May Contain Additives

“The abstractions of science are too readily assimilable to the abstractions of industry and commerce, which see everything as interchangeable with or replaceable by something else” (41).

Life is a Miracle (2000), Wendell Berry
Image by Hans from Pixabay

Strangely, since questions surfaced and circulated about chlormequat chloride in oats (and in, increasingly, in the bodies of people who have eaten those oats) a couple of weeks ago, it hasn’t been easy to find, much less to follow, that story’s diffusion. The Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology published the Temkin et al. article in February, and then USA Today‘s Mary Walrath-Holdridge authored and published a piece soon thereafter, “Study finds chlormequat in Cheerios and Quaker products: What to know about the pesticide.” When I mentioned in ENGL2014: Food Writing last week that I do still eat oatmeal most days for breakfast, only that I now take each spoonful with my fingers crossed, several new questions arose: What even is chlormequat? What effect is it having on mice? Why are we only just learning about this now? Is chlormequat chloride used on all oats? Just the cheap stuff? Just the stuff not otherwise labeled organic? I didn’t have many sure answers, but I said I would look into it and report back. So this is some of that; that, this. A writing teacher’s porridge, unsweetened.

Chlormequat chloride is a “growth regulator,” and something of a stalk straightening agent, as I understand it. An applied chemical, chlormequat chloride guides the oat plant (avena sativa) to an ideal form: vertical stalk, perpendicular to the earthen plane; no slouching; optimum height. The 2024 Temkin et al. article found that chlormequat chloride showed up in the urine samples taken from 77 out of 96 people (83%). Evidently, we don’t know a whole lot about the effects of chlormequat chloride on humans, but we can with a little bit of plausible extrapolation pause with concern for the what we do know about the animal studies in which chlormequat chloride does observable harm.

So while I tell myself I am eating delicious, nutritious oatmeal, I am probably eating something more like oatmeal+chlormequat chloride, or oatmeal+a pretty good chance of chlormequat chloride. I make the cross-my-fingers joke as a way to cope with these unavoidable and late-discovered, later admitted additives; it’s not like we can confirm the presence of chlormequat chloride visually, much less pick it out. Still, we must eat.

Oatmeal+chlormequat chloride, or how about we call it CC oatmeal, is merely another in a continuous stream of announcements about additives. Earlier this spring there was the cinnamon+lead recall, which I remember hearing about and wondering, how does something like that sidewind beneath notice such that we only learn about it when preschoolers begin exhibiting lead ingestion symptoms after snack. This week, Lunchables, a popular Kraft Heinz snack pack, have been in the headlines again, as Consumer Reports announced that these convenient miniature meal kits contain nearly the maximum allowable daily limits for sodium, lead, and cadmium–and this comes within a year of Lunchables ascending to the status of a bona fide lunch unto itself in the eyes of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) guidelines.

These formulations–oatmeal+chlormequat, MTCI cinnamon+lead, and Lunchables+cadmium–are biochemical realities. The cinnamon was recalled. But the Quaker Oats and Kraft Heinz Lunchables examples elicited the predictable corporate hedges along the lines of “our products are wholesome, verified to be safe and entirely obliging of all FDA standards.” It’s a well worn path and a familiar refrain, and rather than make this about corporate (ir)responsibility, I have been thinking about it in terms of how it figures into food anxiety, insinuating doubt and causing everyday consumption habits to punctuate, as an underscore would, with uncertainty. How much should we worry about this?, was another question I heard not long ago. I don’t know. The ‘this,’ is it really only CC oatmeal for today’s breakfast? Tomorrow’s? I simultaneously understand ‘this’ as also much bigger, about food processing and industrialization, a dying planet, a broken world. I really don’t know. And can only come up with maybe we learn to grow oats again. Maybe we track down some brown sugar and a dash of fuckitol. Maybe we continue to cross our fingers.

Primary Flavors

Primary Flavors

So that the sweet tooths of the house (my own included) would stop gnashing
at me about how little we have on hand to please (and also to rot) them, I
boiled together three half-batches of rock candy early this afternoon:
peppermint, anise, and cinnamon. Can you tell from the photo that I’ve
never made rock candy before?

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