An article last year in the New York Times introduced the berry known as “miracle fruit” (Synsepalum dulcificum) to a readership on perennial orange alert for breaking food thrills. The “tiny fruit that tricks the tongue,” as the article described it, is native to West Africa and contains a protein that binds to the tongue’s taste receptors and causes sour foods to taste sweet. “Flavor-tripping” parties, in which participants nibble the berries and experiment with different foods, were called a trend, and the article reported from one such event. Participants under the berry’s influence exclaim that Tabasco sauce tastes like hot donut glaze and Guinness like a chocolate shake.
Six months after the article appeared I received a package in the mail from Ty-Good Life Technology Engineering and Senyuh Farming Technology Co. It was a birthday gift from a friend and contained a freeze-dried blister pack of ten miracle fruit tablets, return-addressed MiracleFruitTab.com. I went to the website: “Undergoing the effect of miracle fruit can be one of the most rewarding experiences of a life time,” read the text. “We have personally witnessed hundreds of people that are at a loss of words, or even question their sanity after experiencing the fruit!” For one or two hours, it explained, the tablets would transform all acidic foods into sweet-tasting foods.
Internet entrepreneurs market the tablets as a sugar substitute for dieters and diabetics, but this would not work for many reasons. Cost is one: a tablet with each meal means twenty-one tablets per week, or a weekly miracle fruit expenditure of $32, not reimbursable by insurance. Other reasons are emotional: we eat sweets to feel decadent and because sugar lightly intoxicates us. Miracle fruit accomplishes neither pleasure.
But it does work, in a basic sense. The tablets I received were ash pink and tasted like cranberries. After smooshing one around on my tongue for a minute, lemon flesh had the flavor of lemonade and tomatoes turned jammy. Regular mustard became honey mustard and horseradish seemed to be powdered with Splenda. The thing about miracle fruit is that it doesn’t make things taste good; its value, rather, is transgressive, banishing childhood behavioral restrictions like “Don’t bite into the lemon.” This form of freedom is reliably fun. Guides to miracle fruit note that long-term use can cause oral ulcers.
Revisiting the New York Times article after trying miracle fruit is another matter. To interpret Tabasco as donut glaze requires wishful thinking and recalls the party guest who’s wearing a lampshade after one beer. One suspects a preexisting need to make food more interesting than it is, more beautiful, more strange—an impulse more fundamental than a flavor-tripping party. Michael Pollan instructs us to avoid any additive that our grandmothers wouldn’t recognize as food (which means avoiding almost anything that comes in a jar, box, or carton), lest we be fooled into ingesting something that isn’t “real” and won’t be good for us. But it is the other side of our interest—our strange need, with all the transformed foods that we have, to seek further transformations, whether in “processed food” or whole—that miracle fruit highlights.
The useful comparison of highly processed foods may not be to unprocessed foods, but to artistic Modernism. Most of our beloved “New Foods” (1940s–the present) sort into the categories of Surrealist and Abstract—both art movements died many decades ago, but you’ll find their souls whispering from shelves of Pop-Tarts, Bac-O-Bits and SpaghettiOs in containers stamped with expiration dates extending suspiciously far into the future.
Surreal foods are hyperbolically flavored and colored; mix up a batch of blue Jell-O and give it a poke. You’ll find its motion inconceivable, like Dalí’s wristwatches. Abstract foods, on the other hand, are largely stripped of textures and flavors and ultimately negated into monochromatic fields. Like Ad Reinhardt’s black canvases or Rauschenberg’s white ones, these become foods without an external referent, both void and sublime. Think of Wonder Bread, packaged chicken breasts, and the interchangeable white starches of processed rice and mashed potato flakes. Eating them, your mind turns to contemplating the tastes that you’re missing.
What we see on supermarket shelves is today’s version of the avant-garde, not the decline of civilization. Like mythical animals, processed foods are bewildering and fantastical. But we can learn to name their categories, as the art critics know schools of modern painters. For foods that resemble foods but don’t provide calories or vitamins, I propose will-o’-the-wisps. Think of Sugar-Free Jell-O and Crystal Light Pink Lemonade. (Where does the powder in the box go—shouldn’t it have some substance?) Their opposites, the Trojan foods, are works of art that ultimately provide nutrition but don’t initially appear to be foods. I’d include Pillsbury Butter Tastin’ Grands! biscuits in a canister, Batter Blaster pancakes in an aerosol can, and portable Yoplait Go-Gurt, “the first-ever yogurt in a tube.”
