Friday, December 17, 2004

"They're Rancid"

A few weeks ago I purchased two packages of whole almonds at the local supermarket. (Intended for use in my Tamari Almonds recipe ... I'm addicted to them!) When I opened the bags I was hit in the face by the smell of rancidity. Both bags were affected and neither had reached their "Best If Used By" date of 09/09/05. Usually, I would toss them away and chalk it up to the risk of buying packaged food. For whatever reason ... maybe I didn't get enough sleep, or maybe too many people cut me off on the road that day, or maybe I was enduring an episode of PMS, SAD, OCD, et al, ... I decided to return them. There were two possible outcomes, one - I would get my money back (at $6.00/lb, almonds are pricy!), and two - maybe the store would pull the rest of their rancid stock and replace them with something fresher.

Well, I did get my money back (in effect):

Me: "Hi, I'd like to return these."

Customer Service Desk Representative (CSDR): "Is something wrong with them?"

Me: "Well, yes, they smell bad."

CSDR removes the tape I had used to reseal one of the bags and places her nose into the opening: "They smell OK to me."

Seeing I was embarking on a confrontation, I stood more erect and with an air of authority ascended to use of the proper term: "They're rancid."

CSDR opens the second bag, shoves her nose in, and repeats "They smell OK to me", and pulls in some backup, "Hey, Sue, Do these smell OK to you?"

Sue: "Smell OK to me."

I shove my nose into a bag, wince for effect, and repeat "They're rancid."

CSDR sees I will not back down and uses a CSDRs next best weapon against returns: "Do you have your receipt?"

I didn't. Who keeps grocery store receipts from weeks ago? Me: "No."

CSDR: "Well, without the receipt ... "

Me: "I'll take store credit."

CSDR: "It's not our policy ..." she recites as she commences to fill out the store credit paperwork. The words escape her mouth fluidly, almost without thought. She knows store policy, she wants you to know she knows it, and that she is making an exception. My CSDR has the technique of eliciting shame down pat. (I pity her own Resident Eaters.)

Weeks later, the stock of almonds is still there. Apparently, my CSDR's opinion of these almonds' freshness trumped mine. I'm sorry to say I now question the quality of all of this particular supermarket's packaged nuts. Oh, for the days of open markets when my nose could do the shopping.

Besides the smell, why do I care if my nuts (or any other foods) are rancid?

A term used to describe chemical deterioration of fat. Rancidity is not a static state. Rather, it refers to a dynamic, or changing, or in this case, cascading effect. Rancidity can occur when a fat (precisely an unsaturated fat, of the type found abundantly in nuts) is exposed to oxygen in the presence of heat, light, moisture, and certain metals. Its double bonds break; the fat can then take up that oxygen and become oxidized. An oxidized fat is vulnerable to forming a free radical.1 When it does, it interacts with the next closest fat forming another free radical, which interacts with the next closest fat, forming another free radical ... and so on in a self-perpetuating process2 until you're left with a bag of nuts that smell like old socks, dead fish, and paint thinner3, god help us.

1 The free radicals, peroxides, and other products formed when a fat or oil becomes rancid have been demonstrated to initiate and promote malignant tumors. That is, rancid fat can cause cancer.

2 This process is what antioxidants (like vitamin E, and the carcinogenic BHA and BHT) can stall. The antioxidant sacrifices itself to the demands of the free radical, protecting the next fat in line from the assault.

3 These odors are genuinely characteristic of rancid fat, as documented by sensory analysis panels. You may, if you possess a scientific nature, conduct a test for yourself. Take some raw nuts (which contain unrefined polyunsaturated fat, a type particularly vulnerable to rancidity), and leave them exposed to warm air. You might just place some in a small dish and leave them in a lighted place beside your hob or oven. Smell them over time, and periodically compare them to some (hopefully) fresh nuts. And leave your comments! I'd love to hear how others experience rancidity.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I just ate some rancid almonds by mistake (hence, my trolling for stories about rancid nuts). You cannot eat a rancid almond and say "taste okay to me". Next time you return rancid nuts to your store, keep that in mind.

(Had the dairy guy take a swallow of heavy cream once when I called them about a case of heavy cream that was bad. He came back to my restaurant, opened a pint, sniffed and said, "smells fine to me". I told him to take a swig. He did. Spit it back into the container, then grabbed one from the case next to it, opened it, and started draining it. "That was bad," he said. Indeed.