The recent food recalls related to Tara flour in Daily Foods Lentil Crumbles and now Revive Superfoods Smoothies illustrate our American fascination with the new and exotic. Somehow we seem to have the idea that the “perfect food” is out there waiting to be discovered. Sometimes, the more exotic and obscure the food, the more desireable. It reminds me of the explorers of old who spent so much time looking for the mythical “fountain of youth”.
Are these exotic ingredients better for health than our ordinary peas, beans, tomatoes and apples? In most cases no. And as the Daily Foods and Revive Superfoods illnesses related to Tara flour show, they may not even be safe! But doesn’t the FDA control that, you might wonder? The answer is kind of, but not really – particularly in the case of unusual plants sourced from overseas. How the particular product is prepared makes a difference too. There are many known examples of foods (olives, elderberries, potatoes, rhubarb to name a few) which, if not prepared properly can, and have, made people sick. Through many thousands of years, our ancestors learned what plants, animals and fungi they could eat, and which ones to stay away from. And they learned ways to make the inedible things safe. This was the beginning of food science!
Today we have sophisticated tools to analyze for possible toxins or microbes. But as with the tara flour example, there can be surprises – particulary when extracting only part of a plant, or with exotic materials that have not been eaten a lot in the past. As Consumer’s Reports food scientist Michael Hansen said “ …that raises questions — here is this plant, but they’re not using it for food — maybe there’s a reason for that.”
In addition to exotic ingredients (almost always from faraway places), a dizzying amount of new technology is being used to produce new food products. It is very trendy for “food tech” companies to “reinvent food”, supposedly bringing new life to what they perceive as an “old fashioned” food industry. You have heard the sound bites: genetically modified “heme”, real meat grown from animal cells, salad grown in warehouses; the list goes on. It is a very exciting time to be a food scientist! But it is also alarming.
There is a very good reason the food industry has traditionally been slow and conservative – they are producing food people put into their bodies! Just like our “food scientist” ancestors who probably observed what animals ate and experimented with eating small amounts before feeding the whole tribe, a degree of caution is imperative with new ingredients and technologies. Just because something is new does not make it better. The optimum building blocks of a healthy diet are still the same: vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes. They don’t need to come from half way around the world or to be extracted and re-processed into something they are not. The tried and true foods that our ancestors evolved to eat, like rice and beans, still hit the spot!