For a variety of reasons, the food we eat every day comes in contact with a diverse range of chemicals. Naturally occurring chemicals are hard to avoid. However, these and other induced chemicals can be hazardous for our health and we need be aware of the risks. Chemicals which are added to food can be reduced or controlled. Different counties have different food regulation and authority systems to control these.
Some common chemical risks present in food include:
Pesticides: Pesticides protect plants from pests and diseases; however, when pesticides are used, some remain in food and may cause harm to humans, animals and the environment. One example is Dicholoro-DiphenylTrichloroethane or DDT. Once DDT saved numerous lives by killing the Malaria vector, but it was banned in the USA in 1972 because of damage to wildlife.
Food Additives: Food additives are chemicals used during food preparation and preservation. Some of these chemicals are natural (derived from plants, animals, or minerals) and some are synthetic. Food colors, preservatives and flavoring agents, antibiotics, hormones and enzymes are some food additives. Below I mentioned few of them.
♦ Hormones and antibiotics: Farms use synthetic hormones and antibiotics to expand production. Growth hormones are used to increase milk production, steroid hormones are used to boost livestock production and antibiotics to prevent infection. In the USA, six steroid hormones used in the cattle industry are likely to create a risk of early puberty among girls and breast cancer, prostate cancer, and rapid weight gain. However, adequate large scale research is absent. The effects of eating these foods depend on their types, temperature resistance, and solubility in fat or water. In general, medical science faces much more difficulty because of the antibiotic resistance of microbes. According to the report, “Review on Antimicrobial Resistance,” US livestock consume nearly 10,000 tons of antibiotics per year. The report also emphasizes that “if we don’t act now, antibiotics may no longer work.”
♦ Food colors: The surprising thing is that some food dyes are considered safe in one country, yet are banned in another. This practice creates confusion about the definition of safety. Besides natural dyes, some manufacturers use synthetic dyes which may have health risks. Researchers have shown that children get allergies, hyperactivity, learning impairment, irritability and aggression because of food dyes. Different agencies in countries test the safety of food color and most countries have their own regulations and lists of safe dyes.
♦ Food preservatives and flavoring agents: Different types of food preservatives are used indifferent countries. Preservatives like Sulfites are banned on fresh fruits and vegetables, but are still used in other foods in the U.S. Sulfites can cause headache, allergy and cancer. Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA), found in chips and preserved meats, is a probable human carcinogen. According to a Harvard study, Propyl Paraben found in tortillas and muffins can reduce fertility and increase risk of cancer. Emulsifiers used in mayonnaise and ice cream, among other food products, may alter gut bacteria and lead to inflammatory bowel disease. Both the United Kingdom and Canada prohibited the use of a flavoring agent called Potassium Bromate in food. However, it is used in United States in bread and cracker dough, and may be a carcinogen. Another agent called Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) has been linked with obesity, metabolic disorders and neurotoxic effects.
Sodium benzoate is a preservative used to prevent bacterial growth in foods. Studies suggest that it may increase the risk of inflammation, obesity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and allergies. It may also convert to a potential carcinogen, but the low levels found in beverages are considered safe.
Processing Induced Chemicals: Chemical reactions occur during the food processing create different substances which may have harmful effects. Examples include Acrylamide, Heterocyclic Amins (HCAs), Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) and Furun which are formed during food processing. Carbohydrate rich and low protein foods create Acrylamide in high temperature processing such as frying, baking and roasting, and these increase the probability of cancer. Potato chips, French fries, toasted bread, bakery products are some examples. This can be reduced by making changes in the food preparation.
HCAs are formed by the reaction of creatinine and amino acid while cooking meat at high temperatures. PHAsform when fat and juices from grilled meat drip onto the surface or fire. A study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute in 2017found that 1500 women diagnosed breast cancer had high intake of grilled, barbequed, and smoked meats. Furan may found in heat-treated foods such as canned or jarred foods and may be used in manufacturing industries. The presence of furan in food is a potential concern because of liver toxicity and carcinogenicity.
Environmental Contaminants: Environmental contamination happens through water, soil and air. Arsenic, lead and mercury are some examples of environmental contamination.
Contaminated groundwater is the most common vector for arsenic poisoning. Long term effects of arsenic exposure include skin disorders, diabetes, high blood pressure, and cancers. Lead can be found in maple syrup, honey and water, among other products. Children and pregnant women are more at risk of lead poisoning, which can cause neurological disorders and reproductive health problems.
Trace amount of Mercury may be found in vegetables and fruits; high amounts in some fish like shark, swordfish and escolar. Mercury may cause nervous system damage, memory problems, vision and hearing difficulties, damage to kidneys and fetus development. Children are more at risk to Mercury than adults.
Though the level of chemical risks of food varies country by country, those can be life threatening. We have to be more aware of the effects of these chemicals and should be more cautious to avoid them where possible. Proper actions considering the mentioned issues will help us ensuring safe food now for a healthy tomorrow.
The writer is a Public Health Professional and Freelance Writer