Pull Back the Curtain On the Food Industry Wizards To See What Toxic Chemicals Are Used and Why.

by Jennifer A. Gardner, M.D. on September 11, 2013

Blog 4 of 6: What We Consume With Our Manufactured Foods--Neurotoxins, Hormone Disruptors, And Insulin Destroyers.

Welcome back to our conversation surrounding an interesting infographic we posted by Healthy Child Healthy World about what goes into the food we eat. Today’s blog, no. 4 of 6, discusses the chemicals used in many food processing operations and their potential hazards to our health.

Most Americans eat processed foods on a regular basis. Not surprising since few of us grow our own food or live on a farm. And few have the time or inclination to make everything from scratch. Many of us also like the convenience of being able to get our favorite foods at any time of the year. But at what cost to our health and our families?

Food companies are savvy and have built entire industries around creating food lines that our bodies perceive as fresh and flavorful. They are very good at it too!

Consider the seemingly humble Lays potato chip. Purchase a bag in California and compare it with one from Ohio. The chips from either bag will be tasty and crispy, have exactly the right amount of salt and oil and taste exactly the same regardless of the point of purchase. Frito-Lay can do this because they have an amazing food manufacturing, production, and distribution system. This accomplishment is particularly impressive when you stop and think about the number of Lays potato chip bags sold worldwide every year—millions. 

Frito-Lay is just one of many food manufacturers that can do this, and do it consistently. But such consistency comes at a high cost—a significant reduction in nutritional value often combined with added toxins and chemicals.

Strip Mining the Food We Eat

We will use flour manufacturing to illustrate the food industry’s impact on our food (but this applies equally to rice, soy, and other grains).

Buy a loaf of bread, even one labeled “whole wheat” or “multi-grain,” and chances are high that the wheat has been milled to the point that it has almost no nutritional value.

The same is true for most processed cereals. Milling separates the fiber, bran, and germ from the starchy part—the flour. The resulting flour is more uniform, has a longer shelf life, and tastes sweeter than unprocessed grain. Wonderful, except that most of a grain’s nutritional content is discarded in the processing. The resulting product is a nutritional black hole.

The Fallacy of "Better Living Through Chemistry"

Milling is just the first step. Food companies work hard to create the illusion that they have filled this nutritional void by “fortifying” the flour.

Take a look at your favorite cereal or bread product. If it says “fortified” wheat, “fortified whole wheat,” or “enriched,” then it does not contain whole grains. Instead, it contains milled, "fortified" grains, which are supposed to be healthy, but this process fails miserably at restoring what was lost. So someone eating these fortified foods does not get the nutrition they expect, despite the label. Instead, he or she will experience a glucose spike akin to what occurs after eating a spoonful of sugar and little more.

In addition to fortifying their grains, bread and cereal manufacturers also bleach their products, further degrading their nutritional value. A number of different compounds are used for this, as indicated in the infographic. But the graphic is not specific enough to tell which ones should be avoided or pose a health risk. We did, however, find information suggesting that the EU banned use of nitrosyl chloride to bleach food. We also found studies showing that alloxan, another bleaching agent, could pose significant health risks. Studies in mice show that alloxan destroys the pancreatic cells responsible for creating insulin and long term exposure can lead to diabetes.

The use of the term “various acids” in the infographic is similarly vague. Vinegar, orange juice, and lemon juice are all “acids,” and they are strong enough to "cook" protein. So too is the infographics invocation of the terms "additives and chemicals." Without more specific details, statements such as these are more hype than help, and we find them unreliable.

Diabetes and Hormone Disruptors Are On the Menu at Food Factories

Other parts of the infographic, however, raise significant and specific concerns, particularly those discussing the use of hexane, phthalates, and BPA in food production.

Hexane, for example, is commonly used to separate cooking oils from seeds, including soy. The CDC classifies hexane as a neurotoxin. Studies link chronic exposure to some neurological conditions, but it’s unclear whether trace amounts pose a significant health risk. It’s also unclear whether any hexane residue is present in food after processing. The FDA does not monitor hexane in foods or require companies to test for it, but studies in Europe indicate that it is undetectable in processed foods or well below EU limits.

Phthalates are of greater concern. The gravity of our concern is apparent from statements made by the EPA: “phthalates are often classified as endocrine disruptors . . . because of their ability to interfere with the endocrine system in the body." Exposure is linked to "developmental abnormalities such as cleft palate and skeletal malformations, and . . . fetal death" in animal studies. The immature male reproductive tract is most sensitive to phthalate exposure, which causes testicular abnormalities and other effects. In the words of the EPA, the "ubiquitousness of phthalates in items used daily by children is of concern for children’s health because it increases the likelihood of exposure. Exposure media of concern for children include . . . foods contained in plastic packaging . . . ."

BPA: We are also very concerned about the leaching of BPA from containers into food. This chemical has been characterized as a potential hormone disruptor due to its similarity in structure to the hormone estradiol. According to the FDA, BPA has potential effects “on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and young children,” even at low levels. Recent studies also show that there may be some links between BPA exposure and obesity in children. BPA is present in plastic bottles (soda, water, milk), food cans (soup, beans, tuna, vegetables), and other containers made from polycarbonate (take out containers, plastic pitchers, sports water bottles).

What You Can Do:

  • Look for 100% organic products with the USDA seal.
  • Buy products made with whole grains—soybean, wheat, quinoa, barley, etc.
  • Buy expeller-pressed products, rather than those that use solvents. When purchasing oil look for “expeller pressed” directly on the label. For processed foods, look for the words “expeller pressed” before the oil in the ingredient list.
  • Look for products specifically labeled BPA-free. Cans lined inside with white do not contain BPA. Plastics marked with recycle codes 3 or 7 may be made with BPA, but not all contain BPA. Soft, pliable plastics are less likely to contain BPA. (1,2 and 4 do not, but they may contain other harmful plaastics so it is best to avoid all plastic containers as much as possible).
  • Do not heat food in plastic containers or serve hot food in plastic containers. Do not put plastic containers in the dishwasher or microwave.


Please view the original infographic from which these images were taken.

➤See our related blogs:

Part 1:  Think You Know What's in Your Food? Think Again.
Part 2:  What’s In Your Food? Growth Hormones, Superbugs and Partially Digested Plastic? It’s Possible!
Part 3:  Down on the Farm—Crops Permeated With Pesticides and Steeped in Sewage Sludge? You bet!


For a visual index of all our blogs see our Pinterest board, Blog, Blog, Blog...

➤ And be sure to tell us your thoughts. This is meant to educate you so that you can make informed, family health decisions, not to scare!  Do I still purchase the occasional bag of chips pr bagel made with milled flour, but I also try to eat mainly healthy snacks and whole grains.

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