‘Ingredients’ Book Casts an Artist’s Eye on Food Additives

As 21st century consumers, many of us have resigned ourselves to the fact that there are chemicals in our food which will forever remain unpronounceable mysteries. Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid, for example, might as well be the name of an Icelandic volcano.

But we don’t have to stay in the dark about them. These chemicals are the subject of Ingredients: A visual Exploration of 75 Additives and 25 Food Products, the new book by photographer Dwight Eschliman and writer Steve Ettlinger. The two men, who bonded over former independent projects that both focused on dissecting the ingredients in a Twinkie (see Eschliman’s and Ettlinger’s) decided to team up for a bigger project: Ingredients. “This book,” they say, “is for anyone wondering what’s in their food.”

Diacetyl, a bright yellow, liquid food additve that enhances flavor, is being poured out

Diacetyl is a flavor enhancer used in artificial butter and vanilla flavorings. It was one of photographer Dwight Eschliman’s favorite additives to photograph because of its amazing yellow color. Photograph by Dwight Eschliman

They’re curious guys, and they discovered some pretty bizarre facts on their journey to understand, photograph, and explain food additives—Like how difficult it is to get your hands on pure high fructose corn syrup these days. (Eschliman ended up having to use an old sample of HFCS from a past project because he couldn’t get a new one.) And how, if you were to taste undiluted Poly Sorbate 60, an emulsifier used as an egg substitute, you wouldn’t be able to taste anything else for two weeks because it so thoroughly coats your tongue. And then there’s the inescapable fact that diacetyl, which is a flavor enhancer included in artificial butter and vanilla flavoring, “totally stinks” in its concentrated form.

Picture of the freezer aisle in a grocery store, photographed straight on

Just what is inside the colorful boxes of food we buy? A photographer and a writer set out to find out, without judgement. Photograph by Dwight Eschliman

What the book isn’t is a soapbox, a prescription, or a guide to which processed foods “make our ears fall off,” according to Ettlinger. In the introduction, he writes, “We are simply curious about these ingredients and assume that many of you are too. We ask, ‘What does it look like?’ and ‘Why do they put this in my food?’”

In fact, Ettlinger is a critic of “chemophobia”—the general fear of all chemicals.“All food—apples, carrots—all food, is made of chemicals,” he explains. “So to ascribe something negative and fearful to chemicals in a knee jerk reaction is totally irresponsible.”

He actually seems quite fond of the long, scientific names, in particular, azodicarbonamide, which you might remember as the “yoga mat chemical” that made its way into headlines last year for being an ingredient in Subway’s bread. Eschliman, on the other hand, was more amused by the sound of tertiary-butylhydroquinone, a preservative that fights rancidity in vegetable oils, animal fats, essential oils, and nuts. Finding amusement in those long, scientific names is a step towards embracing information; not necessarily accepting or consuming every additive, but moving past ignorance towards awareness. “I think that’s healthy,” Ettlinger says, “We’re not saying to avoid it. We’re saying, ‘maybe think about it.’”

Two food additives, Azodicarbonamide, a tan powder, on the left, and Tertiary-butylhydroquinone, a white powder, on the right

Azodicarbonamide (Left), Tertiary-butylhydroquinone (Right) Photograph by Dwight Eschliman

To start, they chose 75 common food additives, from Acesulfame potassium to Xanthan gum, trying to strike a balance between those with a bad reputation (MSG) and the more benign (cornstarch). They also made sure that their choices represent the four main uses for food additives: to make food more appealing, to preserve product quality or freshness, to maintain or improve nutritional quality, and to aid in process and preparation. And then of course, they wanted visual variety. Who wants to see 75 photos of white powder? Then, they broke each of these enigmas down, explaining “where these things are made, how they are or came to be, and what they are used for.”

So we actually learn what Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (the Icelandic-sounding mystery chemical from before) is for after all. It’s a preservative that binds to metals that naturally occurs in some foods, like potatoes, and keeps them from oxidizing. It also keeps carcinogens from forming “in soft drinks and other foods that contain ascorbic acid and sodium benzoate.” Mystery solved. Though I still don’t think I’d try to pronounce that.

The second part of the book is basically the practical application chapter. It’s where we see how all these disparate powders and syrups come together to create what ends up in our pantry. Eschliman and Ettlinger chose 25 processed foods to dissect in much the same way that they chose the additives—They wanted to show a balance of more natural foods, like a Naked Juice Green Machine smoothie, and then some classic processed foods, like Cool Ranch Doritos, which Eschliman cites as his sons’ favorite flavor of the classic chip. Some of the ingredient breakdowns reveal surprises, like the fact that Quaker Oats’s strawberries and cream oatmeal doesn’t actually contain any of its headlining ingredients, or that Red Bull includes red, blue, and yellow dyes.

A gif of all the different ingredients in Cool Ranch Doritos, separated out

The ingredients that make up Cool Ranch Doritos: Corn, Corn oil, Canola oil and/or Sunflower Oil, Maltodetrin (made from corn), Salt, Tomato powder, Cornstarch, Lactose, Whey, Skim milk, Corn syrup solids, Onion powder, Sugar, Garlic powder, Monosodium glutamate, Milk, Cheese cultures, Salt, Enzymes, Detrose, Malic acid, Buttermilk, Natural flavor, Artificial flavor, Sodium acetate, Red No. 40, Blue No.1, Yellow No.5, Sodium caseinate, Spices, Citric acid, Disodium inosinate, Disodium guanylate. Photographs by Dwight Eschliman

Though Ettlinger writes that he and Eschliman strive for diets “oriented toward apples and broccoli,” he admits he’s glad he can pick up a loaf of processed bread (they dissect Oroweat Healthy Multi-Grain Bread in the book) at the grocery store when he needs to make 20 sandwiches. He posits that without any additives, “We would have a little trouble having a civilization that we know now.” His co-author agrees. “If you think it’s great that we can go to the grocery store, we have dozens of items to choose from, we don’t worry about being poisoned, we don’t worry about starving when there’s a bad harvest—a lot of this goes back to food additives and how they allow the industrial process of making food possible.”

Ingredients will be released on September 29th by Regan Arts. For more surprising peeks into what’s in your food, follow Ingredients the Book on Instagram.

Becky Harlan loves Doritos and is an associate web producer at National Geographic. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.

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