Washington Post – October 13, 2014
We have a love-hate relationship with mass-produced food. It is convenient, consistent, and inhospitable to bacteria and mold. But every few months, a revelation stokes our anxieties.
Case in point: You may have heard at the end of August that Starbucks’ pumpkin spice latte contains, in every autumnal sip, class IV caramel color and a tiny bit of 4-metheylimidazole, a chemical produced when the coloring breaks down.
Worries about caramel coloring and 4-MEI led the Food and Drug
Administration to post a Q&A to reassure consumers that the agency has no reason to believe there is any danger in the amounts of these chemicals in a pumpkin spice latte. About the same time, The Washington Post reported on the explosive growth of new food additives with little direct federal oversight and that the largest food industry trade group intends to create for the FDA a database of food additives with the scientific findings used by companies to determine that they are safe.
As a chemist, I can tell you that no chemical is 100 percent safe all the time, under all conditions. Even I occasionally do a double take when I hear about the ingredients in some of our foods. But our fear of chemicals — what is often called chemophobia — needs to be tempered.
The trend seems to be toward banning ingredients because they’re made in a lab, rather than the result of a natural process. I’d caution all of us against assuming that “natural” chemicals are safe. Depending on whether it was made in a lab or in nature, a chemical isn’t any better or worse. Chemicals are tools whose effects can vary greatly by the amount used and how we encounter them. Let’s take the case of azodicarbonamide (ADA), the “yoga mat chemical” that came to public attention earlier this year when it became widely known that Subway used it in the manufacture of its bread. Giving chemicals such as ADA monikers based on a single product in which they’re found or a single task they perform implies they are — to borrow a phrase from Alton Brown — “unitaskers.” Chemicals aren’t single-use tools, like the trendy margarita machine. Chemicals are multiuse tools, like a conventional, top quality blender that can make smoothies, shakes, soups, sauces and cocktails.
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