Eating ‘clean’ must be better for personal health and the environment, right? Not necessarily, especially if food safety is compromised.
Eating clean is great for food marketers — the subliminal message is all frolicking lambs in sunlit meadows and a cornucopia of luscious, fresh fruits and vegetables. It makes us all feel good. It’s a pity that while the message is lovely, it isn’t always factual.
Mainstream media is awash with studies linking certain foods and chemicals with health ailments. The stories are often of dubious authenticity but are well received by many consumers. Who wouldn’t blame them for believing that if its ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ or ‘free from added preservatives’ it must be better.
Eating clean is all about avoiding foods with additives, preservatives or other chemicals on the label. Clean food advocates suggest avoiding foods with ingredients you cannot pronounce.
Two professors of food science and human nutrition at Iowa State University, Rurh Litchfield and Ruth MacDonald, are railing against food manufacturers, restaurants and grocery stores that have removed additives from their products so they can be marketed as clean.
The ISU professors say just because an ingredient or additive has an unfamiliar name does not automatically make it bad for you. The decision to remove additives appears to be driven by market demand without considering the benefits these additives provide and the potential food safety risk that the removal could create.
Let’s look at nitrates
MacDonald, who has spent more than 25 years investigating links between diet and cancer, said nitrates play a necessary role in preventing the growth of Clostridium botulinum, a deadly bacterium that causes food poisoning. Therefore, completely removing nitrates would be problematic. MacDonald said food labels boasting “no nitrates” are typically referring to the synthetic version. If the package says “naturally cured” or “uncured” it likely includes celery juice — a natural source of nitrates — as an ingredient. Nitrates are nitrates whether they come from celery juice or as a pure chemical.
The chemical function of nitrates is the same regardless of the source, MacDonald added, so replacing synthetic nitrates with natural sources does not make food safer. In fact, research has shown that the amount of nitrates in celery juice is not always consistent. MacDonald said that with synthetic nitrates, food manufacturers can add the precise amount to protect against food poisoning.
Consumer concern over nitrates is not without merit. Studies using animal models have found high doses of nitrates may increase the risk for colon cancer. However, people have a hard time understanding the risk-benefit ratio when it comes to foods.
“They see a chemical, such as nitrates, listed on the label and assume it is bad or the food contains a high amount,” MacDonald said. “The food safety risk without these preservatives is so much greater.”
How did we get here?
Decoding food labels and understanding food risk is tricky even for well-informed consumers. While there is plenty of reliable information online, Litchfield and MacDonald point to social media as the greatest culprit of confusion.
“Social media has gotten us to this point. It is a big driver of distrust,” Litchfield said. “The one thing I would tell consumers is do not believe everything they see on social media. If they read about research on social media, track down the original study to see if it even exists.”
What a waste
Litchfield expects food waste in the US — already about 9 kg/person/month — will only get worse with the removal of additives and preservatives. Ingredients such as sodium benzoate, calcium propionate and potassium sorbate control the growth of microorganisms in foods without changing the character or taste of the food, she said. Without these and many other additives, foods will spoil faster, increasing food safety risk and the likelihood of more food ending up in the bin.
“Many food additives make the food structure more stable, such as keeping marshmallows soft and crackers crispy. Additives reduce off-flavours, prevent separation of liquids or oils or give foods a pleasant feel in our mouths. Taking these types of ingredients out of foods will probably increase the amount of food we throw away,” Litchfield said.
What is really needed is consumer education so food label buzzwords such as “clean” or “all natural” are not perceived as synonymous with “nutritious” or “healthful”.
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