The ugly truth about what we consume is real, raw and too often unclear. While consumer protection agencies are tasked with having our backs, food companies are equally tasked with making a profit. Hard facts about the long-term effects of some widely used, government approved food processing practices may currently elude us, but it all boils down to what you’re willing to put in your mouth.
When foods are mass harvested, processed and packaged in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration holds companies to a set level of allowable defects in products. The FDA says it’s “incorrect to assume” that because certain amounts of hair, insect fragments, animal excrement, bone, mold, rust, cigarette butts, sticks, stones or any combination thereof are allowable in a food commodity, that all manufacturers are hovering just below the tipping point.
We are assured that “the averages are actually much lower,” and allowable defect levels pose no real hazard to health. The reason the FDA gives for allowing insects in your allspice is because it is considered “economically impractical to grow, harvest, or process raw products that are totally free of non-hazardous, naturally occurring, unavoidable defects.”
Non-stick cookware is popular for its cling-free cooking and easy cleaning capabilities. The magic is found in the synthetic polymer coating called polytetrafluoroetheylene or PTFE, a.k.a. Teflon, which is part of the family of perfluorinated chemicals or PFCs. Seinfeld fans will appreciate the physically expanded form of PTFE used to make Gore-Tex.
Unfortunately, the magic loses its charm in a matter of minutes at high temperatures when toxic fumes from the Teflon are released, reportedly killing pet birds and giving people flu-like symptoms called “Teflon Flu” or “Polymer fume fever.”
Other health risks of prolonged exposure to Teflon fumes include low birth weight, high cholesterol, abnormal thyroid levels, liver inflammation and a weakened immune system. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that manufacturing products containing PFCs presents the environment with “toxicity properties to an extraordinary degree.”
Bisphenol A is BPA’s full name. It’s an industrial chemical and structural component in polycarbonate commonly used in beverage containers and in epoxy resins used to line the inside of cans. BPA has been used in food packaging materials since the 1960s. It’s the FDA’s job to ensure that chemical migration from packaging into the food that’s touching it occurs at safe levels.
The agency maintains that currently approved levels of BPA in food containers and packaging are indeed safe. However, due to heightened interest, research is ongoing to find out what the long-term effects of BPA consumption really are. Because of petitions filed in 2012 and 2013, FDA amended its regulations to no longer provide for the use of BPA-based resins in baby bottles, sippy cups, or infant formula packaging “not based on safety,” it states, but based on the fact that the industry no longer uses BPA in those products.
In any grocery store, the average shopper is confronted with labels that say things like fortified, heart healthy, all-natural, organic, energy booster, probiotic, whole, light, low-carb, and sugar-free. These terms are purposely vague and meant to intrigue consumers who might not otherwise read the nutrition label.
Ultimately, it’s about making a sale. Chocolate ice cream can be organic, but the sugar content may be high, and if it’s sugar-free, it may contain an “all-natural” chemical sweetener, and further down the rabbit hole we go. Something labeled as healthy doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthy for everyone. A piece of fruit contains fewer calories than a 100-calorie snack pack and will likely leave you feeling fuller if not better nourished.
While conservationist Rachel Carson’s pivotal 1962 book Silent Spring may have been a conversation starter, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2014 study reveals that pesticide use has grown rapidly over the past five decades. A survey of pesticides used on 21 crops reportedly grew from 196 million pounds of active ingredients in 1960 to 516 million pounds in 2008. Not surprisingly, USDA reports these changes were driven by economic factors.
The main reason pesticides are used is to protect plants from insects, fungi, and other lifeforms that feed on crops and spread disease. Another big reason is for cosmetic purposes. Certain pesticides are being called endocrine disruptors and long-term, low-dose exposure has been linked to a host of human health problems like immune suppression, reproductive abnormalities, diminished intelligence and cancer.
What appears to be the industrial solution to lowering pesticide usage has taken on a variety of names that ultimately mean the same thing whether it’s GMO, GMC, GM or GE. The result is in cultivating swaths of genetically modified organisms in the form of crops engineered to withstand disease. The USDA reports that as of 2015, more than 90 percent of the planted area of soybeans, corn and cotton in the U.S. were genetically modified.
