Join 3,421 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


A Little Chemical Education
June 27, 2013 7:46 AM   Subscribe

An article entitled '8 Foods We Eat In The U.S. That Are Banned In Other Countries,' purporting to expose the rampant toxicity of American processed foods, was posted on Buzzfeed. Here's a response from research chemist Derek Lowe (of Things I Won't Work With fame, previously).
posted by showbiz_liz (180 comments total) 58 users marked this as a favorite

 
It is nice to see a rational, reasoned discussion of this topic.
posted by Lord Force Crater at 7:51 AM on June 27, 2013 [4 favorites]


We eat SODIUM CHLORIDE every day! That's an explosive metal and a deadly gas! WAKE UP SHEEPLE!
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:58 AM on June 27, 2013 [38 favorites]


I'm not sure I can believe anything written with ATOMS, which are known killers. Also, the words on my screen are reaching me with RADIATION, which is also a well-known KILLER.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 7:59 AM on June 27, 2013 [3 favorites]


Besides, he makes the point quite well that most of this testing is done at insanely high levels. Sure, eat 95 pounds daily of the healthiest of foods and you will have issues.
posted by Samizdata at 8:00 AM on June 27, 2013


Metafilter: That's an explosive metal and a deadly gas!
posted by jepler at 8:03 AM on June 27, 2013 [3 favorites]


Man, if you can't trust Buzzfeed as a source of nutritional information, who can you trust?
posted by Horace Rumpole at 8:04 AM on June 27, 2013 [24 favorites]


. . .if I isolate a beneficial chemical compound from some natural source (vitamin C from oranges, for example, although sauerkraut would be a good source, too), that molecule is identical to a copy of it I make in my lab. There is no essence, no vital spirit. A compound is what it is, no matter where it came from.

I have struggled for years trying to find just the right way to put this to a few friends and acquaintances. Not that they'll believe it any more, but his way certainly sounds better than my feeble attempts.
posted by Curious Artificer at 8:05 AM on June 27, 2013 [6 favorites]


At least they agree on not eating Olestra, even if it's for different reasons. Man, that's a mistake you do not make twice.
posted by Room 641-A at 8:07 AM on June 27, 2013 [6 favorites]


Yes, I think we can all come together over not eating chips made with ButtleakTM.
posted by en forme de poire at 8:09 AM on June 27, 2013 [5 favorites]


Hurf durf dihydrogen monoxide
posted by Joe Chip at 8:11 AM on June 27, 2013 [7 favorites]


Of course, what both missed is that the people most likely to be affected by these kind of things are not the consumers, but the workers who produce the stuff, who are frequently exposed to much higher levels and for much longer periods of time.

I mean, there is a reason some food additives are banned elsewhere, and it's not always chemophobia.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 8:12 AM on June 27, 2013 [72 favorites]


Everything about this is marvelous, but I particularly liked the potassium bromate riff:
If we're going to play the "made from the same atoms" game, well, strychnine and heroin are derived from the same harmful chemicals as the essential amino acids and B vitamins. Those harmful chemicals, in case you're wondering, are carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. And to get into the BuzzFeed spirit of the thing, maybe I should mention that carbon is found in every single poisonous plant on earth, hydrogen is the harmful chemical that blew up the Hindenburg, oxygen is responsible for every death by fire around the world, and nitrogen will asphyxiate you if you try to breathe it (and is a key component of all military explosives). There, that wasn't hard - as Samuel Johnson said, a man might write such stuff forever, if only he would give over his mind to it.
Someone needs to turn this into one of those shareable photo-plus-quote meme generators so I can counter-post it the roughly 17 times per day that people post patently unscientific nonsense about health and nutrition in my Facebook feed.
posted by gompa at 8:12 AM on June 27, 2013 [11 favorites]


God do I think leading people into a low level paranoia that everything they touch is made of POSIONS for the sake of clicks is a detestable and disgusting way to make a living.
posted by The Whelk at 8:13 AM on June 27, 2013 [8 favorites]


Dihydrogen Monoxide: threat or Menance?
posted by The Whelk at 8:15 AM on June 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


Is there some sort of internet law about the comments on science articles and the way they bend towards madness?

This comment (45) is great though: "My daughter had a similar hissy fit in a grocery store when I grabbed a box of mac and cheese: "I won't eat that -- IT'S FULL OF INGREDIENTS!" Difference is, she was only two years old at the time. Some people evidently don't grow out of it."
posted by jetlagaddict at 8:15 AM on June 27, 2013 [31 favorites]


The problem ain't even science education. The problem is "8 things the US allows megacorps to poison you with" is way more interesting than "8 things that might sound sketchy at first but are actually pretty safe"

I mean I am sympathetic to this guy and even I was nodding off when he was droning on about methyl-bromide-butlyates.
posted by Ad hominem at 8:16 AM on June 27, 2013 [4 favorites]


Regarding the BVO thing, I actually do know one person who drinks 2L bottles of Diet Mountain Dew on the regular. Hopefully that still places him on the shallow end of the toxicity curve, but it is a smidge unsettling.

Also I always thought "biurea" should really be called "diurea," because I have the sense of humor of a second grader.
posted by en forme de poire at 8:17 AM on June 27, 2013


I used to drink 6L of Mountain Dew every day. I quit not because of fear of toxins, that's news to me. I quit because I was getting really fat.
posted by JakeEXTREME at 8:20 AM on June 27, 2013 [6 favorites]


Regarding the BVO thing, I actually do know one person who drinks 2L bottles of Diet Mountain Dew on the regular. Hopefully that still places him on the shallow end of the toxicity curve, but it is a smidge unsettling.

That was my one gripe with the article. If 4L a day of soda makes up a sufficient dose schedule of BVO to cause adverse effects, that's actually a pretty low safety margin.
posted by invitapriore at 8:22 AM on June 27, 2013 [4 favorites]


God do I think leading people into a low level paranoia that everything they touch is made of POSIONS for the sake of clicks is a detestable and disgusting way to make a living.

Have you met the Daily Mail?
posted by Artw at 8:28 AM on June 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's okay. The Daily Mail says the same things that will kill you are the things that will cure you, often in the same issue.
posted by The Whelk at 8:29 AM on June 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


Despite being MADE OF CHEMICALS, like actual food is, American convenience food remains a pile of over-salted, over-sugared, yucky garbage.
posted by Artw at 8:30 AM on June 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


Can this article on Flintstone vitamins be next?

I guess it's an improvement to have this kind of hysteria channeled toward inanimate objects, rather than getting people burned as witches.
posted by Alison at 8:30 AM on June 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's okay. The Daily Mail says the same things that will kill you are the things that will cure you, often in the same issue.

A balance! As is found in nature! Clearly The Daily Mail is homeopathic.
posted by Artw at 8:31 AM on June 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'll pass on being a guinea pig in the processed food experiment. 5 years from now most of what this guy quoted will be out of date as new studies come out.
posted by stbalbach at 8:32 AM on June 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


If we're going to play the "made from the same atoms" game, well, strychnine and heroin are derived from the same harmful chemicals as the essential amino acids and B vitamins.

But they add essential amino acids to my SHAMPOO! Surely they can't be good to eat as well. You don't eat shampoo! That would be silly!
posted by maryr at 8:33 AM on June 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


BuzzFeed is a virus; bonus points for the bold choice not to link the article in this MetaFilter post. I got in trouble with two friends of mine for calling that article bullshit when they shared it. It seemed very popular, like it confirms everyone's worst fears without actually adding any meaningful information to the discussion. I was very grateful for that rebuttal.
posted by Nelson at 8:33 AM on June 27, 2013 [8 favorites]


bonus points for the bold choice not to link the article in this MetaFilter post.

I actually almost did, for the sake of completeness, but then I realized it might give them more pageviews...
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:35 AM on June 27, 2013 [3 favorites]


If 4L a day of soda makes up a sufficient dose schedule of BVO to cause adverse effects, that's actually a pretty low safety margin.

Four liters a day. That is a lot of soda.

As for six liters a day, Jesus Christ.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 8:36 AM on June 27, 2013 [3 favorites]


Although the framing is often faulty, some of these things are not like the others. Meta-analysis of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptoms, restriction diet, and synthetic food color additives.
posted by Wordwoman at 8:36 AM on June 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


The real reason to avoid overly sugared, overly salted, overly preserved processed food is that whenever I eat more than a token sampling of it I end up with the worst, hottest, most painful plastic-melting toxic gas ever.
posted by The Whelk at 8:36 AM on June 27, 2013


"I won't eat that -- IT'S FULL OF INGREDIENTS!"

I may giggle forever.

JakeEXTREME, you could always try better living through aspartame! This same dude was fond of telling me that at this point it was probably the most well-studied (and safest) synthetic food additive in the world.

(And of course, right on cue, here is an article screaming about how Flintstones vitamins are FULL OF ASPARTAME! It produces METHANOL, don't you know!)
posted by en forme de poire at 8:37 AM on June 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


Why is "it took quite a lot of this to make rats sick enough that they died earlier or we noticed once we cut them open" a good standard for adding something (at much lower levels, granted) to flour to make bread a little bit whiter or rise slightly faster? It makes for worse bread in any case, so why take even a very slight risk?

The FPP article is slanted too:

Potassium bromate was found (in a two-year rat study) to have a variety of bad effects. This occurred at the two highest doses, and the lowest observed adverse effect level (LOAEL) was 6.1 mg of bromate per kilo body weight per day.

Another way of putting this, if you click through, is that the bad effects were found at all but the lowest dose. Kind of depends how you frame it, doesn't it?

Or looked at another way, why are these products not allowed in the rest of the developed world?

