June 18, 2018
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Don’t play with your food: Now the food industry does it for us

Dr. Michael Noonan
By Dr. Michael Noonan, Special to the BDN

I remember my mother telling me not to play with my food when I was little. If there was something that I didn’t want to eat (peas, for example) I would just move it around on the plate, waiting for it to evaporate or something. My mother called this playing with my food, and it drove her nuts.

Now, as an adult, there are a lot of foods I don’t want to eat because someone else has been playing with them.

The first nutritional principle I was taught in chiropractic school is that the healthiest foods are generally the least processed. The more our food is bleached, heated, exposed to toxic chemicals, and has added flavorings, conditioners, preservatives, emulsifiers and other chemicals, the less nutritious it is, and the more likely it will be toxic. According to the book “Pandora’s Lunchbox,” a truck crash caused a spill of the common commercial dough conditioner azodicarbonamide in Chicago. This chemical is so toxic, the spill triggered the city’s highest hazardous materials alert, with evacuation up to half a mile downwind. (Its use in food processing is banned in Europe and Australia.)

Someone has been playing with our food. The changes they have made include the obvious (converting whole flour to white, adding sugar or salt) to the very subtle, like the addition of “natural flavorings.” “Natural flavorings” sound great; perhaps they added some lemon juice for tartness, or maple syrup to make the food sweeter.

That is the image food manufacturers would like you to have, I am sure. But the truth is a little different. The definition of natural flavor under the Code of Federal Regulations allows for “protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis…..” As long as you start with a product that is not made in a factory, you can do all kinds of unnatural things to it and still call it natural.

Of course, artificial flavors are not even made from food sources. They are made “from scratch” in factories, without a trace of nutritional value.

I was surprised to find out that the FDA has not evaluated many food additives currently in use. Since 1977, manufacturers have been able to “self-affirm” that their product deserves “Generally Recognized as Safe” status. The additive does have to be evaluated by an independent panel of experts, of the company’s choosing, and the company needs to “maintain documentary evidence of the safety of the ingredient.” The company does not even need to notify the FDA that they have granted their new additive GRAS status, so there is no record of how many of these substances are added into our foods.

The public is becoming aware of problems with processed foods, including their contribution to obesity, diabetes and other chronic diseases. The food industry is responding to these concerns, and is starting to address them. The solution for overly processed foods? Even more highly processed additives, of course.

The new food additives are quite different than what companies have been using all along. These chemicals have no taste themselves; instead they amplify taste bud responses to what we are eating. Sweet foods taste much sweeter and salty foods much saltier when these chemicals are added. They are designed to reduce the need for the usual additives — especially salt and sweeteners — so the foods can be promoted as “healthy” alternatives. In the sweetener example, adding the chemical “S2383 Sucralose Modifier” allows the food manufacturer to use 75 percent less sucralose, also called Splenda.

The company Senomyx is a leader in this technology, and their products are already in use in some foods. To develop these high-tech flavor enhancers, their “flavorists” use HEK 293 cells, which are human embryonic kidney cells. These cells have been used for medical and drug testing since the 1970s, and more recently for biotechnology. The scientists cause the cells to function like taste buds, connect them to a sensor that tells when they are reacting, and expose the cells to different chemicals to see how they respond. The substances they react to the most strongly are then chosen for further study. The chemicals they have developed stimulate the taste buds in very small amounts, measured in parts per million, and cause foods to taste much sweeter, saltier or less sour (they can also block the taste buds as well as stimulate them) than they really are.

Is it just me, or is this a little creepy?

If you want to talk about it with me personally, look for me in Orono on Saturday mornings. I’ll be at the farmers market, buying the minimally processed, additive-free food I was advised to eat 30 years ago as a chiropractic student. Now I eat my peas without complaining.

Dr. Michael Noonan practices chiropractic, acupuncture and other wellness therapies in Old Town.

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