Smacked Down by the Invisible Hand

July 3, 2006 psipsina

I am not a conspiracy theorist; however, I sometimes feel that the food industry is out to get me.

No, no, that’s not true.  The food industry is out to maximize their profits, just like any other industry.  It’s Microeconomics 101.  It just LOOKS like they are out to get me.

Tomorrow, for a party where I have volunteered to bring dessert, I am making a cake that I would like to fill with luscious, stiff, creamy whipped cream.  I have spent all weekend trying to lay my hands on a pint of cream that has not been subjected to a horrifying practice known as ultrapasteurization.

Readers who are around my age, or older, will remember that a couple of decades ago, when you bought a gallon of milk, you had to use it within a week or so.  Miraculously, around the time I graduated from college, I noticed that milk had a shelf life of around 3 to 4 weeks.

What happened?  Ultrapasteurization, that’s what.

I’m not talking about pasteurization, the process we all learned about in school, by which milk is heated to high temperatures to kill off microorganisms that cause spoilage and disease.  I’m a fan of pasteurization.

It’s ultrapasteurization that I’ve got a beef with.  Ultrapasteurized milk is heated to 140 degrees C.  Some genius discovered that, if you heat milk to that temperature for just a moment, it has almost indefinite shelf life.  The food industry touts this as the solution to a great many ills, indicating that ultrapasteurized milk, if packaged in aseptic packs, is great for places where refrigeration is spotty or non-existent. 

OK, then, but – I live in Boston.  I don’t know anyone here, or anywhere else, who doesn’t have a refrigerator.  (Even N., who lives in India, has a fridge.  Check out his blog.)  What the hell is this ultrapasteurized stuff doing in the dairy case?  And more to the point, why can’t I find any that is not ultrapasteurized?  And anyway, isn’t milk only supposed to keep for a week?  Why do we need milk that keeps for a month?

I wouldn’t mind so much, except that ultrapasteurized cream is hopeless for whipping.  Some companies seem to recognize this and add a lot of stabilizers and thickeners to the cream.  My most recent attempt to whip Hood brand “Whipping” Cream resulted in a grainy puddle long before it ever got stiff enough.  This is not just something I made up:  food writer Rose Levy Berenbaum has noted the phenomenon.  Apparently the high temperature denatures the fat molecules; food scientist Harold McGee also notes that ultrapasteurized creams are usually also homogenized, making them harder to whip.

And ultrapasteurized milk tastes funny, too, burned or cardboard-like.

Sigh.

Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand theory indicates that if all the actors in an economy pursue their own good, everything will work out for the good of everyone, as if an invisible hand were guiding each one of us.

Load of hogwash, if you ask me.

If ultrapasteurization results in such an inferior product, why do you suppose the huge food conglomerates keep making it?  It’s not because Americans having any burning desire to have their milk last for weeks and weeks without spoiling.  It’s because, if the milk doesn’t spoil, Big Farm makes more money because they lose less of their product before it has to be pulled from the shelves.

So Big Farm gets to maximize its profits.  As one actor in the Invisible Hand scenario, they get what they want.

But what about me?  I don’t get to maximize MY utility.  I get to spend an entire weekend looking for cream that will actually whip, and then give up in disgust and try to figure out what else I can fill my cake with.  Because I am sure as hell not going to fill it with that watery, grainy mess that Hood calls whipped cream.

There are a couple of brands that are not ultrapasteurized, but they seem to be flying off the store shelves.  Probably because people want cream with their strawberry shortcake, just like me.

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