Visceral Impact

There would be meat stored in great piles in rooms; and the water from leaky roofs would drip over it, and thousands of rats would race about on it. It was too dark in these storage places to see well, but a man could run his hand over these piles of meat and sweep off handfuls of the dried dung of rats.… The meat would be shoveled into carts, and the man who did the shoveling would not trouble to lift out a rat even when he saw one — there were things that went into the sausage in comparison with which a poisoned rat was a tidbit.
–from Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which began serialization in the socialist newspaper The Appeal to Reason on this day in 1905

Although Sinclair’s exposé of the meat processing industry provoked the government to pass new regulatory legislation, Sinclair always regretted that he had missed his mark. Instead of arousing sympathy for the workers in the food industry, many of them immigrant “wage-slaves” who dared not complain about their horrible working conditions, The Jungle caused alarm only about the food. “I aimed at the public’s heart,” Sinclair said, “and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

With the public stomach now supersized — obesity is at alarm-bell level in the West, and rising in many countries worldwide — the exposé books are clamoring for regulatory action on the guilty additives. In Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, Michael Moss reports on the never-ending search for new products with a marketable “bliss point” taste, the right “product delivery cues,” fat globules that improve “mouthfeel,” “flavor burst,” and bottom line. Moss’s research led him to taste test versions of a number of popular products — Kellogg’s Cheez-Its, various Campbell soups, for example — in which the magical three ingredients had been reduced to non-life-threatening levels, with disastrous results:

Take more than a little salt, or sugar, or fat out of processed food, these experiments showed, and there is nothing left. Or, even worse, what is left are the inexorable consequences of food processing, repulsive tastes that are bitter, metallic, and astringent. The industry has boxed itself in.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.