Evidence of potential impacts of GM crops is often contradictory and the quality of the research is up for debate. Objections to GM crops are varied and usually based on environmental impacts, safety, world food needs and intellectual property.
Of all the foods destined to get funky, infant formula and some baby foods are the only items required by federal law to be labeled for expiration. State laws vary widely when it comes to labeling and pulling expired goods from the shelves and the rules don’t necessarily need to make sense to the average consumer.
Take the pack date on some canned goods that use the Julian calendar. At first glance it looks like a code, where a packaging date of January 1 looks like 001 while December 31 looks like 365. There may be numbers before or after to notate the processing plant number to confuse you even more.
If something like a carton of eggs is USDA graded, those eggs are required to show the date of packaging and the processing plant number. The expiration date is up to the manufacturer. After that, you’ll have to ask yourself if you feel lucky. Fortunately, there’s an app for that. The USDA developed the FoodKeeper app that tells you when it’s time to throw your old food on the compost pile (as if the mold growing on it wasn’t a big enough clue).
In the wake of the great Chipotle outbreak it feels like fecal matter is lurking around every corner waiting to create another recall. The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service website has plenty of resources for finding out where current recalls and alerts are being reported by state, as well as a recall case archive and summaries of exactly what went wrong. You can also report a problem with food through the website should you discover you’ve ingested a tainted apple that sends you running to the bathroom to exercise the demons.
Food additives can be natural or man-made and have been used to preserve and enhance flavor and appearance for centuries. Direct and indirect food additives are where things start to get weird. Direct additives serve a specific purpose while indirect additives migrate into food from the packaging.
FDA does require manufactures prove indirect additives are safe for consumption. Food coloring also comes in two categories. If it’s synthetic, it must be certified as safe for consumption. If it’s from natural sources (animal, mineral, vegetable) then it is exempt from certification.
For some light reading, FDA has a list of more than 3,000 approved additives in its data base titled Everything Added to Food in the United States.
Everything tastes better grilled. Unfortunately, everything now comes with a warning. Heterocyclic amines (HCAs or HAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are chemicals that form in the muscle and meat drippings when cooked at high temperatures, especially over an open flame. According to the National Cancer Institute, HCAs and PAHs have been found to increase the risk of cancer depending on whether a person’s body uses specific enzymes to metabolize those chemicals.
Certain foods like rosemary, citrus, green tea and oils with a high smoke point, like avocado oil, contain antioxidants that have been found to reduce HCA levels. So when you fire up the grill, try a marinade with any of these ingredients.
Sulfites or sulfur dioxide (SO2) is a preservative that has been used in winemaking for centuries. It’s a natural byproduct of fermentation and can be used as a food additive to prevent oxidization and maintain freshness. All wine sold in the U.S. must be labeled with the words “contains sulfites” due to the small portion of the population allergic to them.
Common reactions are hives, cramps, nausea and blotchy skin. People may get headaches from drinking wine, but studies show sulfites are not the cause. Organically grown wines are a good alternative to avoid high levels of sulfites, but no wine is completely free of them.
Sodium nitrite is a naturally occurring salt used to preserve processed and cured deli meats and provide the healthy-looking pink color that would otherwise be dull and gray. With enough healthy bacteria in the gut, nitrite can serve to prevent food-borne illnesses like botulism. However, under certain conditions, nitrite can also form the molecules that cause cancer. To minimize the risk, USDA enforces a limit on how much sodium nitrite is used in processed meats. Meat manufacturers also add antioxidants like vitamin C to their products to counteract the possibility of cancer-causing molecules running amok in acid deficient guts.
So the next time you’re in New York, ask for a healthy heaping of fermented sauerkraut on your corned beef sandwich. It won’t lower your blood pressure, but it will taste amazing.
Julie Vitto has contributed writing and photography to entertainment and lifestyle magazines covering central Pennsylvania, the Nordic region and points in between. She likes the theme song to Cheers.
Photo by U.S. Department of Agriculture CC BY