Any normal person who lives with a food scientist can tell you that their partner has some strange ideas about food. Generally speaking, when it comes to the role of food in health, a food scientist tends to think about it in terms of nutrition. The trend among normal people with respect to food and health now is its role in the development of chronic diseases such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity (recognized as a disease by the American Medical Association in 2013). Does processed food contribute to chronic disease in this country? The food scientist would respond with questions on which processed foods and want to know how much they are consumed. When food scientists think about safety it is about protecting a food from harmful microbes. Normal people, however, tend to associate food safety as threatened by an influx of harmful chemicals from processed foods. Are processed foods safe? A much higher percentage of food scientists than normal people would say yes.
Health is generally related to the long-term status of an individual as it affects nutritional status when it comes to food. There appears to be a great desire to classify foods as either healthy or unhealthy. It used to be that healthy foods were ones that had an abundance of nutrients relative to calories and unhealthy ones delivered an abundance of calories relative to the amount of nutrients present. More recently, healthy foods are either fruits, vegetables or superfoods with extra-nutritional properties. Among the extra-nutritional properties are those that promote gut health, such as probiotics and prebiotics. Unhealthy foods are described as ones loaded with fats, sugars and chemical additives. The concept of health in foods has gone beyond simple nutrition to one of social consciousness and absence of unacceptable ingredients.
Food safety is generally associated with preventing illness that is acute and occurs within days or weeks of ingesting the offending food. In 2018, the food outbreaks recognized by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) were microbial in nature. I typed in chemical food poisoning into the search box at the CDC website, and I found only 9 hits with the most recent one from 2006. Neither the CDC nor the FDA consider chemical food additives to be toxins. The most widespread toxin we consume in foods and beverages is alcohol with excessive consumption linked to as many as 88,000 deaths a year or 267 times the number of deaths (3000) attributed to food poisoning. Of course, alcohol intoxication can be directly linked to deliberate addition of a microbe to a fermentation substrate such as the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae so it is in essence microbially induced.
Chemicals contribute to both positive and negative aspects of safety and health. Everything we eat is composed of chemicals. Thus, all nutrients, including vitamins, minerals and proteins are chemical in nature. Without them we could not survive, much less enjoy good health. Some, but not all, chemicals are toxic and should not be present in foods. Others are only toxic at very high levels. Mind-altering bioactive compounds such as caffeine are highly prized in many cultures around the world. All ingredients are chemical, but some are composed of a single compound or predominantly one compound. It is currently believed in some circles that these chemical additives provide a threat to both safety and health despite being approved for use in foods. The health or safety consequences of the presence of a chemical cannot be determined by one’s ability to pronounce its name.
Microbes in their association with food also have good and bad connotations. Microbes are responsible for a wide variety of fermented foods, which are ready sources of probiotics, bacteria that promote gut health for those that can survive the acidic conditions of the stomach. Spoilage microbes cause food to produce unacceptable flavors and textures, but, contrary to popular opinion, are not usually hazardous to consume. Food infections occur when a microbial contaminant grows in a food, the food is consumed, and the microbe grows inside of the person who consumed it. Food intoxications result when a microbe present in a food produces a toxin. The microbe may be killed by heat or some other process, but the toxin survives and poisons the person who consumed it. As a mild toxin, alcohol can provide a pleasurable response prior to reaching a level that is unsafe.
Chronic disease is a major concern in the health of Americans. Metabolic syndrome is the presence of three or more risk factors that could lead to cancer, diabetes, heart disease or other chronic diseases. Obesity and an unhealthy lifestyle are considered to be contributors to metabolic syndrome. A diet high in “unhealthy processed foods” and a lack of physical exercise are major factors in an unhealthy lifestyle. Just what constitutes an “unhealthy processed food” is not clear. A recent study in JAMA suggested consuming ultraprocessed foods shortens life (1). A more recent study hitting the press this month suggests that it is not so much the unhealthy food (e.g. meat or ultraprocessed) that is associated with poor health (2). Rather the study indicates that it is the lack of consumption of whole grains and fruit that leads to premature death. What is a health-conscious public to do?
