Having it both ways on food additives

As he completes his review the ingredients in his son’s Chicken McNuggets, Michael Pollan comes to the chemical additives. He writes,

According to the handout, McNuggets also contain several completely synthetic ingredients, quasiedible substances that ultimately come not from a corn or soybean field but from a petroleum refinery or chemical plant. These chemicals are what make modern processed foods possible, by keeping the organic materials in them from going bad or looking strange after months in the freezer or on the road. Listed first are the “leavening agents”: sodium aluminum phosphate, monocalcium phosphate, sodium acid pyrophosphate, and calcium lactate. (113)

A particularly enthusiastic reader of the ingredients might notice that Pollan has omitted one leavening agent, baking soda, from his list of “quasiedible substances.” Perhaps this omission is understandable, though, because baking soda is something most of us have in our cabinets at home.

However, the same could be said of at least one of the ingredients that Pollan does include on his list. Monocalcium phosphate has been one of the two active ingredients in baking powder (the other is baking soda) for more than 150 years. (Nowadays, some brands vary the formula a bit, but most will contain at least one of the leavening agents that Pollan has listed.)

So why does this matter? By this point, Pollan has already said plenty to make the McNuggets seem unappealing, and some of the additives he’ll go on to list will be more scary. The fact that monocalcium phosphate is a component of baking powder probably will not make many of Pollan’s fans actually want to eat the McNuggets.

What I think it does suggest, though, is that Pollan is a bit too quick to condemn foods that are unfamiliar. By sparing baking soda the “quasiedible” designation, Pollan has tacitly acknowledged that chemical plants can contribute something of value to our food supply. Including the other active ingredient on his “quasiedible” list seems like a knee-jerk reaction to a chemical name.

Especially in In Defense of Food, Pollan tends to demonize processed foods and their long lists of ingredients with chemical names. He’ll even directly advise us to avoid foods with ingredients that are unfamiliar. I think this thing about baking powder shows, at very least, that it can be worth becoming familiar with an ingredient instead of rejecting it on the basis of unfamiliarity. In the case of monocalcium phosphate, this might not convince a reader to eat the McNuggets, but it could some day make the difference for a brownie or pancake.



  1. Molly said

    Wow, I didn’t know any of that – thank you! You make a very good point about becoming familiar with things in order to better educate ourselves.

  2. […] indicates that this deadly strain of bacteria is about as prevalent in grass-fed cattle. Later, he goes on to include one of the active ingredients in baking powder on a list of “quasiedible substances ” […]

  3. […] I don’t have a problem with every ingredient with a chemical-sounding name. In the past I’ve pointed out that some of those are more familiar than one might think. But none of this is relevant to my main purpose in writing. The point of this post is to analyze […]

  4. zero said

    tertiary butylhydroquinone sounds tasty also

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