There are health experts on both sides of the fence constantly fuelling a debate on whether organic foods pose any health benefits over non-organic produce. Studies have been widespread over the last 40 years¹ to deduce if any side effects can occur from the sweeteners, preservatives and flavours which many companies use to increase the shelf life and appeal of their products.
If you’re buying a product from a supermarket the chances are the chemicals have been tested and deemed, “safe” for human consumption. While studies can argue both ways but there is evidence that constant exposure to these chemicals does cause adverse health effects, from seizures to cancers. Taking a look at asptartame, BPA, sodium nitrite and High fructose corn syrup you will see by the end of this article why they without question are more beneficial being left in the laboratory.
Organic food is defined as: “(of food or farming methods) produced or involving production without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or other artificial chemicals.” This article covers whether or not common additives and preservatives and chemicals from packaging are present in organic food as well as giving each chemical a risk factor for which you can make a decision whether or not you should cut foods that contain it from your diet.
Common Food Additives
Aspartame has been one of the most studied sweeteners of over the last 40 years since it’s introduction. Every day over 5 tonnes of it is consumed by Americans. One of the first observations towards aspartames potential carcinogenicity was the rise in the number of brain tumors but this was later dismissed because the age group affected were beyond those newly consuming the substance and the trend began before the substance was introduced to our shelves.
Aspartame is a methyl ester of the dipeptide of the natural amino acids L-aspartic acid and L-phenylalanine². This means it’s broken down via esterases and peptidases and never enters the blood as aspartame but instead, as methanol and aspartylphenylalanine dipeptide or aspartic acid and phenylalanine depending on the speed of the breakdown. This may cause alarm bells as methanol is known to be toxic but the quantity is minor and less than the by product of digesting fruits and vegetables so it’s not a concern but the phenylalanine has a few common side effects such as;
- Swelling of the hands or feet
- Trouble Breathing
- Mouth Tingling
There have been links to hypertension and migraines should you consume more than 5000mg a day, which is the equivalent to 21 diet cokes. If you are taking monoamine oxidase inhibitors then the phenylalanine may exacertabe this effect and can potentially cause a stroke.
Can Aspartame be found in organic Food? No aspartame is not found in certified organic foods.
OrganicGods Risk Factor: Low
High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)
HFCS is the sweetener of choice in many foods in the United States, this is largely because it is 3 times sweeter than cane sugar and also cheaper allowing beverage companies to increase the size of their serving so they can charge more but for the manufacturing costs to remain constant.
It’s commonly touted by the beverage companies that it’s safe it contains a 50:50 mix of fructose and glucose, just like cane sugar. This isn’t quite the case, yes HFCS does contain both fructose and glucose but not in a 50:50 amount instead in a 42:55 ratio(can vary but this is the most common kind HFCS-55), most important is the fact that this does not occur as a disaccharide. The fructose and the glucose are instead free species and not linked by an oxygen bond. This lack of bonding great varies how the body reacts to the substance.
Before I dive into the depths of HFCS, I want to make it clear that all sugar regardless of it’s form will cause weight gain and cause numerous health conditions, hereby I am pointing out the differences that HFCS possesses.
One of the key differences the free nature of fructose and glucose is that the fructose molecule can be rapidly absorbed into the blood steam, from there it makes it’s way to the liver where lipogenesis takes place³. Lipogenesis is the metabolic formation of fat and fructose has certainly contributed to the rise of 70million people living in the united states with “fatty liver”4
Aside from fat production this sudden absorption of a simple carbohydrate causes a spike in insulin levels, increasing appetite, causing weight gain and most importantly diabetes. Aside from this there has been reports that HFCS-55 contains mercury 5
Can High Fructose Corn Syrup be found in organic food? No HFCS can not be found in true organic produce
OrganicGods Risk Factor: Medium-High.
Sodium Nitrite NaNO2
If you’re like me and a keen meat eater then this analysis of sodium nitrite may be very interesting to you. Sodium Nitrite is produced by combining sodium hydroxide with mixtures of nitrogen dioxide and nitric oxide in the following reaction:
2 NaOH + NO2 + NO → 2 NaNO2 + H2O
Sodium Nitrite is a preservative that is added, predominately to cured meats to stop them from going bad with particular interest in preventing botulism.6 Botulism is the formation of Botulinum Toxin by the bacteria Clostridium botulinum, some of you may have immediately identified this as the commonly used cosmetic product, botox. One of the most powerful toxins known to man a mere micro gram is enough to kill you. Sodium compounds have been used in meats for hundreds if not thousands of years. They inhibit bacteria from producing any chemical reactions by regulating available water and make them undergo osmotic shock which kills them.
