When I got back to the apartment, I found Wiley and Deneen seated across from each other at the kitchen table, with a sea of groceries between them. They looked at me when I walked in, and Denny got up and gave me a little kiss, then sat back down.
“What was the last one?” she said to Wiley.
“Polydextrose.” Wiley read from his phone. “Polydextrose is an indigestible synthetic polymer of glucose. It is frequently used to increase the non-dietary fiber content of food, to replace sugar, and to reduce calories and fat content. The FDA approved it in 1981. Polydextrose is commonly used as a replacement for sugar, starch, and fat in commercial beverages, cakes, candies, dessert mixes, breakfast cereals, gelatins, frozen desserts, puddings, and salad dressings. And bread.” Wiley nodded at the bread package. That’s where Deneen had read the ingredient. “Polydextrose is frequently used as an ingredient in low-carb, sugar-free, and diabetic cooking recipes. It is also used as a humectant, stabilizer, and thickening agent.”
Deneen shook her head. “What do all those words mean? Is it good or bad?”
“Put it in the Maybe column.”
I watched Denny painstakingly write polydextrose on a yellow legal pad, in a column with a question mark at the top of it. She picked up the bread again. “The next one is cellulose fiber.”
“Fiber’s good for you,” I said.
They both looked at me. “Maybe,” Wiley said suspiciously. “What’s next?”
Wiley consulted his phone. “Datem is an emulsifier primarily used in baking. It is used to strengthen the dough by building a strong gluten network. It is used in crusty breads, such as rye bread with a springy, chewy texture, as well as biscuits, coffee whiteners, salsa con queso, ice cream, and salad dressings.”
"This is so hard, Wiley! What’s an emulsifier? What’s gluten?”
“Didn’t we have emulsifier yet? Gluten is a protein found in grains.”
“No. We have stabilizer.”
I looked over her shoulder at a column entitled Definitions. A stabilizer was any of various substances added to foods, chemical compounds, etc., to prevent deterioration, the breaking down of an emulsion, or the loss of desirable properties.
“Ok. Hold on a minute.” Wiley typed. “Jesus. There’s a ninety dollar book about it. Food Emulsifiers and Their Applications.”   Wiley scrolled. “Emulsifier. Noun. An agent that forms or preserves an emulsion, especially any food additive, such as lecithin, that prevents separation of sauces or other processed foods.” He looked at Denny. She nodded and only wrote non-separator on the pad. Her fingers must’ve been getting tired from all the writing.
“Okay, here’s the rest about datem." Wiley scrolled. “The exact chemical mechanism is not understood . . . its main function is as a softener . . . datem is generally recognized as safe by the FDA.” Wiley looked up. “Put it in the bad column.”
Under a column entitled BAD, followed by three exclamation points, Deneen wrote datem.
“But –” I began. Wiley just looked at me. He was already convinced. I said to Denny, “If it’s recognized as safe . . .”
“Generally,” she said darkly. “Wiley told me about all that shit, Nate.” She looked at me accusingly, as if to say, Why didn’t you tell me? “You heard Tom. Ignorance is the enemy. Wiley and I are gonna find out just exactly what’s in this stuff.” She gestured at the groceries.
Wiley was looking at his phone again. “Tom says cellulose is sawdust. He says, if you want some extra fiber, eat some beans.”
Denny made a face, but poised her pen over the pad. “What kind of beans?”
Wiley texted, waited. “Navy beans, pinto beans, kidney beans. Split peas.” He grinned up at me. “Sounds like it’s time for some of Wiley Royce’s Famous All-Bean Chili.”
I rolled my eyes. Wiley Royce’s Famous All-Bean Chili was awful. Bland. Tasteless. Meatless.
Denny looked at the bread ingredients again. “The next one is sodium propitionate (preservative).”
“Just write that one down under BAD. Preservatives can’t be good.”
Deneen complied. “Monoglycerides, calcium sulfate, citric acid.” She said citric acid like she’d read cyanide. Wiley had been busy, filling her pretty little head with all of Tom’s bullshit. She was a convert.
“Together with diglycerides, monoglycerides commonly are added to commercial food products in small quantities. In these applications they are useful as emulsifiers, helping to mix ingredients such as oily materials and water that otherwise would blend poorly,” Wiley read. “The commercial raw materials . . . may be either vegetable or animal fats and oils . . . also may be made synthetically.”  Wiley and Deneen exchanged a glance. She wrote it down in the BAD column.
“What’s the next one?”
Wikipedia told Wiley that calcium sulfate was a desiccant, also called gypsum, also called drywall. Before I could stop her, Deneen threw the perfectly good loaf of bread in the trash.
This just went on and on. Deneen read off the ingredients in my favorite Heart-Healthy brand of Trader Joe’s Instant Oatmeal. Dipotassium phosphate (also on the GRAS list), which was used as a stabilizer and acidity reducer. It was also used in fertilizers. Silicon dioxide, or just plain silica, was a primary ingredient in diatomaceous earth and in the production of glass. In food, it was a flow agent.
“More fucking sand,” Wiley said.
Guar gum was mixed with nitroglycerine in explosives – it was a waterproofing agent. In my oatmeal, it was a thickener and stabilizer. It had uses as a cholesterol reducer, also, so Deneen wrote it down in the Okay column. Ferric orthophosphate was used as a rustproofer, to kill snails and slugs, and as a source of iron in my oatmeal. It was GRAS in the good ol’ US of A, “But it’s prohibited as a food additive in Europe,” Wiley noted.
Deneen shook her head and went to throw the box in the trash. I objected.
“Leave my oatmeal alone,” I told her from the living room. “You don’t have to eat it. I like it. I don’t care what’s in it.”
“Knowledge is the treasure of a wise man, Nate,” Wiley said.
“You know what, Wiley?” I got up from the couch, went to the kitchen. “Maybe I don’t want any more knowledge. I’ve lived this long, dumb – I’m healthy enough. Who cares? I’m not buying this FDA conspiracy bullshit.
“Anyway, what can be done about it? Just like your new guru said, chemicals are everywhere. I know not to eat too much sugar and fat and sodium. Jesus Christ on a crutch, haven’t you preached to me enough about all that? Maybe I don’t wanna know any more about this other shit. Maybe it’s all okay.”
Wiley raised his eyebrows mildly. “Or maybe Red #40 causes cancer. Maybe sulfites trigger asthma.” He turned Denny’s pad around and consulted it. “Maybe diacetyl, used in margarine, causes Alzheimer’s. Maybe if you inhale it in the fumes from microwave popcorn, you’ll get –” he read from Deneen’s notes, “bronchiolitis obliterans, also called Popcorn Lung, a rare and life-threatening form of non-reversible obstructive lung disease.”
“Or maybe I won’t. I haven’t yet.” I looked at Deneen. “Did you throw my popcorn away, too?”
Wiley grinned. “Why risk it?”
“I’m calling Brendee,” I told him. “You people make me want a cheeseburger.”
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