It’s amazing what you find while unpacking after a cross-country move. In the boxes that contained the contents of my desk drawers, for example, I found random post-it notes with phone numbers written on them … no names, no idea whose numbers they were. It’s been years since I staggered home from a bar, so the numbers might have even belonged to people I intended to call. I was tempted to dial a few of them, but my curiosity was overridden by the potential for embarrassment.
“Hi, this is Tom Naughton. Was I supposed to call you, say, six years ago? Oh, the casting workshop! Right. No, no, no … I’m sure you would’ve made a fine scene partner. It’s just … uh … I was so intimidated by your acting talent, I was afraid I’d drag you down. What? Well, of course I’m not very convincing! That’s exactly my point. Hello? Hello?”
Among other assorted and mysterious junk, I also found one side of a cardboard package for something called “SmartMeat.” I vaguely remember buying SmartMeat at the Costco in Burbank, but that was years ago. For the life of me, I don’t know why I saved part of the package. We only tried the stuff once and didn’t care for it, which means it’s unlikely I thought to myself, “I must keep this package so I’ll never forget the brand name, even if we someday decide we can’t stand California and move 2,000 miles away.”
And the fact that I tried SmartMeat at all means I still believed it was smart to cut the fat from my diet, so obviously I wasn’t thinking, “Hey … some years from now I might produce a documentary called Fat Head and then start a blog. I should keep this as a reminder of SmartMeat so I can make fun of it.”
But I did keep it, for whatever reason. And I’m certainly going to make fun of SmartMeat, and of myself for buying it. Take a look at the pitch on the package:
Yup … for 30 years, Americans have been hoping for low-fat steaks that taste great. That’s because for more than 30 years, Americans have been bamboozled into thinking fatty, juicy steaks will kill them. SmartMeat steaks to the rescue!
But I’m using the word steaks rather loosely here. SmartMeat looked like a steak, it was shaped like a steak, we grilled it like a steak, and it even tasted a wee bit like a steak. But as I read the package again today, I realized the manufacturer (and that’s the correct term, as you’ll see shortly) never actually labeled it as a steak. That’s because SmartMeat is a beef product … probably in the same way Cheez-Wiz is a cheese product.
In fact, as you can see from the label, SmartMeat is a whole new grade of beef. It was even developed that way, by gosh. Sadly, it didn’t occur to me during that particular shopping trip that beef should never be developed. Film should be developed. Ideas should be developed. But beef should be raised, preferably as part of a cow.
The whole purpose of all that SmartMeat R&D was apparently to produce these bragging rights:
Okay, so I ate a low-fat steak … I mean, beef product. No big deal, right? But there’s a problem with low-fat beef: take away the fat, and most of the flavor goes with it. Clearly the SmartMeat people needed to find a way to enhance the taste. And that’s where the horror show begins:
Now keep in mind, these looked like marbled steaks. And yet 63 percent of the fat was removed and replaced with “marbling ingredients.” I’m not sure I even want to know how they did this. I picture the steaks (soon to be beef products) spending a leisurely afternoon soaking in a vat of chemicals formulated to dissolve away most of the naturally-occurring animal fat, then taking a ride down a conveyer belt so a piece of industrial equipment can inject them with marbling ingredients. And what lovely ingredients they are.
I can’t figure out why water was listed twice, but at least I understand the word. I also recognize partially hydrogenated soybean oil. That’s trans fat … the stuff that knocks down your HDL and weakens the walls of your cells.
(Yes, Mr. Naughton, but the Guy From CSPI assured us trans fats were safe, and surely it’s a small price to pay to avoid all that icky animal fat, don’t you think?)
Hydrolyzed soy protein means the product contains MSG. The idea is to add some taste, but if you read up on the stuff, it’ll make you lose your appetite … and I found this description on site that’s actually pro-soybean:
The extraction process of hydrolysis involves boiling in a vat of acid (e.g., sulfuric acid) and then neutralizing the solution with a caustic soda.
The resultant sludge is scraped off the top and allowed to dry. In addition to soy protein it contains free-form excitotoxic amino acids (e.g., MSG) and other potentially harmful chemicals including cancer-causing chemicals in many cases. A newer method of hydrolysis involves the use of bacteria by itself or in addition to the chemical processes described above. There is a possibility that genetically-manipulated bacteria may be used.
In almost all cases, hydrolyzed soy protein contains a significant amount of genetically-manipulated soy. The hydrolyzed protein products currently added to foods should be considered a detriment to one’s health.
