Monday, March 30, 2009

Going crackers (or, Grandma's attic part II)

A few weeks ago, while trying to recover from the Horrible Stomach Flu of Death, I sent Seth out to get one the time-honored stomach illness restoratives: the saltine cracker.

These crackers have soothed me since childhood through colds, food poisoning, intestinal illness of all kinds, hangovers and pregnancy. I've always been able to count on these crackers for their salty, inoffensive blandness, and their gentle, flaky texture, guaranteed to rest easy even in the most tumultuous of recovering tummies. I was ready for their comforting sameness, which hasn't changed since my childhood. Right? Nope, wrong. A few crackers in, I realized they tasted different. Sort of....sweet. Seth confirmed that he tasted the same thing. A glance at the ingredient list, and there it was: high fructose corn syrup. Now, seriously, why do you need sweetener in a bland saltine cracker of all things? I mean, aren't these things basically water, flour and salt? How much simpler can you get as far as a food product?

Not that simple, apparently. Having read Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma" a few months ago, we're on board with the idea of trying not to consume too much processed stuff and stuff containing corn derivatives, so as not to become giant walking corn chips, which is what most Americans are, if you are truly what you eat. As Pollan explains, the growing of corn is heavily subsidized. Thus, there is overproduction of corn, thus something has to be done with all the corn, thus corn and corn products are in nearly everything. Check your food labels, you'll be shocked. There is evidence on both sides as to whether corn sweeteners are metabolized differently than other sweeteners, and whether they contribute to the epidemic of obesity in this country. But really, how can it be good to have high fructose corn syrup in something that just doesn't need it, like a stupid cracker? Why are our tastebuds being bombarded with sugary sweetness in a fundamentally savory item?

After looking at the ingredient list on the 2009 box of saltines, I told Seth about the vintage metal Premium cracker box we always had in the house since I was a kid. My mom always bought crackers and stored them in this box, because it kept them fresher. The box has to be older than me - I remember it from my earliest days. I remember sitting at the kitchen table, eating my cheese and crackers or tomato soup and crackers, and reading the side of the metal cracker box. Very plainly, in English and Spanish, it listed the ingredients. My recollection was that the crackers contained a very short list of ingredients: flour, leavening, shortening, salt. I was headed to my mom's house soon. I would have to investigate.

As you know from my previous post, the cracker box had to still be in my mom's house. Of course it was:

And there was the short ingredient list, just as I remembered it, so concise:

To me, this list looks like food, people, not chemical engineering. I know that these days the FDA regulations require a little more detail, like what kind of shortening or leavening, but still. It would hardly make the ingredient list longer.

Is this progress?
Maybe I'm just swayed by the nostalgia of the metal cracker box: durable, reusable, simple, with its short and understandable list of ingredients. But really, has the lowly, simple saltine cracker now been improved by its longer, polysyllabic ingredient list? Why did it need to be changed? And most importantly, what the hell are we eating?

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