This essay is reproduced here as it appeared in the print edition of the original Science for the People magazine. These web-formatted archives are preserved complete with typographical errors and available for reference and educational and activist use. Scanned PDFs of the back issues can be browsed by headline at the website for the 2014 SftP conference held at UMass-Amherst. For more information or to support the project, email email@example.com
Review: Eater’s Digest — The Consumer’s Factbook of Food Additives
by Ross Feldberg
No matter how thick or thin you slice it it is still baloney.
— Carl Sandburg
The People, Yes
You do the dreaming — We’ll do the rest. gination shouldn’t be limited by today’s nology. Go ahead! Dream up tomorrow’s tastic food ideas. We’re already figuring out how you can do it, profitably.
— from Food Product Development, February /March 1971.
Advertisement from Durkee Industrial Foods Group.
Out of this world! Amazing! Stupendous! Unbelievable… Virtually no limit to the natural foods that now can be duplicated with special characteristics that make them better suited to today’s modern needs. And CPC International, with its related affiliates, has virtually everything you need to enter this growing market … the carbohydrates, the fats, the oils, the flavors — and the expertise. All you need is the protein — and the will.
— from Food Product Developments, October 1971.
Advertisement from CPC International.
Sugar, enriched flour (bleached), shortening, cocoa processed with alkali, dried corn syrup, leavening, nonfat dry milk, dried sour cream, propylene glycol monoesters and mono and glycerides, salt, artificial flavors, guar gum, corn starch, citric acid, sodium phosphate, freshness preserved by BHA and BHT.
— label on sour cream chocolate fudge cake mix.
The nineteen sixties meant, for many people, the birth of an understanding of our society which went beyond the conventional political attitudes to the perception of a pervasive pattern of injustice, greed and exploitation. Attempts to effect change on the basis of a moral appeal failed, leaving many of the participants in this new social movement with a realization of their ineffectuality. Out of that realization crystallized the concept of control: control over one’s own life, over one’s own body, over one’s own community. But in attempting to reach that goal, it became clear that without a real understanding of the elements and forces that act on our personal and collective lives, it is impossible to translate the concept of control into reality. Thus, in the seventies the left-wing political movement is taking much more seriously the task of education and demystification.
In addition to numerous attempts to develop a broader and more sophisticated theoretical analysis of the individual and the society, a number of “guidebooks” taking this educational role on a more personal level have appeared. From the feminist movement, Our Bodies, Our Selves1 provides us with a model for political cation integrating an understanding of the individual needs with societal pressures. Richard Burack in The New Handbook of Prescription Drugs2 gives us an overall analysis of the profit motive in the pharmaceutical industry as well as access to important information on the use, safety, and costs of the most common prescription drugs. This sort of information has a potential for political content, since it allows people to begin to take control of their own lives. Another topic with broad political implications, which is increasingly drawing attention, is food. Food can be analyzed from a variety of perspectives: in terms of world-wide needs, in terms of prices and the “free market” economy, in terms of our nutritional needs, or — as does Michael Jacobson in the Eater’s Digest3, in terms of the safety of the food products we eat.
Within the realm of everyday life, choosing what we eat is one of the most common decisions we make. Yet few of us understand our own biological needs well enough to make rational decisions in this area. Even if we did have that knowledge, we are limited in our choices by the food industry. Our initial requirement, therefore, is for the information which will allow us to understand those choices available. The Eater’s Digest is a guidebook to the uses and misuses of food additives.
The question of food additive safety is not a theoretical one, since it was estimated that in 1970 the average per capita consumption of food additives was five pounds.4 Indeed, the demands of large scale production and distribution of food products in an urbanized and industrialized world has necessitated the use of a wide variety of food additives. Food additives may be either natural or synthetic chemicals used to enhance the storage life of food and to alter its taste, appearance and structure. There is nothing inherently bad about the use of synthetic chemicals, nor is, there anything inherently good about the use of natural products in food. Safrole, for example, is a natural product of the sassafras root and was used as a flavoring for root beer until 1960 when it was banned after it was found that safrole could cause cancer of the liver. What we would like to know about any food additive is: is that additive fulfilling a necessary function in the food? is that additive safe for humans? Jacobson analyzes additives from both perspectives, ing the original experiments when necessary. His sions are generally quite compelling.
One example of an unnecessary additive is that of the antioxidants, butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT). These compounds are found in a wide variety of foods, such as vegetable oils, potato chips and cereals. BHA and BHT have not been adequately tested for safety, nor are they essential in most foods. The book, in fact, provides a list of products which do not include these additives.
