Sunday, April 26, 2015

Food science

A column in yesterday’s New Zealand Herald purported to warn about mass-produced supermarket cakes sold in New Zealand. Part of a series, it was the first one I’ve read, and for me it raised far more concerns about having non-scientists writing about science than about the cake itself.

In her weekly column, Wendyl Nissen “takes a packaged food item and decodes what the label tells you about its contents”, according to the description on the site. This week it was a low-cost supermarket chocolate cake.

I'll be honest: I'm not a fan of such mass-produced supermarket cakes. I think they’re usually flavourless, overly sweet, or both. As Wendyl Nissen says, many of the ingredients in the cake are not ones I’d put in a cake I made at home, nor would reputable local bakers. Which is why I think she seems sincere in what she says.

My concern is that much of what she says is alarmism seemingly based on pseudo-science. She notes the many misspellings and similar mistakes in the labelling, so we can't be certain the cake really did contain propylene glycol. It may actually be propylene glycol alginate, which is used in beer, for example, and not even remotely similar to the anti-freeze ingredient.

However, propyl paraben, which is her main concern, MAY be a potential problem, though there's not enough evidence to prove it's a threat to human health. Even so, it's being removed from NZ supermarket cakes, as the Herald also reported.

It’s important to remember that not all chemicals are "bad", and even ones that might possibly harm a human would have to be consumed in such large quantities that the person would die of over-consumption before the chemicals could do any harm. In addition, "natural" is not always better. For example, organic produce is often extremely high in potentially toxic chemicals because it takes much higher amounts of organic-approved pesticides to do the work of artificial chemical weed or insect killers. A "natural" colour or flavour could still cause problems, particularly for those with food allergies.

I looked at several of Nissen’s columns, and saw a pervasive suspicion of “chemicals”, many of which she dismisses as “don’t know why that’s in there”. She could have asked the manufacturer, couldn’t she? If not, how about asking a genuine food scientist?

The problem with such superficial looks at food product ingredients is that there’s SO much scientific illiteracy today that it leads people into all sorts of crazy conspiracy theories and paranoia, leading them to avoid perfectly safe and ordinary substances.

Here’s an example.

Every day, you consume dihydrogen monoxide (DHMO), a colourless, odourless and tasteless chemical. Also known as hydroxyl acid, it’s the major component of acid rain and contributes to the “greenhouse effect”. It can cause severe burns, and accelerates corrosion and rusting of metal. High quantities have been found in tumours of patients who have died from cancer.

DHMO is used as an industrial solvent and a coolant, in nuclear power plants, and as a fire retardant. It’s also used in the distribution of pesticides. Even after washing produce, it’s still contaminated by this chemical. Even so, DMHO remains an additive in food products, especially some low-cost junk foods, where it can be in very high concentrations.

What is this terrible, awful, dangerous chemical? WATER!

My point is that columns like Wendyl Nissen’s don’t help make people better consumers—they just make them more frightened and paranoid. People who are concerned about additives in prepared foods should make their own products or buy from reputable local bakeries and the like, people who can tell you what, exactly, is in their products and why. Just remember that even then many ordinary ingredients—flour, cocoa, even water—have been processed or produced using chemicals.

If you want one of those awful supermarket cakes, go for it. Fresh and freshly-made food is best, of course, for a whole lot of reasons. But prepared food is often a necessary thing in our fast-paced world, and some people really do like them. Moderation in all things is sound advice—including moderation itself, of course.

Too much of a good thing can kill you, too—so can water.

Related: For a more sceptical look at claims made by pop culture food, nutrition and health commentators, I highly recommend the site Science-Based Medicine.

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