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What’s it made of? Thoughts on Ingredients
Oct 2009

by Joanne Sales

It’s cold outside and a bowl of hot soup sounds delicious. It's a wonderful time to talk about ingredients. Carrots, potatoes, lentils, garlic, oregano; active ingredients, inert ingredients, and everything in between.

I became fascinated with ingredients a number of years ago when I heard an odd tale. The agribusiness chicken farmers in the Midwest were having a terrible time getting rid of their mountains of chicken feathers. The rivers were becoming clogged with them. So someone had a brilliant idea. Let’s grind up the chicken feathers and put them in laundry detergent! And voila, suddenly, our laundry detergent became light, fluffy and powdery. On the box, that powdery nature is acknowledged only by the mysterious name of “inactive ingredients.” What are they? Are they chicken feathers? I don’t know.

I haven’t heard about the fate of the world’s chicken feathers since that day. Fortunately, modern laundry detergent is much more concentrated. Where are the chicken feathers now? Who knows? It’s classified information.

There is a lot we don’t know about the ingredients of our world, and I’m not just speaking of unspeakable, classified chemicals added to our food, cosmetics, toothpaste and drinks. Heck, we don’t even know what our world is made of! We say that “stuff” is made up of atoms and molecules, but we don’t know what those are either. Not really. We are surrounded by unknown ingredients.

OK, I’ll confess what got me started on this train of thought. Early October, it was my 12th consecutive week tending to and picking blueberries every day. So it wasn't such a surprise that one evening I looked down, and my hand looked like one of those powdery blue, mid-sized, lighter colored blueberries. Obviously, I had eaten or looked at far too many blueberries, and my brain was doing some cross referencing. The blueberries and the hand that picked them were starting to look like the same “stuff.”

That’s not so bad. Blueberries do all sorts of wonderful things for our health and brain functioning. They are pro-active in our bodies. Good guys. Positive influences. Active ingredients.

As for the rest of the ingredients in our cupboards, most of them are classified as inert. “Active ingredients 20%. Inactive ingredients 80%.” Check it out.

Recently, a friend came to the joyful realization. “It’s all my fault!” she said joyfully. “Nobody did it to me. I did it all to myself!”

This doesn’t sound like the kind of realization that would set someone off on a high, but it was. By recognizing that she was not an inert ingredient, suddenly the doors of change opened up to her again. Yes, she had made some mistakes, but now she was an awake, active ingredient in her own life.

Our actions and thoughts can be positive, negative or neutral, but I don’t know if humans can actually be inert ingredients. As James Hollis, a Jungian psychologist phrased it, “To not choose is to make choices with consequences of their own.” Nevertheless, there seems to be a modern propensity to claim powerlessness and loiter around in the neutral zone. Perhaps that choice is not so modern.

In1846, Thoreau refused to pay taxes that were being used for slavery and a war he didn’t approve of. So he was put in jail. Emerson came to visit him in jail. “Henry, what are you doing in there?” Thoreau replied, “Waldo, the question is what are you doing out there?”

It’s interesting to ask ourselves, are we active or inert ingredients? If active, what are we doing? If inert, what are we not doing? And is our activity (or non-activity) positive, negative or neutral in its influence? One thing for sure, we don’t want to wake up one day and realize that we have been nothing but chicken feathers. But if we do, we can be happy, like my friend. “It’s all my fault. This is such good news!” Then we have the power to change.

*Are you concerned about mystery ingredients? Here are two of many websites. www.watoxics.org and www.safecosmetics.org