Scaring the Public About Food -
Organic Foods Can Be Worse
By Betsy Hart
©1998 Scripps Howard News Service
Many Americans will soon sit down to a traditional Christmas feast. It might include roast turkey, bread stuffing, cranberry sauce, vegetables, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie -- and it will all be poison. At least that's what our laws, not to mention America's "healthy food police," would say if the cancer causing agents (carcinogens) and chemicals that mutate our DNA (mutagens) found in these delicious items were put there by man instead of nature.
You see, we've come to think in recent years that natural, fresh foods are healthy and full of only good things. And that chemical additives found in foods, and processed foods themselves, are either dangerous or at the very least less healthy than their natural counterparts.
That view is often wrong. But it stems from the 1958 Delaney amendment to the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act which was intended to keep carcinogens out of our processed food supply. It was assumed then that carcinogens were put in food by man, through processing or as a result of pesticides. The act demanded draconian measures to rid our nations' food supply of dreaded carcinogens. The only problem is that to completely rid our food supply of cancer causing agents, we'd have to get rid of, well, our food supply.
That's because natural carcinogens are rampant in fresh, unprocessed foods. For one thing, most plants produce their own pesticides to repel or kill predators. And in fact, according to the American Counsel on Science and Health, our dietary intake of naturally occurring pesticides that cause cancer in rodents is about 10,000 times higher than our intake of man-made pesticides that cause cancer in rodents! A whopping 99.99 percent of the chemicals humans are exposed to are natural.
Consider a typical Christmas dinner: Turkey includes heterocyclic amines; the bread stuffing might include ethyl alcohol, ethyl carbamate, and furfural; carrots have aniline; cranberry sauce has furan derivatives and pumpkin pie has coumarin and safrole. Oh, and if you think you are safe with prime rib of beef instead of turkey, that's loaded with heterocyclic amines, too.
Every one of these naturally occurring elements is a carcinogen or mutagen.
But don't worry. Yes, it's true that the bread used in stuffing includes the known rodent carcinogen furfural. But you would have to eat about 82,000 slices of bread a day for two years to get the equivalent of the cancer causing dose given to rodents! So, of course, suggesting that the furfural found in Christmas dinner could actually cause cancer is ridiculous. But if furfural were a synthetic additive, a cancer risk as remote as this one would make headlines and cause the substance to be banned because under current law it would be considered dangerous.
That's too bad. Because additives, processing and pesticides can and do make our food supply cheaper and more abundant, so more people get a greater variety of food which in itself is healthy.
And, even aside from the issue of carcinogens, man-made pesticides and additives can actually make our food supply safer and more nutritious!
Consider the trend toward organically grown fruits and vegetables, meaning only natural pesticides and fertilizers are used. Just recently, it's been shown that folks who regularly indulge in such (usually expensive) items are up to eight times more likely to get sick with the sometimes fatal E. Coli bacteria than those who buy fruits and vegetable grown with pesticides. That's because organic foods are often fertilized with animal manure, which is loaded with E. Coli.
Other studies show that frozen vegetables are often more nutritious than fresh, because fresh vegetables lose significant amounts of their nutrients as soon as they have been harvested and are exposed to light, carbon dioxide and so on.
The point of all this is not to raise fears about the holiday repasts many of us will soon be enjoying. It's instead to raise our awareness that America has the safest and most abundant food supply in the world, largely because of manmade improvements on it. And that instead of fearing those technological advances and falling for the "carcinogen-of-the-week" scare, we should put risks in perspective and demand that our government's efforts to reduce cancer risks in food be based on sound science, not emotion.
Betsy Hart, a frequent commentator on CNN and the Fox News Channel, can be reached at