My Museum of Eternal Food:
A number of years ago, not long after I began covering the food industry, I started thinking about those expiration dates stamped on packages of food at the supermarket. What might happen when the appointed day came and went? I bought all kinds of products and socked them away for years. First it was cereal and packages of cookies. Then cheese singles, pre-fabbed kids’ meals, loaves of bread, hot dogs, fast food meals, Pop Tarts, frozen chicken nuggets, you name it.
The results: nothing happened, or almost nothing. There were a few exceptions (the breads mostly), but the vast majority of my food never molded or otherwise decomposed. It hardened, sometimes shrank and often didn’t smell right, though it always stopped significantly short of nasty. Sometimes this lack of decomposition was the result of powerful chemical preservatives or additives that lower acidity levels. Other times it was a product’s high levels of sugar or salt, or the fact that water had been completely evaporated from it.
It makes you wonder — what is all this eternal food doing to our bodies when we eat it? If the living organisms that usually feast on aging food want nothing to do with it, should we? Does this food help sustain the cycle of life or engage in the silencing of it? These are difficult questions to answer. In reality, there are probably many different answers depending on the product. For me, the uneven effects of time on these highly processed modern products is just one of the ways they remain fundamentally distinct from foods prepared more simply and traditionally.
For these videos, which I assembled from photographs, I wanted to illustrate how a few processed foods react — or don’t react — to air, moisture (what little exists Colorado’s air), room temperature heat, the human touch and time. I set them up against less processed versions for comparison. The results are fairly gross and I plan never to do this again.
CHICKEN SANDWICH VIDEO:
THE DETAILS: On September 21, 2012, I went to a McDonald’s in Boulder (amazingly, there are some) and purchased a Southern Style Crispy Chicken sandwich that was made with the following ingredients:
Chicken breast fillet with rib meat, water, seasoning [sugar, salt, sodium phosphates, modified tapioca starch, spice, autolyzed yeast extract, carrageenan, natural (vegetable and botanical source) and artificial flavors, maltodextrin, sunflower lecithin, gum arabic]. Battered and breaded with: bleached wheat flour, water, wheat flour, sugar, salt, food starch-modified, yellow corn flour, leavening (sodium acid pyrophosphate, baking soda, sodium aluminum phosphate, monocalcium phosphate, ammonium bicarbonate), wheat gluten, spices, corn starch, dextrose, xanthan gum, extractives of paprika.
Regular Bun: Enriched flour (bleached wheat flour, malted barley flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), water, high fructose corn syrup and/or sugar, yeast, soybean oil and/or canola oil, contains 2% or less of the following: salt, wheat gluten, calcium sulfate, calcium carbonate, ammonium sulfate, ammonium chloride, dough conditioners (may contain one or more of the following: sodium stearoyl lactylate, datem, ascorbic acid, azodicarbonamide, mono- and diglycerides, ethoxylated monoglycerides, monocalcium phosphate, enzymes, guar gum, calcium peroxide), sorbic acid, calcium propionate and/or sodium propionate (preservatives), soy lecithin
Then at home I made a chicken sandwich from a non-organic cutlet I bought at Whole Foods. I breaded it using a basic recipe (bread crumbs, flour, salt, pepper, lemon zest, eggs) and then fried it in a pan using coconut oil. I set my breaded cutlet between a Whole Foods whole wheat hamburger bun.
I removed the pickle from the McDonald’s sandwich because I was only interested in what would happen to the highly processed components of the sandwich, and pickles rate as a minimally processed food. And I figured they would likely mold due to their high moisture content. (Mold and bacteria need moisture to grow).
I kept the sandwich in its cardboard clamshell on a table in my office, and I got an empty clamshell to store the homemade one. They sat there for four months, and I every few days I photographed them. The mold on the homemade sandwich seemed to originate from the bun and then, since I would reassemble the sandwiches for storage, from there spread to the chicken. But it was hard to really tell, and once the mold had gotten onto the chicken, it seemed happy to multiply there.
