Alternative Uses for Food…for Better or Worse

ColumnFood Science Hall of Shame.

Everyday whole foods can be both powerful medicine and handy around the house. But when industry gets its grip on ordinary foods and repurposes them into other substances, the results can be either clever or diabolical, depending on the purpose (and the marketing) behind them.

Clever is a new process that extracts oil from food waste (that would otherwise decompose and emit methane) to make biofuel. Clever is using trash-eating microbes to turn landfill into compost. Clever is burning rice hull waste to create liquid smoke, which is usually made from burnt wood. Not only does this practice save trees and lessen waste, but the smoke from rice hulls might actually be good for your health. Evidently smoke from rice hulls contains an antioxidant that could help fight off diseases and prevent inflammation.

Then there’s the not so positive side of food science. As we’ve seen throughout history, good science in any field sometimes has bad consequences.

Diabolical is taking a perfectly healthy substance like dietary fiber from oats or barley (beta-glucan) and using it to reduce the salt content in highly processed chemical laden “chicken” that will be marketed as healthy to an unsuspecting public. Diabolical is using corn to make maltodextrin, a highly processed encapsulated starch that is added to snack foods including breads, cookies, muffins, and crackers, so they can be marketed as high fiber “good-for-you” foods.

I’m tempted to say that the dissembly and molecular reconstruction of ordinary food substances into new substances that turn other ordinary foods into supposedly “healthier” versions of themselves is truly science gone bad, but I don’t think science is the problem. I can see why scientists would want to discover and study these processes. Knowledge is seductive and the potential for discovery of something truly useful is always there.

The problem is in the funding of such endeavors. Entire books have been written about how the food industry drives scientific discoveries in nutrition. Because industry is focused on the bottom line and not the public good, when industry funds science, it has to find a way to recoup its costs. Nutritionism is often the result. And the marketing schemes used to sell so called functional foods lead the public into an alternate food universe in which Omega-3 fortified, high fiber, low fat, Froot Loops can be seen as healthier than plain old oatmeal.

So what to do? Buy as few packaged foods as possible, and when you do, look at the packaging. The louder it screams and the more bright colors it sports, chances are it’s been fortified or “improved” in a way that would make it unrecognizable as food to anyone living 75 years ago.


This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.

Image: IRRI Images

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.