The safety of any chemical approved for use as a food additive is based on whether it is i Toxic i Carcinogenic i Allergenic
The nitrate/nitrite conundrum
Some preservatives are double-edged — good and not-so-good at the same time. For example, nitrates and nitrites are effective preservatives that prevent the growth of disease-bearing organisms in cured meat. But when they reach your stomach, nitrates and nitrites react with natural ammonia compounds called amines to form nitrosamines, substances known to cause cancer in animals fed amounts of nitrosamines much higher than found in any human food.
But guess what? Avoiding foods with added nitrates and nitrites won't prevent your having to cope with nitrosamines. Beets, celery, eggplant, lettuce, radishes, spinach, and turnip greens all contain naturally occurring nitrates and nitrites. When their nitrates and nitrates shake hands in your stomach they make — you got it! — nitrosamines.
To take the sting out of added nitrates and nitrites in foods such as cured meats, USDA, which regulates meat, fish and poultry, sensibly requires manufacturers to add an antioxidant vitamin C compound such as sodium ascorbate or an antioxidant vitamin E compound (a tocopherol). The antioxidant vitamins prevent the formation of nitrosamines while boosting the antimicrobial powers of the nitrates and nitrites.
A toxin is a poison. Some chemicals, such as cyanide, are toxic (poisonous) in very, very small doses. Others, such as sodium ascorbate (a form of vitamin C), are nontoxic even in very large doses. All chemicals on the GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) list are considered nontoxic in the amounts that are permitted in food. By the way, did you realize that both examples — cyanide and vitamin C — are natural chemicals?
A carcinogen is a substance that causes cancer. In 1958, New York Congressman James Delaney proposed, and Congress enacted into law, an amendment to the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act that banned from food any synthetic chemical known to cause cancer (in animals or human beings) when ingested in any amount.
Since then, the only exception to the Delaney clause has been saccharin, which was exempted in 1970. Although ingesting very large amounts of the artificial sweetener is known to cause bladder cancer in animals, no similar link can be found to human cancers. In addition, saccharin provides clear benefits for people who cannot use sugar. Note: In 1977, Congress required all products containing saccharin to carry a warning statement: Use of this product may be hazardous to your health. This product contains saccharin, which has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals. This requirement was lifted in 2000; the warning is no more.
As of this writing, the Delaney clause is still in effect, even though many scientists, including cancer specialists, consider it to be outmoded because it imposes an impossible standard — zero risk — and applies only to synthetic chemicals. The Delaney clause does not apply to natural chemicals, even those known to cause cancer, such as aflatoxins, poisons produced by molds that grow on peanuts.
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Allergens are substances that trigger allergic reactions. Some foods, such as peanuts, contain natural allergens that can provoke fatal allergic reactions.
The best-known example of an allergenic food additive is sulfites, a group of preservatives that i Keep light-colored fruits and vegetables (apples, potatoes) from browning when exposed to air i Prevent shellfish (shrimp and lobster) from developing black spots i Reduce the growth of bacteria in fermenting wine and beer i Bleach food starches i Make dough easier to handle
The following is a list of foods that may contain sulfites. (Also see Figure 22-1.)
1 Maraschino cherries
1 Cakes, cookies, pies
1 Cider (hard)
1 Potatoes (dehydrated, pre-cut, peeled fresh)
Ruth Papazian, "Sulfites" (FDA Consumer, December 1996)
Sulfites are safe for most people but not for all. In fact, the FDA estimates that one out of every 100 people is sensitive to these chemicals; among people with asthma, the number rises to five out of every 100. For people sensitive to sulfites, even infinitesimally small amounts may trigger a serious allergic reaction, and asthmatics may develop breathing problems by simply inhaling fumes from sulfite-treated foods.
The FDA tried banning sulfites from food but lost in a court case brought by food manufacturers who wanted to use the additive. To protect sulfite-sensitive people, the FDA created rules for safe use of the preservatives. The rules called for a total ban on sulfites in food at salad bars and a requirement that sulfites be listed on the label of any food or beverage product with more than ten parts sulfites to every million parts food (10 ppm). These rules, plus plenty of press information about the risks of sulfites, have led to a dramatic decrease in the number of sulfite reactions.
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