Performance Plate

Deconstructing Our Food System’s Chemical Dependency

A new book takes a look at the additives in our foods—one white powder at a time.

  • A new book hopes to explain to Americans exactly what they’re really eating, using pictures.  Photo: Dwight Eschliman

  • Corn group.  Photo: Dwight Eschliman, 'Ingredients: A Visual Exploration of 75 Additives & 25 Food Products'

  • Red 40 and Yellow 5.   Photo: Dwight Eschliman, 'Ingredients: A Visual Exploration of 75 Additives & 25 Food Products'

  • Ingredients in Doritos.  Photo: Dwight Eschliman, 'Ingredients: A Visual Exploration of 75 Additives & 25 Food Products'

  • Soy lecithin.  Photo: Dwight Eschliman, 'Ingredients: A Visual Exploration of 75 Additives & 25 Food Products'

It’s the diet advice that springs eternal, if you can’t pronounce the ingredient, you probably shouldn’t be eating it. 

But here’s the problem with the adage: bacon grease and high fructose corn syrup are both pretty easy to pronounce. Ascorbyl palmitate, may be tough to say, but is actually quite harmless. If anything, the mild preservative gives you an extra vitamin C boost. So while alarmist information on these additives is easy to come by, good information—the kind not written primarily for Facebook shares—has been harder to find. But a new book hopes to explain to Americans exactly what they’re really eating, using pictures.

'Ingredients: A Visual Exploration of 75 Additives & 25 Food Products,' is a photographic dive into the world of white powders and clear liquids. It’s the latest work by photographer (and frequent Outside contributor) Dwight Eschliman

“The project kind of fell into my lap after we deconstructed the Twinkie,” says Eschliman, of his 2010 project 37 Or So Ingredients. “That was our first thing that went completely viral. It was everywhere for five seconds. I wanted to dissect an American icon, but I had no idea that I’d touch such a nerve.” 

While the Twinkie concept was an instant hit, the expanded book has been more challenging. The FDA keeps a database of more than 3,000 ingredients permissible food additives, But Eschliman only wanted to include 100 ingredients. To whittle down his list, the photographer came up with specific criteria. Items had to have interesting names, and he wanted to include a mix of the not-so-healthful and the innocuous. “There’s a perception that all of these are really bad but you never hear the other side. I honestly feel like food science is pretty fascinating,” he says. 

Then there was the problem of making 100 ingredients—most white powders—visually interesting. “I am very familiar with the term ‘viewer fatigue.’ I knew going into this that it was going to be a lot of white powders and clear liquids but even I was surprised by how many white powders and clear liquids there were,” says Eschliman. 

To break up the white-on-white-on-more-white problem he focused on textures, grouping items in interesting ways and adding in some supermarket shots. “I knew no one was going to look at 200 pages of white powder.” 

Alongside each image Eschliman then included information about each additive. The text was written by Steve Ettlinger, who, coincidentally, is the author of his own Twinkie project: 'Twinkie Deconstructed.' His just-the-facts prose lets readers navigate these substances without bias.  

Which is why, if you’re looking for a diatribe on the dangers of processed food, this book isn’t it. “It was really important to me that we took a step back and took an observational approach,” says Eschliman. “Chemo-phobia is one of Steve’s favorite words,” he says adding that the goal wasn’t to strike Food Babe-style fear into the hearts of Twinkie-eating Americans, but to educate them. “You’ll get a good kernel of info about everything in the book.” 

And yes, some of what you read in 'Ingredients' may make you reconsider your food choices. That didn’t happen for Eschliman, “but I already had a healthy fear of a lot of these things.” Still, one thing did make his stomach turn—not because of its toxic chemical structure of but because of how it smelled. “Diacetyl is this bright yellow liquid and it’s extraordinarily smelly,” he says. He knew going into the shoot that the stuff was going to stink, but he had no idea the level of nasty even a small vile could produce: “It’s this full-body experience where it’s not even really a smell anymore.” The compound is used to add buttery flavor to food and alcohol. 

Luckily the book isn’t a scratch-and-sniff. However, it is an incredibly useful and interesting volume for anyone curious about the things they consume. 

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