. Why is the stomach of a calf gross but the abdominal muscles of its older brother $12.95 a pound at Whole Foods? Why are the secretions of the shellac beetle disgusting but the vomit of a particular species of bee delicious? Why will people who find cochineal beetles horrifying pay a premium for far larger arthropods, boil them alive, rip them apart with their hands, and eat their flesh with drawn butter?

(Flank steak, honey, and lobster. If you had to wait for the answers you’re proving my point.)

Since when is “eww, it’s gross” an argument, anyway? You might as well say that Lots of things are gross. Sex is gross — necessary for the perpetuation of the species, potentially highly entertaining, and seriously gross if you think about it too long. Childbirth? Beautiful, miraculous, awe-inspiring, and deeply, mindbogglingly gross. Eating is gross, too. Think about saliva. Thinking about it? How do you feel? Pretty gross, huh? And there’s more: Food grows in dirt! To make it grow, farmers put poop on it! Those nasty, nasty men! (And women. Don’t want to be sexist.)

People, knowing what’s in our food starts with us. If we don’t have any basic understanding of food at all, of its production, hell, of basic biology, then product labels aren’t going to help — and yet, sadly, we’re going to be more dependent than ever on industry to feed us. Because if we don’t understand the natural world, we’re going to be afraid of it, and then the only things we won’t find gross are the products of factories and laboratories.

Textured vegetable protein, anyone?