I think the Buzzfeed list is stupid, but that doesn't mean that all these additives are great ideas.
posted by ssg at 8:39 AM on June 27, 2013 [5 favorites]


That two-year-old is on to something. You could do worse than restricting your diet to single ingredient foods.

On the weekends, splurge and toss three or four single ingredient foods together and see what you come up with.
posted by notyou at 8:41 AM on June 27, 2013 [3 favorites]


My usual response to OMG POYSIN articles like this is to remind people that the #1 thing that leads to death is being alive.

ugh i just love meaningless dismissive pedantry and i don't even care
posted by elizardbits at 8:43 AM on June 27, 2013 [4 favorites]


The one clear warning on the Flinstone's Web site concerns this chemical. While it is impossible to die from consuming iron from food, e.g. spinach, ferrous fumarate is an industrial mineral and not found in nature as food. In fact, ferrous fumarate is so toxic that accidental overdose of products containing this form is "a leading cause of fatal poisoning in children under 6."

Gnnnrrrrrrrr. The toxic part of ferrous fumarate is IRON. If you ate enough spinach, yes, you would frigging overdose on iron! It is just way easier to eat a whole bottle of Flintstones vitamins.

Ferrous fumarate is just the iron salt of fumarate. You know, the compound that exists in literally every cell in your body and every cell that does the TCA cycle? Super hazardous!!!
posted by en forme de poire at 8:45 AM on June 27, 2013 [9 favorites]


For some reason, I'm flashing on that one science fiction novel where people refused to eat unprocessed foods for fear of natural toxins.
posted by happyroach at 8:46 AM on June 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


This makes me so happy. I had been in discussion with the publisher of that book– Rich Food, Poor Food by the Caltons. A lot of my family members and friends were excited I was getting a good book deal, but I got a very bad feeling about the publisher's stance on pseudoscience. And I was right. The Calton's business model is essentially to drum up fear about both "industrial foods" with some collateral damage to some whole foods along the way (they are so-called "paleo" dieters). Then to fix that they sell you Nutreince– which is ironically an industrially produced supplement full of chemicals that you could write about in the way they write about the demonized foods de jour. It's a lucrative business model.
posted by melissam at 8:48 AM on June 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


Love this. I'd also like to see a lawyer's take on how "BANNED IN EUROPE BECAUSE THEY KNOW BETTER" these actually are.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 8:48 AM on June 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


"I won't eat that -- IT'S FULL OF INGREDIENTS!"

That's not actually a terrible attitude; while it may not be causative, food products that list a massive number of ingredients tend to be poorer nutritionally than those that list one or two. Michael Pollan explains this better than I can, so I'll refer you to him.
posted by splitpeasoup at 8:49 AM on June 27, 2013 [3 favorites]


On the weekends, splurge and toss three or four single ingredient foods together and see what you come up with.

That sounds dangerously close to a recipe, sir!
posted by grubi at 8:50 AM on June 27, 2013 [3 favorites]


People get really weird about this shit, though, obviously. I work with one dude who gets all het up over ingredients, sneering at stuff he thinks is "processed and full of chemicals," and he gets really annoyed when I tell him that actually sodium bicarbonate is just baking soda and not INDUSTRIAL DEATH POWDER. I have urged him to stop reading FWD: FWD: FWD: FWD: multicolored emails from his parenting groups and it seems to be having a beneficial effect.
posted by elizardbits at 8:52 AM on June 27, 2013 [6 favorites]


Love this. I'd also like to see a lawyer's take on how "BANNED IN EUROPE BECAUSE THEY KNOW BETTER" these actually are.

Indeed. As much of a Europhile as I can be ("some of my best friends are European!"), I rarely buy that Europe > US nonsense. (To be fair I also don't buy that US > Europe nonsense either.)
posted by grubi at 8:52 AM on June 27, 2013


I'm going to say something heretical.

I think Kinder Eggs are a bad idea and Europe has it wrong on that one.
posted by Ad hominem at 8:54 AM on June 27, 2013 [9 favorites]


Dr.Enormous: "Of course, what both missed is that the people most likely to be affected by these kind of things are not the consumers, but the workers who produce the stuff, who are frequently exposed to much higher levels and for much longer periods of time.

I mean, there is a reason some food additives are banned elsewhere, and it's not always chemophobia.
"

I agree with that this is important to remember, but unfortunately this is the same chemophobia. This is why any manufacturing facility has to practice proper health and safety (i.e. respiratory protection in this case.) Saying it's banned in other countries due to worker safety seems pretty problematic - do you know how many refineries (who refine PETROLEUM! (all caps for fear factor)) operate in the US?

Of course that depends on proper regulation and corporations following those regulations, the same with our food. Snake eating tail and all that.

Great article too - love this guy's writing style.
posted by Big_B at 8:58 AM on June 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


Or looked at another way, why are these products not allowed in the rest of the developed world?

Maybe because their governments sincerely believe them to be harmful. Maybe because doing so protects some local industry. Maybe some combination of the two.

Telling the difference would be almost impossible.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:59 AM on June 27, 2013


I think Kinder Eggs are a bad idea and Europe has it wrong on that one.

You, sir, are 100% amazingly wrong
posted by jetlagaddict at 9:00 AM on June 27, 2013 [20 favorites]


I found it a very odd answer to an article that is claiming 'These are all banned in some other country!!' since he seems to ignore that whole issue altogether.

I'd really like to know, for each of the substances mentioned:
Is it banned in some other country?
If so, on what grounds?
posted by Azara at 9:02 AM on June 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


You could do worse than restricting your diet to single ingredient foods.

I want to start a drop dead serious food trend for only eating the components of foods, like Mac and cheese would be, a bowl of cooked noodles, followed by a bowl of shredded cheese, finished with a glass of milk and a handful of breadcrumbs tossed with salt and pepper.
posted by The Whelk at 9:03 AM on June 27, 2013 [8 favorites]


I just wear orange underwear. Problem solved.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 9:03 AM on June 27, 2013


Mac and cheese would be, a bowl of cooked noodles, followed by a bowl of shredded cheese, finished with a glass of milk and a handful of breadcrumbs tossed with salt and pepper.

You forgot the pile of delicious salt
posted by mcstayinskool at 9:04 AM on June 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


I want to start a drop dead serious food trend for only eating the components of foods

You're too late.
posted by Celsius1414 at 9:05 AM on June 27, 2013


God, you'd think I could read to the end of a sentence. Sorry about that. You did not forget the salt. I, for one, fully embrace your deconstructed mac & cheese and will be having it for dinner tonight, and for the next month.
posted by mcstayinskool at 9:05 AM on June 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


I heard that Kinder Eggs are banned in the US for fear that they will be full of bombs, is this true?

I'm sorry for you guys if it is true, though to be fair, I guess bombs are the MOST dangerous food additive.

I have never found a bomb in a kinder egg but I stopped buying them because the new, crappy toys filled me with unhealthy, toxic levels of DISSAPPOINTMENT.
posted by windykites at 9:05 AM on June 27, 2013 [6 favorites]


I think Kinder Eggs are a bad idea and Europe has it wrong on that one.

You, sir, are 100% amazingly wrong


Here we go with another holy war. *sigh*
posted by grubi at 9:06 AM on June 27, 2013


Oh god, every time I go into Pret and see their smug posters about 'shaming our food with chemicals', I just want to run out of there and eat twelve Gregg's pasties.

However, the halloumi wraps are great.
posted by mippy at 9:06 AM on June 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


I heard that Kinder Eggs are banned in the US for fear that they will be full of bombs, is this true?

no it's because the toy inside is usually socialism
posted by elizardbits at 9:06 AM on June 27, 2013 [48 favorites]


I think Kinder Eggs are a bad idea and Europe has it wrong on that one.

Shun!!1! Shun the non-believer!!11

Strangely enough, my kids never, ever, eat the chocolate. They just break apart the "egg" to get to the container with the toy and toss the candy part aside.

I appreciated the article linked in this post. But at the same time, I don't quite want to dismiss all the folks who are all "but...chemicals!" -- let's face it, Big Agribusiness and Big Processed Food can, do, and will lie about what they're doing all the time.

On the other hand, I avoid most processed food because it tastes like crap, but when I do find processed food that tastes good, I devour it like a boss (I'm looking at you, Zapp's Potato Chips) and I force myself not think about all the "INGREDIENTS!"
posted by lord_wolf at 9:06 AM on June 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


. . .if I isolate a beneficial chemical compound from some natural source (vitamin C from oranges, for example, although sauerkraut would be a good source, too), that molecule is identical to a copy of it I make in my lab. There is no essence, no vital spirit. A compound is what it is, no matter where it came from.

Agreed. But on the other hand it is precisely the truth of this argument that drives the supplement industry. Example: A pomegranate is known to have some compound. Pomegranates are good for you. So lets manufacture said compound and sell it as a supplement. This line of reasoning, of course, is hugely reductionist. A pomegranate also contains a huge number of other compounds. Perhaps the efficacy of said compound requires the presence of the other compounds. Is this interaction among a multitude of compounds in real food the "vital essence" that the woo-fans are talking about? Not sure. So I prefer the pomegranate. They taste good. They can be pricey. But I save money by not buying pills.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 9:08 AM on June 27, 2013 [6 favorites]


Kinder Eggs taste like wax ass, but that never stopped me because hey, cool toys.
posted by Curious Artificer at 9:09 AM on June 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


their smug posters about 'shaming our food with chemicals'

My standard response to sentiments like this is "Which would you rather eat? Candy or dog poo? DOG POO IS NATURAL."
posted by grubi at 9:09 AM on June 27, 2013 [3 favorites]


This same dude was fond of telling me that at this point it was probably the most well-studied (and safest) synthetic food additive in the world.

