I expect many readers have read or heard some self-righteous consumer advocate make outlandish statements about how we are poisoning and killing ourselves with all the chemicals we are pouring into our bodies through the foods we eat. It usually involves that tiresome spiel about food being saturated with pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, steroids, and a host of other chemical evils that are sure to kill us all unless we repent and eat only all-natural organic foods, preferably vegetarian. These same folks will claim that they have taken such a step and have stopped pouring those nefarious chemicals into their bodies. Well, more power to those deluded people because if they truly practiced what they preached they would surely die of starvation – I suppose cynically some might consider that a positive consequence.
The fact is all food, no matter how it is grown, protected, enhanced and processed is composed of chemicals, some of which are quite hazardous to human health. Your basic plant, over its genetic development, has absorbed or created a variety of chemicals to help it live and prosper – most would call that evolution. The plant’s need for those chemicals is at times a mystery, but many are classified as carcinogenic and toxic to humans. Here are some to contemplate as you look forward to consuming them during the upcoming festive season:
Vegetable salad – aniline, caffeic acid, benzaldehyde, hydrogen peroxide
Roast turkey/stuffing – acrylamides, heterocyclic amines, ethyl carbanate
Apple and pumpkin pies – coumarin, meth eugenol, acetaldehyde
Red and White wine – ethyl alcohol
Those are just a few carcinogens – some of these foods also contain just plain old toxins like arsenic, hydrogen cyanide, and even hallucinogenic compounds like myristicin. All of these nasty sounding chemicals are naturally collected or produced by plants; it makes antibiotics and steroids sound rather benign! Now to be fair to plants they produce these scary chemicals as part of their growth and survival process. The plants that didn’t produce them obviously died and went extinct. Plant science has shown that many of the deadly chemicals produced by plants are also needed to survive harsh agronomic and climactic conditions like drought. Many are used for self-defence to ward off disease and pests, and to discourage predators like insects, grazing animals and humans. It works on me – I won’t eat brussels sprouts, cauliflower and cabbage because their loathsome acrid taste (probably some vile chemical) certainly discourages me. I believe the ability of those vegetables, with their bad chemical taste, to warn me (and no doubt millions of others) away from harvesting and consuming them has contributed to their survival and well-being. But I digress.
What most enlightened folks realize is that regardless of how many carcinogens and toxins there are in the chemicals contained in foods, humans over millions of years, have adapted to eating them and have survived and thrived – well, at least most of the time. It all boils down to dosage. Virtually all life forms on the planet have developed various levels of chemical tolerance and suffer no ill-effects from the minute quantities of these chemicals in the foods we eat. As well, those tolerances apply to chemicals whether they are natural or synthetic – the body doesn’t have any ability to differentiate between the two. Plants have the same response to chemical or natural fertilizers – what they want are the nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus molecules; it’s all the same to the plant.
Food purity zealots like to trot out studies showing how various man-made chemicals present in the foods we eat cause toxicity and death. It’s remarkable how many folks buy into that fear mongering, being that almost all those studies involve lab rat and not human studies. The classic is the acrylamide study – it concluded that because lab rats died from consuming high levels of that toxin, humans needed to stop eating potato chips because they contained acrylamides. What was not mentioned was that the average human would have to consume 60 pounds of potato chips a day for 20 years to achieve the same level of toxicity that killed the lab rats. I expect eating that same amount of anything would cause the same result.
From a common-sense perspective it would seem that eating chemical-laced food is probably a lot less dangerous than the alternative – that being starvation. As for those self-proclaimed consumer advocates who demand that governments protect us from these chemical scourges, maybe they should practice what they preach – just stop eating anything, and right away!