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Are you sure you want to eat that?

March 3, 2011

Writing last month’s column, I wasn’t sure what I found more disturbing—that hydrofracking giant Halliburton expected us to believe their new fracking system “made up of ingredients sourced entirely from the food industry” was safe, or that the food on supermarket shelves contained additives that could fracture shale.

In the ensuing month, I’ve found additional disconcerting facts. For example, titanium dioxide is added to paints, plastics, papers, inks, most toothpastes and—processed foods such as cheeses, mustards, sausage casing, processed fruit and over 60 additional food items. It’s used to whiten skimmed milk and to paint the white lines on the tennis courts at Wimbledon. Know how the exterior of the Saturn V rocket got so white? You guessed it–titanium dioxide. There is some debate over whether it is a safe food additive. Personally, I’d rather not ingest something that’s used on the surface of a tennis court.

Sodium benzoate is a common preservative in fruit juice concentrate, soft drinks, coffee, chewing gum, fruit fillings, and sport and energy drinks. The FDA had classified sodium benzoate as safe, but it seems that in the presence of Vitamin C, the preservative forms the chemical benzene, a known carcinogen that also damages DNA. (Benzene is also found in used fracking fluid.) Don’t a lot of fruits contain Vitamin C? Hmmmmm.

The FDA has approved over 3,000 food additives for use in processed foods as flavoring, foaming, firming, anti-caking, drying and neutralizing agents; emulsifiers, binders, colorings, preservatives and more. This stamp of approval, however, does not guarantee their safety. Sustainabletable.org explains that the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act defines a food additive as any substance that affects the characteristic of a food. “[S]uch substance is not generally recognized, among experts qualified by scientific training and experience to evaluate its safety, as having been adequately shown through scientific procedures... to be safe under the conditions of its intended use...”

We are what we eat, and we are a nation where heart disease, diabetes, obesity and certain cancers are on the rise due, in part, to our consumption of processed foods.

Here are simple ways to avoid consuming toxic food:

• Shop the perimeter of the supermarket as Michael Pollan advises. There you will find vegetables and fruits, meats and fish, and dairy products. I advise avoiding meat, unless it is organically raised, and fish is a complicated story involving mercury, farming methods and over-fishing.