I love to eat, but I hate to eat poison. As obvious as that statement may be, it has completely changed my life over the last few years. Because of it, I have found myself obsessively reading labels, researching bizarre ingredients, and generally transforming food shopping into a hellish odyssey of doubletalk and desperation.
Because of that short sentence, I have had to cut out most junk food, many prepared sauces (including ketchup), and an amazing array of things that I once considered staples. I no longer eat Big Macs, Welch's jelly, Coca Cola, most Pepperidge farm breads or Claussen's pickles. In short, my quest to avoid high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), partially hydrogenated oils, and other industrial ingredients has completely changed the way I eat.
This isn't to say that I'm a total health food junkie. Actually, I have a major sweet tooth and have to be physically restrained if candy bars, premium dark chocolate, or butter pecan ice cream are in the room. Even these luxuries, however, are becoming infiltrated by the forces of fake food. A recent article on ABC News noted that major candy companies, including Hershey's and Nestle, are increasingly substituting cheap vegetable oils for cocoa butter in many of their chocolate bars. While the manufacturers claim that this doesn't affect the flavor of their products, many consumers disagree, and some have described the products as "waxy and artificial."
Financially, it makes a lot of sense for candy companies to use vegetable oils. The price of cocoa butter has more than doubled in the last two years, due to an increase in demand, poor growing seasons, and political instability in some cocoa-producing regions; vegetable oils, on the other hand, are very cheap. Unfortunately, however, chocolate without cocoa butter just isn't chocolate, at least according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which has stated that candy that doesn't use cocoa butter cannot call itself chocolate. Consequently, terms like "made with chocolate," "chocolate flavor," "chocolate candy" and "chocolate coating" have crept into the lexicon.
Whenever I start thinking about overly processed food, my mind goes back to the fake chocolate in George Orwell's 1984: "She broke [the chocolate] in half and gave one of the pieces to Winston. Even before he had taken it he knew by the smell that it was very unusual [...] Chocolate normally was dull-brown crumbly stuff that tasted, as nearly as one could describe it, like the smoke of a rubbish fire, but at some time or another he had tasted chocolate like the piece she had given him. The first whiff of its scent had stirred up some memory which he could not pin down, but which was powerful and troubling."
There's something perverse about a luxury food whose ingredients have been modified to save money at the expense of taste. After all, if chocolate fans are going to treat themselves to the occasional chocolate snack, shouldn't it offer the best flavor and texture possible?
Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. He's thinking about building an underground bunker to stockpile bars of Scharffen-Berger and Reese's cups. Just in case.
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