Friday, February 27, 2009

Peanuts Everywhere

On Tuesday I read an article in the New York Times called “Peanut Recall’s Ripples Feel Like a Tidal Wave for Some Companies.” The piece talked about the countless companies, large and small, which have had to spend time and resources carefully recalling products containing peanuts. It occurred to me that the number of foods with peanuts in them is staggering in this day and age. Our society is highly susceptible to contamination epidemics because our food has been so standardized and its ingredient diversity severely diminished.

Although I myself am not allergic to any foods, I have become extremely conscious of foods with nuts in them after witnessing people having allergic reactions to nuts. When I worked at a bakery last summer I found myself paying more attention to helping customers who had allergies of their own, because of my memories of those reactions. It was difficult to actually sell them many of the baked goods because other people working at the bakery were sloppy, and would pile up croissants covered in sliced almonds on top of other, nut-free pastries. And when I went to ask one of the bakers if a particular product contained nuts (or peanut oil, or almond paste), I would often be surprised to find that it did – even though I would have guessed it didn’t. As a result, I sometimes turned away customers with nut allergies because I didn’t feel good giving them anything from the display case. The same problem happened with customers who had wheat or egg allergies. If I couldn’t get a straight answer about the ingredient list, I didn’t sell it.

The perils that people with nut allergies face when they eat at restaurants or buy packaged goods at the grocery store are now happening to all of us. Shopping at the grocery store during this peanut butter scare makes me realize just how many peanut products I eat. I currently do not eat my favorite kind of ice cream, crackers, or the chocolates my family sends me from a local company back home. Not all of my usual peanut products might originate from the tainted processing plant, but I decided I would rather just eliminate peanut butter and paste from my diet right now and not worry about it. That makes me feel just like someone who is allergic to nuts and must constantly be conscious of what he or she is eating.

Think about the potential for a widespread emergency when our foods are so homogenized and filled with the same ingredients over and over again. Peanuts are only a minor example. Countless foods contain high fructose corn syrup or partially hydrogenated soybean oil. These products originate from a few processing plants in mass quantities. What if one of those ingredients became contaminated? I’m talking about something with more immediate effects than the speculation about mercury in corn syrup, although that is certainly a worrisome issue. We eat countless products every day that contain these ingredients without even realizing they’re in there. Thousands or millions of people would become ill within days before the problem could be recognized and stopped.

But we can’t really do anything about this potential scenario, because it’s virtually impossible to broaden your food horizons when you shop at your neighborhood grocery store. Some might say that you should make an effort to shop at farmers’ markets, organic grocery stores, or even start a garden of your own so you can eat more natural unprocessed food. But unfortunately there are a lot of us who don’t have the time, resources, or money to use these solutions. Poor, busy college students like me are inevitably going to end up with a cart full of corn syrup and soybean oil whether we like it or not, because we just don’t have a way to avoid that cheap, convenient food most of the time.

Sources:
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/26/business/smallbusiness/26sbiz.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=peanut&st=cse
http://www.treelight.com/health/nutrition/PartiallyHydrogenatedOils.html (read about soybean oil under the section ‘Partially Hydrogenated Oils Make You Fat!’)
http://www.chicagotribune.com/features/lifestyle/health/chi-mercury-corn-syrupjan27,0,2801323.story

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