Oh, for the good old days--when families dined on home-baked bread and pure, organic foodstuffs prepared without all those chemical additives that modern manufacturers pour into our processed, transported, factory-to-freezer-to-microwave meals.
We didn’t have to worry then. We ate food, not mysterious, multisyllabic chemicals.
Of course, we did have some problems. Foods spoiled easily. Microorganisms ate them almost as fast as we did. Cooking was a full-time job, and preserving was a tricky business because deadly botulism bacteria could grow in improperly canned foods and cured meats.
In the great debate about food additives, one thing has to be kept in mind. Except for people with specific food allergies or sensitivities, we do not have to worry much now, either.
“Most additives have not been adequately tested,” contends Michael Jacobson Ph.D., executive director of the health-watching Center for Science in the Public Interest. “Nevertheless, most are probably safe.”
Overseeing the safety of the food supply is the responsibility of two federal agencies, the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture. Most additives in use before additive-controlling legislation was passed in 1958 are on the FDA’s GRAS list--for “generally recognized as safe,” which means that long experience has not shown them to be dangerous. If illnesses or allergic-type reactions do appear from either human or animal exposure, the FDA re-evaluates and may then ban or limit their use.
For additives introduced after 1958, the agency requires proof that a new additive does no harm to the consumer, to the fetus if the consumer is pregnant and to the genetic material that gets passed down to future generations.
These proofs come generally from studies of animals, which get a large dose in a relatively short time. Effects over the lifetime of the animals are then used to predict lifetime effects for humans, who consume small doses over a relatively long period.
It is not known whether that is a valid comparison, but it is all we have. No one has ever been able to trace a case of human cancer back to an additive-laced cookie.
However, Jacobson points out: “Just about every chemical that has caused cancer in people has also caused cancer in animals.”
“Additives” is perhaps a loaded word: Anything that is added to a food is an additive. In fact, food itself is made up of chemicals that can be extracted or synthesized and put into other foods as additives.
Ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), beta carotene (Vitamin A) and alpha tocopherol (Vitamin E) are examples. Sugar, salt, spices, shortening, caffeine, baking powder, other extra vitamins and minerals and preservatives are all additives too.
These chemicals fight spoilage and contamination and enhance, improve or stabilize texture, flavor, color and nutrient value. They make possible the extraordinary cornucopia of safe and nourishing foods available in the United States today.
There are, however, some additives that health experts believe are not so safe. Sulfites top that list.
Six “sulfiting agents” are on the FDA’s “generally recognized as safe” list: sulfur dioxide, sodium sulfite, sodium bisulfite, potassium bisulfite, sodium metabisulfite and potassium metabisulfite. These chemicals are used to preserve food and prevent discoloration, to sanitize food containers, to battle microbial invasion and to bleach, condition and stabilize foods and drugs.
They also cause reactions, ranging from skin rashes to headaches to respiratory impairment to death in some people.
The number of sulfite-sensitive people in the United States is estimated at about 1 million. Most of them are asthmatic, but presence or absence of asthma does not predict sulfite-sensitivity.
“Most people don’t go specifically to be tested,” notes Richard Ahrens Ph.D., professor of nutrition at the University of Maryland College Park. “The way they find out is from bitter experience; it’s brought to their attention very forcefully.”
Nitrites and nitrates (which turn into nitrites in the body) are also controversial. These chemicals--which also appear naturally in many green, leafy vegetables--are widely used in cured meats to prevent botulism. But cooking these products at high heat and, to a lesser degree, digesting them, produces nitrosamines--and nitrosamines cause cancer in laboratory animals.
“Without nitrites, there’s a problem with botulism poisoning; when nitrites were banned in France, bacon and ham became highly perishable products which had to be refrigerated or frozen, and there were deaths from botulism,” Ahrens says.
Other effective botulism inhibitors are available, “but industry refuses to use them,” Jacobson says. “They pretend they want nitrite for preserving, but nitrite contributes to that nice pink color. And if hot dogs looked gray, sales would go down.”
Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), both widely used preservatives, also evoke warnings from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which cites one study suggesting that BHA could cause cancer and several that indicate BHT prevents cancer in some cases and causes it in others.
“I wouldn’t want to exaggerate the risks,” Jacobson says. “It’s not that one bite will give you a high likelihood of having cancer. But lifetime exposure may increase the risk of cancer.
“It’s not worth the gamble. The public should not have to play Russian roulette.”
However, Dr. Paul Talalay, a professor of pharmacology in the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore who has been doing research in cancer prevention for many years, has a different view.
“If you want to know whether some food additives are known to be beneficial in preventing cancer when given to animals in high doses, the answer is an unequivocal ‘yes,’ ” he says. “In the experimental situation, BHT and BHA are good protectors against chemical carcinogenesis.”
Contradictory findings do exist, he agrees. “But the circumstances of those tests give no cause for alarm. The exposure humans are receiving is not believed to pose a danger.”
There are, of course, other additives to which health experts might object, or to which certain people might be sensitive. Saccharine, for instance, can still be used, even though animal studies have demonstrated its carcinogenicity. Congress has ruled that its present benefits for consumers outweighs the possibility of future risks. Aspartame is dangerous to people with the disorder known as phenylketonuria, or PKU.