Unfortunately, such contradictions do not seem to be halting strict prescriptions of dietary advice prominent in any Google search on food issues and lurking on the shelves of the closest bookstore. Authors of such stories and books become merchants of certainty failing to permit any alternative perspective. This elusive connection then between health, safety and food thus differs between normal people and food scientists. Here is one food scientist’s response to some key questions normal people are asking:
Are chemical additives toxins? No, at least not at the doses they are consumed. Toxicologists and food scientists believe that “the dose makes the poison.” At low levels a chemical may be completely safe, but at higher levels it could be toxic. As noted last week, the most widely used psychoactive substance on the planet is caffeine. It was one of the chemicals Harvey Wiley and his poison squad identified as dangerous. He tried to remove it from food but lost a suit against Coca Cola as described in The Poison Squad. As mentioned above, the deadliest food chemical is alcohol, which is a mild toxin, making it so deadly. None of the other food additives come anywhere close to the hazardous nature of caffeine and alcohol.
A popular meme today is “Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food.” It’s an appealing thought, but I will stick to medicine when I’m ill and food when I’m hungry. For those who advocate preemptive diets to prevent disease, I say that it is impossible to follow every dietary recommendation to prevent every possible disease. Caffeine and alcohol can be beneficial at low doses and toxic at high doses. Even water (H2O itself not the chemicals dissolve in it) can be toxic if consumed to excess. New chemical additives are studied carefully by FDA before being permitted in foods. Additives on the Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) list are ones that have been in use for a long period of time and considered safe by the FDA. If serious concerns arise about an ingredient on the GRAS list, it will be reviewed to see if it should be retained on the list or not.
Do chemical additives lead to chronic disease? Some may, but most probably do not. The notable exception includes the nitrates and nitrites, which, during digestion, can form nitrosamines which are carcinogens. The nitrates and nitrites can be added as the sodium or potassium salts or they can be added as natural components of celery salt, celery powder or other processed celery ingredients. The FDA allows manufacturers to call bacon, pepperoni and wieners that use the natural alternative as UNCURED, but the characteristic pink color in these products is due to the formation of nitrosomyoglobin. Thus, the conditions are right to form the resultant nitrosamines. I eat my processed meats with nitrates or nitrites added as I am concerned that the “uncured” products may not provide adequate protection against botulism, more of a safety rather than a long-term health concern.
The greater danger with respect to chronic diseases in my opinion comes from overconsumption of calorie-dense foods over a long period of time which can lead to obesity and metabolic syndrome. Both conditions increase our chances for heart disease and cancer. Alcoholism is not the only disease associated with too much alcohol as the chemical is also a major contributor to cancer. Excess sodium intake contributes to high blood pressure in susceptible individuals, another risk factor in heart disease. High amounts of sugar, an additive found in many forms in both processed and homemade foods, are much more likely to contribute to diabetes and heart disease than any additive with a chemical name.
Should natural chemicals be given the benefit of the doubt? Why? Just because a chemical is found in nature, it can’t be assumed to be safer or contribute to health. The survival of mankind through history and the increase in longevity has depended largely in being able to determine which chemicals are beneficial and which ones are detrimental. A natural toxin of the same potency as an artificial one will sicken or kill a person just as fast. All food is made up of chemicals—whole foods tend to be much more chemically complex than formulated foods with more than five ingredients. I drink diet sodas with and without caffeine more carefully monitoring of the amount of caffeine I consume than my dose of artificial sweeteners. I also enjoy a bottle of beer occasionally, but I limit my alcohol consumption without any concern that the fermentation substrate may have contained high fructose corn syrup.
Bottom line. It is time we stopped pretending that any food is chemical free. It is also time we stopped pretending that a vitamin extracted from its natural state is safer and more beneficial than an identical chemical synthesized in the laboratory. Foods, ingredients and additives should be judged on their merits and not on their names or scare tactics.
Next week: Processed Food, Disability, and Autonomy by Jonathan Katz
(1) Schnabel, L., E. Kesse-Guyot, B. Allès and 12 others, 2019. Association between ultraprocessed food consumption and risk of mortality among middle-aged adults in France, JAMA Intern Med 179(4):490-498. doi:10/1001/jamainternmed.2018.7289
(2) Afshin, A., P.J. Sur, K.A. Fay, L. Cronaby, G. Ferrara, J.S. Salama, E.C.Mullany and 136 others, 2019, Health effects of dietary risks in 195 countries, 1990-2017: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017. Lancet date of electronic publication April 3, 2019
Thanks to Ron Pegg for providing the chemical structures of caffeine and alcohol.