Flavor Ingredients Safety – The Fight Against Chemophobia

Much has been made lately of the importance of eating “naturally” as a means to good health. However, this concept of “natural” has been frequently misinterpreted to mean “chemical-free.” Given the proliferation of misinformation over the internet, it is perhaps not surprising to see that a growing number of bloggers, often with little or no education in the fields of health, nutrition, or science, are espousing the notion that one’s diet must be “chemical-free” in order to be safe.

Such an undertaking is, of course, impossible. Everything around us is composed of chemicals. Water, a naturally-occurring substance, is a chemical compound: dihydrogen oxide. Yet no one would argue that we should avoid water in our everyday diet. The list of chemicals in a simple apple is lengthy—much longer than the list of ingredients in a tube of candy—but that has no bearing on its healthfulness.

To be fair, most people know that everything is composed of chemicals. The problems arise when “chemical” is used in a manner synonymous with “toxic” or “poisonous”—a frequent feature of some health and nutrition blogs and the marketing campaigns of certain commercial food outlets. Quite simply, there is a need for greater public education about the role of chemicals in our food, so that the consumer understands that “healthy, clean living” does not necessarily equal “chemical-free.”

To better educate the public and put some myths to rest, the group Sense About Science (www.senseaboutscience.org) has issued a free brochure, titled “Making Sense of Chemical Stories.” In it, they challenge six key misconceptions about chemicals, noting how even a cup of tea can sound terrifying when broken down to its scientific ingredients. The group’s goal is not to convince consumers that chemicals are good and natural is bad; rather that the issue is not clearly defined in either direction, and that quantity may be vital to determining a substance’s safety.

For example, cyanide is commonly recognized as a poison. But apple seeds contain cyanide—and if we happen to swallow one or two, we are not going to die. Why? The poison is in the dose. A single dose of aspirin can be useful in ridding us of a headache or helping to prevent a heart attack. But an overdose moves from safe to deadly; fifty aspirin at once can cause severe medical problems. So it is with many chemicals, whether they are found naturally or created as compounds in a lab: The quantity should be considered.

In Europe, a common target when discussing food additives is the dreaded E-number. However, this is simply a code given to identify an ingredient and is no indication of risk. E260 is acetic acid, better known as vinegar. One would be hard-pressed to pickle food without it. E150a is caramel, used as both a coloring and a flavor. It is also something you produce at home when you heat sugar. Again, the label is no indication of whether the particular ingredient is “natural” or “synthetic,” safe or harmful.

When it comes to flavor additives, whatever their chemical origin, FEMA (www.flavorfacts.org), the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association, is responsible for evaluating and ensuring safety. FEMA uses a panel of independent scientific and medical experts from around the world to test products and to conclude whether an ingredient is GRAS (generally recognized as safe). Their findings and recommendations are followed by more than 100 countries, including the United States. This means that consumers can be sure that the flavor additives in their food have undergone rigorous testing prior to their approval for widespread use.

Ultimately, some synthetic chemicals are dangerous, just as some naturally-occurring chemicals are dangerous. On the other hand, some synthetics are just as safe as some that occur naturally. Consumers should educate themselves about chemicals and their role in food, so that they may learn not to avoid all chemicals (an impossibility) but only those worth limiting. That is the best way to clean, healthy living, and to enjoyable, flavorful food.