A friend of mine at school was convinced aspartame gave her headaches, as it was the common ingredient in diet Coke and Monster Munch. When I was last on the Facebook, she was posting a lot about chemtrails. Turns out the David Icke crowd are also really big on food additives and how they're there to dope the population into sheeple, or something.
posted by mippy at 9:10 AM on June 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


Is this interaction among a multitude of compounds in real food the "vital essence" that the woo-fans are talking about? Not sure. So I prefer the pomegranate.

Yeah, just because there's some woo attached to a topic doesn't automatically mean it's nonsense. Is photosynthesis risible because the Ancient Egyptians worshipped Ra?

Besides which, "Hurff durfff chemicals are natural you idiiotszz" does shit all to help science education.

Less teasing and more teaching.
posted by Celsius1414 at 9:12 AM on June 27, 2013 [11 favorites]


In fact, ferrous fumarate is so toxic that accidental overdose of products containing this form is "a leading cause of fatal poisoning in children under 6."

To be fair, if you've ever been prescribed iron tablets by the GP, you know first hand how much the body doesn't like them. I'm trying to control my borderline anaemia via having more broccoli and red meat, because it's tastier than constant nausea and constipation.
posted by mippy at 9:12 AM on June 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


Despite being MADE OF CHEMICALS, like actual food is, American convenience food remains a pile of over-salted, over-sugared, yucky garbage.

I have yet to visit another country (that includes the European ones) lacking a wide variety of convenience foods that are over-salted, over-sugared and "yucky" (or as I call it, "delicious").
posted by purpleclover at 9:13 AM on June 27, 2013 [13 favorites]


en forme de poire: Gnnnrrrrrrrr. The toxic part of ferrous fumarate is IRON. If you ate enough spinach, yes, you would frigging overdose on iron! It is just way easier to eat a whole bottle of Flintstones vitamins.

Wouldn't oxalic acid poisoning get you first? That's the funny thing, so many edible plants are full of natural toxins. Some of them even give you cancer, like the ones in bracken fiddleheads.
posted by Mitrovarr at 9:13 AM on June 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


I cracked open a Kinder Egg and it told me I had nothing to lose but my chains.
posted by The Whelk at 9:13 AM on June 27, 2013 [16 favorites]


My biggest pet peeve is MSG phobia. If MSG was actually bad for you, half of East Asia would be dead.
posted by kmz at 9:14 AM on June 27, 2013 [10 favorites]


Don't you talk that way about fiddleheads
posted by windykites at 9:14 AM on June 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


Oh yay I can stop freaking out about the 20oz bottle of orange Gatorade I drink twice a month.
posted by thecaddy at 9:15 AM on June 27, 2013


Also, I just remembered something I was reading about last week - a man eats one type of food for 36hrs or so, then takes a photo of his oddly-coloured poo. You'd think they'd have more to do in Brazil what with the rioting and the samba dancing and such, but there you go.
posted by mippy at 9:15 AM on June 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


You, sir, are 100% amazingly wrong

I dunno. Maybe we are especially dumb in America, but I think plastic bits covered in chocolate would kill maybe half the population. We would scarf them down and die with hunks of plastic lodged in our esophagus or break our teeth and be unable to pay to get them fixed.

People here are utterly baffled by olives with pits. They grab a handful out of your olive dish, try to eat them then act like you tried to kill them.

Maybe it is perfectly reasonable for europe.
posted by Ad hominem at 9:15 AM on June 27, 2013 [4 favorites]


Maybe because their governments sincerely believe them to be harmful. Maybe because doing so protects some local industry. Maybe some combination of the two.

Telling the difference would be almost impossible.


Not at all. Taking the example of potassium bromate, links to cancer were first found in 1982 and over the next decade or so it was banned in the EU, the UK, Canada, Australia, etc. That seems like pretty clear causality. On the other side, how does banning it help local industry? If you think the Government of Canada, for example, is aiming to protect quality bakers (or was in the 90s for that matter), you are off your rocker.

The FDA even encourages millers to voluntarily stop using potassium bromate!
posted by ssg at 9:16 AM on June 27, 2013


My go-to mental exercise whenever someone starts howling about the nebulous 'toxins' and how to eliminate them, is to just sub 'toxins' with 'thetans'. Then, for added fun, sub 'thetans' with 'food ghosts'. Makes their comments much more amusing, and just as accurate.
posted by FatherDagon at 9:17 AM on June 27, 2013 [6 favorites]


"I won't eat that -- IT'S FULL OF INGREDIENTS!"

Here's a 40+-year-old Peanuts strip.
posted by martinrebas at 9:21 AM on June 27, 2013 [5 favorites]


IIRC from that last Mary Roach books the amino acids in shampoo are the same as in split.
posted by Artw at 9:23 AM on June 27, 2013


I heard that Kinder Eggs are banned in the US for fear that they will be full of bombs, is this true?

It's not even for the oft-given reason that "Americans think everything's a choking hazard11!!!!11" There's some food safety law from the 1930s (sorry, iPod not conducive to looking things up) requiring that confections not contain non-food items.
posted by hoyland at 9:23 AM on June 27, 2013


Azodicarbonamide

I feel like this was the name of a Dragon King in some Super NES kind of game.
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:25 AM on June 27, 2013 [3 favorites]


I have yet to visit another country (that includes the European ones) lacking a wide variety of convenience foods that are over-salted, over-sugared and "yucky" (or as I call it, "delicious").

Trust me, I've eaten a wide variety of crap across the world and American crap is by far the worst crap, and appears to have the most people living on it.
posted by Artw at 9:27 AM on June 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'd love to see a little better precision with the targetting of mockery regarding anti-science. Anti-vaxxers, militant creationists and climate change denialists are qualitatively different animals than people who prefer natural foods. "Most of Europe does this and Europe has not yet imploded," is actually a pretty good argument unless there is some kind of evidence based proof for American exceptionalism.

That is all to say, one shouldn't *have* to study organic chemistry to understand the ingredients in their food or to have an opinion about food without being mocked. Mock the zealots, but have a civilized discussion with everybody who is willing, 'kay?
posted by Skwirl at 9:28 AM on June 27, 2013 [9 favorites]


Man, if you can't trust Buzzfeed as a source of nutritional information, who can you trust?

FTFY.
posted by Gelatin at 9:29 AM on June 27, 2013


acids in shampoo are the same as in split.

Okay so it's totally okay for the cats to lick my hair dry then

posted by The Whelk at 9:29 AM on June 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


Get with the times, people! Kinder eggs now legal in USA.
posted by Comrade_robot at 9:30 AM on June 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


He also posted a short follow-up (money quote: "I spent the weekend, by the way, being called a paid shill for Monsanto, DuPont, and all the other evil monied interests. It made a refreshing change from being called a paid shill for Big Pharma.") in which he promises to later address why some of these chemicals are banned in other countries, and why the FDA came to different conclusions.
posted by Curious Artificer at 9:30 AM on June 27, 2013 [4 favorites]


I heard that Kinder Eggs are banned in the US for fear that they will be full of bombs, is this true?

No. It is illegal to import Kinder Eggs to the US because the US has a crazy law that says if you want to import food, it has to consist entirely of food.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:30 AM on June 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


I agree with that this is important to remember, but unfortunately this is the same chemophobia. This is why any manufacturing facility has to practice proper health and safety (i.e. respiratory protection in this case.)

It's not chemophobia; it's dealing with the real world and weighing costs and benefits. I've been accidentally exposed, or told to use compounds whose hazards I didn't fully understand (even with an MSDS; 'pyrophoric' can mean anything from 'smokes a little when you move the syringe' to 'better cannulate that thing very carefully'), or had a little thermal runaway, or just plain didn't have the PPE. I was not some minimum-wage employee who needs the job; I had the benefit of a post-graduate education and research experience to determine whether something was really a hazard to me. Most people will not.

In the real world, people cut corners and regulators won't always catch them in time, plain old accidents happen, and things turn out to be hazards that used to be thought safe. So governments weigh benefits and risks, and sometimes that falls on the side of "we need this, so you need to follow X,Y, and Z to the letter" and sometimes it falls on the side of "you know what, just ban the stupid stuff and we can make our cool ranch doritos tasty some other way."

I mean, to take your specific example, we did put a moratorium on deep-water drilling after an accident blew the hell out of some people and poisoned the Gulf of Mexico. Because sometimes you need to not allow sometime long enough to say "can we do it safely and is it worth it?"
posted by Dr.Enormous at 9:30 AM on June 27, 2013 [7 favorites]


But let's get things on scale: it's worth comparing these arsenic levels to those found in other foods. White rice, for example comes in at about 100 parts per billion of inorganic arsenic (and brown rice at 170 ppb). These, by the way, are all-natural arsenic levels, produced by the plant's own uptake from the soil. But even those amounts are not expected to pose a human health risk (says both the FDA and Canadian authorities), so the fifty-fold lower concentrations in chicken would, one thinks, be even less to worry about. If you're having chicken and rice and you want to worry about arsenic, worry about the rice.

Just saw a presentation on this by a chemistry professor, and it's a little more complicated that this. For one thing, equipment and techniques are not so great at precisely detecting arsenic (although they seem somewhat better at detecting inorganic arsenic, which is the stuff we are worried about). Like seriously not great. Also, the amount of safe inorganic arsenic is exactly zero -- there is no "OK threshold," although less is obviously better. Also, while plants naturally uptake arsenic compounds from soil (and helpfully store it in the grains), a specific problem of US rice production is that rice is often grown in former cotton fields, which used arsenic as a pesticide and as part of the harvesting process, so while the uptake is natural, the high level of industrial contamination isn't.