My favorite type of processed food is what I think of as the gastromorph. A gastromorph borrows the essence of an entire food that is associated with a distinct vehicle and transfers it to the vehicle of another food. Let me provide some examples. A yogurt flavored as “key lime pie” is a gastromorph, but plain lime-flavored yogurt is not. Jones Soda candy corn–flavored soft drink and Grāpple brand grape-flavored apples are other examples. Some of the best gastromorphs today are manufactured by Coffee-Mate, which offers nondairy creamer in varieties like cinnamon bun and crème brûlée.
Opposing gastromorphs are non-eatities, those products that purport to be a combination of two foods but don’t actually mimic either one. Reese’s Puffs taste neither like peanut butter cups nor cereal. Ditto Keebler Cookie Crunch. Goober, a peanut butter and jelly combination manufactured by Smucker’s, swirls the two substances to make circus-tent stripes in a glass jar. The idea is that packaging peanut butter and jelly together facilitates sandwich-making, because you only need one knife and no dexterity. The trouble is that Goober cannot be used to make a convincing PB&J sandwich because Goober peanut butter isn’t peanut butter and Goober jelly isn’t jelly. The peanut butter tastes like chalk and reminds me of inexpensive nylons: semi-sheer, stretchy, and suntan-colored. The jelly seems to be surplus from the center of NutriGrain bars, a.k.a. fruit glue. Goober comes in “strawberry” and “grape” flavors. It is especially popular in Canada.
Why buy Goober? There’s something tantalizing about the way Goober’s strawberry and grape flavors transform “strawberry” and “grape” into their furthest abstractions. Other products that offer the same experience include gum, candy, and lip gloss marketed to preteen girls. As with the relationship between a drag queen and a biological woman, artificial flavors are always theatrical reinterpretations of basic things, the interest of which lies in the vast gap between reality and interpretation. Quotation marks are implied. The drag performance exaggerates an “essence” to maximum abstraction, and the results are often astonishing. It might not be the only picture you’d ever want to have of women, or peanut butter, but a life lived without experiencing this would be a more impoverished life. You’d even, in a way, know less about the originals.
Processed foods are not for subsistence. They are treats to use in moderation for the purpose of extending our senses and delights. Alcohol is a good corollary. On the other hand, I don’t want to be too optimistic. Food has a way of making fanatics of us all: it’s as if we can’t think of eating as mixed or complicated but only as a place for ironclad rules of right and wrong, what to eat always and what to eat never. Fanatics relentlessly pursue this teleology of food beyond food—the use of punishing food inventions to escape the realities of the mortal body altogether.
I am watching an infomercial presented on Lifetime by Walden Farms, a company that manufactures advanced calorie-free versions of pancake syrup, marshmallow dip, alfredo sauce, and dozens of other high-fat foods. Dr. Wendy Walsh, the hostess, wears an orchid-colored sweater and resembles the country singer Faith Hill. “Imagine saving 330 calories a day,” she is saying. “You know, think about it: that’s 10,000 calories a month. You could actually lose 34 pounds a year and still be able to enjoy your favorite meals. Now don’t just imagine it”—Dr. Walsh raises a clenched fist—“live it.”
The two women onscreen, Dr. Walsh and a guest nutritionist named Dr. Janet Brill, stand in a stage kitchen with a buffet of Walden Farms products before them. Dr. Brill wears a gunmetal silk jacket and costume jewelry. She is the author of a book about reducing cholesterol in just four weeks without prescription drugs, and she is here to promote Walden Farms.
Dr. Walsh turns to her guest. “How is it possible these products can be calorie-free?”
“Well it’s really quite amazing what Walden Farms does,” Dr. Brill responds, explaining that the company takes natural ingredients and concentrates them in order to produce its calorie-free products (she makes an inward accordion motion). A camera pans across the kitchen counter to highlight prop tuna salad dressed with no-cal mayo, prop pancakes drenched in no-cal syrup, and prop sundaes drizzled with no-cal fudge. Dr. Walsh grabs a container. “Am I looking at calorie-free peanut butter?” she asks in disbelief. “You could save almost 800 calories on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” Dr. Brill responds. The women bounce among the products, going on to discuss the benefits of a delicious 125-calorie smoothie (“Which is unheard of!”) made with Walden Farms chocolate sauce, the satiating quality of pasta with no-cal alfredo, and the ready availability of more information at TheWaldenWay.com.
