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Thursday, July 14, 2011

5: Chicken About Chicken

I’ve become downright scared to order chicken of any description in a restaurant. This story goes back a couple of years to an afternoon when my husband and I drove over to his sister’s for a visit. As I helped her prepare the evening meal, I saw that we were having a lovely pre-cooked, breaded turkey breast, along with their usual hospitable and generous spread. Now, I’ve become very careful about checking lists of ingredients, mostly for MSG and its many aliases (we’ll talk about that another time or two or three). But I also try not to be rude when I’m eating in other people’s homes. So surreptitiously, when my sister in-law wasn’t looking, I scanned the fine print on the packaging. Hmmm. Nothing bearing any resemblance to MSG. There was one long chemical ingredient, but I figured, when isn’t there? So I dug in without reserve, hoping for the best.

It was about an hour after the meal, when we were halfway home, that I began to feel symptoms very much like those I get from MSG: a plummeting of energy levels and a dreadful feeling of malaise that is difficult to describe. I dialled my hostess and asked if she would mind digging the turkey wrapping out of the garbage, the time for being polite now being past. She spelled out that long chemical name for me and as soon as I got home, low energy notwithstanding, I googled it: sodium tripolyphosphate.

Here is what I found out: This chemical is dissolved in water and then used as a brine in which to soak raw meats, in particular chicken and turkey breasts and seafood. It’s used, officially, to preserve, to “retain’” moisture, and to give a firmer, glossier, [fresher-appearing] product. Some suppliers will tell you it’s to tenderize and flavour the meat, but you and I both know that poultry breast is a tender meat already, unless it’s from a tired old laying hen that finally succumbed to age. No, the real bottom line of STPP is that it causes meat to take on water, up to 47% of its own weight. As it so often does, it comes down to profit.

Of course, it’s not just in restaurant chicken. When you buy chicken breasts from a store, check to see if the word “phosphate” is listed anywhere. Or, does it say “seasoned”? This is a deceitful euphemism for the same thing.

This chemical was originally (and still is) used in many laundry detergents and dishwasher soaps. If you’re washing your walls to prepare for painting, especially in a greasy area like the kitchen, the paint store will recommend that you use a solution of TSP, trisodium phosphate (a close relative of STPP), to really clean things up. Seriously, do you want to be ingesting stuff like this? I sure don’t.

I’d wondered for years what had changed about chicken in restaurants, when I “enjoyed” a nice chicken Caesar or a chicken burger; what had happened to that familiar, tender, fibrous texture; what gave it that soft, uniform texture and extra salty-like flavour. Now I know, and I avoid it like the plague. But one is hard pressed to find restaurant chicken without it. I inquired of the chef at a very nice place in Wetaskiwin. He said, “Well, our chicken is ‘pumped’ with water, but I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have that chemical in it.” I had to disagree, once I’d chewed it, tasted it, and then, an hour later, reacted to it. The cook at another good restaurant in town told me that it is virtually impossible to buy chicken breast anymore without this pre-treatment, and if he does find it, it’s cost-prohibitive.

What’s really scary is that kids are consuming this chemical indiscriminately in the form of chicken fingers and nuggets. According to the National Institute for Safety and Health, it is a suspected neurotoxin. “Based on [the] warnings from federal agencies, it is likely that consumers may be adversely affected when preparing and cooking STPP-soaked [food]” ( And yet the FDA in the US classifies it as “generally regarded as safe” (GRAS).

Sometimes the consumer feels helpless. But let me remind you: we are not. Start asking questions when you order your food. Take a copy of this article along and leave it with the chef. And if they can’t assure you that the whole chicken was cooked right there, in house, on the carcass (as this seems to preclude the “pumping” thing), just don’t order it. If we stop buying it, they’ll stop selling it.

1 comment:

  1. "Generally regarded as safe" is too broad a statement for me. The chicken I serve (and eat) is from birds that are raised by farmers whom I personally know. They're either raised organically or "happy" chickens moving from one grazing spot to another. Even though I'm fortunate not to react to this protein 'product' you're talking about, why would I want to make my liver work overtime trying to process the toxins - I'll gladly choose instead a plate full of veggies, savoury beans and whole grains.