I was sitting around one day studying the label on a bag of Cheez-It Big Crunch when I was attracted by the long list of ingredients that go into baking its snacky contents. Everything from cornmeal to extracts of annatto.
I began wondering what annatto was and, looking it up in the dictionary, discovered that it's a dye of reddish yellow made from the pulp around the seeds of a tropical tree. Further: "It is used for coloring butter, cheese, varnishes, etc."
That doesn't necessarily mean it's bad for you, by the way, even though it's good for varnish. You're not eating the varnish. I've been a Cheez-Its fan forever and am still walking and talking and not glowing in the dark.
Reading food labels isn't the way I generally spend my steamy afternoons, but a friend I'll call the Eater keeps harping away about the toxins in our food. He's gotten me into the habit of at least glancing at labels, even though I don't always know what, for instance, a butylated hydroxyanisole might be.
This all began one day when the Eater noticed I was taking a natural substance called oscillococcinum, which is a homeopathic medicine for the flu. He said, "You know what that is you're sticking in your mouth?"
In addition to his graceless speech, the Eater has a way of staring that makes me feel uncomfortably like a hen being watched by a circling chicken hawk. But it gets your attention.
"No," I said, "but I'm sure you'll tell me."
"Duck guts," he said.
Isighed and sent him on his way, but then read the label. It said that the active ingredient in oscillococcinum is Anas barbariae hepatis et cordis extractum . Curiosity is one of my damning compulsions, but since I'm not a student of ancient languages, I telephoned the 800 number on the package. A man named Rick answered.
Even though the label says if you have any questions or comments, just call, Rick was obviously suspicious when I asked what Anas barbariae was. After a long pause, he replied that it was an extract from the heart and liver of the Barbary duck. The Eater was right. I was taking duck guts.
Rick was not amused at my reference to the bird's innards and went on to say in a tone less than congenial that the Barbary duck harbors a flu virus but doesn't get the flu. I'm not sure how they know that, but my ignorance is no reason to doubt the product. The extract is supposed to help build our immune system. It doesn't do anything for the duck whose heart and liver we rip out, but that's just the chance a duck takes.
While our Food and Drug Administration is still studying Oscillo, the French have been taking it for 60 years. Since the French are known to eat or drink just about anything, that doesn't prove much, except that it probably hasn't killed anyone. Except the duck.
I tried finding the Barbary duck in Britannica without success. There are diving ducks, dabbling ducks, perching ducks, ruddy ducks and whistling ducks. And there are Barbary apes, Barbary sheep and Barbary pirates. But no Barbary ducks.
I mentioned this later to the Eater and he said, "Exactly!"
The man is making me paranoid about what I eat. I have always been a happy eater, like Michael Douglas in "The War of the Roses," humming and bobbing my head in a rhythm of contentment as I chew. While this later proved one of the causes of Kathleen Turner's hatred and Michael's ultimate demise, he still seemed to enjoy his meals.
But due to the influence of the Eater, I am becoming wary of food. This uneasiness caused me to turn to the Internet one day where I clicked on the Web site of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. I learned that there were 36 recalls and safety alerts in the last 60 days alone.
Included were certain brands of sun-dried tomatoes, cheeses, melons, ice cream, biscuits, candy and dried apricots. The reasons they came under FDA scrutiny ranged from "peanut contamination" to "undeclared egg white." Well, yes, there was also the danger of lead and salmonella in some of the products, but probably nothing you'll be eating.
Then there are the sulfites and the nitrites, food preservatives that many, including the Eater, believe will cause everything from cancer to Tourette syndrome, where a victim may suddenly burst into vile and obscene language. My wife thinks I have it.
Knowledge always causes suspicions, and suspicions result in avoidance. In my case, however, I am not about to avoid good food, even though my weight might benefit from the avoidance. I have also stopped reading labels. The truth is, I don't know what most of them mean anyhow, and neither do you.
If something I eat causes me to gasp, vomit, pass out and vibrate, I will know not to eat it again. Meanwhile, pass me another bag of Cheez-It Crunchies. The ones with the stuff that turns varnish that nice shiny color.
Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Thursdays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.