While serving an important purpose in preservation what health effects does this chemical have on your body? When you heat the meat or when the sodium nitrite meets an acidic environment (such as your stomach), the formation of nitrosamines via the Liebermann nitroso reaction is prompted7. These nitrosamines have been very well documented to increase the risk of bowl cancer, bladder cancer, liver cancer to name a few. It’s since been considered that 90% of nitrosamines are carcinogenic.8
I hope I haven’t ruined your sunday morning bacon sandwich too much, there have been studies that show vitamin C limits the effect of these nitrosamines on the body. So don’t forget your glass of orange juice!9
Can sodium nitrite be found in organic food? No it is not permitted to be found in organic produce.
Organic Gods Risk Factor: Medium
Do you need any more reason to start thinking more about switching to organic produce?
What preservatives can be found in organic food?
The rule of thumb is that if it occurs in nature then it can be used as a preservative, these include:
- Vitamin C
- Citric Acid
You have to bare in mind that even though these are naturally occurring, what’s been added to the product may be synthetically made. While being a chemist I have respect for the chemical industry the organic side of me would prefer a naturally extracted substance.
Food packaging can be made from plastics, metals or cardboard boxes and papers. Each has their own limitation as to what product they can store and each with their own individual health concern.
Undisputedly the most commonly used food packaging technique on the planet. It’s cheap to make, light, easy to mould, un-reactive to water based compounds. Marketers love it because they can shape it to show off their new drink or product and companies end of year reports love it’s affordable nature.
Recently there have been a string of news reports 10 reporting on the dangers of chemical leeching. A chemical which is used as an example time and time again is BPA (Bisphenol A). I admire the chemistry behind the plastics and resin industry as it was truly astounding the implications it had on the world’s industry but has their astonishing growth come at a price to our health? BPA has been in commercial products since the late 1950′s.
The primary concern about this compound is that it is a synthetic estrogen, while less powerful than others it has been studied to show that it triggers the same hormonal responses 11. In a study conducted by the center for disease control found that the majority of urine samples at a level of 33 to 80 nano grams, this is 1000 times lower than the safe dosage 12.
BPA only scratches the surface of other chemicals that are included in food packaging tributyltin, triclosan, and phthalates have all been recognised by the BMJ to show similar effects.
The concern is that no body has studied the long term effects to these cocktail of chemicals and how prolonged exposure impacts the body. An analogy I like to refer to is that the build up is like sediment, slowly building until it reaches a tipping point at which the river is blocked and overflows causing widespread damage.
OrganicGods Risk Factor: Low-Medium
Can if be found in organic produce? Yes
Most cans will have a thin epoxy lining that also contains all the plastics listed above. They do however have one coupled issue that adds another risk and that is the metal itself.
95% of these cans in the american home are made from aluminium13. Aluminium has been tied to Alzheimers and Parkinsons disease however no study has established a conclusive link. Aluminium like many metals can accumulate in the body which again builds up like sediment and which increases exposure to the substance over time.
Aluminium has no known biological function despite it’s huge abundance in nature however it can disrupt the activity of iron, calcium and magnesium which have known biological function.14
Organic Gods Risk Factor: Medium
Can if be found in organic produce? Yes
Organic Gods Summary and Recommendation
The build up of toxic chemical from additives and packaging is concerning. While it’s unfeasible to cut it out from your diet completely it is possible to limit your exposure. Try and store food in ceramic based products, buy fresh food at local markets which you can then transfer at home. Organic food doesn’t completely cut out your exposure to these chemicals but it does greatly reduce it. In combination of clever sourcing and eating organic you can cut risk significantly. So what are you waiting for?
¹Council on Scientific Affairs. Aspartame: review of safety issues. JAMA. 1985;254:400-402
²Aspartame 02/17/2011 : http://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancercauses/othercarcinogens/athome/aspartame
³How bad is fructose? 2007 http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/86/4/895.full
4 Fructose: a highly lipogenic nutrient implicated in insulin resistance, hepatic steatosis, and the metabolic syndrome. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2010;299(5):685-94
5 High Fructose Corn Syrup 2013 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High_fructose_corn_syrup
6 Strategies to Reduce Sodium Intake in the United States.http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK50952/
7 Vogel A I, Practical Organic Chemistry, 3rd Ed. Impression 1962 p. 649
8 Carcinogenesis Vol.5 no.ll pp.1381 -1393, 1984
9 Risk of colorectal and other gastro-intestinal cancers after exposure to nitrate, nitrite and N-nitroso compounds: a follow-up study. Int J Cancer. 1999 Mar 15;80(6):852-6.
10 British Medical Journal Mention in the Guardian http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/feb/19/chemicals-leaching-food-packaging-safety-bmj
11 Estrogenicity of bisphenol A released from sealants and composites: a review of the literature. Ann Stomatol (Roma). 2010 Jul-Dec; 1(3-4): 14–21.
12 BPA Factsheet. http://www.cdc.gov/biomonitoring/pdf/BisphenolA_FactSheet.pdf
14 Verstraeten SV, Aimo L, Oteiza PI. Aluminium and lead: molecular mechanisms of brain toxicity. Arch Toxicol. Nov 2008;82(11):789-802.