J500 Media and the Environment

The All-Night Carcinogen Hunt by acbowman
March 4, 2008, 10:12 am
Filed under: Food + Health | Tags: , , , , , ,

As I sit here at 11 o’clock at night pining over my slice of caramel turtle cheesecake, I begin to think back on my food consumption of the day.

I didn’t eat any fast food. (Yeah for me!) However, a lot of the food items I ate had some of the additives that Beth Bader claims “just don’t belong in food despite what the FDA says.” But Bader never flushes out the argument to tell me why that is. So I will attempt to find out why these shouldn’t be in our food.

For breakfast I had Quaker Instant Oatmeal. In an article in Business Week, Instant oatmeal contains butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) or butylated hydroxytoluen (BHT) which are preservatives. Bader quotes some source as saying that BHA is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.” Let’s first look at that sentence, “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.” The dictionary defines anticipated as “to foresee“. So essentially, without the test to prove the forethought, it is someone’s, (presumably a scientist’s), best guest. But just in case, they put the clause, “reasonably” meaning within the bounds of common sense. The last part of the sentence, “carcinogen,” means causes cancer. So what we have is that using common sense BHA probably causes cancer.(Hold on while I throw away all the rest of my Instant Oatmeal.)

Since it wasn’t obvious where this quote came from, I checked all the links on Bader’s blog. I found it on a Center for Science in the Public Interest Web site. Strangely this site also was using that as a quote without citing it. This Web site also makes claims that we should avoid certain food additives. But it doesn’t say why. In one example it says we should try to avoid the additive BHT because, “it either increased or decreased the risk of cancer in various animal studies.” Umm…. what?

The CSPI Web site says we should definitely avoid BHA because in certain studies, it has caused cancer in the forestomachs in mice, rats, and hampsters. Further investigation led me to this site, ExToxNetFAQ. This site points out that although BHA has been shown to cause cancer in the forestomachs of rodents, (in very high levels), it hasn’t caused any cancer in animals such as dogs, pigs, or monkeys. In other words, animals that do not have a forestomach. (Hey, I don’t have a forestomach) This site also is the first to begin to give empirical data as to how much is actually in the food we eat, and what has been deemed safe for us.

When the food additives amendment first came out, BHA and BHT were listed as generally recognized as safe. This allowed that 200 parts per million could be in food. Both additives have since been removed from that list and subjected to tolerances. With tolerance tests, scientists determine what level of the potentially harmful substance causes no observed effects. From there they can determine a number of things, but for purposes of food additives, the most important is RfD, or reference dose. This means what an acceptable daily dose is for humans over an estimated life span of 70 years. The explanation also points out that this number is usually much higher than what the FDA estimates people do eat. (Sorry, I need to go pull out all the Instant Oatmeal Packages from the trash… 4 hour rule right?)

Now that I pulled my Quaker Instant Oatmeal out of the trash I decide to actually read the ingredients. Huh, that’s strange. It doesn’t seem to have that those sins of the food additive world BHA or BHT. So I looked at my source on the web. Yep, sure enough, it was posted in 1996, and revised in ’97. So it looks like Quaker has been moving away from the more controversial preservatives. Kudos for them.

Two other food advocates that I came across are Janet Starr Hull, and Dr. John McDougall. Both of which made arguments about the issue that made sense, rather than making the claim that we need to get rid of additives without offering solutions. Hull provides the context of “we don’t know, it might, so maybe we shouldn’t.” I can get behind that. And it looks like Quaker did the same. Dr. McDugall offers a more complete picture of diet and cancer.

He points out that there is a lot of conflicting information on the internet, and thus, people are very confused about what to eat, and what not to eat. He uses an analogy of the Broad Street Pump story from 19th century London.

Dr. Snow noticed that the distribution of cases of cholera was largely confined to those people who obtained their water from one particular well, called the Broad Street Pump. He also observed that of the 530 inmates of the Poland Street workhouse, which was around the corner from the Broad Street Pump, only five people had contracted cholera; and that no one from the workhouse drank the pump water, for the building had its own well. Among the 70 workers in a Broad Street brewery, where the men were given an allowance of free beer every day, and consequently never drank water, there were no fatalities.
These findings resulted in the identification of the well as the source of cholera and the removal of the handle from the well’s pump – the epidemic of cholera ended.

Through observation, Dr. Snow determined that it was a certain water source that was spreading the deadly disease Cholera. So he removed the pump handle from that water source. The point is that even if science doesn’t prove that certain foods are directly causing cancer, we can still see some correlations, and that is reason enough to turn off that tainted water source. And apparently, if we drink beer, we will never die.

Cancer is a scary thing. No one wants it. Making a move away from possibly harmful food ingredients is a good thing. But as communicators, let’s flush our arguments out a little bit. I think we will reach a broader section of people. People like myself who are skeptics need hard data, not assumptions. Also, with any discussion of food, preach moderation. And don’t do drugs. (Now that morning is well underway, it is time for breakfast. I shall eat my yummy Quaker Instant Oatmeal care free. Especially since I shall make it with beer. Who doesn’t want to live forever right?)



2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Adam, You have done what some journalists just don’t have the time to do – dig deep. This was an incredibly thoughtful post. Thank you. The one thing to consider is that truths are multiple. Depending on who you are and what your agenda is, even science is flexible. We see that most starkly in conversations around climate change. If we dug deeper could we find more research that repudiates your findings?

Comment by j500

I agree, you can find all sorts of data to support what agenda you are pushing. At the end of the day I think it comes down to what you believe, or what resonates the most with you.

Science data can be used for multiple truths. For example, to Beth Bader, anything that has been found “linked” to cancer is off the menu. To others, like myself, I see that and want to know how much causes cancer? Does it cause cancer in people, or just rats?

I am sure I could find other sources, scientific even, that make a more conclusive claim that BHA or BHT are carcinogens. But I would have to check their data. If the results are driven by fear of cancer, then I think you have to question it.

That being said, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look for alternatives just because we don’t know. As consumers we should be talking to government and corporations about our concerns. I don’t know if it is cause to cut out the tasty chicken nuggets though.

Moderation in all things.


Comment by acbowman

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