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Additives: Let’s hope we are not what we eat

by Michael Hoffman

Four-legged chickens

In a book published last year titled “Shoku wo Kangaeru” (“Thinking about Food”), plant geneticist Yoichiro Sato describes his surprise when told by an elementary school teacher that many children nowadays draw chickens with four legs. Impossible, he thought. On second thought, maybe not. He tried an experiment with his own university students. He had them draw pictures of chickens. Sure enough, some of them were four-legged.

“In the past,” Sato writes, “this could not have happened.” In the past, kids raised chickens and caught fish. They knew life, death and food in a way that few of today’s children do. Adults aren’t much better. “Almost no one in Japan today raises and grows all their own food. Many raise or grow none of it.”

Where the meatballs came from

Another book on a related theme is “Shokuhin no Uragawa” (“The Dark Side of Food Products,” 2005) by Tsukasa Abe. Abe was a chemist employed by a maker of food additives. He was a good company man. First, his primary loyalty was to his company. Second, he worked long hours and rarely ate at home.

One day he did. It was his daughter’s third birthday. He came home early for the party and saw what his wife was preparing for dinner: instant meatballs. He was horrified. “You’re serving this?”

“Why not? The children love them, and they’re cheap and easy to prepare.”

He seized them and tossed them in the trash. He knew those meatballs only too well. He had created them. His assignment had been to develop additives that would render meat on the verge of decay — therefore cheap — edible and marketable. He did better. He made it delicious. He never imagined, somehow, that his own family would eat the stuff. The discovery that they did changed his life. He quit his job and hit the lecture circuit, warning the nation of the potential danger of the reckless use of additives. “Most of us,” he writes, “have no idea what we’re putting into our bodies.”

The most beautiful vegetables in the world

From a marketing perspective, it’s more important for vegetables to look healthy and delicious than to be healthy and delicious, the Asahi Shimbun reported last month.

“For vegetables it’s 90 percent appearance,” said an Osaka farmers market wholesaler. “Taste is secondary.”

Daikon radishes, for example, must be ramrod-straight to command top prices. Curves and, heaven forbid, gnarls bring down the price by 20-30 percent. Likewise discoloration. Do consumers know what such external flawlessness requires in terms of chemical soil disinfectants and special fertilizers? If Sato and Abe speak truly, they do not.

Sapuri

Does all this mean that people are so wedded to cheap convenience and surface perfection, however artificial, that they are indifferent to the state of their health? It does not.

In November, the business weekly Shukan Diamond ran a special feature on sapuri — supplements. The sheer size of the sapuri market — ¥2 trillion — suggests uneasiness. We suspect we’re being unkind to our bodies. Gulping protein supplements, vitamin supplements, calcium supplements, fat-absorbing supplements, cholesterol-absorbing supplements and so on is what we do by way of atonement, or compensation.

“Drink this and slim down!” “Eat this and be strong!” Shukan Diamond warns against such claims, glibly made and gullibly swallowed. The fact is, the magazine maintains, supplements, unlike medicine, are not rigorously tested prior to marketing, and are liable, when they have an effect at all, to do more harm than good.

No-pork pork broth

A standby of Abe’s lectures is a demonstration in which he says to the audience, “Let’s make some ramen soup. What flavor would you like?” “Pork!” “Good.” On the table in front of him are little bottles, dozens of them, full of white powder. He mixes powders into a vat of boiling water and says, “Here’s your soup! Who’d like a taste?”

The audience is dubious. “Where’s the pork?” “Just taste it!” It may take a little time before one, braver than the rest, comes forward. He or she tastes and marvels: “It’s delicious! It’s real pork broth!”

The point is, of course, that it’s not real pork broth. What is it? Only your friendly neighborhood food chemist knows for sure. Would he feed it to his family?

Who’s tending your rice paddy?

Sato, the plant geneticist, tells this story: A colleague was doing research in a village in Laos. One of the village children had a question for him: “While you’re here doing research, who’s looking after your rice field in Japan?” The researcher’s answer, unfortunately, is not recorded.

Life is probably much harder in Laos than it is in Japan. In a short story titled “A Bar at the Edge of a Cemetery,” the Laotian writer Bunthanaung Somsaiphon observes, “Most of their conversation (in the bar) was centered on the struggle for money, family conflicts and the various obstacles presented by the environment that invariably thwarted human happiness.”

Many Laotians no doubt think that with Japan’s level of development, they would be happy. Maybe they would, even if Japan isn’t.

Abe does not say all food additives are harmful, and he admits they are useful. They make food cheaper, reduce meal preparation time from hours to minutes, and preserve food that otherwise would spoil quickly and perhaps be wasted. A first-world economy could hardly manage without them.

Among the prices a first-world economy exacts from its beneficiaries is a wrenching separation from nature. Four-legged chickens are one indication. Another is a study on child obesity released on Christmas Day by the education and science ministry. The problem was found to be most aggravated in Fukushima Prefecture. A probable cause, the study suggests, is that radioactive air is keeping kids indoors and preventing them from getting enough exercise.