“It’s full of chemicals” takes on a whole new connotation when someone is talking about food. Part of me exerts conscious effort to not roll my eyes, but most of me realizes that people just don’t understand the nature of food. Everything is chemical and all food is chemical. The problem lies in the difference between the natural chemical makeup of what man has learned is edible food versus all the intended and unintended chemical contaminants that enter our food supply.
On August 20, 2013 an article at Boston.com quotes Gordon Gribble, professor of organic chemistry at Dartmouth: “Misperceptions about the dangers caused by the use of man-made chemicals in our environment has caused a colossal mess.” The article continues to scold a gullible public with statements suggesting that “all-natural foods aren’t necessarily safer or better for you than those with artificial chemicals” and “anything can be toxic if ingested in high enough quantities, even substances we rely on to live such as water or salt.”
While technically true, these pronouncements don’t tell the whole story. I used to be so glib.
LIVING IN A CHEMICAL STEW
Over the decades of my career I have learned to be more circumspect and much more humble. We don’t know all there is to know about our bodies or the chemical substances we are exposed to. Tens of thousands of chemicals are introduced to our environment every year without adequate monitoring or testing. We only track about 200-300 of those considered potentially problematic, and there are a myriad of ways our simplistic testing for toxicity misses the mark according to the Chemical Industry Archives. So are we really chemophobes, or are the scientists who chide us far too smug?
WHAT DOES “GENERALLY REGARDED AS SAFE” REALLY MEAN?
There are significant problems with the current system, both with food additives and with all the other chemicals that reach us via the food supply. A recent report in JAMA Internal Medicine reports that “Generally Regarded As Safe” (GRAS) status for food and food additives is determined more by the food industry than the FDA. In some cases the FDA doesn’t even know that a food manufacturer has conferred a new food additive GRAS status. While industry and FDA apologists try to explain the system, an accompanying editorial by Marion Nestle weighs in by questioning, “How is it possible that the FDA permits manufacturers to decide for themselves whether their food additives are safe?” That’s my question, too.
In the larger context of chemical contamination, why do we spew first and then study? Seems to me there needs to be greater emphasis on finding out the nature of these agents before they are able to be measured in fetal cord blood and polar bears. We are living in a world of catch-up. Instead of a precautionary principle that requires industry to ensure agents are safe (as much as science can do that), we saddle our regulatory agencies with the task of proving that they aren’t. Sounds kind of backwards to me.
Just this week Linda Birnbaum and colleagues published a report explaining just how flame retardants–a notorious source of endocrine disruptors–harm us. “Using the 3-D imaging capabilities, we can see the flame retardants binding, or attaching, to proteins like estrogens do.” She goes on the explain, “Flame retardants are being studied, because of their pervasiveness and concerns about possible adverse effects on the endocrine, immune, reproductive, and nervous systems.”
MESSING WITH THE FOOD SUPPLY AND EVERYTHING ELSE
For years I have strongly suspected the role of endocrine disruptors in the increasing incidence of metabolic syndrome, obesity, diabetes, infertility, erectile dyfunction. Estrogen influences everything from reproduction to mental focus, heat regulation, and metabolism. Take a survey of menopausal women. Most will tell you that “the change” impacts more than whether or not you have a period.
I remember attending a conference featuring Linda Birnbaum over 10 years ago at Loma Linda University. She taught me that about 95% of the measured body burden of chemicals known as persistent organic pollutants and endocrine disruptors enter our body via the food supply. I remember raising my hand to make sure I heard correctly, mostly because I felt like I was starting to hyperventilate. After she confirmed my worst fears, I wasn’t the only one in the room visibly shaken. In 2007, I arranged with Santa Monica College to have her address the issues regarding persistent organic pollutants and the food supply. There is much more for us to know and understand.
The scope of science isn’t really measuring more than what industry wants to measure. Government agencies like the FDA and EPA that are supposed to guard our safety don’t have the funds to do much more than rely on research sponsored by industry and performed by industry experts–many of whom go on to work for the government agencies. That gives me pause.
Is the American public guilty of chemophobia, or are we just wising up?