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Food fear: Gross may be disgusting, yet legal - even safe

July 6, 2012 12:00:00 AM PDT
Sit down to a burger, salad and soda and you could also be downing a bit of ammonia, paint thinner and flame retardant without even knowing it. That's because the way these foods are processed often involves chemicals that can be used for other things. But disgust doesn't always mean dangerous.

We hear about "pink slime" in beef and chemicals like flame retardant in soda. Food processing news can be unappetizing.

"Some of the things on the list are just downright gross," said Rodale.com Online Editor Leah Zerbe.

The list is from Zerbe's article, titled "The 15 Grossest Things You're Eating." Believe it or not, the list mentions things like maggots in mushrooms and paint thinner in salad dressings.

"They may not necessarily be bad for you like maggots in mushrooms," said Zerbe. "It's really gross but probably not that big of a health problem."

"Gross" doesn't always equal "harmful." Toxicologist Dr. Roger Clemens says techniques like spraying ammonia on beef may not be appealing, but it is effective at killing E. coli.

"It's used for over 30 years, approved by the FDA," said Dr. Clemens, president of the Institute of Food Technologists. "The ammonia is used even for browning reaction in baking goods. It is considered a processing aid."

Clemens wants consumers to understand this rule: "The dose makes the nutrition. The dose makes the poison."

Because some of the ingredients are so minute in quantity, they're not required to be included on the label. Many are used in the processing to get the product from point A to point B.

"So you do something in the middle to make it better or safer, but it's not there," said Clemens. Like the chemical BVO found in soda.

"The problem is, if you ingest a lot of that, you could be dealing with skin lesions or memory loss," said Zerbe.

But realize this: "The government says you can use BVO at 15 parts per million," said Clemens. "That's like 15 grapefruits in a Rose Bowl filled with oranges. It's hard to find."

Yet it has function.

"It suspends the juice solids so in fact we can have an enjoyable beverage, otherwise people would look at the bottom of the beverage and say, 'What's all the sludge?'" said Clemens.

Historically these issues were not a concern when the FDA was looking at safety issues. Well now we have vegans, vegetarians, raw foodies and people concerned about genetic modification, and so that changes the way we think about our food and our health.

"This is why we really tell people to eat organic," said Zerbe.

However, keep this mind: "The organic national program does not mean more nutritious," said Clemens. "It doesn't mean they're more healthful for you. It doesn't mean they're safer you."

Organic or not: "Food safety is everybody's responsibility, from farm to fork, from crop to consumer, everyone's responsible."

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