To Eat or Not to Eat: Chemicals

No discussion of food would be complete without a discussion about the addition of chemicals to our food.  Commonly known as food additives, these chemicals are used to preserve, enrich, fortify or in some way improve texture or taste.

Some examples are

–        Food colorings: These are easy to identify as they usually include the name of a color (i.e. Red food color #2, yellow food color #6 etc.)

–        Preservatives,
–        Synthetic antioxidants,
–        Thickening and stabilizing agents: Carrageenan and acacia gum
–        Artificial sweeteners: Mannitol, aspartame, saccharine
–        Some names to look for are: Sodium and potassium benzoate, sulphur dioxide, sodium nitrate, sodium nitrite, Propyl gallate, butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)

The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) requires manufacturers to label the contents of prepared foods.  This practice can be very useful in helping us avoid these chemicals.

A simple rule of thumb is: If the label on a package contains words you can’t identify as food, don’t eat what’s inside (the package)!



Other things to look for:

–        Pesticides and insecticides are sprayed on commercially grown food and are known carcinogens. Even thorough washing can leave significant amounts of residue because the chemicals penetrate the peel or outer covering.

–        Another common practice is the use of artificial ripening agents.  These agents allow commercially grown fruit, such as bananas, to be picked before fully ripened and shipped without being damaged.  After delivery to a warehouse, they are artificially ripened with ethylene gas prior to appearing at your local grocer.  Acetylene, another ripening agent, is banned in most countries because it has been shown to contain traces of arsenic.  It is also believed to affect the nervous system by reducing the supply of oxygen to the brain.

Since 1963, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and US Department of Agriculture (USDA) have allowed a small number of foods to be treated by a process called irradiation.  During this process foods are exposed to gamma rays, x-rays or high voltage electrons to kill potential harmful bacteria (e.g., E. coli and salmonella) and parasites. The process also delays sprouting and prolongs shelf life.  Organisms within food that have the potential to cause disease are destroyed by disrupting their molecular structure (DNA).  The safety of foods treated in this way has been under scrutiny.

Not only are consumers exposed to disrupted DNA produced by irradiation, but also not all pathogens are effectively destroyed.  Even the FDA admits that studies determining the effects of long term consumption of irradiated foods have been flawed, leaving many troubling questions.  Unfortunately the FDA doesn’t require irradiation to be listed on food labels.  Foods approved for irradiation to date include: some grains and flours, pork, red meat, chicken, some vegetables and spices. The surest way to avoid these chemicals and irradiated foods is to choose organic whenever possible.