Saturday, November 6, 2010

Don't eat the oil

Sorting through my kids' candy bounty after the recent national holiday of Halloween got me to thinking about how slowly change comes to the food industry. It's been fairly well accepted for years now that some food dyes cause adverse reactions, especially in children. After all, children may weigh a fraction of what an adult weighs, but still consume the same level of artificial chemicals in a bag of Skittles. Way before  the EU mandated that foodstuffs carry warning labels if they contain certain artificial colors, the Feingold Association has been publicizing the sensitivities some kids have to artificial colors, flavorings, and preservatives - sensitivities that have been misdiagnosed as conditions as severe as ADHD, bipolar disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. More recently, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has adopted artificial colors as a project, and is lobbying the US Congress to remove some of them from our food supply.

But still, here I sit at my kitchen table, sifting through the Nerds, Skittles, and Starbust Chews for some good old chocolate that hasn't been too adulterated with artificial flavorings (synthetic vanillin is cheaper than vanilla) or colorings. The rub is that having travelled overseas many times in the past few years, I've eaten Starbusts and M&Ms made with natural colors so I know that we don't have to settle for foods that are colored with dyes made from petroleum products.

It bewilders me why the United Kingdom is way ahead of us on this issue. Mars, the company that makes M&Ms, was so sensitive to the public's concerns over red dye #2's possible link to cancer that it removed red M&Ms in 1976, despite the fact that its candies did not contain that specific dye.  However, the company seems resolute in in its use of red #40, the synthetic chemical that has colored its red candies since the late 1980s, even though red #40, is not recommended for consumption by children in Europe and is outright banned in Denmark, Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Austria, and Norway.

And it's not just candies that are affected by the regulations in Europe. The syrup in a strawberry sundae from McDonald's in London is colored with real strawberries, whereas a strawberry sundae in Atlanta carries a hefty dose of red #40. Nutri-Grain bars, a snack food many parents consider healthy, are vastly different here and abroad, as the illustration below shows.

Kellogg's Nutri-Grain Cereal Bars ingredients. From Britian compared to the US.

                                                    Illustration: Center for Science in the Public Interest                                                       

The issue isn't just one for little kids. Research is showing that you don't outgrow these sensitivities. Teens may act aggressively. Adults may get headaches. The list goes on and on. One of the most compelling real-life examples of the link between poor food and negative behaviors comes from Appleton, Wisconsin. By replacing typical cafeteria fare, sodas, and processed foods in its high school lunchroom and vending machines, this school - which serves troubled youths - has experienced drops in truancy and aggression, as well as increases in attention and learning. Foodie Alice Waters wrote about this school in The Nation, and it has received coverage on Good Morning America as well as numerous other places.

There really is a lot of research out there showing that some people are sensitive to artificial flavorings, colors, and preservatives, and that those sensitivities can be so extreme that they interfere with normal functioning. That's why it is upsetting that the pace of change in this industry is so glacial.   My point is that we don't have to accept impurities in our foods - our European counterparts don't. I encourage everyone to read the labels on their foods and evaluate what is in them. The Center for Science in the Public Interest maintains an excellent food coloring database that lists the synthetic colorings found in common foods. Bagels, cake mixes, cereals, you name it. Most foods that are prepackaged have been tarted up with a rainbow of colors intended to fool us into thinking the foods are purer, freshers, and healthier than they are. Then let your Congressional representatives know that you would rather have the more natural alternative that our friends across the pond enjoy.

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