Let's set the record straight on 2 processed food claims

Published: 8/27/2007 1:30 PM

We talk and talk of processed foods, and we love 'em even as we denounce 'em. Few among us don't have fond memories of neon-orange Cheetos dust making our fingerprints and our parents' walls far more colorful than they ever should have been.

But the stories of American food have been commandeered and manipulated through so many generations of carefully calibrated marketing that it's become difficult to discern what's real. Let's examine two case studies of questionable reality that have become such a part of their products' fabric to become virtually invisible.

Don't mock me

Consider the Louis Kemp Seafood Co. product "Crab Delights," which features an even more intriguing modifier: "Flake Style."

The major ingredient is usually a basic fish -- in this case "real, premium steam-baked Alaskan Pacific White Fish" (that's a lot of adjectives) -- that has been broken down into its organic parts and reconstituted as crab doppelganger. Or, in some cases, lobster and scallop stand-ins.

Crab flavoring has been pumped in, as have enough water and emulsifiers to approximate crabby texture. Reddish-orange coloring attached to one edge of each piece lends further visual authenticity.

Finally, we have "flake style." In this varietal, the biomatter has been reconstituted to approximate how real crab meat flakes when it's pulled out of the unfortunate crustacean that donated it. (Other styles include "chunk style," "leg style" and "easy shreds," which "offers up "the great taste of crab, preshredded for your convenience.")

The resulting foodstuff eventually takes its place among other "seafoods," particularly in seafood salad, where -- coated with mayonnaise and accompanied by celery -- it hides in plain sight. Everyone knows isn't crab, but we make a tacit agreement to let it stand in for genuine shellfish. Even more troubling: The simulacrum is both affordable and tastes really good.

This particular concoction has a long history, apparently. Let Louis Kemp's ad copy enlighten us:

"For some 900 years, surimi has been a staple of the Asian diet. Around A.D. 1100, the Japanese discovered that if fresh fish was cleaned, minced, washed and cooked, the resulting product, which has the appearance of an unbreaded mozzarella cheese stick, could be stored and eaten later. … Recognizing the convenience of this age-old proven method, Louis Kemp began marketing crab, lobster and scallop flavored varieties of surimi in the United States."

The Louis Kemp Web site, pointing out that North Americans consume more than 170 million pounds of surimi each year, actually asserts that the impostor has become a genuine article and that the company, "through consumer education and marketing programs, has helped change the way people think of surimi seafood." Now, the company says, its offerings are seen as "much more than imitation shellfish. They're simply nutritious, economical and delicious seafood products."

They just happen to be from crabs, scallops and lobsters that never actually existed.

That krazy Kris

Snapple, which makes a living dreaming up new and fruitier flavors of iced tea and juicelike drinks, offers a tasty concoction that's half lemonade, half iced tea and marketed under the name "Kris's Mix-Up." The story on the side of the bottle goes like this:

"One day, Kris -- a long-time Snapple Mixologist -- accidentally mixed a batch of Iced Tea with Lemonade (she made us promise not to say how it happened). Everybody thought the mix tasted so good that it was made into a new Snapple flavor. Let us know what you think of Kris's Mix-Up."

The cartoon on the front of the bottle shows a ponytailed, slightly wacky woman -- Kris, presumably -- gleefully pouring two pitchers into a wooden barrel. One contains lemonade, the other iced tea.

This presents problems. It seems implausible that Snapple is regularly mixed in open wooden barrels by wacky women pouring pitchers. Also, right there on the bottle, it says, "Lemon Juice from Concentrate and Natural Flavors." That sort of casts the "mixup" into doubt. Finally, ingredients include "gum arabic," an unlikely contributor to homespun pitchers of refreshment.

So what, you say? Why does this stuff matter? Consider: Multiply this a thousand times by a million corporate dollars and you get a landscape of food fiction in which we have no idea what we're really eating and where it really came from.

We know things are artificially colored and flavored. We accept that. But creating artificial narratives as well? It just feels a bit icky to create stories that tap into our sense of comfort even as we acknowledge, consciously, that the real story may be different. We want to believe.

There is an actual Kris, according to a 1999 CreativeMag.com review of the tea-lemonade hybrid. It says Kris' Mix-Up is named for Snapple employee Kris Mains, a "manager and flavor specialist in Snapple's Research and Development department."

Beverage Dynamics goes even further, saying Mains "used to mix Snapple Lemonade and Iced Tea together for her regular lunchtime beverage. Now she has her own signature Snapple." So there's certainly a nugget of truth kicking around.

That's a revelation as refreshing as a Snapple itself. But let's not forget that Kris is an R&D "flavor specialist." Still think she had an accident with two pitchers and a wooden barrel?