Full disclosure: the above is based on hearing one paper. I'd love to hear a rebuttal, because I like rice, and I'd rather not have to worry about eating it....
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:33 AM on June 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


This pains me, because while the buzzfeed article was unscientific rubbish, at its heart I believe there is a grain of truth. The US is slower to ban toxic food additives than Europe is (as a broad generalization based on my totally unscientific consumer experience). The response article was great at pointing out the holes in buzzfeed's fear-mongering, but I don't think we should relax and eat up all the crap on the shelves of the supermarket, content in the feeling the FDA has totally got it covered. The truth is somewhere in between, and so I hope that the follow-up about what is banned elsewhere and why, does a good job of being sane middle ground.

Related, I saw a link on Facebook this morning that was just as shrill and nonsensical as the Buzzfeed one, only this one was about the horrors of Pepperidge Farm Goldfish crackers. WHy is it always extremes? Godfish crackers are not a very healthy food choice, but totally OK in moderation. Can we just have some moderation? Please?
posted by Joh at 9:37 AM on June 27, 2013 [5 favorites]


I'm currently drinking water from my "Aperture Laboratory Stainless Steel Dihydrogen Monoxide Containment Unit." It has a large warning on it. WARNING: MAY CAUSE DIAPHORESIS, MICTURITION, AND ACUTE TISSUE HYDRATION.

Seems appropriate for this thread.
posted by Justinian at 9:38 AM on June 27, 2013 [10 favorites]


> he gets really annoyed when I tell him that actually sodium bicarbonate is just baking soda and not INDUSTRIAL DEATH POWDER.

This is even worse here in the EU. As if systematical chemical names were not suspicious enough, they even put numbers in our food!

A sugar manufacturer ran a poster campaign “comparing” its product to other sweeteners a while ago. If I were a sprayer, the company name would have been altered to “Wiener alpha-D-glucopyranosyl-beta-D-fructofuranoside” on a few of them.
posted by wachhundfisch at 9:41 AM on June 27, 2013


But Kevin Gass, who runs the New Jersey-based Candy Treasure, has now found a way around the prohibition. In his version, the toy is cased in a plastic capsule with a thick ridge that separates the two hollow chocolate halves. For American regulators, the ridge, which is visible when the foil covering the sweet comes off, serves the purpose of warning children that there is something hidden inside the chocolate

Aha! leave it to American ingenuity!

Not only can we have Kinder Eggs now, it will also serve as a teaching moment that shows American children that no matter how sweet something looks, there is always something deadly hidden just below the surface.
posted by Ad hominem at 9:41 AM on June 27, 2013 [3 favorites]


It's a bit scary how excited people get defending the status quo.

"Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks," from the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

I see no benefit to food coloring, so I don't buy products that use it. I'm not sure if the risks are exaggerated or not, but if there is no benefit ...

FPP should link to the original article (which I doubt first posted on Buzzfeed?)

this one was about the horrors of Pepperidge Farm Goldfish crackers

worth noting that Pepperidge Farm got rid of artificial coloring in their Rainbow Goldfish years ago.
posted by mrgrimm at 9:41 AM on June 27, 2013


windykites: Don't you talk that way about fiddleheads

Look up the data sometime on bracken fiddleheads and stomach cancer. The only way I'd ever eat those things would be at gunpoint. Hell, you don't even want to drink the water they've been growing in.

Maybe other ferns are ok, I have no idea.
posted by Mitrovarr at 9:47 AM on June 27, 2013


What's weird about this issue is how it seems to have very little middle ground. Reading this thread, most comments are pretty much "HURF DURF science-doubter" and on the other side there are certainly plenty of people who are blindly frightened of the latest additive-scare du jour.

Can we really not apply the precautionary principle and/or balance risks with benefits? Surely we can admit that the FDA is imperfect?

I understand that it can be frustrating to deal with people who are loudly scientifically illiterate and that some mocking relieves that frustration. But surely the fact that many of these substances are not used in many other countries should be some indication that there is some legitimate balancing of risks and benefits going on that might be worth thinking about instead of just dismissing? Doing otherwise suggests good old American exceptionalism.
posted by ssg at 9:47 AM on June 27, 2013 [4 favorites]


It's a bit scary how excited people get defending the status quo.

I respect Derek Lowe, and I don't think he's one of these types, but there is a real problem where the chemistry community is overly macho about hazards and resistant to change (this is in comparison to safety officers, who are almost uniformly uneducated and chemophobic to the extreme). My grandfather used to hose down the whole yard and the kids in it with pesticides while saying, "hey, everything's made of chemicals".

If I have to hear one more person whine about how they can't keep a bottle of picric acid around anymore, even though they had no actual need for it and it occasionally blows up...
posted by Dr.Enormous at 9:49 AM on June 27, 2013 [6 favorites]


Goldfish crackers are not a very healthy food choice, but totally OK in moderation. Can we just have some moderation? Please?

From my experience observing toddlers and goldfish crackers, no, we cannot. There's no such thing as moderation when it comes to cheesey crackers.
posted by snickerdoodle at 9:52 AM on June 27, 2013 [8 favorites]


This too is a bad article, like the buzzfeed one.

Its too bad that he clearly set out to show why buzzfeed is STUPID and WRONG, WRONG, WRONG!! Apparently, they were wrong about EVERYTHING!! The first sign of a biased article is that it makes no concessions whatsoever. It would have been better if he set out to write something balanced.

I only took a bit of time to look up a bit more about brominated vegetable oil. He says:

The BuzzFeed article claims that it's linked to "major organ system damage, birth defects, growth problems, schizophrenia, and hearing loss", and sends readers to this WebMD article. But if you go there, you'll find that the only medical problems known from BVO come from two cases of people who had been consuming, over a long period, 4 to 8 liters of BVO-containing soda per day, and did indeed have reactions to all the excess bromine-containing compounds in their system. At 8 ppm, it's not easy to get to that point, but a determined lunatic will overcome such obstacles.

Firstly, the FDA limit is 15ppm. The folks who are against bromine point out that data on bromine's effects have not advanced since the 1970's and that bromine may actually build up in the system over time, which means even normal consumption may be dangerous over a long period. They are not wackos. They are just asking for bromine's effects to be re-examined.

Why is it banned outside the US? It appears that governments have sort of said "Hey, do you really need bromine which might be dangerous? Or can you perhaps substitute something safer like hydrocolloids?" There is no compelling case for it and it is a substance which has had negative effects, the only question is about dosage. So, they made the cautious choice. This all sounds reasonable to me. The FDA has itself flip-flopped back and forth on this. They at first banned it and then re-introduced it after a petition from the Flavor Extract Manufacturers’ Association.

I haven't looked up any of the others. But it seems that there is a more balanced argument to be made here, not addressed by buzzfeed or by this post.
posted by vacapinta at 9:52 AM on June 27, 2013 [8 favorites]


the company name would have been altered to “Wiener alpha-D-glucopyranosyl-beta-D-fructofuranoside” on a few of them.

better than calling it wiener zucker at any rate...
posted by quonsar II: smock fishpants and the temple of foon at 9:53 AM on June 27, 2013


From my experience observing toddlers and goldfish crackers, no, we cannot.

Change "toddlers" to "all humans" and I concur.
posted by elizardbits at 9:54 AM on June 27, 2013 [6 favorites]


Bracken fiddleheads are different type of fiddleheads than the type I've harvested in VT. The bracken fiddleheads do contain pyrrolizidine alkyloids which are potent carcinogens. The act of washing them and cooking them in bioling water removes most of the alkaloids so there is little cause for concern.

In a similar vein there is a very mutagenic compound found in cycad palms, but indigenous people in indonesia use them as their primary starch souce. They go through a washing process which removes the mutagenic compound making the starchy residue safe to eat.

(Note I write alerts for world leading mutagenicity prediction software)

Upon Preview:

(this is in comparison to safety officers, who are almost uniformly uneducated and chemophobic to the extreme)

We always called the health and safety people and their inspections the revenge of the failed chemistry students.
posted by koolkat at 9:54 AM on June 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


vacapinta: ...it is a substance which has had negative effects, the only question is about dosage.

A highly selective category, which at last count, included every chemical compound known.
posted by Mitrovarr at 9:55 AM on June 27, 2013 [9 favorites]


"Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks," from the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Note that they state that food dyes can cause allergic reactions, then turn around and give an example of Nutrigrain bars in the EU being flavored with annatto, which may actually be even worse on this count. To be clear, I would eat annatto-colored foods without a second thought, but I think it shows there's something odd about the standard here.
posted by en forme de poire at 9:56 AM on June 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


I find it ironic that when it comes to stuff millions ingest, the FDA is all "eh, prove it's harmful," but try to stick it in sunscreen and the response is "not on our shores!"
posted by snickerdoodle at 9:57 AM on June 27, 2013


koolkat: In a similar vein there is a very mutagenic compound found in cycad palms, but indigenous people in indonesia use them as their primary starch souce. They go through a washing process which removes the mutagenic compound making the starchy residue safe to eat.

I'm pretty sure I've read that these people experience highly elevated rates of associated disorders.
posted by Mitrovarr at 9:57 AM on June 27, 2013


A highly selective category, which at last count, included every chemical compound known.

Well, yes, of course. But what I meant is a toxic dosage "reasonable" such as someone might consume over many years, if it builds itself up in the system.
You are intentionally misreading me.
posted by vacapinta at 9:57 AM on June 27, 2013


As for six liters a day, Jesus Christ.

He and the soda drinkers are both known for transforming one liquid into another.
posted by zippy at 10:00 AM on June 27, 2013 [8 favorites]


vacapinta: Well, yes, of course. But what I meant is a toxic dosage "reasonable" such as someone might consume over many years, if it builds itself up in the system.
You are intentionally misreading me.


Ah. Well, sorry about that, but people do make that kind of argument, without those additional levels of meaning you included.
posted by Mitrovarr at 10:02 AM on June 27, 2013


Yeah, I'm with ssg: why are these banned? What seems far more common to me than chemophobia is unquestioning acceptance that whatever is sold on the shelves must be okay, because regulatory agencies say it is, even when those agencies' scientists report corporate interference and corruption. Sorry, but some of the distrust has been earned.

