Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 3/5/2014 (2125 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Ever heard of azodicarbonamide? You probably have, but not by that name. It made headlines as "the yoga-mat chemical." It's an additive used in bread to whiten flour and aid in gluten development. The concern isn't azodicarbonamide (often nicknamed AZO) itself, but one of its byproducts: ethyl carbamate, also known as urethane.
It certainly sounds unappetizing. Worse, says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, "No information is available" on its chronic effects. That seems like a very good reason to get it out of your bread, but a fuller picture helps temper any fear. There's urethane in all bread, and you can easily get an entire loaf's worth of the chemical in one glass of wine. Although AZO can increase bread's urethane by two-thirds, you can increase it by three to eight times by toasting the bread.
The AZO brouhaha got traction, in the absence of evidence of harm, when Vani Hari, who blogs as Food Babe, pointed out that the chemical is used in yoga mats. The image is vivid and the reaction was visceral. Subway was pressured into removing AZO from its bread, but it's hard to see that as a triumph for public health. If urethane is risky, shouldn't we be going after wine? Or toasters?
Michael Siegrist studies risk perception and consumer behaviour at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, and he explains why people fear food additives more than some other potential hazards: "Exposure to food additives (is) not voluntary, they cannot be controlled, and consumers may not be aware that they are exposed to food additives. (These) risk characteristics of food additives may result in a higher risk perception than justified based on the available evidence."
This doesn't mean additives are risk-free, but the evidence we do have points generally, although not exclusively, to safety. Michael Jacobson, head of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says "most food additives are safe; some should be better-tested; and several pose risk." Salt, sugar and hydrogenated oils top his risky list.
There are real problems that need to be addressed, but "yoga mat" headlines make the threat look much larger than it is.
In that way, food additives are a bit like genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Both fit Siegrist's description of what's most likely to scare us, and concerns about them often seem like proxies for big, important, complex issues that are difficult to tackle — a reason not to dismiss those concerns, even if they overstate risk. It's hard to find a toehold on the slippery problem of corporate power in government or agricultural dependence on monocrops. Even though the scientific consensus is that there's no evidence GMOs pose a health threat, the issue seems to offer such a toehold.
The chemicals in our food, although they probably pose only small risks, are likewise a way into a more complex issue: the domination of processed foods in our diet. Jacobson notes even safe additives "make possible the production of the thousands of nutritionally worthless or harmful foods that populate supermarket shelves." Those processed foods pose a much-better-established risk than food additives do.
The difficulty of tackling processed foods starts with the most basic question: What are they? The lack of an agreed-upon definition can make straightforward advice such as "avoid processed foods" troublesome. Connie Weaver, professor of nutrition science at Purdue University, told me people should eat "the most nutrient-dense foods, regardless of degree of processing." When I asked for examples of nutrient-dense foods that are highly processed, she listed wine, cheese and bread.
There's compelling evidence that highly processed foods pose a health risk, but not necessarily because of the ingredients you can't pronounce. What's not in them might matter more. Marion Nestle of New York University's department of nutrition, food studies and public health told me in an email that "relatively unprocessed foods contain nutrients and other components (antioxidants, for example) that might have benefits for health, singly and in concert. People who eat relatively unprocessed foods, especially vegetables, tend to be healthier than people who don't."
Every conversation we're having about the risk of AZO is a conversation we're not having about the risk of processed foods. That's the real problem with food additives.
— Washington Post-Bloomberg