I watched the couple in Kroger last week as they moved down one of the over-processed center aisles. “Look!’ exclaimed the woman all too loudly as she picked up the bright yellow box of Kroger’s Frosted Fudge Toaster Treats. “These look good!” She dutifully glanced over the nutrition label and then blithely tossed it into her cart: “And it’s only $1.29!”

Had her eyes focused, she would have read: “enriched wheat flour,( which contains niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin and folic acid), sugar, palm and/or partially hydrogenated soybean oils, corn syrup, cocoa processed with alkali, whey, salt leavening(sodium aluminum phosphate, baking soda), caramel color, potassium sorbate, gelatin, modified soy protein, red 40, vitamin A palmitate, reduced iron, niacinamide, pyridoxine hydrochloride, riboflavin, thiamin mononitrate and folic acid.” And the frosting: “fudge filling, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, sugar, cocoa processed with alkali, palm and/or partially hydrogenated soybean oils, modified corn starch, whey, precooked corn meal, sorbital, salt, natural and artificial flavors.” She looked pleased by her savvy purchase. Her husband’s expression, bland, never changed during the exchange.

Never mind that she had likely little idea what a single ingredient in the box is (save for sugar and salt). She is what so many of us are, merely consumers of the products daily set before us. Bewildered and uncritical of what we ingest, we are occasionally forced into a shocked response by food recalls (of leads, sulfites, or salmonella in Chewie bars, pet treats, or raisins—mix and match those as you please) or accounts of poisonings (chicken, Tylenols, and even communion wafers). And, sometimes, when we are reminded of what we are and have always been eating, we resort to lawsuits against Taco Bell.

By now we have heard of the latest lawsuit which claims that only 35% of the filling in a given Taco Bell taco is actually beef. Taco Bell claims 88%. This will ultimately get worked out, of course. Taco Bell is leveling social networking and newspaper ads to defend itself, the plaintiff will likely be stifled by an out of court settlement, and all will go back to happy-in-our-complacency 99¢menus. The solution, as always, will be found in language.

The USDA requires that all products labeled as “beef” must have 70% beef. A product labeled “Taco Meat Filling” needs have only 40% meat, and this is what has been witnessed entering Taco Bell restaurants. Taco Bell insists that a label change using “beef” will be made. And this is what is most disheartening about the lawsuit. It doesn’t even have the legitimacy of the 2003 McDonald’s suit which blamed the quality of the product on children’s obesity. It’s not about cuts of beef, pesticides and hormone use, animal rights issues, storage and transport practices, or slaughterhouse hygiene. The lawsuit is only asking that the taco filling be properly labeled to represent legally what is in tacos.

But who asks as they pull up to the drive-through window? And how much do the words of our labels even mean? “Fresh” legally means that the food can be frozen. “Light” only means that the product contains any fraction of fat in contrast to a comparable product (and “Lite” means somehow less than that!). “Excellent source of” means that the product has about 20% of daily requirements, and “Fortified” means that the product contains only 10% of the daily requirements. A product like the Toaster Treats’ “enriched wheat flour,” for instance, actually contains fewer nutrients than regular flour. The food processing used to extract nutrients from whole flour leaves the product essentially valueless, and so the government requires nutrients to be added back in to make a minimally nutritious ingredient, hence “enriched.”

Does McDonald’s new Fruit and Maple Oatmeal have any maple in it? Does Kellogg’s Blueberry Mini-Wheats have blueberries? Do the “100% Juice” labels on Juicy Juice Natural say anything about the fruit content? I dealt with some of these issues on my Green Wiki, but most of us (beyond Vegans and Raw Food devotees, perhaps) never ask. And as important, while we are momentarily distracted by the most recent fast food horror lawsuit, few to any of us will ever note its resolution. After all, a new sale is looming, and Taco Bell will likely introduce a Super-Extreme Cheese and Beef Quesadilla by that time.

As I write this, the country of Cote d’Ivoire is devolving back towards civil war, only partly over the recent presidential election corruption charges. CNN covered the story one  morning last week because of its impact on chocolate prices for American consumers. And while it’s true that the country’s export ban on 30-40% of our cocoa will impact us, what’s equally true is that most Americans have never asked where their Hershey bars have come from. What’s in our cocoa isn’t a bad ingredient, but the political corruption and child slavery that has haunted that country’s illiberal democracy for years and Hershey Corporation’s failure to ask who harvested the cocoa.

We’d rather know if the chocolate has “Wonka” on its label or if the new Reese’s Valentine’s Hearts are in. These are the suggestions of nostalgia and love which turn us away from questioning. And, as Huxley warns, we follow the distractions of our marketers:

“Till at last the child’s mind is these suggestions, and the sum of the suggestions is the child’s mind. And not the child’s mind only. The adult’s mind too-all his life long. The mind that judges and desires and decides—made up of these suggestions.”

And so we consume. The words “sale,” “taste,” and “sweet” have more power than “calorie,” “fat,” and “slave.” We value “cheap” over “justice” and “want” over “deserve.” We aren’t shocked that Taco Bell fillings may not be as nutritious as we wish; we are just annoyed that we’ve been reminded.

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