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Chemicals in our Foods

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Chemicals in our Foods

Imagine a steamy plate of vegetarian broccoli lasagne, rich tangy tomato sauce, whole-wheat noodles and lots of mozzarella and parmesan cheese. Canâ??t you just smell the goodness? Guess again.

Imagine a steamy plate of vegetarian broccoli lasagne, rich tangy tomato sauce, whole-wheat noodles and lots of mozzarella and parmesan cheese. Can’t you just smell the goodness?

Guess again. Unless all the ingredients come from organically-raised and organically-processed foods, that delicious meal could be full of more than 100 agricultural chemicals (excluding fertilizers), and more than 50 registered food processing chemicals. Tomatoes alone may be exposed to any combination of 41 different pesticides. Under the right circumstances, permethrin, a particularly toxic pesticide, can concentrate in canned tomato paste by 230 times, thus exceeding the Canadian Health Protection Branch’s (HPB’s) acceptable residue level of 0.5 parts per million. Are you still hungry?

Let’s begin with growing the ingredients for that lasagne. In the 1930s, government studies revealed a shocking lack of minerals in North America farmland soils. The studies agreed that basic human health could not be maintained through eating foods grown on depleted soils, so nutritional dietary supplementation was advised.

In the ensuing decades, farmers used chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides in attempts to improve soil and crop quality and quantity. Despite decades of chemical solutions, those commercial farm soils are in no better condition today. By contrast, organic farmers rely heavily on organic manure and organic compost to rejuvenate and reinvest the soil with minerals, essential bacteria and micronutrients.

Canadian farmers, on average, use fewer chemicals (fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides) than American, South American or Asian farmers. But consider this. Forty years ago, Canadian farmers lost about one third of their crops to pests. Today, Canadian farmers use three times the amount of agricultural chemicals as were used then, and still about one third of their crops are lost to pests.

Poison Spreads

Of the pesticides that are used, less than 0.1 percent of these actually stays where it is applied. The remainder, in excess of 99.9 percent, often travels to contaminate air, ground and surface water, other soil and food and animals.

Back to that lasagne. Over 300 registered chemicals are allowed to be used in production and handling of foods. However, HPB has established residue limits for about only 100, because about 200 of those 300 chemicals are considered harmless. As a result, the amounts used of about 200 chemicals are regulated by the producer and processor. Your lasagne, whether bought in a restaurant or in a grocery store, does not need to list any of these "incidental" chemicals as ingredients.

The Health Protection Branch permits the following chemicals in food processing, and yet does not consider them additives: salt, sugar, starch (any type, including the potentially hazardous modified versions), vitamin/mineral preparations, amino acids, spices, seasonings, flavorings, agricultural chemicals, veterinary drugs (hormones, antibiotics), irradiation and food packaging materials (BHT, BHA).

Agricultural chemicals, veterinary drugs, irradiation and food packaging chemicals are not considered additives because of HPB’s assumption that none of these agents or their possible byproducts will be present in foods if they are all used "properly, with discretion." Discreet and proper use of agricultural chemicals means that the vegetables in your lasagne may have been exposed to quite a few chemicals.

The onions may contain any amount of 16 agricultural chemicals, while the garlic is luckier, with possible exposure to a mere five or so. That’s before processing. Was the lasagne made with fresh, frozen, dehydrated or canned vegetables? Each process has a variety of approved chemicals available to preserve taste, color, texture and shelf life.

Safety Too Expensive

Due to budget constraints, HPB takes a huge leap of faith and relies largely on the self-regulation of both farmers and food processors to properly use all of these chemicals. Allowable residue limits are based on the expectation that each farmer and food processor will use the chemicals appropriately. These approved chemicals are deemed "safe enough" based on studies done by the very companies that want to use the chemicals. In the mid 1970s, hundreds of chemicals were studied by an industrial lab for manufacturers. One quarter of these were approved and licensed. Later, on discovering the tests had been poorly run, these chemicals had to be retested. Some were then banned. Many of these chemicals, however, are still in use. The measuring stick of safety, toxicology testing, is done by testing each chemical separately, giving it in high doses for a short term to laboratory animals.

Toxicology testing may be too simplistic to be useful. Firstly, humans are far more sensitive to chemicals than are animals. Secondly, ingestion does not happen one chemical at a time. Over one growing season, farmers can spray a variety of chemicals on their crops. Then, in food processing, more chemicals are often used in complex blends. The interactions of these chemicals have not even been seriously considered by our HPB. Thirdly, eating these chemicals does not happen all at once in large amounts of one food with one single chemical additive. Our foods are grown, harvested, stored, preserved, processed and packaged with a smorgasbord of chemicals.

Our daily intake of each single chemical may be low enough to please HPB, but our long-term exposure to low levels of each single chemical has not yet been assessed. What will long-term exposure to a horrific blending of these approved and "harmless chemicals" do to us? What will this chemical soup do to the more vulnerable-seniors, children and to those already ill and taking medications?

Trade Secrets

Unlike Canada, other countries are not as sanguine about the use of chemicals in human foods. Artificial food colorings have been banned in most European countries for almost two decades. Studies have demonstrated that almost every artificial food coloring produces cancers and tumors in lab animals. What chemicals are permitted vary wildly from one country to the next, depending more on economics and political expedience than on logic and empirical evidence.

Canada has banned the use of certain chemicals because they are considered too hazardous. Why then, does HPB allow imported foods containing residues of these banned chemicals in our country? Health issues are obviously not the mandate here. Trade agreements are.

Obviously, the use of chemicals in our foods is a flexible issue. If you have concerns, direct them to the press, HPB, your member of Parliament, and your ministers of agriculture. Make them aware of your intolerance for being volunteered as a guinea pig for chemical use. Make the message even clearer by choosing to buy only organic, non-irradiated and minimally processed foods. Request chemical-free lasagne in your favorite restaurants. Think about it. Where you choose to spend your money might be the most powerful statement you’ll ever make.

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