Should we be worried about the chemicals in our food?

As I write this, Twitter is a flurry of activity over local celebrity chef Lesego Semenya’s (aka LesDaChef) comments on a video from Food Insider’s Food Wars series. The video in question contrasts meal options on the US and UK KFC menus, looking at portion sizes, local variations, and of course a chemical breakdown of the ingredients. These types of videos are generally touted as a way to highlight problems in the agro-food system but all too often, they tap into fear mongering to ensure their profitability in the click-bait economy. There are many legitimate reasons to criticise multinational fast-food corporations and their impacts on the communities they occupy, from uncompetitive business practices to their role in gentrification and socioeconomic coercion of poorer dietary choices. However, the choice to perpetuate the chemophobic narrative of “their food contains chemicals!” is dangerous and deeply anti-scientific, with widespread social implications.

The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry defines chemophobia as “the irrational fear of chemicals”. Its history and origins are complex, and a mix of both our evolutionary hardwiring to keep us safe and the relationship between science and society. Chemistry teacher James Kennedy has a fantastic introductory series on the origin, pervasiveness, drivers, under-lying fallacies, and psychology of chemophobia for anyone wanting to know more about this phenomenon, but here we will focus on food.

From expression of cultures to individual creativity, food has always been a deeply personal experience. Almost all our early innovations, from tool making to fire, centred on expanding the range of food resources available to us and unlocking the nutrients inside of them. The development of agriculture brought us a more stable food supply than before, but also fundamentally altered the structuring of society. As we became more efficient at producing food, so more people were freed from the arduous task of producing their own. This enabled us to develop new career paths and build civilisations beyond the early pastoralists wildest dreams, but has also led to a disconnect between the consumer and the producer. In this context, the producers are not just those of us in the agricultural sector, but also our colleagues who work closer to fork than field.

As a plant and soil scientist it always amuses me when I hear someone talk about avoiding food with chemicals in it. Besides the fact that everything is made from chemicals, many of the chemical compounds that give our food the flavour experiences we crave and rave about are, in fact, defensive chemicals produced by plants to deter us.  Capsaicin, the chemical compound that gives chillies their bite, evolved specifically to deter mammals from eating these fruits (yes, chillies are botanical fruits) and the sensation we feel is not a taste per se, but rather a nerve response that is triggered when capsaicin comes in contact with our mucous membranes. The usual response to this is that these chemicals are ‘natural’. ‘Naturalness’ is, however, a meaningless concept with no scientific backing. Many compounds that are potentially toxic in relatively low doses, including arsenic, formaldehyde, and the organic pesticide copper sulphate, are also natural. What matters is the amount of exposure to a particular chemical over a particular time period. To quote Theophrastus von Hohenheim, largely considered the father of toxicology, “All things are poisonous and nothing is without poison; only the dose makes a thing not poisonous”.

So why does the KFC ingredients list look so long and intimidating? I spoke to Riëtte de Kock, Associate Professor at the University of Pretoria’s Department of Consumer and Food Sciences, to find out more.

On Twitter you offered to take one of LesDaChef’s fried chicken recipes and break it down into an industry-standard ingredients list. Looking at both the ingredients for LesDaChef’s hot wings and KFC South Africa’s wings, what are the noticeable differences to you as a food scientist?

Yes, I wanted to demonstrate that the differences between what is contained in food prepared at home and in industry are essentially minimal if one takes note of the requirements labelling of retail food products.  A food company has to supply to its customers products that are safe and of consistent quality.  Consumers do not like surprises and the food has to taste, look, feel and smell yummy and exactly the same as expected every time that they buy the brand, no matter where.  That is in contrast to what I, and probably most consumers and even chefs, would do at home.  LeDaschef admits that he does not follow recipes “You’d be shocked to know I actually don’t write any of these recipes down, I just make stuff“. At home we change ingredients, food preparation practices and quality as we please and rely on what is available in the pantry at the time. The quality of the end result depends on our culinary know-how and skills and at times on how much money we have to spend on ingredients.

The recipe used by a food company like KFC will reflect the need for assurance of consistent quality.  The choice of ingredients is based on steady supply of ingredients of reliable and desired quality and cost which is checked on a daily basis using a rigorous quality control process.  When preparing food in bulk, quality and performance of ingredients are essential factors to consider e.g. KFC opt to use more stable palmolein as frying medium rather than sunflower oil as one may do at home.

The KFC ingredient list features a list of E code numbers which may scare consumers that are not familiar with these.  The numbers are based on a universal international identification system that is used by the food industry to identify ingredients.  The use of E numbers is to avoid miscommunication due to varying names for ingredients in different languages as used in various countries.  E numbers are usually not listed on products in South Africa in order not to confuse consumers.

Why is it important for you that people understand that even home-cooked meals can be broken down into these types of lists?

Food contributes much to consumer health and well-being. As I demonstrated with the chef’s recipe, food prepared at home and in industry are basically very similar.  I fully support LesDaChef’s view that consumers need to prepare food and understand food more.  The reality is that most food items prepared and consumed in households in South Africa contain commercial ingredients.  Ready-to-prepare and ready-to-eat items also make up a large share of meals. The food industry and food scientists like myself have an important responsibility and can/should do much more to inform and educate consumers about the food items that they buy and consume.  Knowledge and understanding of the nature of food ingredients can provide consumers with insight to make informed decisions about food.

