Beware of Processed Food

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By Elena Day

Back in 1973 I had gone home for a brief visit and run into a friend I’d known since grammar school. She excitedly told me about a movie she’d recently seen called Soylent Green. It was a futuristic movie about the overpopulation of the Earth in the 21st century and how people survived on a food product called Soylent Green. The product came in yellow, red or green wafers that in the end were discovered to be reprocessed human corpses. I preferred rose-colored glasses back then and quickly put the worry of an overpopulated, heavily polluted, impoverished and starving world out of my mind. Recently, thinking about the corporate control of our food system and what is passed off as “food,” I looked up Soylent Green.

The movie is set in 2022 in NYC, home of 40 million. Unemployment is 50 percent. Housing is dilapidated and the homeless are innumerable. Summer temperatures are over 90 degrees Farenheit both day and night due to recent climate change resulting from the Greenhouse Effect. (I was really surprised to discover that this was anticipated in 1973.) The 1% are still eating rare “$150-a-jar” strawberry jam. The movie stars Charlton Heston, Edgar G. Robinson (in his last film) and Joseph Cotton. Heston is Detective Thorr, assigned to investigate the murder of Cotton’s character, wealthy corporate lawyer and board member of the Soylent Green Corporation, William R. Simonson. This massive corporation provides “high energy vegetable concentrates,” advertised as being produced from “high energy plankton.” Green wafers are their newest product and better than the yellow and red varieties. Food riots are a weekly occurrence because the company has a difficult time keeping up with demand for the wafers on which most people survive. Detective Thorr is told by his friend and roommate, Sol Roth (played by Robinson), that the oceans are depleted of life and that the wafers are really human remains and not plankton. Sol has opted for assisted suicide at the government-assisted suicide facility after researching and finding out the truth about the Soylent Green Corporation’s product line. Of course, Simonson had been murdered because he too had discovered the product’s ugly secret. Detective Thorr goes to the heavily guarded waste disposal facility for corpses that is also a Solyent Green food plant. Government agents chase him through deserted streets in the dusk to dawn government-imposed curfew to keep him from revealing the true workings at the Soylent Green Corporation. Predictably, Heston kills all his pursuers but does suffer a serious gunshot wound. In the end he is carried off to the local hospital hysterically screaming “Soylent Green is PEOPLE ! We’ve got to stop them … SOMEHOW !!!” We can expect him to be another corpse sent to the Soylent Green food processing facility shortly.

Although we’ve not yet arrived at the situation depicted in Soylent Green, one can’t help but see trends and parallels. The climate crisis is obvious. And there are too many foods out whose labels confuse and outright deceive consumers. At least we can still choose not to eat these products, unlike the food-challenged population of 2022 NYC.

Let’s take a look at cheese, a relatively benign product compared to Soylent Green wafers.  There are a lot of categories with the word cheese on labels these days. What in the world is “cheese food” or “pasteurized prepared cheese product”? Apparently, FDA regulations stipulate the amount of cheese, moisture and milkfat present in what can be called cheese, cheese food, cheese spread, and cheese product. It’s all processed to varying degrees and contains added whey, salt, preservatives, and food coloring. Processing is advantageous because it extends shelf–life and provides uniformity of product. Processed cheeses don’t separate when cooked because of emulsifiers like sodium phosphate, tartrate or citrate. And that’s why processed cheese slices are great for hamburgers and why Cheez Whiz maintains its consistency on crackers! Processed cheese has been around since 1911. It was invented by Walter Gerber of Thun, Switzerland. In 1916, James L. Kraft applied for a patent to his own processing method in the United States. Kraft sliced American cheese (American cheese is virtually synonymous with processed cheese) became available commercially in 1950. The individually wrapped/separated slices first appeared in 1956.

More recently one might find Kraft Singles labeled “pasteurized prepared cheese product.”  Kraft Singles are under the radar of regulatory agencies. They are clearly cleverly chemically engineered and are not regulated as to milkfat or moisture content by the FDA. The product contains milk protein concentrates or MPCs. MPCs are created by putting milk through an ultrafiltration process to remove all the liquid and all the smaller molecules, including the minerals that are touted to be essential for good nutrition. The result is a dry substance high in protein, easy to transport, and used in processed cheese, frozen dairy desserts (Have you checked the labels on Breyer’s Ice Cream selections recently?), and energy bars. Most MPCs are imported from India and China. Sources are a combination of cow, yak, and/or water buffalo milk. Production facilities may be questionable and regulations minimal and/or unenforceable. Imports of MPC’s undermine our own dairy industry, from which small and medium dairy farmers have been almost eliminated in recent decades.

Of course, other factors at play in the dairy industry that favor agribusiness and large dairy cooperatives. These stem initially from the removal of parity or fair pricing and antitrust enforcement by Ronald Reagan. However, it’s the hydra of globalization that rears yet another of its many heads in the form of MPCs. The USDA doesn’t even count MPCs as milk. John Bunting, an activist dairy farmer from New York, has estimated that if imported MPCs for December 2008 were to be converted back to milk hauled in tanker trucks, the convoy would be nearly 65 miles long, bumper to bumper.*

Corporate profits are paramount. For dairy farmers, milk prices fall yearly and production costs rise. Antibiotics, GMO feed, bovine growth hormones and feedlots are the norm for the dairies of the 21st century. I suppose it could be worse….

It’s May, the gentle month. In May we already see the glimmerings of the bounty of August and September. Eat local. Eat healthy. Skip the Cheez Whiz and eat less processed food. Read labels and remember, we are what we eat.

*Information regarding MPCs from Foodopoly, authored by Wenonah Hauter, The New Press, 2012.