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Some poor food for thought

December 9, 2014


Before going to bed on last night I snacked on a whole can’s-worth of fruit cocktail.

I’d never think to buy such a thing — either canned fruit or especially canned fruit from China. But it was in a bag of stuff someone left hanging on their alley-side fence for the poor folk.

Along with two tins of imitation crab meat and a can of jellied cranberry sauce there was this can of “Tropic Isle” fruit cocktail which was, as I said, a product of China.

I was curious. I hadn’t had the stuff since I was a kid and I thought, what harm could it do.

Can’t judge a can by its label

The name “fruit cocktail” and the picture on the can suggested a vibrant medley of uniquely flavourful fruits but the contents looked anything but; an assortment of cubed, eviscerated and boiled things — red, green, yellow and straw-coloured.

The pineapple chunks were recognizable from the many “Hawaiian pizzas I’ve eaten and the glossy red half rounds resembled the maraschino cherries I’ve enjoyed in Christmas cakes. The other bits could have be anything: mango, peach, melon, turnip; you can’t tell by the individual tastes because there are none to speak of.

All you can taste is the heavy syrup the fruit was boiled in.

The problem with processed food is the process

The nearly universal ingredients for fruit cocktail are pineapple, pears, peaches, grapes, cherries, water and sugar syrup — not necessarily in that order.

I don’t remember the exact order that the ingredients were listed on my budget brand but keeping in mind that ingredients are listed in order of their quantity, I do remember that water was listed halfway through the list of fruit.

In addition to the fruit and the water there are the sweeteners, usually high fructose corn syrup, plus some sugar and sometimes even more ordinary corn syrup.

All the ingredients are heated in the sealed can to at least 100° Celsius (212° Fahrenheit).

A thing that might bug a vegan about fruit cocktail

One more ingredient not always listed in fruit cocktail will be the dye used to keep the cherries bright red. This is still usually carmine, a natural red dye made from bugs that apparently can cause severe allergic reactions and anaphylactic shock in a very small percentage of people.

My fruit salad didn’t list carmine or food colouring of any sort yet the cherries were the telltale lipstick red.

In 2011 it became mandatory in the U.S. to explicitly list carmine as an ingredient and by 2012 Starbucks bowed to public pressure and stopped using carmine to colour their beverages, switching instead to a tomato-based red dye.

I can find nothing to say Canadian food labeling must list the presence of carmine.

I’m supposed to believe that eating canned fruit salad can be healthier than eating fresh fruit. That’s because fruit supposedly always goes directly from the tree to the cannery, thus preserving fruit at the peak of its freshness and nutritional value.

I have trouble believing it period and especially in the case of fruit canned in China.

Poor food for poor people

The many high-profile contamination issues suffered by Chinese processed foods (glycol  in toothpaste, melamine in milk, and lead in canned peaches, to name just three) may only represent a fraction of total food production in China but they still don’t instill confidence. It seems that food producers face even less regulatory scrutiny in China than in North America.

One serving of low quality canned fruit salad likely won’t kill me but I’m not thinking of myself or just Chinese processed food products alone.

I’m thinking of all the budget and no-name packaged and processed foods which are virtually always made outside of North America and Europe. And all the poor Canadians — particularly poor families with children to feed — who rely on these cheaper brands.

Anyone trying to stretch their purchasing power, including people buying for food banks, may be tempted to buy the cheaper food brands,

We want to trust that the food on our store shelves is at least all equally safe but this is clearly not possible. Instead, many Canadians who can afford to, are now trying to avoid buying Chinese-made foods entirely.

This means the brunt of any contamination problems that slip past regulators will be born disproportionately by the poor who can’t afford to be so choosy.

Back in 2006, I stood in a line for a friend so he could get a second batch of groceries being handed out by a church-based group — all of it of such visibly low quality. I remember how the coffee looked more like sawdust.

My friend just shrugged. That’s what you had to deal with living downtown on welfare.

I felt lucky that day to be homeless instead of on welfare living on the Downtown Eastside.

Most of the canned food that I’ve found left out for the poor — like the aforementioned can of fruit salad — has been cheaper brands: products of China, India, Malaysia, and so on. And each time there’s been a high-profile contamination scare about a food product from China, you can guess what people leave out.

Have to confess that even I was temped by the big unopened bag of Werther’s-like caramel hard candies someone left out during the last glycol-in-the-candy kerfuffle. Click the image to enlarge it.

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