Walden Farms products are widely but sketchily available. Some grocery stores carry the full range and some just the salad dressings; others carry no Walden Farms products at all and don’t know what you’re talking about when you ask. There appears to be confusion among supermarket managers about how to classify Walden products. At Fairway they are nowhere to be found among the normal jellies, peanut butters, and marshmallow spreads, which get shelved indoors. Instead, the Walden versions are stored outside, beneath the produce, in cardboard crates. Where the rest of Fairway is clean, bright, and dotted with cheese displays, the Walden nook is unkempt. This points to a larger pattern in Walden Farms distribution, which is that the jellies and dips are often shelved the way seltzer flats or printed toilet paper is shelved: out of sight and in undistinguished surroundings, not for the ordinary customer but for those habitual buyers who scoop up weekly replacements as a matter of course.
A Smucker’s Grape Jelly costs $2.49; a Walden version costs $4.59. Each Walden product’s label notes that the product is fat free, sugar free, calorie free, cholesterol free, carbohydrate free, and gluten free. The nutrition label is also followed by a tiny asterisk that leads to the sentence, “Contains trace calories.”
I was pretty old, maybe 14, when I examined a can of Diet Coke that my mother was drinking and discovered that it had zero calories. This was shocking. I ran it by my mom, who pointed out that all diet sodas contain zero calories. This is what makes them “diet.” How could anything but water amount to nothing, nutritionally speaking? In my mind, a calorie had a physical form like a sugar cube or a grain of rice, and therefore anything with taste or sweetness naturally was made of calories. Diet Coke presented an ontological problem: it existed, it had flavor, but it did not appear to have calories.
Two years later I discovered a comforting truth, also accidentally: diet soda does in fact contain calories. I was in Spain on a summer program, admiring the foreign soda cans in a supermarket, when I noticed that the Diet Coke (or Coca Light) label listed the can’s nutritional content at 2.4 calories. Title 21, Part 101 of the code of the FDA regulations allows American products to round “trace calories” (anything fewer than five) down to zero on the packaging. It is a good thing to be aware of, this regulation. It restores logic to certain foods.
I bought eleven Walden Farms products to try: marshmallow dip, caramel dip, apricot jelly, grape jelly, raspberry jelly, apple butter, peanut spread, honey-dijon salad dressing, Asian salad dressing, chocolate syrup, and pancake syrup. It cost me $46.17. I also bought an apple, lettuce, ice cream, and crackers, so that the Walden condiments could have their familiar partners. Then I ate about 5,000 calories worth of dressings, syrups, and dips, although in Walden Farms terms this meant I ingested only “trace calories.”
Before testing the products, it seemed important to remember not to exaggerate any flaws for the sake of a metaphor. The opposite problem presented itself after tasting things. It was difficult to come up with comparisons that were sufficiently unpleasant. The marshmallow dip contained more salt than egg whites, and tasted like a swimming pool. The grape jelly smelled of Barbie doll. The caramel was OK in consistency if you didn’t let it touch your tongue. A knife driven into the center of any dip remained upright indefinitely. “Sounds too good to be true . . . but it is!” says the website.
One area in which the products do succeed is in their texture. Although flavorings vary, all of the products contain some mixture of water, Splenda, and three ingredients familiar from molecular gastronomy: xanthan gum, cellulose gum, and propylene glycol alginate (which is habitually misspelled on the Walden ingredient labels). These last three are the thickeners that transform sweetened water into sensual fluff or dip. After the initial taste, my desire to eat a Walden Farms product took on an inverse relationship to how badly I wanted to play with it. Especially the marshmallow dip and peanut spread. Like caulking foam or candle wax, these are things I wanted to be alone with just so I could put a finger in them.
This marks a good place to get off the processed foods bus. If it isn’t for joy, play, and self-knowledge—if it’s for rigidity, the annihilation of food, and self-illusion, bolstered with some creative calorie accounting—I see the dark side which others warn about. Walden Farms has sponsored at least four conferences held by the Calorie Restriction Society, a group advocating extreme dieting as a life-extension method and citing research that calorie-restricted diets improve the life spans of worms, cows, and spiders. A cosponsor of the conferences is the Alcor Foundation, which calls itself the world leader in “the science of using ultra-cold temperatures to preserve human life.” This means they freeze dead people who can afford the price until we become a society that holds the secret to ultimate human life extension as well as the will to thaw prescient investors. Here are products that taste bad, are not good for you, cost a premium, and do not fulfill the basic function of food. But they will preserve you from having to ingest calories, and they may make you the only people who get to live forever. Enjoy.