If you eat food or like science, you may be aware of the current dispute between Food Babe and Science Babe. Food Babe, essentially, never met a multi-syllabic ingredient she could bring herself to like. Science Babe seems to think we should all be drinking BHT-laced smoothies. That’s a bit of an overstatement, to be sure—but so is most everything that these warring factions are spewing out in their battles over the additives that lace your food, from the long-chain emulsifiers that keep ice cream smooth to the titanium dioxide that keeps powdered sugar pure and white.
To food fear mongers and self-described health gurus, those additives are toxins. To scientists and food manufacturers, they're marvels of efficiency and control over the physical world. But the argument over just why and when we use them in the food supply is bigger than brief, headline-grabbing online spats. What we eat is who we are: traditions and intellect and knowledge and media all vying for our hearts and minds while we feed ourselves and our loved ones and try to live a healthy life. The question is, how do you use science to make decision about what to eat? Or can you? WIRED eaters and science-knowers Katie Palmer and Sarah Fallon (readers will have to make their own assessments of the babe part) got into a little philosophical kerfuffle (philofuffle) about the Babe vs Babe situation. You can be a fly on the wall.
KP: The problem that a lot of people have with the Food Babe’s arguments is that they seem to define anything with a slightly difficult-to-pronounce chemical name as a toxin. Over the last year or so, Vani Hari and people like her have successfully campaigned to get a number of scary-sounding chemical additives removed from food—like azodicarbonamide, the “yoga mat chemical,” from Subway bread, and titanium dioxide from Dunkin’ Donuts powdered sugar. The Science Babe’s argument, echoed by less vitriolic and click-baity chemists, is that just because you can’t pronounce something doesn’t mean it’s bad for you. And just because a chemical appears in something like a yoga mat doesn’t mean it’s bad for you, either.
SEF: Right, you can’t just freak out whenever someone says “cholecalciferol.” (Duh, it’s vitamin D.) But at the same time, plenty of additives actually have turned out to be bad news. Brominated vegetable oil is banned all over the world, for example. Oooh, and remember Olestra? The "fat substitute" that included side effects like, forgive me, "anal leakage?" There’s so much we still don’t know—that’s the problem. A recent study published in Nature suggests that emulsifiers like carboxymethylcellulose and polysorbate-80 damaged the microbiomes of mice, giving them colitis and metabolic syndrome. Made them fat and poopy. Researchers only recently started looking at microbiome disruption at all. What else could food additives be doing to us?
KP: That’s a fair question, but I think you know where I’m going to go next. The problem with that study—and with most of the studies of the health effects of different food additives—is that people are not mice. We don’t have a fantastic sense of how a dosage in a mouse compares to a dosage in a human. And you can’t exactly go feeding humans extraordinarily high doses of emulsifiers and expect that to get by your IRB. (The emulsifier guys are planning on a human study, but the most they can do is ask people in one group to eat normally, and the other to avoid foods with emulsifiers.)
In the absence of that data, scientists and policymakers have a really hard time determining exactly what is toxic to humans. I think that’s the big underlying issue here: Without being able to define a toxin, people fall into these broad rhetorical arguments, Food Babe vs. Science Babe. And toxicity depends on so much more than the chemical origins of an ingredient—it depends on dosage, and length of exposure, and even individual differences in how you metabolize a particular molecule.
SEF: Maybe in the future we’ll get some kind of DNA food profile, where you can eat all the Olestra you want but I can’t eat any BHA. Animal studies with high dosaging have shown that BHA causes cancer. Human studies based on actual intake have shown that people are fine. But still….the NIH says: ”Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) is reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen based on sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity from studies in experimental animals.” That feels like an ass cover to me. Like, yes, you might have reason to worry. But we haven’t proven there’s any reason to worry. But if something comes up later don’t say we didn’t warn you. It’s banned in Europe, but still allowed here. Or what about that stuff in popcorn that was making people so sick?
KP: Diacetyl! But you’re mis-remembering the situation. Back in 2002, a microwave popcorn manufacturer reported that a number of its employees had come down with a rare lung disease, and it turned out that inhaling the butter flavoring, including diacetyl (which is extremely volatile, like a lot of flavorings), was to blame. No consumers except one man who ate two bags of popcorn every day for 10 years ever showed similar symptoms, because usually they aren’t inhaling their food—they’re eating it. That comes back to the dosage/exposure/metabolism problem.
SEF: Sure–inhaling a lot of something and eating a little bit of it are not the same thing. Just ask any glue aficionado. But it still doesn’t make me want to eat it.
KP: Don't eat it, then, but don't freak out about it either. Look, I don’t think any of the scientists who are coming out against chemophobia think that eating processed foods is a great thing. There’s no doubt that a lot of the foods shelved in the center of the supermarket—anything that shows up in the aisles instead of on the periphery—are composed to be both maximally appealing to the palate and maximally shelf-stable. That’s where I’m with Hari: If listening to her gets you to eat more whole foods, then great. But demonizing a single ingredient just because it’s in food that’s not the absolute best for you, or in something that's not a food at all, is still wrong. Every ingredient these groups have gotten pulled out of mass-market foods has been declared GRAS (generally recognized as safe) by the FDA.
SEF: GRAS can be a red herring, though. Seeing something on an ingredient label doesn’t actually mean there’s scientific consensus as to its safety. An ingredient might have been properly reviewed, yes, but it can also be called GRAS if people just kind of know that it’s fine. Or, if it’s been in use since before 1958. There can be “general recognition of safety through experience based on common use in foods," as long as there's "a substantial history of consumption for food use by a significant number of consumers.”
