Chemical cuisine: What’s in your gullet?

You know something’s wrong when you walk down the aisles in your local supermarket, and you no longer see the food on the shelves as food, but see something that looks like food and smells like food but is something so adulterated with questionable additives that you imagine it might be best if the food company had stamped the packaging with a skull and crossbones.

What’s going on?  First of all, here in the Northeast the growing season is rapidly winding down.  The last of the homegrown tomatoes have been picked. Farmers’ markets are in their final weeks.  Except for some greens and root vegetables and other vegetables grown earlier in the season and put into cold storage, there’s not much local, freshly picked produce left to excite the palate and get the cooking juices going.

What this means for this part of the country is that we’re forced to go indoors. It’s the season of the dreaded return to the supermarket with its sprayed, waxed, and travel-tired produce section. Falling back on inferior-quality supermarket produce is a major disappointment after the fresh bounty of the summer.

Even worse are questions about the safety of our supermarket food supply that scientists seem to be dropping on us almost daily.

GMOs in almost everything.  Arsenic in rice and chicken.  Synthetic hormones banned in most first-world countries but fed copiously to American cows that give us nonorganic dairy products.  Flame retardants (or, as they’re affectionately known, HBCDs) in canned sardines, peanut butter, sliced ham, turkey, and chicken.

How about that Bisphenol A, a chemical that seeps into foods packaged in plastic that’s been found to promote prostate cancer in animals.  Foods marked with “artificial flavor” or “artificial coloring” that the FDA does not require to be broken down into its components for labeling. Doubts about what’s really grown organically or not.  Natural or unnatural?  Who can trust anything about the food supply anymore?

Such uncertainty is a recipe for full-scale food phobia.  When you think too much about what’s in the food supply, you start to feel as if you’ve just stepped into the neurotic swirl of a Roz Chast cartoon.

Is anyone out there protecting our food supply? It’s supposed to be the FDA. How well are they doing? It depends on who you’re talking to.  The FDA is doing just fine, thank you, for big ag and the corporate food industry.  Not so good for the consumer and the concerns of the food-safety movement.

A little history might serve to reveal the confusion and pervasive influence of industry and their lobbyists over the FDA. It was 1949 when the FDA published the first guidelines for the food industry.   The publication was officially titled “Procedures for the Appraisal of the Toxicity of Chemicals in Food” but became known as the “black book.” It took nine more years before manufacturers of new food additives were required to formally establish the safety of their products. At the time, food producers were required to declare all additives contained in their products.

That requirement has swung wildly back and forth from adequate disclosure to no disclosure at all to something in between.  A good example is the checkered history of the artificial sweetener Saccharin (today, Sweet’n Low or Sugar Twin). Prior to 1971 Saccharin was listed as GRAS (generally recognized as safe), but in 1971 it was removed from that list and transferred into a group of additives requiring new scientific study, which effectively banned its use.

Six years later the Saccharin Study and Labeling Act was passed by Congress.  The 1977 act overturned the ban on the sweetener but required labeling stating that Saccharin had been found to cause cancer in laboratory animals.  Than came another turnaround, even though the health concerns were not fully disproved. The Saccharin Notice Repeal Act of 1995 struck down the labeling requirements of 1977.  Evidently, by 1995 the FDA believed that consumers no longer needed to be informed about the potential health hazards (still in question today) of Saccharin, which is now contained in hundreds of food products.

Is it any wonder we don’t know what to believe?  The scientists at the forty-year-old Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) are trying to bring some transparency to what’s in our food, which additives seem to be safe, and which ones we should be concerned about.

Here are their conclusions.  They’ve rated approximately 145 food additives.  There are five ratings:  safe, cut back, caution, avoid, and certain people should avoid.  Their findings indicate that 85 additives are safe.  Seventeen should be cut back.  Nine earned a caution because the additives could pose a risk and need further testing. Twelve have enough scientific evidence of possible harm to be avoided or are unsafe in amounts consumed by the typical consumer or have been poorly tested. Eighteen are potentially harmful to individuals with certain health risks and should be avoided by them.

Is your mind boggled yet?  If so, the well-intentioned folks at CSPI have a mobile APP for you—called (I kid you not) “Chemical Cuisine”—that lets you look up additives and their ratings to determine whether you’d like to consume that stuff the food factories call food. I’ll tell you, I can’t wait to step over the crowds of concerned food buyers spending hours in the food aisles keying in ingredients on their mobile devices and trying to make sense of the labels.  As for me, I’ll just be trying as best I can to skip the produce section and to get through the winter until next spring when my local farmers set out the unadulterated, real food that I’m missing already.