Packaged foods acquire long shelf lives when their chemical properties are manipulated so that bacteria cannot grow. While this gives a perception of safety and sterility, it actually means that ingredients of any quality can be used and the food will never go bad. Low-quality ingredients can be left over from previous years, handled less carefully, and processed more quickly. These ingredients are cheap and make packaged food products highly profitable -- but they are full of contaminants.
Typically, the only measure of contamination is bacterial count. Ingredients that go in fresh foods cannot have more than 25,000 viable cells of aerobic bacteria per gram. Packaged foods, however, can use ingredients with bacterial counts 40 times that or more. While these dormant germs can cause severe digestive discomfort and illness, there are many more dangerous food contaminants that go unnoticed.
1. Processed Foods Carry Residues of Refining Chemicals
Most ingredients in packaged foods are not whole foods -- meaning that they contain only a part of the original food. Chemicals are often used to extract these partial-food ingredients, and these compounds leave residues in the food.
Solvent chemicals are some of the harshest. The trustworthy-sounding preservative Vitamin E (Tocopherol) is produced from petroleum through the condensation of the toxins trimethylhydroquinone and isophytol. Soy-protein isolate is produced by bathing soybeans in a by-product of gasoline.
The use of crude solvents to process food is not new and they can have serious health consequences. In the 1930s, more than 58,000 people lost major control of their limbs by using the medical tincture ginger jake. While the only listed ingredients were alcohol and ginger, the ginger was extracted using toxic tri-orthocresyl phosphate, present in up to 2 percent of the finished product.
Impure ingredients are common. Many food additives, such as food dyes (covered in the previous post) can contain up to 13 percent impurities that develop from manufacturing. These include the carcinogens 4-aminobiphenyl, benzidine, and dozens of other chemicals.
2. Contaminants are Legally Allowed (Under Thresholds)
Contrary to popular belief, food ingredients do not need to be clean; their contaminants just have to be below certain thresholds. Allowable substances in food include rat hairs, insects, mold, animal excrement, maggots, and more. Nearly a quarter of cows in a given farm can have udder infections that leak pus and blood into milk before it becomes unsellable. Even the fatal pesticide cyanide, the constituents of Agent Orange, and lead and arsenic have thresholds.
These thresholds were not established until 1961 and, shockingly, the simple use of a chemical before that date is considered sufficient evidence that it is safe. Many allowable chemicals do not easily break down in the body, can accumulate to harmful concentrations, and their effects may appear only later in life. Because few of these substances occur naturally in food, knowledge of how they affect long-term health is very limited.
The fact that threshold chemicals are not carefully monitored means that tainted ingredients don't easily raise flags. Nearly all of the world's supply of common additives like ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) and wheat gluten are produced in China, which has had several recent food safety scares. Imports are regularly found to contain excessive or unexpected toxins, yet the rarity of testing means most goods pass through regardless.
3. Manufacturing Processes Introduce Grime
The contaminants harbored by food ingredients accumulate significantly when dozens of ingredients are combined to make food products. During the manufacturing process, new types of exposure emerge. Nearly all packaged food processing utilizes conveyer belts, and most belts are oiled to prevent food from sticking. This oil festers in equipment, harbors airborne and mechanical detritus, and ends up coating the food.
The containers used for finished food products can have a huge impact as well. In the late 19th century, tin cans were sealed with lead solder leading to numerous deaths from lead poisoning. Today, aluminum cans are lined with epoxy resins that leak Bisphenol A into food and drinks. Canada has declared this chemical toxic and the FDA warns about exposing it to infants and children. Cans not lined with epoxy are used to pack acidic foods, which corrode and absorb the metal.
The widespread use of plastic film is just as hazardous. Clear wrappers leach toxic phthalate esters into foods. The solvent-based matte varnish technique used overseas to print glossy wrappers transfers harsh chemicals to the food-contact side of the package when the film is stored in a roll. These beautiful, toxic packages are also the tools of food propaganda, which will be the subject of the next post on how packaging claims are recklessly misleading.
Choose Single-Ingredient, Unprocessed, Perishable Foods (Produce)
Between ingredients with high bacterial counts, residual chemical solvents, below-threshold toxins, manufacturing grime, and leaching packaging, the more processed and preserved foods are, the more contaminants start to add up. It's no coincidence that the most pervasive food allergens, like gluten, soy, and peanuts, also happen to be the cheapest, highest volume, and most processed foods. We are not suddenly becoming allergic to the 10,000-year-old staples of the human diet -- these foods are being overrun by contaminants.
Eating any processed food is a gamble and is not your healthiest choice. Try to avoid eating packaged products as part of your daily routine. Instead, focus on eating mainly unprocessed, perishable foods like whole fruits and vegetables. If your food doesn't spoil, it's not fresh -- and chances are part of it is not even food.