Food-based fears – are we being rational?

All of us are susceptible to food fears as we are biologically primed to react with disgust when food smells, looks or tastes rotten. This was, and still is, an invaluable evolutionary adaptation to help us avoid food poisoning, which can be serious and even fatal. Today, rotten food is far less of a problem as we have discovered myriad ways to stop food spoiling from chilling to canning and adding preservatives. The use of preservatives has been a generally beneficial development. We are far more likely to suffer ill effects from spoilt food than we are from ingesting small quantities of preservatives.

However, we did not stop with food preservatives.  Increasing knowledge about chemicals enabled food scientists to also enhance flavours, textures and colours to make food more palatable and enticing. So while we are no longer exposed to much rotten food it seems we are still primed to be fearful. Many of our food fears are now focused on food additives and yet few of us have even basic knowledge about food science.

Irrational and faddish food fears, together with some valid ones, have become an integral part of our culture. This means that it is difficult to know which food fears, particularly regarding food additives, have validity. Many people resort to simple heuristics or guidelines. One of the commonest heuristics employed is ‘if it’s natural, it’s safe’ but ‘if it’s a chemical, it must be bad’. This guideline is highly problematic given that all of life is based on chemicals. Water is a chemical essential to all life on earth. Glucose, which our cells use for energy, is a chemical. Salt, which provides us with essential sodium but can also harm us in excess, is a natural chemical. Many of our plant foods contain chemicals which can be poisonous in excess. Some contain lethal chemicals, like the death cap mushroom.

So we cannot simply assume all additives are harmful, especially as many occur naturally in foods. All food additives have been given an E number as part of a classification system. Some people are suspicious of all E numbers yet many are beneficial nutrients (such as vitamin C or E300) and over 20 are made by the human body (such as propionic acid or E280). So, even if we ate a totally organic unprocessed diet we would still be consuming a variety of E numbers. Here are just a few of the natural chemicals that give bananas their unique flavour: ethyl hexanoate, ethyl butanoate and 3-methylbut-1-yl ethanoate. These sound scary enough to make us avoid bananas forever.

If we are going to nurture food fears based around additives, we need to be sure of our facts.

Two examples of sensationalised additive fears illustrate the common problem – fear mongering by people who do not have access to, or choose to ignore, objective scientific evidence. The first example concerns the public panic that ensued in the 1970s (captured emotively in the Washington Post headline, ‘The Day Bacon Was Declared Poison’), when an MIT researcher declared that the nitrates and nitrites used to preserve meat cause cancer. Nitrates and nitrites are naturally occurring compounds that have been used to preserve meats since the sixteenth century. Yet, on the basis of a small study on rats, which was subsequently discredited, even the US Food and Drug Administration overreacted and proposed an outright ban on these preservatives, generating even more public fear and throwing the whole cured meat industry into turmoil.

The ban was never implemented but the fear around nitrates and nitrites in cured meats persisted despite the fact that no subsequent peer-reviewed studies have shown any association with cancer. Indeed, if nitrates and nitrites were so harmful we would not be making them in our own bodies and we would have to avoid a whole range of nitrate-rich vegetables (especially green leafy vegetables and celery) and even try to avoid swallowing our own saliva, which contains very high levels of both nitrates and nitrites. Less than two percent of the nitrates and nitrites we consume actually come from meat preservatives, the rest come from our vegetables and drinking water. Increasing evidence also points to nitrates and nitrites being good for us as they are the precursors of nitric oxide, a biological messenger that plays a key role in maintaining health.

The second recent food additive fear, on the other hand, is more justified, although the hysteria around the so-called ‘yoga mat’ additive takes attention from far worse additives and more important dietary risks – like consuming too much sugar.  Exposed by the Food Babe blogger, Vani Hari, azodicarbonamide (ADA) is a synthetic chemical added to flour to make dough stretchy and light. Its primary use, however, is to make foam plastic products like yoga mats and shoe soles softer and more pliable. With reports by environmental interest groups provocatively titled ‘500 ways to make a yoga mat sandwich’ it is easy to see why the flames of this fear were quickly fanned.

What are the risks? ADA, in high doses, is associated with an increased risk of asthma, allergies and skin problems. Some experts believe it hasn’t been adequately tested in humans at the concentrations people may be exposed to if they eat lots of flour-based foods or work with flour, like bakers.  ADA, as a food additive, is banned in Europe and Australia but permitted in the US, Canada and South Africa although, because of recent adverse publicity, Pioneer Foods (including the Sasko brand) has recently announced ADA will no longer be used in their products.  This is a welcome development as we certainly don’t need more elastic bread, even if the health risk is eventually proved to be negligible.

While the widespread availability of information and powerful social media campaigns are forcing food companies to become more transparent and accountable we, as consumers, also need to be properly informed so we don’t fall prey to irrational food fears and unwarranted chemophobia.