Examples of dangerous food additives are legion and have already been provided in a previous issue of SftP5. One of Jacobson’s most valuable is to clear up misconceptions about the testing of food additives. A criticism often leveled at tests of additive safety is that extremely large doses of the additive are used. Large doses of virtually any chemical may be toxic, the critics argue, and indeed this is true. What these criticisms fail to point out, however, is that tests employing life-time feeding of large doses to experimental animals are not toxicity tests, but are tests for carcinogenic potential (the ability to produce tumors). In the case of tumor induction, there in fact appears to be no concentration threshold, below which the chemical is safe and above which tumors are induced. Rather, if a large amount of the chemical in question causes cancer, then it is the case that a small amount will also cause tumor formation, although less frequently. The choice then becomes whether to test. a large dose of an additive on a mouse or a rat whose life span is only one or two years, or to assume a product is safe until fifty or sixty years later when several human generations are showing the effects.
A third area of interest described by Jacobson is the role of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in certifying the safety of food additives. In an update of one of Jacobson’s discussions, the New York Times has provided an excellent description of the dynamic of food industry influence on the FDA.6 In a recent decision, the FDA, responding to the pressure of the food industry, refused to ban the food coloring “Red No. 2”, despite the recommendations of its own scientists. Red No. 2 food dye, the most widely used food coloring, is found in ice cream, processed cheese, sausages, cherry soda and cosmetics. Despite the FDA’s apparent confidence, studies showing that this dye can cause cancer as well as fetal damage have caused the March of Dimes to urge that people avoid ingesting Red No. 2. That may be difficult to do, since although the FDA requires food manufacturers to state the presence of artificial coloring on most food labels, it does not require them to specify which dye is actually used. Furthermore, butter, cheese and ice cream are exempt from even that requirement and need not give any ingredients on the label.
The Eater’s Digest contains a wealth of information on both the general issues of food safety and testing and on the specific uses of a variety of food additives. It is an invaluable reference book for anyone interested in food.
The ultimate value of books like the Eater’s Digest to us as politically involved individuals as well as interested consumers is bound up in the question, “To what use can we put the information we derive from such a book?”. On the individual level, we can, of course, use the information to guide our own eating habits. Although this is a reasonable course of action, it is an extremely limited one, for it assumes that alternatives are available and that we have access to foods which are nutritious and safe. However, it has been well documented that as the food industry becomes increasingly monopolistic our range of real food choices becomes narrower.
Another course of individual action might be for us to put pressure on the FDA to expand the level of disclosure required on food labels. Thus, we would know which ice cream contained acetylacetate as its orange flavor and which did not. Consumer action at this level is essentially misplaced effort for three reasons. First, it is effort directed not toward real change (the elimination of unnecessary and questionably safe additives), but toward only the appearance of change. Second, it is effort which has a high probability of failure in light of recent decisions by the FDA which indicate the level of influence of the food industry on the FDA. Finally, even if this effort should prove successful, it is likely that it would benefit primarily the highly educated sector of the population sensitive to the potential health hazards of additives and with enough money to choose alternative foods.
Solutions to the problems of food safety are also unlikely to come from the technical experts. Although useful information will be generated by some technically trained people, the majority of food technologists, toxicologists and pathologists are too dependent on the food industry for their livelihoods to seriously challenge the precepts of that industry. Thus any technological “solutions” are more likely to fit the needs of the industry than those of the consumer.
So, what are we to do with this information? Understanding the issues surrounding the production and the distribution of food is important because eating is an important concern for everyone. If we are ever to organize people into any sort of force for progressive social change, we must do so not on the basis of a series of abstract moral issues, but on the basis of the failure of capitalism in our everyday lives. Food, which is essential to our health and well-being, may yet turn out to be one of capitalism’s most conspicuous failures. As such, we would all do well to understand this issue better.
- Our Bodies, Our Selves: the Boston Women’s Health lective, Simon and Schuster (1973) $2.95
- The New Handbook of Prescription Drugs: Richard Burack, Ballantine Waldon edition (1970) $1.25
- Eater’s Digest: The Consumer’s Factbook of Food Additives: Michael F. Jacobson, A Doubleday Anchor Book (1972) $1.95
- “Food Processing — Search for Growth,” by R.M. Hadsell in Chemical and Engineering News, August 23, 1971
- Health and Nutrition Column, Science for the People Vol. VI, No. 5 (Sept 1974) p.21
- “FDA Approves a Challenged Dye” The New York Times, December 19, 1974, p.51