This week, the US food chain Panera Bread announced that it would remove dozens of food additives and other artificial chemicals from its food by 2016. Other food companies, like Nestle and Dunkin' Donuts, have already done the same.
Call it the war on scary-sounding chemicals. Even though everything is made of chemicals — and it would be impossible to live a chemical-free world — activists are increasingly targeting compounds that seem "artificial." And companies like Kraft and Subway are often bowing to their demands.
This push has been around for a while. In 2008, Michael Pollan argued that people shouldn't eat things they can't pronounce. Some might say it goes back even further, to Biblical myths about toxic foods and the idea that industrial agriculture has somehow destroyed a lost purity that food once had.
Of course, the truth is a lot more complex. There are many difficult-to-pronounce chemical compounds that are actually harmless or even beneficial to health: indole-3-carbinol, for instance, which is found in broccoli and protects against cancer. And any chemist will tell you that the type of chemical often isn't as important as how much you actually consume. Even dihydrogen monoxide — also known as water! — can kill you if you drink too much.
I called up medical toxicologist Dr. David Juurlink to help make sense of Panera's announcement — and this growing movement against chemical additives.
Julia Belluz: So is this move by Panera really going to improve the health of consumers?
David Juurlink: This is mostly a public relations exercise and is meant to appease people who think something that’s a chemical might be bad. With a lot of these [additives], there’s nothing to worry about, except that because their name is unfamiliar and in some instances chemical-sounding, it might scare people off. You don’t live on this planet and avoid getting exposed to chemicals.
JB: But even Michael Pollan, the nation’s food guru, said we shouldn’t eat things we can’t pronounce.
DJ: So the question is — do people believe someone because of who they are or because of the accuracy of what they say? Pollan’s statement is not a very learned one. It tends to promote fear. What Panera is doing is a response to public fear.
JB: Was there anything on Panera’s list of "no-no" ingredients that seemed ripe for removal?
DJ: In every instance, the amount of these things is going to be trivial. Unless you exist on a diet of Panera bread and nothing else, the idea that you’re going to get anything that’s bad for you is laughable.
Now, no one would say someone should go out and drink a large amount of these chemicals. In very large amounts, they can cause harm. But the amount one would get from eating even a large amount of Panera products is of no clinical significance.
JB: What about propylene glycol? It sounds rather frightening.
DJ: We give it intravenously to patients all the time in hospitals. It’s actually crazy for people to worry about ingesting that. It’s crazy, full stop.
JB: I have a bottle of soda in my refrigerator right now, and it says, in bold under the label name, "contains quinine." That's also kind of alarming.
DJ: That’s probably tonic water you’re referring to. Quinine can rarely cause an immune reaction that decreases platelet levels in the blood. But that's extremely rare.
JB: But I'll assume you still drink tonic water ... so are there any food additives you look out for?
DJ: No. These are people with too much time on their hands, preying on fear and ignorance. I don’t fault Panera for taking these things out. Go ahead, if they’re using that as a means to sell their products. But just acknowledge that they’re removing things that are not inherently toxic. It’s a business decision, not a public health matter.
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