Should we be concerned about what is in our fast foods?

Yes, we should always be concerned about what is in our food.  However, the concern about fast food should not be any greater than the concern about the food that we prepare or consume at home or anywhere else.  Risk criteria that consumers need to apply when choosing any food item include is it safe and will it make me happy (in the long and the short run)?  When judging the contribution of a specific food item towards nutrition and health, consumers should consider their overall diet but also their lifestyle.  A balanced diet with adequate intake of protein, energy-providing items based on activity levels, vitamins and minerals, and with limitations on the intake of fat, sugars and salt, is essential.

LesDaChef tweeted “I just share what’s in your food. What you do with the info is up to you…” which is a common reason used by public figures to justify why they share information. In your experience, and given the wider context of chemophobia, are these ingredients lists meaningful to the public without further explanation?

The reason why food companies are obliged to provide a detailed, transparent food ingredient list for a commercial product is to protect consumers.  This is to protect consumers against allergens and intake of ingredients that they may want to avoid due to religious (e.g. pork), medical (e.g. some consumers cannot digest lactose, a milk sugar readily) or other personal reasons (e.g. veganism).  A multitude of complex food regulations direct the development and supply of commercial food products.  Food companies employ (food) scientists and technologists that are trained to study and understand the safety and functions of ingredients based on their chemical and physical makeup. 

Consumers are generally poorly informed about many of the ingredients on food labels and get nervous when the list becomes long or contain items that they do not recognise as things that they would stock in their pantries.  For commercial products, food product developers often safely extract and only add the key element from a commonly known ingredient to perform a specific function e.g. enhance flavour.  An example is monosodium glutamate (MSG), a compound found naturally in tomatoes, mushroom, seaweed which is added to enhance flavour.  Some of these vital functional additives (ingredients that are added in small quantities to play a specific role in a product) can be manufactured more efficiently and sustainably using man-made industrial processes.  Food scientists monitor that the ingredients that are added to food are safe and necessary.

What role do you believe public figures such as celebrity chefs can play in the communication of food science?

As social influencers celebrity chefs can play a huge role to inform and educate consumers.  Consumers need to be encouraged to understand food and to question what is added to the food that they buy:  What is this or that ingredient?  Why is it added?  How do you know that it is safe?  The professional chef could team up with qualified and experienced food scientists to share, discuss and debate concerns in order to educate and inform the public.  Chefs and food scientists share a passion for food preparation and food supply and have complementary skills and knowledge. Food scientists can and should certainly up their game to communicate more clearly to consumers the science behind the walls of the industry.  Celebrity chefs may provide them the platform to do so.

I’ve never particularly enjoyed most fast food and have much disdain for the multinational corporations that enable the majority of franchises. As I mentioned at the start of this piece, there are many legitimate reasons on which to critique the current fast-food business model and our own relationship with food, but perpetuating the anti-science narrative of chemophobia distracts us from having a legitimate conversation. Despite some public opinion harking back to a time that never existed when we all lived in harmony with nature kumbaya-style, the science is clear that the food we eat has never been safer.

Although both LesDaChef and Professor de Kock advocate for us to all to prepare food, this is something I disagree with to an extent. I view cooking as a chore and something I do only out of absolute necessity. If I could afford to have mutton curry delivered to my door in the portions I need with the speed and ease I can have a Streetwise 2, I would do it every day. The only reason I don’t eat fast food is because it’s difficult or expensive to get the types of foods that I like. I don’t think I need to physically prepare my own food in order to have a positive relationship with it, in the same way I (as an agricultural scientist and all-round plant enthusiast) don’t expect chefs and food scientists need to grow their own produce to have a positive experience with preparing food. I trust that food scientists like Professor de Kock are doing their best to ensure that these ready-made meals are safe, the same way they should trust us agricultural scientists to ensure the produce they’re working with is safe. I believe this is an important component of building a positive relationship with food, and necessary to have honest discussions of continuing to improve the agrofood system. To quote one of my favourite food science communicators, The Angry Chef: “Convenience foods are already with us, thoroughly integrated into our lives, invigorating them, enlivening them and allowing us to live them to the full. To reject them and the modernity they represent is completely unrealistic. To attach guilt and shame to them, to ascribe moral values to those who choose them, is a dangerous path. At best it will create the sort of guilt cycling that pushes people towards negative behaviours. At worst it will permanently damage people’s relationship with food.”

This is not to say that I don’t encourage everyone to try know a little bit more about the world and be interested in understanding the systems that support them, just that it’s impossible for us to be experts in every field. In the frantic pace of the 21st century, there is no doubt that we should be more conscious of our body’s needs and ensuring we are living as healthy a lifestyle as possible, but our decisions need to be evidence-based and health is not just about every individual meal we eat. If the food scientists are telling us that the ingredients of fast food are safe, and the dieticians are telling us that fast food in moderation isn’t going to be detrimental, then we should be listening.

Hay’s Harvest

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