Companies can say a chemical is GRAS, but then propose using it at much higher levels than anyone else has. Or they ask the FDA to review it more rigorously. In one out of five cases the FDA rejects it or triggers withdrawal. Withdrawal means the company can suddenly say “oh no never mind, we didn’t want you to look at that anyway.” And the rejection is never made public. That doesn’t sound very scientific to me.
KP: So how does science actually progress—what’s the right way to accumulate the data that will actually tell us meaningful things about which ingredients, in which amounts, are bad for us to eat and drink?
SEF: Well, I mean, eventually people figure it out I guess. BPA is GRAS, technically. (I know it’s an “indirect food additive” not an actual additive, but still.) It was approved in 1963 and since then it’s been, like, “hey, it’s safe, guys.” Because once it’s approved, it can’t be not-approved until a company asks for it to be. But we now know that BPA is no good! But we don’t know exactly how no-good it is, and we don’t know if the alternatives are any less no-good (they could well be worse). But BPAs don’t affect us in a linear way, like, say, arsenic. It’s a U-shaped curve, where a little is bad and a lot is bad but a medium amount is maybe ok. Maybe. It’s controversial.
KP: Right. And my take on all that controversy, all that uncertainty, is to kind of throw up my hands and say, whatever, I’m going to eat whatever I goddamn feel like eating. No matter what we do, we’ll never have enough information to know for sure that everything we eat is safe and perfectly healthy. Even when we do our best to avoid the things that are dangerous we screw up—like with bisphenol-S, which is turning out to be potentially even more harmful than the bisphenol-A it replaced.
SEF: That’s a bad example! In most cases it doesn’t have to be a question of replacing something. Eat food that doesn’t have any additives. And until that controversy is settled, on BPA or food coloring or carrageenan, you might well say, well, it’s OK for people to eat it, but I don’t want me to eat it. Because the science is clearly not fully known (or being done properly).
KP: Hey, wait a minute. You're a hippie, but you're not an unscientific, homeopathy-slinging kook (usually). You should practice what you preach. Science provides a framework for decision-making even in the absence of complete data.
SEF: My choice might be inconsistent, but it's still rational. I think you have to get comfortable with inconsistent rationality when you talk about this stuff, because there’s a different decision-making process that happens in the grocery store aisle versus when you’re writing government policy that has to weigh known science with known industry pressure with public health as a whole.
KP: I have no problem with you making choices that you feel are best for you and your family, you hippie. But I get rankled when over-cautiousness extends into activism that impacts the way that all of our food gets made. You don’t want pesticides used on your food? Fine, don’t buy food grown with pesticides. But don’t advocate for pesticides to be removed from every crop in the United States, raising the overall prices of food and leaving some families hungry. A lot of the additives in food are there for very good reasons, to extend shelf life, keep food safe, and make food cheaper.
SEF: My mother always said “you can pay for food, or you can pay for medical care.” As in, you might spend more money at the grocery store, but you’ll save it later because you won’t have some disease or other. I think she’s right. But I can’t prove it.
KP: And neither can the FDA. Awesome. Good talk, guys.
IELTS Food Additives Essay
This food additives essay is basically an advantages and disadvantages essay. You need to be careful with the word ‘outweigh’ as this often confuses students.
The word ‘outweigh’ can be placed in different ways in the sentence so rather than work it out, it is better to think of it simply as ‘are there more advantages or disadvantages
This is the question:
Do the dangers derived from the use of chemicals in food production and preservation outweigh the advantages?
Decide what you think there are more of and then state this in the thesis statement without mentioning the word ‘outweigh’.
For example, look at the thesis statement from the food additives essay model answer:
In my opinion, the potential dangers from this are greater than the benefits we receive.
‘Outweigh’ questions do suggest, though, that there are definitely both advantages AND disadvantages, so you should discuss both.
However, make sure your essay supports your opinion. For example, if you have said there are more disadvantages, it would not make sense to then write mostly about advantages.
As you can see from the model answer, advantages are discussed, but the focus is on the disadvantages as this is what it is stated are greater in the thesis statement.
Food Additives Essay
Food Additives Essay Model Answer
Most foods that are purchased these days in small stores and supermarkets have chemicals in them as these are used to improve production and ensure the food lasts for longer. However, there are concerns that these have harmful effects. In my opinion, the potential dangers from this are greater than the benefits we receive.
There are several reasons why chemicals are placed in food. Firstly, it is to improve the product to the eye, and this is achieved via the use of colourings which encourage people to purchase food that may otherwise not look tempting to eat. Another reason is to preserve the food. Much of the food we eat would not actually last that long if it were not for chemicals they contain, so again this is an advantage to the companies that sell food as their products have a longer shelf life.
From this evidence, it is clear to me that the main benefits are, therefore, to the companies and not to the customer. Although companies claim these food additives are safe and they have research to support this, the research is quite possibly biased as it comes from their own companies or people with connections to these companies. It is common to read reports these days in the press about possible links to various health issues such as cancer. Food additives have also been linked to problems such as hyperactivity in children.
To conclude, despite the fact that there are benefits to placing chemicals in food, I believe that these principally help the companies but could be a danger to the public. It is unlikely that this practice can be stopped, so food must be clearly labeled and it is my hope that organic products will become more readily available at reasonable prices to all.
Improve your diet, fitness and health vocabulary
You should spend about 40 minutes on this task.
Write about the following topic:
Do the dangers derived from the use of chemicals in food production and preservation outweigh the advantages?
Give reasons for your answer and include any relevant examples from your own experience or knowledge.
Write at least 250 words.