This author further lost me here: "But the cancer is taking its time. These compounds have been added to cereals, etc., for decades now, while the incidence rates of cancer have been going down." Seriously? An overall decline in the cancer rate has little to say about the safety of this one compound. Or with the success of anti-tobacco education going strong, are we to believe all chemicals we might be exposed to are safe? That was when this article began to seem more about his dislike of the buzzfeed article than a neutral scientific discussion of these compounds.
posted by salvia at 10:03 AM on June 27, 2013 [13 favorites]


Also, I just remembered something I was reading about last week - a man eats one type of food for 36hrs or so, then takes a photo of his oddly-coloured poo. You'd think they'd have more to do in Brazil what with the rioting and the samba dancing and such, but there you go.

Don't use the blue plates at that guy's house!
posted by HyperBlue at 10:06 AM on June 27, 2013


I think the most reasonable and effective truth to keep in mind here is that the entities that produce these foods don't have a blanket incentive to not do egregious harm. To be sure, the profit incentive can align with that incentive in smaller or larger ways-- in an ideal world, that's exactly the point of something like the FDA, which, by acting as a gatekeeper that prevents the sale of foods that do egregious harm, makes it so that the profit incentive for food manufacturers implies a no-egregious-harm incentive. In reality, the FDA is susceptible to regulatory capture, meaning that FDA approval is a weaker guarantee than we'd probably like, and (like Lowe says) toxicology is hard, meaning that a precautionary outlook really makes sense in terms of regulating additives like BVO. I think the people who take a hardline contrarian pose against the OMG POISON people and declare all of these things unequivocally safe are guilty of a similar kind of epistemological hubris as the people they rail against, even if it's not nearly as pronounced.
posted by invitapriore at 10:13 AM on June 27, 2013 [10 favorites]


Salvia, from a quick poke around, the story behind BHA/BHT seems to be a little more complicated. Studies in lab animals have shown both carcinogenic and anticarcinogenic effects, and at least one study that explicitly attempted to correlate BHA/BHT consumption with stomach cancer found no significant association - the trend was actually in the opposite direction. (But I've only read the abstract of that study, so grain of salt, etc.)
posted by en forme de poire at 10:13 AM on June 27, 2013


I guess if I had to boil all of my argument to this topic down to one statement, it would come down to 'You cannot assume that a chemical product is dangerous, and you also cannot assume that a natural product is safe." Natural plants produce all kinds of toxic compounds to prevent herbivory, and you cannot assume just because they don't cause immediately cause a poisoning reaction in humans they're safe for the long term. Maybe they have some historic use that qualifies as testing (although keep in mind the limitations of the population that conducted it), but if you just pull some random herb out of the rainforest or something, that should be treated as potentially dangerous as if it came out of a chemist's lab.
posted by Mitrovarr at 10:14 AM on June 27, 2013 [3 favorites]


To put it another way: The author of this article set out to prove that Buzzfeed are morons. Not a high bar, admittedly but that clearly is the goal. He picks apart only the sources that buzzfeed linked to, specifically. He does not concede there might be better sources out there that affect the broader argument. If that is what he set to prove, that Buzzfeed are morons, I am convinced.

But what he should responsibly show is why the countries that did choose to ban 7 of these substances, did so. Are they morons or misguided too? Perhaps panicky and overly fearful of simple chemicals? That might be true. It might not. I can't tell after reading this.
posted by vacapinta at 10:20 AM on June 27, 2013 [7 favorites]


The color issue is interesting in that my brother-in-law was labeled as "uneducatable in a classroom setting" due to hyperactivity when he was in 4th grade. His parents didn't buy it and neither did he. He did some research (this is an effing 4th grader) and put himself on an elimination diet which led him to conclude that red 40 was the culprit.

Flash forward a generation, all of his kids and his sister's kids are affected adversely by red 40.

From experience, we also know that they typically grow out of it around 10.

My son, and we have done this as an experiment when he was a toddler, turns into the Tasmanian devil within 20 minutes of ingesting anything with carmine, Red 40 or Blue 1. He turns from affable to full-on rage at the universe. Yellow 5, tumeric, annato, and beet juice have no effect on him. Yellow lollipop? No problem. Blue, red, green, orange or purple lollipop? Good effing night. When he was in preschool, after being inadvertently fed a snack with artificial coloring we got a call to come pick him up because he picked up a chair and threw it at the teacher.

We cut those things out of his diet and have had far fewer behavioral issues. We also trained him so he knows enough to ask and politely decline.

Red 40 is in so many things and so many of them don't need it, but someone did a marketing study and found out that some percentage of people would be more likely to buy strawberry yogurt with Red 40 than without, so it becomes a cost-effective additive.
posted by plinth at 10:25 AM on June 27, 2013 [4 favorites]


Vacapinta, I think the author is planning to address those concepts more thoroughly, since the first was just a relatively quick blog post that happened to go viral:
I am planning a follow-up post, though, based on one of the reasonable counterarguments that's come up: why are some of these ingredients banned in other countries? What reasons are behind those regulatory decisions, and why did the FDA come to different conclusions? That's worth going into details about, and I will.
I think that will be an interesting post, and I look forward to it.
posted by jetlagaddict at 10:25 AM on June 27, 2013 [4 favorites]


What's weird about this issue is how it seems to have very little middle ground. Reading this thread, most comments are pretty much "HURF DURF science-doubter"

I think it may be more how you're perceiving it given your take. Specifically:

I think the Buzzfeed list is stupid, but that doesn't mean that all these additives are great ideas.

That's a total false dilemma. I don't see anyone arguing that all additives are good. If you mean the specific additives, why? At some level we need to get past the idea that everyone can have an opinion on everything. This guy's a chemist. I'm not. I have the ability to think critically and evaluate whether statements seem plausible or not, but in the absence of evidence to the contrary, why wouldn't I go with his specific assertions over your vague hand-waving?

links to cancer were first found in 1982 and over the next decade or so it was banned in the EU, the UK, Canada, Australia, etc. That seems like pretty clear causality

1. The links and the quality of those links is directly addressed in the article.
2. It's "clear causality" in that "suspicions were raised" -> "legislation was passed". Nowhere in there is anything about the merits of the claims.

Of course, what both missed is that the people most likely to be affected by these kind of things are not the consumers, but the workers who produce the stuff

Really? "If you're handling drums of the stuff at the plastics plant, you should be wearing protective gear. If you're eating a roll, no."
posted by yerfatma at 10:31 AM on June 27, 2013 [4 favorites]


Salvia, from a quick poke around, the story behind BHA/BHT seems to be a little more complicated. Studies in lab animals have shown both carcinogenic and anticarcinogenic effects,

Thanks for the additional information. My point was not about BHA/BHT specifically, but that I was surprised to see him to put forward a claim that is so blatantly correlation-as-causation (or correlation-as-lack-of-causation), in an article about bad science no less. I'm no scientist, but even I knew that didn't make sense. It made me question the article, like "if this guy's motivation isn't 'I want science to be used correctly!' then what is it?"
posted by salvia at 10:37 AM on June 27, 2013


I'm totally distracted from the FPP by Mitrovarr's side discussion on fern bracken. I guess that is my way of living on the edge. At some point, I really should look up more data on cancer rates in Koreans/Korean Americans, because I would be very very confused if the bracken in bibimbap was considered a bigger contributing factor than all the binge drinking. Windykites, I raise a fiddlehead to you and all the other bracken eaters.
posted by spamandkimchi at 10:40 AM on June 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


An important point is that the US treats chemicals the same way it does people, innocent until proven guilty. Europe, on the other hand, tends to apply the precautionary principle and prohibit use until safety is proven. So while Europe may incorrectly ban a chemical that doesn't make you sick, the US may incorrectly allow chemicals that have the potential for long-term health risks to go to market until it is conclusively shown they pose risks.

Also, don't downplay worker risks. Those can be very real. And even if workers should be wearing gloves and goggles, that doesn't mean the workers are provided those or even warned about the potential risks they are exposed to.
posted by C'est la D.C. at 10:40 AM on June 27, 2013 [6 favorites]


C'est la D.C.: Also, don't downplay worker risks. Those can be very real. And even if workers should be wearing gloves and goggles, that doesn't mean they are provided those or even warned of the potential risks they are exposed to.

Shouldn't that be considered a worker safety issue, though, not a food safety issue? Nearly any chemical can be handled safely if proper training and equipment is provided, and there are plenty of other dangers in food preparation besides the chemicals (boiling water, steam, dangerous machinery, etc.)
posted by Mitrovarr at 10:43 AM on June 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


On some level, it becomes about economic feasibility. If a company has to spend all the money to properly educate and protect workers, would the company still use a chemical or would it end up being less of a hassle to switch to something else?
posted by C'est la D.C. at 10:46 AM on June 27, 2013


spamandkimchi: At some point, I really should look up more data on cancer rates in Koreans/Korean Americans, because I would be very very confused if the bracken in bibimbap was considered a bigger contributing factor than all the binge drinking

Yeah, I'd look that up before you eat any more bracken. Or drink water from areas in which bracken grows. I like the idea of eating wild plants and mushrooms, but bracken is absolutely on my 'no way in hell, not even if starving' list, along with the false morels and cycad seeds.
posted by Mitrovarr at 10:46 AM on June 27, 2013


Nobody can deny that there are some wacky conspiracy theories out there, but yeah, painting all critics as hysterical hippies who are scared of big chemically words is specious. It's like those HFCS commercials where they had strawman HFCS critics literally saying Duh and looking like deer caught in the headlights when asked to substantiate their arguments. It appeals to lazy cynics, I guess.

