Sunday, March 15, 2015

This Is What You Just Put in Your Mouth?

Title:  This Is What You Just Put in Your Mouth?: From Eggnog to Beef Jerky, the Surprising Secrets of What's Inside Everyday Products
Author:  Patrick Di Justo
Publication Information:  Three Rivers Press. 2015. 272 pages.
ISBN:  0804139881 / 978-0804139885

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through Edelweiss free of cost in exchange for an honest review. Thank you Blogging for Books.

Opening Sentence:  "It started with a simple question."

Favorite Quote:  "... all the ... products in this book ... are a part of our world, and even if you don't use them, you are better off knowing what is in them rather than not knowing."

This book is based on a series of articles written by Patrick Di Justo for Wired magazine. The magazine feature was title "What's Inside," and it ran in the magazine from 2006 - 2013. For a time, the feature was also included on the PBS series Wired Science.

Each article in the book is a stand alone unit. Each addresses a food or other household item. It lists the ingredients in the product. For each ingredient, it describes its origin, its impact on the products, and some of its other uses. Some sections include additional information from experts such as chefs. Each article then includes a "backstory" which explain the research that went into that particular story- the initial research, the databases, the reactions from companies, and other sources. Some include sidebars include trivia and explain industry terms that we often find on labels and claims but whose industry definition we may not completely understand.

Let's take an example. The first article deals with A-1 steak sauce. The ingredients described range from tomatoes to xanthan gum. Excerpts from an interview with Chef Alton Brown provides additional information on each ingredient. The backstory includes description of research to find an ad for the sauce in a 1956 issue of Life magazine. The ad and the clarity of the online image allows comparison between ingredients then and ingredients now. The sidebar explains that the commonly used term "artificial flavorings" is defined simply an anything used to add flavor to food that "does not meet the definition of the a natural flavoring."

The articles are compiled into two sections - "This is What Your Put in Your Mouth" and "This is What You Don't Put in Your Mouth." The first section is not strictly food items; it includes a few oddballs like dog food, a flu shot, and heroin (yes, heroin). The second section ranges from deodorants and shampoo to gasoline and golf balls. Each section is organized simply alphabetically.

To talk about what this book is, first look at what the book is not. In his introduction, the author is clear, "If you're looking for shocking stories of the gigantic corporate conspiracy to poison America through its processed foods, you're reading the wrong book ... I always approached each product with nothing but curiosity and a desire to have that curiosity satisfied." So, the book does not pass judgement on ingredients or suggest any dietary or product changes you might make in your life. Some of the descriptions may lead you to that point anyways, but that is not the main thrust of the book.

The description of the book sounds rather dry; however, the way in which it is written had me laughing out loud. Some examples:

  • corn maltodextrin described as "glucose that is going through a period of identity confusion."
  • ammonia "kills nearly every type of microorganism; not even Chuck Norris has that kind of kill ratio."
  • taurine (an acid) "now made synthetically ... is the magical elixir said to bring out the kite-surfing extremophile in any web-surfing nerd."

Don't let the tongue in cheek humor fool you though. The book is serious science as well. It explores and explains the biology and the chemistry of the products and the ingredients. It also contains much information about industry terminology and regulation. For example, did you know that US federal regulations define a serving size (as found on food labels) as the "an amount of food customarily consumed per eating occasion by persons 4 years of age or older?" Did you know that US federal regulations do not require expiration dates on food; those are included by decision of the manufacturer? These facts so surprise me that I actually had to look them up to make sure!

This book has a whole lot of science and a whole lot of humor. It is organized such that it can be read piece meal and is full of interesting trivia. If you are looking for a judgement against the industry or a mandate for change, look elsewhere. If you have an interest in the science of products or you just want to know what is in the products you use, this is definitely a book for you.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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