Chemicals and Food Safety in the 21st Century by Danielle Robertson Rath

I’m at a party and I see a veggie platter, bags of chips, and a plate of raw hamburger meat. I’m confused, are people supposed to make burger patties themselves and barbecue them outside? This seems like an odd thing to do at someone else’s house. Other people at the party assure me this raw meat is actually steak tartare, perfectly fine to eat as-is, but I can’t bring myself to try it. This is a challenge for the heart, the body, and the brain. In my heart, there is too much fear this meat would make my body violently ill. In my brain, I don’t have enough information to accept this food is safe for me to eat.

Danielle Robertson Rath offers the fourth in a series of collaborations with Don’t Eat the Pseudoscience. Danielle is the go-to authority on caffeine and energy drinks so what better person to help us look at the safety of chemicals in our food?

Food poisoning is an awful experience, but what’s worse is when your food is making you sick and you can’t tell. Some people worry about chemicals in food making us sick. We have a right to be worried or, at least, to be skeptical.

In 1856, William Henry Perkin discovered the first synthetic organic dye. That discovery launched the practice of using dyes to color food. Nearly 100 years later, several children became ill from eating Halloween candy which was colored with FD&C Orange No.1, a dye that was, until that point, considered safe. As technology advances, we may discover some ingredients are less safe than we previously thought. We can reevaluate, just like the FDA did in 1950 –the year those children got sick from the orange dye, U.S. House Representative James Delaney began holding hearings on the safety of food additives. This prompted the US FDA to reevaluate all the listed color additives and remove the ones that caused serious adverse effects.

Science has come a long way since 1950. As technology advances, we have microscopes that are more powerful than ever. The difference is like admiring the leaves of a maple tree from the roof of a 10-story building versus being right there under that tree, holding its leaves in your hands. With this new sight, this new power, we face a dilemma. How do we know what to look for? How do we know what matters most? How do we reconcile the heart, body, and brain?

Holy Hill Wisconsin Rath Photo Shoot

Consider the ingredients in an energy drink. Red Bull is the world’s number one top-selling brand, so let’s use that. Red Bull’s full list of ingredients includes caffeine, B-vitamins, taurine, citric acid, sodium bicarbonate, magnesium carbonate, and sweeteners glucose and sucrose (or artificial sweeteners Aspartame and Acesulfame Potassium in Red Bull Sugarfree). Red Bull is undoubtedly a processed food, but its ingredients list may have less “chemical-sounding” ingredients than one would expect. Nonetheless, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has a few of these Red Bull ingredients on their Chemical Cuisine List in the “AVOID” section. And yet, the worst chemical in Red Bull is…

caffeine.

RedBull SugarFree Ingredients List

There are plenty of people on board with the “if you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it” campaign, and you can find concerned citizens blogging about every one of the items on Panera’s “No No List”. These “clean label” initiatives certainly speak to the heart, but let’s give the brain more data to analyze the situation. Caffeine has killed people. Several people. Compared to caffeine, chemicals like acesulfame potassium look like a lazy college roommate who never stops playing video games.

While acesulfame potassium has been accused of giving cancer to lab rats, there are several people who have died or almost died because of caffeine:

  • A Nigerian man died after drinking 8 cans of an energy drink similar to Red Bull
  • A man from the UK died after eating a whole tin of caffeinated mints
  • A New Zealand woman’s death was linked to her habit of drinking 10 liters/day of Coca-Cola
  • A 19-year old man died after taking 25-30 No-Doz pills
  • A 17-year old woman nearly died after drinking 7 double espressos

Caffeine is more dangerous than most, if not all, the food additives that get a bad reputation in today’s media. Caffeine is the most widely used psychoactive substance on the planet. At least 85% of the population consumes caffeine on a daily basis, and it’s not just in drinks anymore. It’s in gum, candy, mints, bread, desserts, and other snack foods.

While some people metabolize caffeine quickly and feel none of its effects, everyone else can feel it affecting their body and mind. Caffeine’s positive effects include alertness, endurance, and reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Caffeine’s negative effects include insomnia, jitters, addiction, headaches, anxiety, chest pain, acid reflux, gastrointestinal upset, and agitation. And these are just the effects we know about for sure.

There are over 100 different experimental studies on the effect of caffeine on heart rate, and still, we have no decisive answer. Most of those studies suggest caffeine has no effect, but other studies can’t agree on what the effect is. We can’t tell if caffeine makes the heart rate go up or down. It would be a win/win if we could say, “Either caffeine does nothing or it helps protect the heart,” but the research conflicts itself here.

Another aspect that makes caffeine more dangerous than other chemicals in our food is how caffeine affects different people. People with hypertension (high blood pressure) and people at risk for hypertension are advised against consuming caffeine because the blood pressure increases these people experience are stronger and longer than the increases experienced by everyone else.

Caffeine is at its worst when it’s combined with alcohol. Bartenders know the only thing worse than a drunk is a wide-awake drunk. At least when you’re drunk and passed out, you stop drinking, you stop harassing people, and you stop sharing your deepest thoughts with total strangers. When people drink caffeine and alcohol together, they are more likely to drink too much, more likely to take more risks like drive or ride with a drunk driver, and more likely to get injured.

Even without caffeine, alcohol is more dangerous for your health than scary chemicals like artificial colors or sweeteners, brominated vegetable oil (BVO), and azodicarbonamide (the “yoga mat” chemical in bread). Even at concentrations below the legal driving limit, alcohol impairs reflexes, changes brain function, and impacts behavior.

Heavy or binge drinking is associated with increased risk of liver cirrhosis, hypertension, stroke, type 2 diabetes, cancer, impaired immune function and increases the incidence of chronic inflammatory diseases like osteoporosis, sarcopenia, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, and cardiovascular disease. Chronic alcohol abuse leads to increased susceptibility to bacterial and viral infections.

Your brain might be saying, “Of course caffeine and alcohol are dangerous, but that’s only when you have too much.” There’s the rub. Caffeine and alcohol are some of the worst chemicals in our diet. We know the risks, but we drink it anyway because we know there is an amount that is safe to consume. To paraphrase Paracelsus, the difference between a poison and a cure is the dosage. This lesson is ingrained in our brains for alcohol and caffeine. And yet, we forget this lesson when we become afraid of other food chemicals. We don’t stop and ask the same questions we would if it were alcohol or caffeine: “How much can I have and still be okay?”

If you want to consume a diet free of artificial sweeteners and colors, free of ingredients with long names you don’t recognize, that is your right. However, don’t forget to give your brain some time to weigh in – is your heart being manipulated before your brain has a chance to process the data? As technology advances, we will have more power than we can imagine. We might be able to detect arsenic in juice at microscopic levels that weren’t remotely possible 10 years ago. We might be able to discover or synthesize new ingredients that change the food industry just like William Henry Perkin’s discovery of food dyes. And just like the FDA did in 1950, we will need to reevaluate the safety of the old, the current, and the new. We would benefit from treating our discoveries like caffeine and alcohol, remembering that the quantity and context make all the difference.

Next week: The elusive connection between health, safety and food.

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Danielle Robertson Rath is a food scientist, consultant, speaker, and the founder of GreenEyedGuide.com. Her book “Are You a Monster or a Rock Star: A Guide to Energy Drinks – How They Work, Why They Work, How to Use Them Safely” is widely considered the ultimate resource for caffeine drinkers everywhere. Danielle aka “GreenEyedGuide” started studying energy drinks while pursuing her bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and master’s degree in food science. She has been fascinated by caffeinated beverages and their ingredients ever since.

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