Yuuuuummy, eh? I remember how my grandma used to always boil her chickens in sulfuric acid. Those were some awesome Sunday dinners.
(But monosodium glutamate IS yummy, Mr. Naughton! Since we felt compelled to remove the icky animal fat from our steaks … excuse me, from our “beef products,” we had to find a substitute. You wouldn’t want to eat a tasteless st– er, beef product, would you?)
The other ingredients were a mystery to me, so I had to look them up. Here’s what I found on vegetable mono- and diglycerides:
These not-quite-whole fats are common food additives used to blend ingredients together that don’t naturally blend well, such as oil and water. Think of processed peanut butter like Jif. It contains mono- and diglycerides to give it a creamy consistency, and to prevent the oil from separating and sitting on the top. Just like hydrogenated oils, mono- and diglycerides increase the shelf life of foods, but they are on the Generally Recognized As Safe list according to the FDA.
See, that’s the problem with skinny cows. You can’t just squirt water into them to make them juicier, because the stuff will separate. So if you use a chemical process to produce a skinny beef product that needs some artificial marbling, you have to mix up some trans fats and water, then bind them togther with not-quite-whole fats. Otherwise the water will just squirt out during grilling and douse your charcoals. But hey, anything approved by the FDA has to be okay.
(Mr. Naughton, you tried one of our st– beef products. It was juicy, wasn’t it? Let’s see you try making a juicy product after removing the icky animal fat, SmartGuy!)
Of course, it’s not enough to support the soy industry with hydrogenated soybean oil and hydrolyzed soy protein. We should also toss in some soy lecithin. The pro-soy web site had this to say about the stuff:
Soy lecithin (E322) is extracted from soybeans either mechanically or chemically. It’s actually a byproduct of the soybean’s oil. Some people use it as a supplement, because it has a high value of the nutrient choline. Choline is good for heart health and brain development. But that’s not the reason soy lecithin is used as an additive in foods. It possesses emulsification properties. This means it can keep a candy bar “together” by making sure that the cocoa and the cocoa butter don’t separate. It is also used in bakery items to keep the dough from sticking and to improve its ability to rise.
Since soybean are one of the cheapest crops in the US (thanks in part to federal subsidies to growers), it makes sense to use a cheap, natural soy derived emulsifier in food processing.
Cool … the next time someone tells me to keep it together, I’ll roll myself in some soy lecithin. And I really appreciated the reminder that my tax dollars are making Archer Daniels Midland rich. I didn’t see anything online to indicate soy lecithin is a toxin and it may even be good, but I generally avoid soy, and I certainly don’t expect to find it in my st– beef product.
(Trust us, Mr. Naughton, it’s good for your heart! The soy people wouldn’t lie to us about something that important.)
My favorite ingredient is the sodium benzoate, because of what I found on it. Apparently, Coca-Cola has promised to remove the stuff from Diet Coke. Here’s part of that story:
Coca-Cola is phasing out the use of the controversial additive sodium benzoate in Diet Coke on the back of consumer demand for more natural products…. However, the additive removal is only currently planned for products sold in Britain. The Coca-Cola Company could not confirm if any other countries would follow suit.
Sodium benzoate is used as a preservative in drinks, providing safety and stability for the product. It has proved a controversial additive, as recent studies have highlighted health concerns from its use… Last year, research linked the product to cell damage. The study was conducted by professor Peter Piper from Sheffield University, an expert in molecular biology and biotechnology… Benzoate appeared to attack cells’ mitochondria, damaging their ability to prevent oxygen leaks that create free radicals. Yeast cells were used because of their similarity to human ones, but no research on humans has been done.
I’d say research on humans has been done, at least informally. I’m glad I stopped drinking diet sodas.
(Mr. Naughton, for pete’s sake! You don’t expect us to sell a beef product that could actually spoil someday, do you? What if you need to leave town for a couple of months with some SmartMeat sitting in your refrigerator?)
But my favorite nugget about sodium benzoate was this one:
It is also used in fireworks as a fuel in whistle mix, a powder which emits a whistling noise when compressed into a tube and ignited.
And to think I compressed SmartMeat into my own tube. There was probably some whistling and fireworks afterwards, but I don’t remember. I just know I feel dumb for ever buying this chemical concoction. The steaks I buy now have one ingredient: grass-fed beef.
Now that’s actually smart.