Most of the things we traditionally recognize as 'food' have been part of people's diets for ages. We've observed their effects over broad populations and over long periods of time. And that sort of observation can't be shortcut, so whenever we introduce a new substance, or an old substance in unprecedented quantities or contexts, we take a risk of something coming up down the road. Could be health related, environmental, maybe even cultural or psychological. We can't even predict what we should be looking for.

In some cases, we can take our chances on something we think is pretty low risk, as long as the payoffs are significant enough to merit it. But maybe having oranger cheese puffs or being able to drink a gallon of soda in a sitting isn't a significant enough payoff.

Ultimately, I'm not a chemist. I don't know enough to argue about chemistry. But I do know that the biggest most hysterical hippies I know, who eat whole, organic foods almost exclusively, are chemists who are intimately familiar with and contemptuous of the FDA's approval processes. And that's enough for this lazy cynic.
posted by ernielundquist at 10:48 AM on June 27, 2013 [3 favorites]


That's a total false dilemma. I don't see anyone arguing that all additives are good. If you mean the specific additives, why? At some level we need to get past the idea that everyone can have an opinion on everything. This guy's a chemist. I'm not. I have the ability to think critically and evaluate whether statements seem plausible or not, but in the absence of evidence to the contrary, why wouldn't I go with his specific assertions over your vague hand-waving?

This guy is a chemist who does pharmaceutical research. I'm not particularly inclined to believe he has the definitive take on this, nor am claiming the same myself (seriously, what?).

On the one hand we have the FDA and on the other hand we have the regulatory agencies of many other western nations. Clearly, they have different risk thresholds, but that doesn't mean the issue isn't worth discussing and that things couldn't be different.

Arguing about what some chemist with a blog says about this is missing the forest for a single tree in a quite spectacular way.
posted by ssg at 11:00 AM on June 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


Man, if you can't trust Buzzfeed as a source of nutritional information, who can you trust?

AskReddit
posted by y2karl at 11:07 AM on June 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


Ad Hominem: "I think Kinder Eggs are a bad idea and Europe has it wrong on that one."

BLASPHEMER!!!

BURN HIM AT THE STAKE!!!!
posted by Hairy Lobster at 11:15 AM on June 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


Seconding plinth. Red 40 consumption always, always, always leads my son to exhibit atypical (for him) behavioral problems. The effect is as clear and unambiguous as flipping a switch: he starts having impulse control issues he doesn't normally have and finds it impossible to sit still and stay emotionally level. We carefully control and monitor his consumption of foods with Red 40 in them, and I don't care if the research is ambiguous on this point--in practice, we find Red 40 makes a huge difference and the effect is acute. Same for watching too much TV/playing video games for too long, which also makes him noticeably less patient and irritable.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:16 AM on June 27, 2013


Of course, what both missed is that the people most likely to be affected by these kind of things are not the consumers, but the workers who produce the stuff, who are frequently exposed to much higher levels and for much longer periods of time.

Actually, the Corante article does cover that (admittedly, only in passing): If you're handling drums of the stuff at the plastics plant, you should be wearing protective gear. If you're eating a roll, no.
posted by asnider at 11:38 AM on June 27, 2013


You science peeps may like this. overlyhonestmethods
posted by Ad hominem at 11:41 AM on June 27, 2013 [7 favorites]


Godfish crackers are not a very healthy food choice, but totally OK in moderation. Can we just have some moderation? Please?

Where goldfish crackers are concerned? No. Seriously I can eat a whole bag of those things in one sitting without even thinking about it. They're almost as bad as Cheezits, which I cannot even make eye contact with in the store for fear of buying their whole stock and eating it all in the car on the way home.

If goldfish crackers contain deadly poison in minute amounts, I had better never buy them again, because there is no way I could possibly limit myself to "minute amounts" of goldfish crackers.
posted by Sara C. at 12:10 PM on June 27, 2013


This guy is a chemist who does pharmaceutical research. I'm not particularly inclined to believe he has the definitive take on this

This guy is a person who demonstrably knows the subject matter. You're not particularly inclined to believe what he has to say about that subject matter.

(this is how I read your comment; perhaps you'd like to elaborate?)
posted by ubernostrum at 12:23 PM on June 27, 2013 [4 favorites]


Really disappointed none of the scientist here brought up the most lethal chemical of all. It's in all our homes, we feed it to ourselves, our pets, our children, we use it recreationally.

Seriously, sheeple, do some research on dihydrogen monoxide. It leads to an amazing number of deaths every year and no one bans it.
posted by Samizdata at 12:33 PM on June 27, 2013


You're actually the fourth Samizdata.
posted by Big_B at 12:43 PM on June 27, 2013 [13 favorites]


Yeah:1, 2 and 3.
posted by NailsTheCat at 12:46 PM on June 27, 2013


(this is how I read your comment; perhaps you'd like to elaborate?)

Did you read the rest of my comment? Or is stopping after the first paragraph how you read?

I'm inclined to believe the regulatory agencies of many western nations (other than the USA) more than one chemist who is not an expert on this particular subject (which is the health effects of food additives).
posted by ssg at 12:48 PM on June 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


More commentary on food dye:
Why do American kids deserve less than Europeans:
Take a look at the two packages for Kellogg’s Nutri-Grain cereal bars. One is made here for us. The other is made in the UK for Europeans. Both use food coloring to achieve a more “strawberry-ish” color.
In the UK, the coloring is achieved using beetroot. But in the US, the coloring is Red No. 40, a dye that has been associated with hyperactivity, and some types of cancer.
posted by NailsTheCat at 12:52 PM on June 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


NailsTheCat: In the UK, the coloring is achieved using beetroot. But in the US, the coloring is Red No. 40, a dye that has been associated with hyperactivity, and some types of cancer.

Has the red colorant from beetroot been fully tested, though? Nobody thinks beets are toxic, but it might be different once you process the red color out and purify it for use in other foods.

There is a danger in toxicology of abandoning heavily tested products because so many studies were run that a few hit the usual 5% chance of a type 1 error, and instead switching to something that has no known negative effects because it has been inadequately studied.
posted by Mitrovarr at 1:14 PM on June 27, 2013 [3 favorites]


Has the red colorant from beetroot been fully tested, though? Nobody thinks beets are toxic, but it might be different once you process the red color out and purify it for use in other foods.

Good point. And to be clear, I posted that link for its relevance ("germaneness" even!) -- I wasn't taking a position. If I did it would be that expressed at the end of the article: "...consider this a snack, just like Snickers, not wholesome way to start off the day."
posted by NailsTheCat at 1:26 PM on June 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm inclined to believe the regulatory agencies of many western nations (other than the USA) more than one chemist

But that presumes the regulatory agencies are staffed with people as good or better than him and not in any way influenced by lobbyists or politicians strong-arming the bosses of the regulatory chemists. I'll admit I'm assuming he doesn't have a dog in the fight based solely on this entry and the previous Metafilter thread, but his reasoning is immediately available to me and there's a comment form if I want to get clarification or disagree. I don't have that relationship with the regulatory agencies. Moreover, "many western nations" makes it sound like a number of countries (how many? which?) independently decided this rather than one or two doing so and the rest simply following suit.

And none of it makes the Buzzfeed spin on chemistry the least bit defensible regardless.
posted by yerfatma at 1:59 PM on June 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


NailsTheCat: "Yeah:1, 2 and 3."

Well, yeah, WHATEVER!

Big Pharma tools. Monsanto shills.

WHATEVER!

storms off dramatically
posted by Samizdata at 2:27 PM on June 27, 2013 [3 favorites]


Mitrovarr's point about replacements is exactly why I get frustrated with the current BPA fears. There's been lots of research on it. Amazing amounts. It is still not at all clear that the doses we get are risky. Still, some manufacturers have switched to other can lining polymers. As far as I know, none of them have been as well tested as BPA.
posted by R343L at 2:29 PM on June 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm glad nobody in this thread has mentioned dihydrogen monoxide, because it's perfectly safe and anyone who claims that it is unhealthy has certainly never had a delicious dihydrogen monoxide milkshake and is probably in the pocket of the liberal hippie special interest shadow government.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 2:31 PM on June 27, 2013


MetaFilter blue: I had never heard of Kinder Eggs until this thread. Hope you all get a free truckload in payment for the advertising.
posted by Cranberry at 2:32 PM on June 27, 2013


storms off dramatically!

Come back!! Sorry for being an ass and rubbing it in... but I'd gone to the trouble of finding the URLs and was previewing when Big_B beat me to it and... and... I've no excuse for not showing restraint.
posted by NailsTheCat at 2:44 PM on June 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


Kinder eggs are great because they are something exciting, and a toy, and some chocolate!
posted by Artw at 2:46 PM on June 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


The flip side, of 'dangerous things that people think are safe', is also interesting.

The one that blows me away is paracetamol, or Tylenol for USians. That shit is lethal.

Seriously, take twice the recommended maximum a few days in a row (so two tabs every two hours instead of four - not unreasonable if you have bad toothache) and there's a solid chance you've just given yourself permanent irreversible liver damage.

Keep doing it for long enough and you're not unlikely to die in agonising pain as your liver shuts down.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:48 PM on June 27, 2013 [7 favorites]


Kindereggs used to be the best but now they suck. DO NOT BUY.
posted by windykites at 2:56 PM on June 27, 2013


I am currently conducting an experiment in which I am vigorously agitating a solution of carbonated dihydrogen monoxide, ethanol, quinine, and citric acid. Wish me luck
posted by The Whelk at 3:17 PM on June 27, 2013 [10 favorites]


NailsTheCat: "storms off dramatically!

