Chemical Potpourri

Do you have many memories of 11th grade Chemistry class?  Rubber gloves, beakers, test tubes, dissolving various compounds in a host of solutions to produce chemical reactions…Well, this is the face of modern-day foods–laced with a host of chemicals used for preserving flavor, doctoring up taste or appearance, preventing spoilage, and packaging food.  While some unpronounceable food additives are fancy names for vitamins and minerals that we know of–for example, ferrous fumarate is iron, ascorbic acid is vitamin C, and riboflavin is vitamin B2, just to name a few–a lot of other added chemicals are not.  Look at the ingredient list of just about any pre-packaged, processed food and you will need to consult your old grammar school teacher for help with pronunciation.  Polyglycerol polyricinoleate, butylated hydroxyanisole, guanosine monophosphate, and propylene glycol alginate are just to name a few.  Sound deliciously appetizing don’t they? NOT!!!  

Although chemistry has been used in the production and preservation of foods for centuries, the level used today has grown to astronomical proportions, unreasonable in fact.  Analysis by the Pew Health Group, the health sector of a public policy non-profit, found that more than 10,000 chemicals are currently allowed in human food (see more).  The regulation (or lack there of!!) of these chemicals is alarming, scary, and angering (all in one!). 

As we place faith in the system to protect our health and well-being, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) operates on the honor system when it comes to our food an drug industries.  By placing trust in a food (and drug) industry that is motivated by financial gains, this leaves us vulnerable to any possible risks of chemicals in our foods.  Drawing parallels to the U.S. judicial system, the FDA operates on the premise that the chemicals in our food are “innocent until proven guilty,” and in fact don’t even carry out a trial!  I don’t know about you, but this certainly doesn’t sit well with me given that the health of me and my family, as well as that of future generations depend on this oversight.  In essence, we are the testing ground for the chemical potpourri of foods that we eat.  

Other countries across the world (especially in the E.U.) are taking heed to these potential risks and the necessary precautions to protect the health of their citizens.  For example, many Europeans are demanding that genetically modified foods (GMOs) be labeled, and the use of certain pesticides and synthetic hormones are banned.  A host of food dyes have been associated with behavioral problems in children and are now virtually banned throughout the E.U. and the U.K..  Because of this push from other countries, U.S.-based food manufacturers actually develop separate products made from natural ingredients for sale outside of the U.S.. For example, Starbursts, Skittles, and Nutri-Grain bars sold in the U.K. don’t contain artificial dyes as they do here in the U.S.

Some chemists may argue that these chemical compounds and dyes are added in such minute amounts and concentrations that their impacts are negligible.  This argument is faulty indeed, especially when considering apparent allergic reactions as well as internal biological responses that we are unaware of.  Specifically, allergies are caused when our bodies respond to a foreign particle, triggering a cascade of responses.  Even the most minute amount can illicit such a response.  This argument also grossly overlooks the fact that some consumers are actually ingesting hundreds of chemicals each day (and thousands cumulatively), the additive effects of which are unknown.  

The bottom line is that the U.S. food industry has taken an unethical, extreme leap of faith in the safety of the chemicals that they are allowing in our food supply.  We, the consumers, are unknowingly subject to a host of risks, but these potential risks can be reduced through the gradual changes in our food choices (note that I say gradual, because we can’t avoid all food additives overnight).  Truthful knowledge is power and it’s up to us to make decisions based on this knowledge.  Does eating chemical potpourri sound appealing to you? 

For more information, check out this comprehensive evaluation of various food additives compiled by the nutrition and health consumer-advocacy organization, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).  
If you’re interested in reading more on food dyes, read the CSPI report, Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks.”

Stay tuned to learn more about GRAS (generally recogized as safe) foods that are pervasive in our food supply.

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