Coffee’s Sordid Past & Food Additives Made Visible

Two food related news stories caught my eye recently. One is a lighthearted summary of the health benefits/health detriments attributed to coffee throughout a roughly 500-year history. The other is a new book that offers a visual exposé of food additives.

The history of coffee: good & evil

Is drinking coffee good or bad for us? Or does it actually have any impact on health? Maybe 500 years isn’t long enough to make that determination. One amusing aspect of this article is the listing of coffee-related headlines going as far back as the 1500s and how the assertions change throughout the centuries. Some claims are amusing (coffee stunts growth), some outrageous (coffee cures alcoholism) and some may be worth noting (coffee consumption is associated with an increase in urinary tract cancer).

This piece is interesting in part because it provides a very obvious example of how so-called “proof” can lead to erroneous conclusions and beliefs. What would a similar article look like if instead of coffee, the subject was diet or exercise?

What exactly is in that can of soup?

Maybe the dietitians out there aren’t stumped as to what sodium benzoate is or what autolyzed yeast is for, but for the rest of us, let’s be honest, we have no clue. And unless you cook at home, from scratch, you eat this stuff – plus many other chemicals – regularly. They’re put into packaged foods as flavoring, emulsifiers, preservatives and colorants.

So what the heck are they? What do they LOOK like? Where do they come from? WHY are they in there?

Science writer, Steve Ettlinger and photographer Dwight Eschliman collaborated to answer those questions. The result is their book, “Ingredients – A Visual Exploration Of 75 Additives & 25 Food Products”.

The book’s overall aim is to increase the understanding of what these common food ingredients actually are – something that reading a long ingredient list of unpronounceable words typically doesn’t do. They achieve this with high-impact imagery revealing each ingredient’s texture and color accompanied with an explanation of why they’re used in food in the first place.

There’s also a section in the book that features several of America’s favorite food items (for instance Campbell’s soup and Doritos) and breaks down the whole into the parts — the powders and piles of individual ingredients that comprise each food product.

It’s not exactly appetizing, but certainly intriguing.

My guess is that many readers will (still) feel negatively about some of the additives and better about others.