Come back!! Sorry for being an ass and rubbing it in... but I'd gone to the trouble of finding the URLs and was previewing when Big_B beat me to it and... and... I've no excuse for not showing restraint.
"

Is okay. I was just embarrassed I missed the previous mentions somehow.
posted by Samizdata at 3:19 PM on June 27, 2013


The Whelk: "I am currently conducting an experiment in which I am vigorously agitating a solution of carbonated dihydrogen monoxide, ethanol, quinine, and citric acid. Wish me luck"

Formulate one for me, you dapper chemist, you...
posted by Samizdata at 3:25 PM on June 27, 2013 [3 favorites]


Happyroach:

I think you are thinking of Good Taste by Asimov
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 3:41 PM on June 27, 2013


I am currently conducting an experiment in which I am vigorously agitating a solution of carbonated dihydrogen monoxide, ethanol, quinine, and citric acid. Wish me luck

Be careful not to spill anything because your epidermis is showing.
posted by Room 641-A at 4:54 PM on June 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


I distrust the world 'toxicity' now. It leads to nothing good.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 5:01 PM on June 27, 2013


(Licks toad again)
posted by Mr. Yuck at 5:54 PM on June 27, 2013


Mitrovarr: "koolkat: In a similar vein there is a very mutagenic compound found in cycad palms, but indigenous people in indonesia use them as their primary starch souce. They go through a washing process which removes the mutagenic compound making the starchy residue safe to eat.

I'm pretty sure I've read that these people experience highly elevated rates of associated disorders.
"

Guam, not Indonesia. Lytico-Bodig disease. The wikipedia article incorrectly summarises the Sacks book iirc; his primary hypothesis wasn't fruit bats, but the flour they make from the cycad seed.
posted by danny the boy at 6:01 PM on June 27, 2013


A friend of mine at school was convinced aspartame gave her headaches, as it was the common ingredient in diet Coke and Monster Munch.

It gives my wife headaches. She's not a conspiracy nut or anything. But studies have supposedly shown that people who get headaches from aspartame are doing it through some sort of placebo effect? I don't know.

There's a lot of anti-science bullshit about aspartame and its OMG CHEMICALS, like formaldehyde (which occurs in higher concentrations in apple juice and beer) and whatnot. It annoys me because it distracts from actual food safety issues.

Capitalists selling people food, unless regulated properly, could get up to all kinds of shenanigans. It's not quite as problematic as capitalist health care, but close. But I honestly don't think aspartame is going to kill me.
posted by Foosnark at 7:00 PM on June 27, 2013


And yeah, weak and corrupt FDA, blah blah, but aspartame is not one of the things banned by a zillion other countries that we consume here. Everybody who points the flashlight of science at it seems to agree that it's safe.
posted by Foosnark at 7:02 PM on June 27, 2013


Kinder eggs are great because they are something exciting, and a toy, and some chocolate!

And by sheer coincidence they're right next to the checkout!

For what it's worth, having spent many years trying to teach people how to read MSD sheets and wear the proper protective equipment, I think we're fighting a losing battle against chemophobia. Not only because regulatory agencies cannot, in all honesty, provide 100% bulletproof guarantees of safety in perpetuity, but because there are issues with regulatory capture and misleading publications. Add to that the incessant clamor of whacko anti-chemical (fluoride, anyone?) campaigners and fringe supplement and health marketers, and we have almost no solid ground to guide public perception on this important subject.

In Canada, we're moving away from science-based policy in this regard: recent legislation eliminates the Hazardous Materials Information Review Commission and replaces it with ministerial approval. Do I need to mention that the Minister is probably less well-informed than most Buzzfeed writers, and is ideologically opposed to regulation of industry?

The sheer volume of new chemicals introduced every year is problematic: "The U.S. currently has more than 85,000 chemicals in commerce. There are approximately 2,500 “high production volume” (HPV) chemicals, which are manufactured at a rate of more than one million pounds annually, with nearly 45 percent of these HPV chemicals lacking adequate toxicological studies conducted to evaluate their health effects on humans and wildlife. Further, about 2,000 new chemicals are introduced into commerce annually in the U.S., at a rate of seven new chemicals a day."
posted by sneebler at 8:01 PM on June 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


But studies have supposedly shown that people who get headaches from aspartame are doing it through some sort of placebo effect?

There was something on the Food Channel (food sciencey type show) that invited 50 or so people in to eat a Chinese meal. They then asked whether anyone was having a reaction to the MSG: big show of hands, list of symptoms from people, "I knew straight away, I always get this headache" etc. They then explained that only half the people had had MSG and many of those exhibiting (or claiming) symptoms hadn't had it.
posted by NailsTheCat at 9:55 PM on June 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


This reminds me of the rules I read for a "Whole 30" challenge at a gym I know. The Whole 30 challenge is essentially super-strict Paleo, but what constitutes "Paleo" when there are so many damn ingredients in our foods is always up for debate. Anyway the coach at this gym was listing off all the ingredients that were allowed or not allowed, and it was pretty clear he had massive chemophobia and precious little biochemistry knowledge. For example, he said anything with phosphates in it was not Paleo. I guess his clients were going to have to find a different buffering system in their cells for the next month?
posted by schroedinger at 10:00 PM on June 27, 2013 [4 favorites]


Every day is their cheat day.
posted by maryr at 11:23 PM on June 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


Grok didn't eat phosphates! Now give me 50 kipping squats for time
posted by en forme de poire at 12:04 AM on June 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


This works best if you read it as though Lewis Black is narrating the rant.
posted by MysteriousMan at 1:10 AM on June 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


anything with phosphates in it was not Paleo

"Oh crap, it's raining. Guess I'll have to try again next month."
posted by yerfatma at 5:12 AM on June 28, 2013


Capitalists selling people food, unless regulated properly, could get up to all kinds of shenanigans. It's not quite as problematic as capitalist health care, but close. But I honestly don't think aspartame is going to kill me.

I used to think so, too, but then I learned that Donald Rumsfeld (yes, that Donald Rumsfeld) was among the first capitalists/investors to aggressively push aspartame as a sugar-substitute, and that through political strong-arming, he was able to get aspartame re-approved for sale as a sugar-substitute despite two previous FDA-bans.

I know he has no regard for human life. So make of that what you will.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:12 AM on June 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


I don't trust Rumsfeld either, but aspartame is excruciatingly well tested and has repeatedly been shown not to be dangerous. (Unless of course you have PKU, but in that case you need to be particularly careful with your diet to begin with.)

I don't think it's impossible that there could be a link to headache for a few people, but a lot of foods, natural ones included (cheese, wine, etc), have also been linked to headache in susceptible people. Anyway, if you're in the vast, vast majority of people for whom aspartame isn't linked to headache, there's no reason to stop. After all, the existence of gluten intolerance isn't a reasonable argument for banning pasta.
posted by en forme de poire at 10:40 AM on June 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


I don't doubt it's reasonably safe (though I wouldn't be surprised if there weren't evidence pointing the other way that gets ignored or dismissed too handily), but Rumsfeld didn't care when he used his office to push through its approval. And I'm sure he's still profiting in some way from its use. And it tastes like crap anyway, so add all those factors up, and I'll take either sucralose or just stick with real sugar.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:38 AM on June 28, 2013


I don't doubt it's reasonably safe (though I wouldn't be surprised if there weren't evidence pointing the other way that gets ignored or dismissed too handily)

But I think this parenthetical is where we part ways. It is literally one of, if not the most studied food additive. For instance, you brought up sucralose - I think that's also safe in non-absurd amounts, but aspartame remains way better-studied than sucralose. Rumsfeld and G.D. Searle's motives for pushing it may not have been remotely altruistic, I will certainly give you that. But that doesn't mean the product itself can never be shown to be useful or safe -- especially nearly 40 years after it was first approved. Finally, aspartame has been off-patent since '92 and many different companies now produce it, so you can rest assured that almost certainly you are not lining his pockets.
posted by en forme de poire at 1:35 PM on June 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


Given previous record it's a little suprising the US didn't go on to bomb aspartame.
posted by Artw at 1:38 PM on June 28, 2013


Well, it's not like there aren't any studies at all that claim to find an association between health risks and aspartame. They've all been disputed, but then, what study related to an industrial product with lots of money tied up in its production isn't? I'd like to trust that our food safety regulations aren't subject to influence and manipulation on the kind of scale that would be necessary to cover up evidence of health risks, and by and large I do, but I'm under no particular ethical or other obligation to consume particular products or food ingredients just because there's no definitive evidence they're harmful.

It might be dumb to eat something that science overwhelmingly shows is risky, but it's not necessarily dumb to abstain from eating something science says is probably safe. For example, I don't eat candies made with chitin, even though there's technically nothing dangerous about eating bug parts. I guess I just don't understand the motives behind the push-back. Why should anyone be ashamed of choosing not to consume something for whatever reasons? There's no evidence of any particular benefit from aspartame either. Studies have consistently shown consuming it doesn't actually help with weight control. Whether it causes adverse health effects or not, it doesn't provide the benefits claimed for it.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:10 PM on June 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


MetaFilter blue: I had never heard of Kinder Eggs until this thread. Hope you all get a free truckload in payment for the advertising.

Did someone mention Kinder Eggs and advertising?

(I'd put a Not Safe for Sanity warning on that, but apparently, it's perfectly acceptable in Europe.)
posted by radwolf76 at 3:05 PM on June 28, 2013


Of course you're free to avoid aspartame. I guess I'm just confused because it seems like you're setting an impossibly high standard for showing something is safe to eat. The risk calculus you're using also seems a little inconsistent to me in light of your suggesting sucralose and table sugar as alternatives. As I said before, sucralose is much less well-studied, and with regard to sugar, a recent meta-analysis of six epidemiological studies has linked fructose intake to an increased risk of cancer (this has also been studied in vitro, so there are multiple lines of evidence here). That, to me, is more damning than any of the evidence I've found against aspartame (plus aspartame appears to be much better in terms of dental caries).