It’s not surprising that the McDonald’s bun wouldn’t mold. It contains two powerful chemical preservatives designed to thwart this — sorbic acid and calcium propionate. (The Whole Foods bun had no preservatives.) As for the chicken, its resistance to decomposition likely has to do with the way the multiple heating and frying steps (a partial one at the factory and another at the restaurant) cause the breading to almost plasticize, sealing off moisture from the meat inside.
Neither sandwich version gave off much odor, though if you get close to the homemade one, you can smell the mold. It’s a bit like smelling a really strong blue cheese.
CHICKEN NUGGETS VIDEO:
THE DETAILS: The chicken in this video came from a box of frozen Applegate Farms Organic Chicken Strips. After purchasing them on September 21, 2013, I put them in a plastic bag that I left partly unzipped. My original intent was to set them up in the video against another store bought variety – Bell & Evans Chicken Tenders, which are less processed and sold raw. But after ten days, the smell of the less processed, raw chicken was unbearable. All this food was residing unfortunately in my home office where I work every day. I had to throw out the offending Bell & Evans chicken and start over with just the Applegate variety, which is touted on the box as “minimally processed” and made from the following ingredients:
Organic chicken, water, organic rice starch, sea salt, natural flavor. Breaded with: organic wheat flour, organic evaporated cane sugar, sea salt, torula yeast, organic soybean oil, organic paprika. Battered with: water, organic wheat flour, sea salt, organic garlic, organic white pepper, organic flavorings (organic rosemary, organic sage and organic marjoram), organic cayenne pepper. Breading set in organic expeller pressed vegetable oil.
These chicken strips (or what started out as chicken strips) never got to the point of smelling horrific. After about a month and a half, the odor – a mild rotting smell – would come and go. Sometimes I didn’t notice it at all. In the book, I talk about why Applegate’s chicken may not be so “minimally processed,” and I ask one of Applegate’s founders why he thinks his product devolved into liquid when left out of the freezer for several months.
No clear answers emerged, but it likely has to do with the multiple processing steps the product goes through, including the creation of identical chicken pieces in an extruder, a high-tech mixer.
DETAILS: I made homemade guacamole using avocados, lime juice, onions, garlic, salt and diced tomatoes. I scooped some into a plastic tub and set it on my office table, alongside a container of “pico de gallo” from the deli section of my local King Soopers (purchased October 3, 2012). I wrote about this product, which is actually guacamole not pico de gallo, in the book because the store bills it as “fresh.” Yet instead of mashing it from whole avocados, the deli workers assemble it from a pre-mixed kit containing several ingredients that didn’t make it into the guacamole I made – xanthan gum, ascorbic acid, citric acid, and modified cornstarch.
It wasn’t long before my homemade guacamole began to smell. After about five days, there was a heavy onion odor. A few days after that, it turned more pungent and truly awful. Quite literally, it smelled like ass. Fortunately, the nauseating smell was largely contained by the plastic tub, so I was only subjected to it when I had to open it for photographs. The King Soopers’ guacamole smelled faintly of onions, vinegar and hot sauce, and only with the cover off and your nose hovering over it. Once I was done with the video, I was so happy to be able to throw out the mold-infested homemade variety. The supermarket specimen, though, still sits on my table.
Like the McDonald’s sandwich bun, the King Soopers’ guacamole didn’t mold because of additives, in this case ascorbic acid and citric acid, which lowered the pH of the product to 4.75, making it quite acidic. On the pH scale of 0-14, anything below 7 is acidic. Avocados are normally quite alkaline, although adding lime juice to guacamole lowers the pH, but not usually to as low as 4.75.
DETAILS: The processed cheese in this video is Kraft Singles Sharp Cheddar, purchased October 3, 2012. I took two slices out from the stack and kept them in their wrapper, storing them on my office table.
The natural cheese is Tillamook Extra Sharp Cheddar, aged over two years. To simulate the plastic wrappers of the processed cheese, I covered the whole slab of cheese in plastic wrap. After a month or so, as the black mold developed, the Tillamook cheese started to smell quite cheesy, that kind of barfy odor you get from Parmesan cheese. It was never strong enough to be unbearable. The Singles developed no smell at all.
The preservative sorbic acid again is responsible. That and the sterilization process that processed cheese undergoes to kill the naturally occurring bacteria found in most natural cheeses.