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02 February 2015

Book Review | This Is What You Just Put in Your Mouth? by Patrick Di Justo

Happy book birthday!

This is what you just put in your mouth: From egg nog to beef jerky, the surprising secrets of what’s inside everyday products by Patrick Di Justo | February 2015 | Three Rivers Press, an imprint of Crown Publishing | Paperback $15.00

Talk about a mouthful – just take a look at that title!

★ ★ ★

Though the supersized title doesn’t indicate it, this book is actually a collection of some of the most popular articles from the author’s “infotainment” Wired magazine column (What's Inside). It isn’t really surprising that things like Kraft Easy Cheese and I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter contain some weird-sounding ingredients (at least it shouldn’t be if you’ve been paying any attention at all to what you eat), but that gross factor is only part of the appeal of this book.

What I found more fascinating were the little asides about all the hoops the author had to jump through to get to the bottom of any particular product. As you’d expect, many companies were less than thrilled and subsequently tight-lipped when this investigator started asking complicated questions about what exactly they’re selling.

I was also pleased by the science-for-everyone feel of the articles. You don’t have to be a nutritionist to be able to understand the ingredients that Di Justo describes. There are also several science “highlights” (for lack of a better word) that dig a little deeper into particular aspects of a few of the products. Take, for example, this section on acid attached to the investigation of red wine:
One of the first things you learn about in grade school science class is that vinegar is an acid and it can make baking soda fizzle into foam. But what is an acid, really? [….] It all seems pretty complicated, but the bottom line is that an acid is a substance that can’t help but react with certain other substances. In many of our products, acids provide a tangy our sour taste – that is the effect of hydrogen ions on the taste buds.

Even though the title seems to indicate that the entire book is devoted to foodstuffs (“This is what you just put in your mouth…”), in actuality only about half the book concentrates on edible products. Part 2 is actually titled This is what you don’t put in your mouth, which I guess is a pretty straightforward way of telling you what sorts of products you’ll read about in the 2nd half of the book. This section covers things like Axe deodorant, Downy fabric softener, and Noxzema.

Now THIS is the section I found fascinating, possibly because I’ve done far too much reading about food science already and I’m difficult to surprise in that subject. But, just for example, did you know … ?

  • Antiperspirants include slightly flammable ingredients
  • Fabric softener is made from rendered cattle, sheep, or horse fats
  • Noxzema contains pig-derived gelatin, making it haram

Yes, I mostly liked this book. However, I do think that the format (short, often snarky summaries of stuff on ingredient lists) really works better for the online articles than for the full book. The extra behind-the-scenes info is kinda cool, but it does not do much to tie the whole thing together in a cohesive package.

More importantly: where are the sources? Bibliography, footnotes, anything? Sorry, but I find it hard to take a science-focused nonfiction work seriously if it does not even include some minimal form of source citations.

I do wish it had been made more clear at the outset that the book includes quite a lot of non-food info. Well, I was reading an e-ARC, so perhaps the cover copy on the final printing will mention something like that. I also think that this is not a book for someone who tends to panic over “chemicals” in whatever they’re eating or cleaning with or whatever.

Gift it to your friend who is fascinated by household chemistry, but keep it away from the friend who always equates natural with healthy. And above all, don’t take it too seriously.

Publication information:
Di Justo, Patrick. This Is What You Just Put in Your Mouth: From Egg Nog to Beef Jerky, the Surprising Secrets of What's Inside Everyday Products. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2015. EPUB file.

This review is based on an e-galley provided by the publisher through NetGalley.

I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.

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