I'm not personally trying to lose weight, and I agree that it's not as effective as you might think in that regime, but artificial sweeteners still appear to be moderately effective in randomized controlled trials. I'd imagine someone who was already a big soda consumer would benefit the most, though I think we would agree that switching to water or a non-sweetened beverage would be even better.

BTW - and to be totally clear I am genuinely curious - what candies are made with chitin? When I searched, all I got was what appears to be an urban legend about M&Ms.
posted by en forme de poire at 9:14 PM on June 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


While you can't deny that the guy makes some good points and that the buzzfeed article was silly, but I get the feeling that he could convincingly dismiss just about any food additive or ingredient. As was mentioned upthread, it's not only knowledge of chemistry but also how you frame it. The fact is that while the specific examples mentioned may not be particularly worth worrying about, we are adding such a huge number of chemicals into everything, including all kinds of food additives, without any real idea of the long term cumulative effects or how they might interact. Furthermore, the concern is not just over whether these substances will kill you but about how much they will lower your overall well being. Just as one example, hormone disruption from synthetic substances is a serious problem.

There's not much controversy that our modern processed diet is shit and responsible for very many health problems, so I really take offense at the overall implication that there is nothing to fear from the long list of unpronounceable ingredients on nearly every foodstuff we buy and that all natural health advocates are wingnuts to be mocked and disregarded, even if some are. The article is certainly entertaining and a good antidote to some of the wilder claims, but at the same time the author comes across as someone who could be a paid shill for industry (not saying that he is as I nothing about him, just that in today's world it's possible).

Better living through chemistry. Yay!
posted by blue shadows at 11:36 PM on June 28, 2013


There's not much controversy that our modern processed diet is shit and responsible for very many health problems,

I agree and as someone who has worked with and run non-profits and businesses that aim to bring healthy whole foods to people, I think the Buzzfeed article does more harm than good by associating eating healthier with pseudoscience.

The Calton's book demonizes many foods I think anyone would agree are not processed foods, things like oatmeal and the fresh-baked bread made with local grains that I'm eating now. It's pretty fun because their alternative to what I'm eating now is a "bread" recipe that contains processed whey protein powder. Proof positive that these folks aren't in it to promote real food, but to promote the supplement and diet industry, industries as pernicious as the processed food industries.
posted by melissam at 1:00 PM on June 29, 2013 [4 favorites]


BTW - and to be totally clear I am genuinely curious - what candies are made with chitin? When I searched, all I got was what appears to be an urban legend about M&Ms.

It seems as if they've since either modified the recipe or lumped chitin in under "natural flavorings" in the ingredient list, but I picked up a cheap pack of these mints once (when they were on sale at a local store), and after my wife pointed out the ingredient list included chitin and reminded me what it was, I looked it up and lost my appetite for the mints. Either way, chitin is often used as a food additive, but I try to avoid it when I know about it just because, well, I don't want to eat bug parts, even if they are sterile. It's not rational, of course, but it's a choice I should be allowed to make as a consumer.

I guess I'm just confused because it seems like you're setting an impossibly high standard for showing something is safe to eat

Not meaning to set any standards, just pushing back against the idea that the mere fact of some industrial ingredient's probably being safe for consumption obligates anyone to consume it or justifies its being on the market. I also realized a little while after making my original comment that I meant to say "stevia" not "sucralose" (I realize there's a big difference, but I think I may have been mixing them up for a while now). I don't really care for artificial sweeteners or sugar substitutes at all (they just taste awful), but at least stevia's an actual naturally occurring sugar.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:00 PM on July 1, 2013


Just because it's a naturally occurring product, even one with a long history of human consumption, though, doesn't mean it's safer to eat - tobacco is a pretty stark example but even something like yerba mate has been pretty well-linked to throat cancers (which I mostly ignore because mate is delicious and gets me the hell out of bed, but you know...). I think stevia is almost certainly totally safe and have used it without a second thought, but it is more like aspartame than you might imagine - just as in the case of aspartame, there were a few initial studies that showed the potential for toxicity (in the whole-leaf form) and reproductive side effects, but like aspartame, it has since been exonerated by more thorough and careful studies. I don't think the FDA gets it right all the time either - right now, for instance, stevia is considered "safe" as a natural supplement, but not safe in the context of food except in a highly purified form, which is kind of a cop-out IMO. But in any case, corporate pressure from the sweetener industry was clearly not strong enough to prevent the execution and publication of numerous studies showing a lack of toxicity (and even putative health benefits) for stevia.

I'm trying to see your perspective here, but I feel like you may be conflating a couple of different things. For example, there's a wide gulf between being obligated to consume, e.g., aspartame (which makes it sound like they're putting it in the tap water along with the fluoride) and merely being allowed to sell something with a small amount of aspartame in it. I don't think it clarifies anything to put those in the same breath. The other thing that's throwing me is that while your argument is mostly about personal choice, which I of course respect, you're coloring it with a lot of loaded words, like characterizing sweeteners as "industrial" vs. "naturally occurring." I think the effect here is to make one option sound more appealing without making the argument explicit, and I want to push back on that because ultimately I think it's not so helpful a distinction when we are talking about safety. Aspartame is quickly digested into compounds that are all found in nature (two of which are already abundant in the human body and one that is found in many fruit juices). Conversely, modern stevia-based sweeteners are purified using industrial extraction processes. Even the whole-leaf stevia supplements are "industrial" products, unless you are growing and mashing up your own, since they are part of the hugely profitable and large-scale supplement industry. (They also involve chemical extraction, even if it's a lower-tech variety.)

Thanks for the info, BTW - I didn't realize chitin was such a common food additive. Just so you know, chitin isn't just from bugs - it's also found in crustacean shells (e.g. shrimp) and the cell walls of mushrooms. But it looks like most of the sources of chitin as a food additive are non-vegetarian, which could certainly be an issue for some people.
posted by en forme de poire at 5:46 PM on July 1, 2013


...merely being allowed to sell something with a small amount of aspartame in it

My position is simply that as a consumer I should have an absolute right to know what ingredients are in my food and to make my own decisions for whatever arbitrary reasons I see fit. I don't believe people have a right to sell any particular thing. The law should favor the interests of end consumers; the rights should be on the buyer's side only.

At the same time, I don't generally think that the state should go around prohibiting the sale of products that appear to be safe and don't cause harmful social or economic effects willy-nilly unless there's majority demand that it do so. The reason I think the state should sometimes be allowed to step in and prohibit even ostensibly "safe" industrial ingredients and processes is that most people don't have any influence over industrial production methods or choices made on producer's markets.

So, for example, suppose people en mass really don't want pink slime in their hamburger meat, even though there's evidence it's reasonably safe (because even if it's safe, it's still a ripoff filler used in a way analogous to the way water and sawdust have been used by unscrupulous butcher shops as filler materials to inflate the weight of meat products for centuries). But suppose the use of pink slime has become ubiquitous among meat processors because it offers such a major advantage, they've all come to adopt it to stay cost-competitive with other meat processors. Well, end consumers don't have a whole lot of direct influence over those producers markets, generally. So in that case, even if pink slime is safe, I'd say it's perfectly reasonable for the state to intervene on behalf of the consumers and ban the practice of using pink slime in industrial meat processing because otherwise it will always be too attractive from the producer's perspective for the market to satisfy the demands of the consumers.

FWIW, I'm not sure if there's majority popular support for banning aspartame or not, and I'm not advocating that myself as there are plenty of alternatives on the market for consumers to choose from. But if there were no competing alternatives on the market and there was an overwhelming popular consensus against the use of aspartame (reasonable or not), I'd say the state's role should be to act as the public's referee over the producer's markets in order to allow the public to have at least indirect influence over those markets.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:03 AM on July 2, 2013


I'm not using "industrial" as a bogeyman or dog-whistle here, BTW. I mean it precisely. Industrial concerns have their own producers markets where decisions are made before the end-consumers ever even have a chance to influence the markets. That arrangement can lead to market failures in the consumer markets. The state needs the authority to mediate those failures. Is that explanation clear enough?
posted by saulgoodman at 8:10 AM on July 2, 2013


I appreciate your elaboration and I think I actually more or less agree with what you're saying about the role of government here. But I think it's worth pointing out that this still doesn't differentiate, e.g., sugar from aspartame. Cane sugar and HFCS are absolutely industrial products under this definition and are even bigger industries than artificial sweeteners. And since this thread has mainly been about safety, I think it's worth pointing out that these industries, in contrast to artificial sweeteners, have had much more demonstrably deleterious effects on modern human health.

And while structurally the supplement industry is different in that it involves selling directly to consumers, it is still unreasonably powerful and enjoys comparatively lax and poorly enforced standards of production (thanks in part to what I consider to be a regulatory failure on the part of the FDA). On the safety front I think the supplement industry is potentially significantly worse, because the requirements for testing are so absurdly minimal.

You previously identified some concerns such as studies critical of a particular industrial product being buried or not funded or dismissed. I don't think those are unreasonable concerns, but I also disagree that we can't do anything except be suspicious. For instance, in response to vigorous criticism the government now requires all clinical trials of drugs to be registered, which helps to mitigate the "file drawer" effect. I also don't think it would be a bad idea to say that safety trials should be repeated by parties without a financial interest in the outcome. But this is pretty far afield from that idea that, e.g., aspartame's association with Rumsfeld trumps all of its safety studies.
posted by en forme de poire at 1:00 PM on July 3, 2013


All fair points, en forme de poire.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:26 PM on July 3, 2013


« Older “Fifteen years of diary entries. From 1817 to 1832...  |  The Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewit... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments