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Food Additives or 1 + 1 + 1…Makes Money
by Alan Steinbach
Food is the single largest retail industry in the U.S., doing over $125 billion business in sales anually. It is a messy industry, using between 50 and 80% of all packaging materials. It is also an international industry, marketing the products of U.S. know-how throughout the Third World.
Non-nutritional food additives have a great deal more to do with profits and convenience to industry than with human nutrition. If most food additives are not required for human nutrition, but nevertheless appear in our food, what are they for? The following list indicates the major groups of additives and their major functions.
- Coloring matters.
- Preservatives. Substances used to prevent spoilage caused by bacteria, fungus and mold, and to improve keeping quality.
- Antioxidants. Substances used to inhibit the oxidation (leading to rancid odors, etc.) of fats during storage.
- Acids and bases. To impart a tartness to food or to make the food acid (for example, to prevent crystallization of jams) or to generate gas for baking or carbonated beverages.
- Flavoring agents and taste enhancers. Aromatic substances used as components of food flavors or as sweeteners.
- Gelling agents, stabilizers and emulsifiers. These are used to produce or to maintain texture.
- Improving agents. This catch-all group includes compounds influencing flavor, consistency, polishing and glazing of confectionery, products, etc.
- 13 identified vitamins and essential minerals.
We all know that bread is made from flour, salt, sugar, eggs, butter or margerine or oil, spices, milk, yeast, and water, plus lots of work. At home you might start with whole wheat flour, which doesn’t mix easily, rots, mildews, forms lumps, and gives a product with an unpredictable flavor and color. Industry “matures” its flour (with chlorine, chlorine dioxide, nitrosyl chloride, azodicarbamamide, and nitrogen oxides) and produces a uniform, easy-mixing, long-lasting, dead white powder called white flour. The process takes out most of the thiamine, riboflavin, vitamin D, niacin, iron and calcium in whole flour; if these are added back, the result is called enriched flour. The eggs you use at home are nutritious and make the bread stick together; industry uses dried egg solids treated with silicates to make them free-flowing (fresh eggs would muck up the machinery) and relies on gums such as carageenan and the mono- and diglycerides to serve as emulsifiers. Gluten, a product of chemical hydrolysis (breakdown) of starch is also an optional ingredient and is added to make the bread lighter and easier to work with ih the factory. Vegetable oils or lard work well as shortening, but the industry also uses lecithin and the mono- and diglycerides since they mix better and do not go rancid as fast. Home-made bread gets stale or soggy with sitting; it breaks into crumbs and cannot be wrapped around a hot dog. Industry’s bread can be wrapped around a hot dog because it has softeners such as polyoxyethylene monostereate to keep it soft, antioxidants such as butylatedhydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylatedhydroxytoluene (BHT) to stop it from going rancid, propionate to stop bacterial and mold growth, and calcium salts to give it a good body and feel, and to stop crumbling. That’s what additives are for.
Some foods have very few intentional additives (such as eggs, prime meats, raw vegetables). Others, like Space Sticks and the diet breakfast “meal in a glass” products are really 100% additive. In the food game the future belongs to the entirely artificial, not to the costly, bulky natural product.
Doesn’t anyone get hurt; aren’t some additives poisons? The original flour maturer, Agene (nitrogen trichloride) was removed from use after it was found to cause running fits in dogs. Many of the organic peroxides produce mutations (that is, they can alter the DNA of cells). Phenetyl alcohol can interfere with DNA synthesis.1 Occasionally there is a bad mistake. In 1960 a new kind of artificial emulsifier used in margarine called ME – 18 caused 60,000 cases of skin disease in Holland.2 However, the cases of outright deaths, or outbreaks of malformed embryos or massive allergic reactions are quite rare, considering the fact that some 10,000 new supermarket items appear each year. The logic of the food industry is summed up by the aphorism “there are no harmless substances; there are only harmless ways of using substances.” The real need for concern lies in the area of long term effects, or sub-clinical abnormalities. Several of the more recent public issues have involved this area; two examples are the cyclamates and monosodium glutamate.
Some Examples of Why the Industry Uses Additives
The Cyclamates. M. Sveda discovered in 193 7 that sodium cyclohexane sulfamate (or sodium cyclamate, later sold as sucaryl sodium) produced the sensation of sweetness. Dupont obtained a patent for its manufacture in 1942. Both sodium and calcium cyclamates are sweet; both are about 40 times as powerful as an equivalent amount of sugar (sucrose). Because of the growth of diet and convenience foods, combined with our predilection for sweets, it was estimated that during the 1960’s over 75% of the U.S. population used cyclamates as sweeteners. Cyclamates have no caloric value, and unlike saccharine, they do not produce a bitter taste in the amounts normally used for sweetening. In 1919, when the FDA issued the Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) list for the first time, cyclamates were among the original 183 compounds on that list. The list was set on the basis of responses from 355 out of 900 scientists who replied to an FDA questionnaire, although the Nader group has strongly criticised the validity of the GRAS list, especially since only 194 of the responding scientists had no comment or concurred that the compounds listed were in fact GRAS. A GRAS compound can be used in any food for which a formal identity is not already established, subject only to stated tolerances in the case of some chemicals. That is the basis of FDA practice is an extension of the system that has worked so well for human behavior; a chemical is innocent until proven guilty. In many cases cyclamates became part of the identity of foods such as jams and jellies, so that there was no way of knowing whether the sweeteners were being consumed (unless the consumer happened to have all four volumes of the CFR Title 21 in her or his kitchen).
Evidence accumulated that cyclamates were not GRAS, but the FDA did not take any action. In 1950 they reviewed a drug application from Abbott for Sucaryl Sodium. Although the data submitted were acknowledged to be inadequate, FDA allowed the application on the basis of their own tests. In fact it was later noted that FDA’s tests showed a high frequency of lung tumors and other rare malignant growths in experimental animals. In 1966 two Japanese scientists found that cyclamates were transformed in the body to give cyclohexylamine (CHA). CHA is a teratogen capable of producing abnormalities in embryos similar to those produced by thalidomide. In 1969, two scientists on the FDA staff (Drs. Verrett and Legator)3 reported similar findings and also the result that CHA caused chromosome breakage. This is potentially more dangerous than a teratogenic action, since a teratogen alters the body of the newborn but not the genetic material. FDA did not react to these findings, which were then published in the general literature and picked up by the press. Perhaps as a result, on October 19, 1969, Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Robert Finch announced that cyclamates were no longer GRAS. In doing so (the official cancellation date was Fall 1970) he effectively condemned over a billion dollars worth of merchandise, whereas more rational early action might have stopped the production before it started.
Why did it take FDA so long to act? Are cyclamates really bad for humans? Nader’s investigators present a good case to show that FDA has rarely acted to curtail use of a substance that may be of questionable health value, so long as industry finds it useful. The manufacturers concerned are petitioning the government for aid, having tried to give their stocks to charity, and in at least one instance, shipped them off to SE Asia.
The industry argues that even if cyclamates do cause cancer, the quantity required would amount to several ounces a day and that no human would consume that much. In essence they are saying that since cyclamates do not make you drop dead, don’t the advantages outweigh the disadvantages? Why doesn’t this argument make sense?
If cyclamates were a necessary part of the human diet, the argument the industry uses might be quite forceful. Even if they were by long-standing social custom almost essential, the industry would have some sort of case. But the same industry has exerted pressure on the FDA to establish “identities” that mean that possibly harmful but GRAS ingredients need not be listed explicitly and to adopt practices that allow any chemical to be used so long as there is agreement that it is safe. This cynicism amounts to the same kind practiced by the automobile fuel industry when they say that pollution is a “people problem”. The real problem for people is an industrial society that puts no profit premium on management of waste and does not discourage the development of additives that have no value except as a way to make more profit.
Monosodium L-Glutamate (MSG) is the sodium salt of an amino acid that occurs in most living things, especially plants. L glutamate and related chemicals such as gamma amino butyric acid (GABA) are involved in the function of the nervous system in some animals and perhaps in humans; they may serve as chemical messengers linking one nerve cell to another. It was first marketed under the name of Aji-no-moto (essence of taste): this brand still accounts for about 40% of world production. About 60 million pounds of MSG are sold in the U.S. each year-almost 1/3 pound per person. Because MSG occurs in nature, its use as an additive can only be a question of how much is enough.
MSG is an enhancer or intensifier rather than a flavor. Relatively small amounts make sweet things sweeter and salty things saltier. Exactly how this happens isn’t clear but probably involves a direct effect of the chemical on the taste receptor cells or the nerves that carry signals to the brain. Disodium 5′ inosinate (IMP) and guanylate (GMP) are also enhancers and are said to be about 100- 200 times more potent than MSG in many applications. These chemicals are two of the building blocks that make up the DNA and RNA molecules involved in genetic material.
In addition to enhancing flavor, MSG causes brain damage in very young animals and produces a malady known as Chinese Restaurant Syndrome in humans. When young mice were either fed or injected under the skin with MSG, they developed a peculiar abnormality of the brain. These results led the experimenter, Dr. John Olney, to suggest that perhaps MSG should be restricted for use in foods consumed by infants. MSG had been included in many baby foods, not because the babies liked it, but primarily to make the food taste better to mothers. Dr. Olney’s reasonable suggestion was initially ridiculed by the industry, primarily and most vociferously by Gerber, but due to the bad publicity, the additive was discontinued in most baby foods. Once again, the damage to humans is presumptive, not, thank goodness, a proven fact.
Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, on the other hand is a human malady and describes the symptoms associated with eating Chinese food which contains 2-4 grams of MSG: facial pressure, burning sensations and chest pains. Not all people develop the syndrome, but it is definitely produced in succeptible people after eating amounts of MSG on the order of the amount suggested by American manufacturers of the chemical. Although Chinese Restaurant Syndrome is perhaps not a significant hazard to public health, it is clearly unpleasant to many people and it seems somewhat questionable whether MSG is in fact GRAS. However the industry might point out that pepper in excess produces unpleasant symptoms and that arsenic, a deadly poison, is permitted in foods at very low levels. FDA does require that MSG be identified by name and not just as “artificial flavoring”, but does not at present restrict its use otherwise.
Both cyclamates and MSG, especially in excess and in young organisms, can produce either permanent or temporary abnormalities. Neither chemical in any reasonable amount causes humans to drop dead. Yet neither chemical increases the nutritional value of food, and both could be used for the purpose of concealing inferiority or to make a food product appear to be something more than it really is. Both chemicals were an essential part of the food industry profit structure; one has been restricted, the other has not been.
A Little More About the FDA
Since FDA is in charge of regulating additives, we should be as clear as possible about what they are doing. The GRAS list, which began with less than 200 compounds, has grown to II pages of small type.4 It is now under review and the intent is not to change the list itself but to begin to use and enforce it in such a way that unofficial acceptance and use of substances not on the list will be discouraged. Some of the compounds on the list have tolerances or limitations. For example, between 50 and 200 parts per million (ppm) of the antioxidants BHA and BHT are the maximum permissible. There are also chemicals which are not GRAS but which can be used in foods provided that limitations are observed; for example, arsenic can be present at up to 2 ppm in some meats; DDT in 1.25 ppm in dairy products, etc. Many chemicals can be used “in accordance with gpod manufacturing practice” … that is, without limitation.
FDA has established identities for many foods; bread was the example chosen earlier. In cases where identities have not been established, the problem is usually not lack of zeal on the part of FDA, but an unresolvable discrepancy between their idea of an identity and the ideas of the food industry (for example, cherry pie, egg bread, etc. have no identities. In cases where no identity exists anything on the GRAS list can be used as an additive.
FDA also regulates color additives. Most natural colorants are GRAS, but FDA also recognizes almost 100 certified artificial colors!5
As the sheer bulk of the list of additives used in this country indicates, we do far less regulating than many other countries. For example, Canada allows only IS artificial colors and the USSR only three. This in part reflects a basically different attitude toward the function and the scope of additives. To quote concerning the USSR regulations,
“Substances which have not received the approval of the public health authorities are illegal for use in food production. Permitted food additives must conform strictly to governmental food standards, technical specification, or special technological directives.
” … Soviet authorities have always recommended that additives be kept to a minimum in the protection of foods.”6
Contrast this with,
“it is impractical to list all substances that are generally recognized as safe for their intended use. However, by way of illustration, the Commissioner regards such common food ingredients as salt, pepper, sugar, vinegar, baking powder, monosodium glutamate as safe for their intended use.”7
Although the principle of innocent until proven guilty may be an excellent idea for governing human behavior, its application to human nutrition seems to be on the basis of experience somewhat questionable.
Designed Consumer Food Final Chapter of the Proud Story?
A recent survey conducted by one of the image maker companies showed that 10,000 new super market items (not all of them foods) were introduced in 1968; 8,000 or 80% failed. About 7,000 failed in test markets or regional trial distributions, but 1,000 were national failures.8 A test market failure costs about $100,000. A national failure can cost up to $20 million. Based on these figures, failures in the 70’s will number in the hundreds of thousands at a cost in advertising alone of $5 billion in test markets and $7 billion for national products. The cost of these failures will be passed on to us, thus we have an interest in why failures occur.
Pizza and hickory-flavored catsup by Heinz failed in 1964 at a cost of over $1 million. Another me-too catsup called Barbecue that contained onion flavor also failed; the survey notes—in Heinz sight—that the major users of catsup are kids who hate onions. This sort of product is made possible using FDA approved combinations of artificial flavors, such as Chicken Breast 520041 or Hamburger 520083 (Polaks Frutal Works, Inc., Middletown, N.Y.). In 1966 General Foods introduced Post’s cereal with freeze-dried fruits. Pre-testing showed that there might be problems with too soggy cereal and too dry fruit, but the product was put on the national market and lost $5 million. The General Mills snack foods Bugles, Whistles and Daisys are called marginal failures; apparently the capacity of the daisyeating public was overestimated.
A modern food product should be and usually is the result of an intensive combination of technology, testing procedures, and media testing. First the product must have a distinctive profile; a characteristic combination of smell, taste, color and texture. New profiles are based on the use of additives and are worked out through the use of both cookbook technology and human testing panels.
If the industry had to operate within the defmition of conventional foods, it is obvious that expansion of production beyond a certain point would be limited by the size of our population and our ability to stuff it all down in three meals. Without expansion the industry would have no place to tuck away those excess profits. Therefore, they created (or at least carefully nourished) a demand for fourth and fifth meals, for convenience foods, and diet foods to alleviate the effects of the preceding. Fried corn chips are the classical example; these are now available in virtually any shape, texture taste, and color you might or might not desire. Fortified drinks based on soy protein, flavored to out-taste the most heavenly milkshake and with a balanced salt composition to ensure rapid water intake (such as Gator-Go, son of Gator-Ade) are new additions to this growing family. Aerosol cans that squirt out fluffy little puffs of cheese or ham or bacon or smoke or raspberry flavored nutritional non sense to go on the cornchips are compounded from a growing list of fully functional artificial flavors and colors that are all GRAS and probably will remain so.
The industry also goes one up on itself by creating artificial look-like taste-like substitutes for those old favorites like ham and bacon and sausage. These are based on cheap protein, usually soy, perhaps soon safflower. The basic stuff sells for about 10¢ per pound; after processing and extrusion through a machine not unlike those used for making nylon, the product, textured vegetable protein, sells for about 35¢ per pound, dehydrated. This can be made into such items as Stripples or Sizzles and sold to undercut bacon and sausage prices and still turn a tidy profit (since a pound of bacon cooks down to about 4 oz. when fried, bacon costs about $4-$5 per pound on the plate—something to think about). One version of the imitation meat is already on the national market as Baco’s, little red bits that, it is said, can be added to scrambled eggs or just about anything. Despite names that hint that the product is something that it isn’t (Baco is an example), the “bland digestible protein from soy” is a good source of amino acids and a plausible hero in a world in which two thirds of the people are suffering from hunger. Only in the context
of over-fed, over-fat North America are efforts to sell cheap protein prima facie absurd, because they are efforts to stuff the full even fuller.
Conclusion — or, So What?
No one can provide a shopping list that will allow us to keep our diets absolutely pure. Adele Davis has tried hard, but as she says, there is more organic food sold than is grown; rip-offs are an intrinsic part of capitalism and not of only one industry. Some common sense in dealing with the food industry is needed; we shouldn’t pay for junk we don’t need, we should read the labels and do our own cooking from basic materials when possible.
No individualistic solution will work. Even if one can afford organically grown food, turning on to foods is a waste of energy unless we also turn on to the politics that shows how the food industry exploits us.
Now that we can have biodegradable everything in the kitchen, the result of the cooptation of ecology, it is clearer what cooptation by the food industry might mean. We should welcome food reforms and help liberal consumers to get reforms, but we should not lose sight of what we want.
There is no way that the U.S. food industry can reform itself to serve the people. The industry is built on aggressive, technologically based expansion. If market size stabilizes, expansion takes other forms. Gradually, more chemicals, more energy, more machinery, and more executives are larded into the space separating us from raw food. This is not a good way to increase employment, except for managers and food technologists.
The existing uses of food additives are not only bad, repressive and exploitative but they are logical uses, given the makeup of the industry. This society abuses the human physiology and it will take revolution, not reform, to change this. Reform may successfully change a few product lines, but it cannot break the general stress placed on our bodies by a combination of products, marketing, pricing and advertising.
American food is a drug, a culture killer. In black and native colonies here junk food in the stores and low protein school meals break down traditional patterns. Calorie content may be high, but nutritional value suffers. The U.S. political presence abroad coincides with the marketing of Coca-Cola and overmanufactured junk food. We use food as a weapon, both at home and overseas. Sometimes our actions are crude and obvious: we develop new varieties for blasted, ruined Vietnam, varieties that require American-made chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides to grow. Sometimes we are more subtle: when we sell soy-supplemented health drinks like Puma in Latin America. Higher quality proteins have strings attached. The efficient pusher lowers the price to bait the hook, confident that the ultimate market size will offset any short-term losses. American technology replaces traditional ways of planting, fertilizing, harvesting, selling, caring for the earth, in return for … an end to hunger. It also forces people off the land and into unemployment in crowded cities, breaks up the family structure, and destroys the traditional culture.
Food additives don’t exactly cause bad nutrition, but the development of modern food technology, marked by a cynical disregard for nutrition and massive proliferation of technological gimmicks, really illustrates the way science and technology now serve the elite. We must start to make science serve the people
- San Francisco Chronicle, November 2, 1969.
- Borgstrom, Principles of Food Technology, v.2, p. 166.
- Legator et.al., Science, 165, p. 1139, 1969; Stone et.al., Science, 164, p. 568, 1969; Stoltz et.al., Science, 167 p. 1501, 1970.
- Schaumberg et.al., Science, 163, p. 826, 1969.
- Code of Federal Regulations, Title 21, 121 101.
- Title 21, chapter 1, sub-part c.
- Stenberg, A.l., “Food Additives in the USSR.” Food Additive Control Series, Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, Rome, 1969.
- Title 21, chapter 1, sub-part 8, 121 101.