Friday, February 4, 2011

Nuts, Chips, Heineken...and Cancer

We assume our food is reasonably healthful. Yes, we know the dangers of sugar and salt and saturated fats, we fear artificial flavorings, and periodic scares demonize some food or other. Plus, every once in a great while there's a salmonella issue and a swift, diligent recall. But, as a whole, we assume our food supply is, to at least some baseline, fresh and non-toxic.

Yet anyone who pays attention notices that 75% of grocery products containing nuts are plainly rancid. I've never had a box of Trader Joe's or Kashi nutty cereals that didn't have a detectably rancid odor. Ditto for the oil in many fried snacks.

Why isn't there an uproar over this? Because American consumers are so accustomed to rancidity that it no longer repulses us - an alarming development, given that rancid fats increase rates of heart disease and atherosclerosis and are carcinogenic.

Consider that drinkers of Heineken beer (sold in green bottles which allow light to interact with hops to create an off, "skunky" flavor) are so accustomed to their product's "off" flavor that, thanks to human perceptual adaptability, they expect their beer to taste that way. The "great imported taste" is, in fact, the flavor of icky spoiled hop enzymes.

What to do? Buy beer in brown bottles (not green or clear), and keep it out of the light (when purchasing, grab bottles from the darker back of the cooler). And learn to smell rancidity in snacks and nutty products. You already know the smell; you've just been taught to find it acceptable in small and medium concentrations. And avoid cereals and other consumer products - including all but the freshest and most conscientious granolas - with nuts. (Interestingly, nuts themselves, for processing/packaging reasons I don't understand, are much less frequently rancid than products containing nuts).

Of course, the really big problem is that rancidity, for all its insidiousness, is actually one of the most easily detected food safety issues. Lots more problems are undetectable. The best route is to buy simple, well-vetted ingredients rather than processed food products. Chicken, not chicken nuggets. Rice, not Rice-A-Roni.

But at least be leery of nuts, chips, and Heineken. And, hey, enjoy your Superbowl party! :)


Anonymous said...

No disagreement that Heineken tastes like dishwater, but I gotta have my Kashi Go Lean Crunch with almonds and flax seed. I go through so much of that it does not have time to get rancid.

James Leff said...

To be clear, it's rancid right out of the "fresh" box. Give a good honest sniff, remembering that you've somewhat adapted from long exposure.

....and there are tons of good nutless healthy cereals...

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