What’s Bleach Doing in My Fruit?

This article was originally published on Food Product Design.

Last month, I came across a blog post at Prevention magazine titled “What’s Anti-Freeze Doing in Fast Food?” [edit: original link is broken- now here as of July], based on a blog post titled “6 Cosmetic Chemicals in Fast Food.” The intent is to frighten people away from fast food by pointing out some scary sounding chemicals used in food production and preservation, like propylene glycol and sodium stearoyl lactylate that happen to be used in cosmetic products as well.

So, to show how irrational this is, I submit a rebuttal in similar format using “natural” chemicals in foods with no argument over their healthiness: fruits and vegetables. Interestingly, though I didn’t originally intend it, all of these are found in cosmetic products, showing just how easy it is to find overlap.

Formaldehyde

    1. Found in beets, cauliflower, grapes, bananas, apples (likely measurable to some degree in all foods; human metabolic by-product) (1).
    2. Used to preserve human remains and as a fungicide (2).
    3. Classified as “known to be a human carcinogen” by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) (3).
    4. Also used in shampoos and other cosmetics (2).

Hydrogen Peroxide

    1. Found in apples, pears, tomatoes, coffee (and human metabolic by-product) (4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9).
    2. Used as rocket fuel, in explosives, and as a bleaching agent (10).
    3. Known mutagen (11).
    4. Also used in teeth whiteners, mouthwash, and other cosmetics (12).

Acetaldehyde

    1. Found in bananas, oranges, apples, carrots, cucumbers, onions (13).
    2. Used in fuel mixtures and glues (14).
    3. Classified as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” by the IARC, causes cancer in animals (15).
    4. Also used as a fragrance in shampoos and other cosmetics (16).

Furfural

    1. Found in cranberries, grapefruit, celery, onions (17).
    2. Used to kill weeds and as an extraction solvent (18).
    3. Causes cancer in animals (19).
    4. Also used in cosmetics (18).

Myristicin 

  1. Found in carrots, nutmeg (16).
  2. Hallucinogen (20).
  3. Causes organ damage in animals (20).
  4. Also used in cosmetics as a fragrance (20).

Estragole

  1. Found in apples (21).
  2. Present in tobacco smoke (22).
  3. Causes cancer in animals (22).
  4. Also used in perfumes, soaps, and other cosmetics as a fragrance (22).

So, no, antifreeze and cosmetic chemicals aren’t in fast food anymore than a bleach is (and cosmetic chemicals are) in an apple. Food is chemicals and chemicals have different applications at different doses. The dose makes the poison and the small amounts of chemicals added to foods are continuously scrutinized and allowable levels enforced. Whether chemicals are derived naturally or not has no bearing on individual toxicity. In fact, it is likely that there is a greater cancer risk from natural food chemicals than synthetic, as the proportion that demonstrate carcinogenic properties in animal testing is about equal, yet natural chemicals make up much more of the diet (23). Of course, the doses are in most cases not close to reachable in humans. The real nutrition-related cancer risks do not come from food additives (24).

Scaring people toward “real food” by exploiting the fear of chemicals is disingenuous and does a disservice to public understanding of risk perception and chemistry. The promotion of healthy dietary patterns should be done using science-based information.

  • Trom

    We really don’t know what safe levels are. Adding extra chemicals to food is probably not safe for your long term health.

  • JW

    Looks like the Prevention link is no longer working, but the same content (I think) is here: http://blogs.prevention.com/inspired-bites/2013/07/10/whats-anti-freeze-doing-in-fast-food/

    • http://www.nutsci.org Colby

      Thanks! She must have re-posted it.

  • http://geneticmaize.wordpress.com/ Anastasia

    Great post! We definitely need to put these “risks” into perspective.

  • Norm

    Formaldehyde and acetaldehyde are in beer at low levels. So is alcohol (at slightly higher levels). You’re so right, dose makes the potion or poison.