Saturday, April 2, 2011

Some thoughts on product making safety...

I bought Raymond this fantastic book on the science of cooking, Cooking for Geeks, and I've been reading it over the past few weeks before bed. (He's studying furiously for end of term projects and exams, so it's not like I bought him the book because I wanted it...okay, I mostly bought it for him!) It's a fascinating look at the chemistry and other science-y thing that relate to cooking, and I'm really enjoying it. And, as with every other thing I do in life, it's inspired a few thoughts about how we make our products. (I really recommend this book!)

The part of the book that got me thinking was all about food safety and cooking times. We follow the rules we're told by authorities, the news, and our friends because we like not being sick. We happily cook meat longer than tastes good or avoid raw eggs to reduce our risk. We buy non-BHT milk when we go to the States on camping trips because we heard somewhere that it isn't good for us (maybe that's just me). Why do we listen to things about food but resist safety guidelines in making products no matter how many times we're given really great explanations as to why following them is a good idea?

The safety guidelines for making our products are in place to keep us safe from nasties and contamination that could hurt us. We use preservatives so we aren't slathering ourselves with contamination, and we use anti-oxidants to retard rancidity. We heat and hold to kill any potential nasties (and to improve our emulsification). We use distilled water to decrease any potential contamination or other things we might find in tap water (like metals). These are basic rules, and they make sense to me. I can see the benefits of making a well emulsified lotion that will last a year without going rancid or growing furry bits, and I guess I have a lot of trouble understanding why something so obvious is going unheeded.

If you find yourself getting bored while waiting for the lotion to heat and hold, make a product you can create cold, like a body oil or a dispersing bath oil, to pass the time. Enjoy some of your fragrances, get the supplies ready for the cool down or packaging phase, or clean up a little (that's the last thing I generally do...) Do an inventory on your supplies or create a nice label. In short, find something to kill time because you don't want to take the lotion out early and chance a lotion failure, and we all know a watched lotion seems to take forever! 

I think part of the problem is that we've been exposed to food safety since we were very young and the consequences of ignoring those guidelines is apparent soon after consuming the food. In making our products, we're working with something new, and the problems we might have - other than epic lotion fail - tend to be way in the future when we get a skin rash or horrible feeling hair, and we might not associate those sensations with the products we made. I see so many people, including reputable suppliers, ignoring the guidelines, some of them saying things like, "Well, it worked for me!" or "That's the way I've always done it!". Saying that doesn't make it okay not to use preservatives. Saying that doesn't mean it will work for someone else. And saying that won't make the horrible rash feel any better. (And the fact that large companies advertise that something is preservative free when the preservatives are hidden in the ingredient list somewhere else only adds to the idea that we can make these products at home without preservatives!)

If you walked into my house and saw me defrosting chicken on the counter top, then cutting it and some veggies (that wouldn't be cooked) in the same space, you'd probably find an excuse to leave before dinner. You know instinctively that this could lead to badness. (This really happened to me, and everyone in the family got really sick. I left before dinner, pleading an emergency I really should attend to right away after trying to explain to them why this was a terrible terrible idea.)

We don't have those same kind of alarm bells in our head when we see someone say that they don't use preservatives or that you shouldn't see a pink tinge in your lotion. When people are buying from a vendor who says this - "If in time it does go mouldy you can wipe away the mould with a tissue and carry on using it." - there's something seriously wrong with the way we understand product creation.

Wow, this is turning into quite the rant and I don't think that was the point when I started! 

What I'm trying to say here is that these guidelines are in place for a reason. They're here to keep us safe and help us make safe products. If you don't follow these guidelines, you could be putting the people you love at risk for all kinds of horrible skin problems. Yes, it's a pain in the bum to heat and hold because I want my lotion now now now, but if it means I can make a lotion my mom will love and use for the next six months without fear of lotion failure or contamination or rancidity, then it's worth it. Yes, we wish we could make our own sunscreen, but if it means putting my husband at risk for a serious sunburn that could turn into skin cancer, then I'll buy some from the store rather than creating my own. Yes, I wish that I didn't have to spend money on preservatives, but if adding 20 cents of my preservative to a conditioner means my best friend and her daughter's friend don't get little spots of green in the product, then I'll do what I need to to make sure they're happy and healthy.

Think of it this way. If you were served raw chicken at a restaurant, would you eat it against your better judgement figuring the cook knew what she was doing? Would you offer your two year old a taste then run home to write about this new and interesting cooking method on your blog or your favourite forum? If the cook came out to defend herself by saying, "Well, this is the way I've always done it!" or "It works for me!", you'd think she was an idiot and you'd run a mile from that restaurant without paying. You know she's wrong.

I wish I could end this rant by encouraging you to take people to task when they encourage poor or bad safety practices, but I can't. I've tried doing it, writing to people when I see a dangerous product or a poorly written post on a blog, but I'm always greeted with defensiveness.

I'm not the biggest fan of using cooking as a comparison for making products because inevitably someone will comment that we don't use preservatives in cooking (because we aren't expecting to keep that cooked chicken out of the fridge for the next 6 months) or take it as a sign that things that are fine in our food are fine in our products. It's just the book that inspired me - you don't need to take the analogy any further than what I've written here! 

1 comment:

p said...

I love reading about food chemistry - I'll have to put Cooking For Geeks on my list! I really like Harold McGee's On Food And Cooking, and his newer book, Keys To Good Cooking, is also supposed to be really good. I've tweaked many a recipe using knowledge gleaned from On Food And Cooking - and a few weeks ago I made up a recipe for maple syrup caramel (no cane sugar or corn syrup) after reading up on candy-making and crystallization, and it was a great success! Good stuff.

As to the point of your post, I certainly agree.... Tradition guides us in the kitchen, but when we make body care at home, we're mostly outside of the realm of tradition, so we have to be really careful.