Friday, September 26, 2014

Food Safety and its History

I just read two more books about the American diet.

Fizz: How Soda Shook UP the World by Tristan Donovan is a comparatively light read, beginning with Joseph Priestly's discovery of how to add CO2 bubbles to water in the 18th century. People immediately LOVED soda as shown by rapid improvements in soda-making technology and the following rise of the soda fountain as a social and dining institution. And of course Donovan ends the book with a series of wars between Coke and Pepsi. In case you are wondering, Fizz is only about artificial bubbles -- naturally carbonated spring water and natural bubbles from fermentation in beer or sparkling wine were long known and loved before artificial carbonation. This is my next culinary history reading group selection, so I will return to it.

Pandora's Lunchbox by Melanie Warner is more challenging to read as its main focus is food chemistry and the history of highly processed foods. Warner, a journalist, interviewed many food scientists as well as doing other research for the book. The most memorable thing about the scientists is their compartmentalized lives -- they are passionate about creating new artificial additives or flavorings, but they themselves buy, eat, and feed their children much less processed foods than they invent.

Warner isn't really against food additives across the board: just very suspicious of the proliferation, without government supervision, of so many of them. If a food company says an additive is safe, that puts them in the right when they use it. They don't even have to tell the FDA it's there. Unbelievable, isn't it?

Dr. Harvey Wiley
From FDA Website
Both books have quite a lot to say about the career of Dr. Harvey Wiley (1844-1930), who for many years was chief chemist  of the Department of Agriculture, and who was responsible for the original food and drug laws of the United States and for Good Housekeeping magazine's approval process. Wiley definitely hated CocaCola and other soft drinks, and tried to put them out of business because he thought they were deeply harmful.

Wiley also supervised tests of a number of food additives -- including testing large quantities on volunteers in his "poison squad," to establish safe or unsafe doses. (Human subjects research that could never be repeated today!) Wiley tried to have the government regulate additives. Though he made quite a lot of progress in establishing food safety in the US, our current state of affairs might be beyond his worst nightmares!

1 comment:

Jeanie said...

You introduce us to the most interesting people and issues with the books you read and I'm not sure how you find the time to read so many meaty books (no pun intended!) These both look fascinating!