Italy's War on Food Additives

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
March 16 2010 2:21 PM

Italy's War on Food Additives

Italy's undersecretary for health has declared war on chemical additives. Last month, the Italian food blog Caput Mundi Cibus reported on a new set of regulations , in effect Feb. 18, that ban restaurant chefs from cooking with (or even owning) chemical additives like aspartame, nitrites, and MSG.

At first glance, the health ministry's decree may seem prudent. The new law is supposed to protect customers from being misled, and to protect those "with special dietary needs." Sounds pretty reasonable American foodies have been warned over and over again to avoid any foods that aren't natural . (That's why we're making red-velvet cakes with beets and cherry juice , instead of FD&C red No. 40.)

But the ban on additives doesn't apply to industrial manufacturers. (Eateries are free to serve as much packaged, processed food as they want.) Why have individual chefs been singled out while mass-producers are off the hook? The real purpose of the law is not to protect health but to preserve traditional cooking methods from decadent innovation. The health ministry is trying to prohibit molecular gastronomy the high-tech cooking style made popular by Ferran Adrià, Heston Blumenthal, and Wylie Dufresne. There's even been an attempt to prohibit the use of liquid nitrogen, used by avant-garde chefs to flash-freeze vegetables and ice cream.

Yes, liquid nitrogen can be dangerous , but food scientists contacted by Nature magazine called the law " completely irrational ." One pointed out that MSG, now prohibited from Italian restaurants in its pure form, occurs naturally in Parmesan cheese and tomatoes. As for the molecular gastronomists, they weren't really using any of the banned additives in the first place. Even the local chapter of the Slow Food movement has spoken out against the rules. 

The whole business reminds me of another peculiar moment in Italian politics. In 2004, maverick art critic and government minister Vittorio Sgarbi formed Il Partito della Bellezza , or the "Beauty Party" a group dedicated to preserving the country's art, civilization, and natural vistas. At first it seemed as if the party's candidates, so devoted to protecting the landscape, would fall in line with mainstream environmentalism. As with last month's food regulations, though, cultural conservatism won the day. Sgarbi hated the idea of blighting the Italian countryside with anything at all even clean-energy projects. " Any Italian citizen who sees the legitimacy of windmills should be arrested ," he said.

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Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

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