Anyone into conspiracies and skeptical of mainstream media will embrace Badditives! The 13 Most Harmful Food Additives in Your Diet—and How to Avoid Them. Even the quotation at the top of the cover proclaims that the book will offer protection from “a sordid story of fake science and dirty politics [that] empower[s] us with the knowledge of what’s actually in our food.” How 2017! To believe the claims in this book it helps to believe that conventional food and nutrition scientists, the government, the mainstream media and Big Food are conspiring to deliberately keep us ignorant—except, of course, when they aren’t. Scientific studies, governmental policies, news stories and organic-food purveyors that support the view of the authors are cited as proof for ground truth. Philosophy has a term for such reasoning—a hermeneutic circle also known as circular reasoning.
Badditives associates these deadly additives with the rise in diseases such as ADHD, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and nonalcoholic liver disease. We learn where to look for these dangerous food additives and how to avoid them. The premise of the book is that these badditives are actually more dangerous for our bodies than sugar and salt, although the picture on the front cover suggests otherwise. The underlying philosophy of the book appears to be the Precautionary Principle—“When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.” The problem with this principle is that it can be used to eliminate almost every human activity from driving a car to cultivating the land to hunting and gathering. With respect to food preparation it could be used to eliminate eating both raw foods because of the danger of naturally occurring pathogens and cooked foods due to potential formation of carcinogens.
Like any book advocating a point of view there are some inherent contradictions in this one, but the contradictions seem to be more pronounced in Badditives. General consensus in food and nutrition science is considered suspect, but individual studies that challenge the status quo are cited as evidence of the dangers of such additives. Clean labels, which promise the removal of artificial ingredients, are hailed as natural ingredients are always better except when the ingredient happens to be carrageenan which is derived from seaweed. According to the book, ads for relief from stomach illness confirm the problem with today’s food supply, but are these issues more pronounced today or merely a manufactured demand by pushers of digestive pills and potions? In the same vein, did Americans really have body odor problems before deodorant manufacturers told them they did? Do we really need to wash our hair as often as shampoo ads suggest? Do all the ads for junk foods prove the need we have for sweets to live a satisfying life?
The authors raise the curtain to reveal “what they are not telling us.” “They” apparently refers to the food industry, the government, the media and scientists who study food and nutrition. I always find such leading statements about what is being deliberately hidden from by an amorphous “they” a tease. The topics discussed in the book can all be researched on the internet or in standard textbooks in food science and nutrition. The difference is that authoritative sources tend to discuss the positive and negative aspects of a specific additive from a nuanced perspective rather than using scare tactics and sensationalism. Based on my reading and background on this topic, I find that Wikipedia is a more accurate source on these additives than the book.
The number of specific additives listed don’t seem to add up to 13 alluded to in the subtitle of the book. I found 12 chapters of badditives. Three chapters covered broad categories: artificial colors, GMOs and partially hydrogenated oils. Two other chapters featured dangerous pairs: BHT & BHA and rBGH & rBST. Not that the exact number of badditives really matters. The number 13, however, is much scarier than 12 or 14 which would be more appropriate for the way the material is presented in the chapters. In addition to those additives mentioned above we learn about two elements (aluminum and fluoride), two derivatives of common amino acids (aspartame and MSG), artificial colors, a dangerous natural ingredient (carrageenan), a deceptive enzyme (transglutaminase aka meat glue), and the mother of all badditives (high fructose corn syrup). Notably absent from this list are artificial flavors, nitrates/nitrites, and sugar alcohols.
Isn’t time to stop pretending that the only chemicals in foods are those that are added during processing or formulation? Fresh foods contain numerous chemical compounds that are responsible for color, flavor, nutrition and all of their other properties. Complete absence of chemicals constitutes a vacuum. The same chemical can be of no consequence at low levels, beneficial at intermediate levels and toxic at even higher levels. Caffeine and alcohol are just two such examples. Some concerns have been legitimately raised in the scientific literature about the ingredients described in the book, but the presentation of solely negative aspects without any context is not useful. I do not personally worry about a danger in any of these additives at the levels I consume them. Using the same line of thought, however, readers would be wise to eliminate caffeine and alcoholic beverages before eliminating any of these badditives. The presence of chemicals in food, both those added to formulated foods and those naturally present in whole foods, will be the subject of blog posts during the rest of the month.
Thank you for all of you who visited me at the Springer Nature booth at IFT in Las Vegas.
Just a few of the many current and former UGA Food Science students who stopped by. Photo by Sherry Abrams.
Next week: Protein-derived chemicals in our food