Normally when I see headlines in the vein of, "8 Ingredients You Never Want to See on Nutrition Labels," I get a little smug and assume that, due to the food allergies in our household and my constant efforts to buy more whole foods and cook most of our meals, I am not likely to need this particular advice.
Huh. Consider this article I saw this morning. (Don't worry if you don't particularly feel like reading the article - while it isn't long, I will definitely be paraphrasing parts of it in order to make my point).
Item #1: BHA - a chemical that is used to prevent foods with added oils from going rancid. Okay. But (and I quote), "BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) has been shown to cause cancer in rats, mice, and hamsters. The reason the FDA hasn't banned it is largely technical--the cancers all occurred in the rodents' forestomachs, an organ that humans don't have." Me talking here: I don't have fur or beady eyes, either, but a lot of things that cause cancer in rats have been proven to cause cancer in humans. Cancers are not that picky about which cells or organs they attack.
I'm going to skip right over items 2 (parabens), 3 (partially hydrogenated oil), 4 (sodium nitrite) and 5 (caramel coloring) in order to get to the one that has me the most stumped. Please, by all means, read about the ways in which you can get cancer from the aforementioned ingredients, but for my purposes, I am far more intrigued by
Item #6: Castoreum - generally labeled "natural flavorings" by food manufacturers. I'm thinking probably because (and I quote), "Castoreum is a substance made from beavers' castor sacs, or anal scent glands. These glands produce potent secretions that help the animals mark their territory in the wild. In the food industry, however, 1,000 pounds of the unsavory ingredient are used annually to imbue foods--usually vanilla or raspberry flavored--with a distinctive, musky flavor." Now, let's break this down, shall we?
- Whose idea was it to MINE A BEAVER'S ANUS FOR FOOD FLAVORINGS? And why? If we can make synthetic banana syrup in a chemistry lab (I know we can, I did it in Organic Chem 101 my first year in college), WHY, OH WHY would someone CHOOSE to get a "musky" flavoring from the hind end of a beaver?!? (The little devil on my shoulder taps me on the head and says, "Duh - if they did it in a lab, they couldn't label it "natural" flavoring.) True dat.
- What happens to the beavers after their scent glands have been mined? Is it a process like taking your pug to the vet to have his anal glands aspirated? Do they keep these poor creatures in a cage and extract "musk" from them multiple times? Or, instead, do they capture the beavers, surgically remove their glands and then either release or, ahem, retire the critters? Inquiring minds want to know!
- How many beavers does it take to yield 1,000 pounds of secretions?
- Does this mean that even foods that bill themselves as "vegetarian" or "vegan" cannot accurately do so if they contain castoreum? Methinks so...
- Most importantly, HOW MANY OF THE FOODS IN MY PANTRY CONTAIN "NATURAL FLAVORINGS?" I will be purging them immediately.
Item #7 is food dyes. I will also skip right over this one since we have heard stories for years about how food dyes (especially red ones) are known carcinogens. I hope I don't unwittingly have any of them in my house....
Item #8: Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein - sounds fairly harmless. I mean, when I hear that I think hydro-water, lyzed - broken, vegetable protein. No big. Until I read this (and I quote), "plant protein that has been chemically broken down into amino acids. One of these acids, glutamic acid, can release free glutamate. When this glutamate joins with free sodium in your body, they form monosodium glutamate (MSG)....When MSG is added to products directly, the FDA requires manufacturers to disclose its inclusion on the ingredient statement. But when it occurs as a byproduct of hydrolyzed protein, the FDA allows it to go unrecognized." WTF? So after all the work I do to ensure that myself and my kids are NOT getting gluten in any form, the FDA has decided that this particular little gem can hide in foods I buy? I can't tell you how many times I have felt rotten, as though I somehow got gluten in my diet, but couldn't figure out how that was even possible. It happens from time to time and makes me feel as though I'm crazy, suffering symptoms when I can't locate the source.
The more lists like this come out, the more I realize that we are slowly poisoning ourselves by looking to chemists and giant food companies to figure out how to feed ourselves. For centuries, we have known how to grow good, healthy food while keeping the soil healthy enough to sustain us over time. We are intelligent enough to understand that letting nature take its time to grow its bounty in the way it was meant to yields nutrition-rich whole foods that won't give us cancer or heartburn or grow salmonella or listeria faster than we can contain them.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go mine my pantry for beaver scent sacs.