“Excuse me waiter, there are chemicals in my soup.”

Beef mince

(Photo credit: jkblacker)

My latest article for the Lake County Record-Bee Green Scene page:

Regular readers of the Timberati blog or the Green Chain column know that I am not chemo-phobic. In fact, I enjoy eating chemicals because all foods are chemicals.

To be afraid of chemicals is to fear our world. We cannot escape chemicals; they surround us. After all, water is a chemical, carbohydrates are chemicals, lipids and proteins are chemicals, amino acids are chemicals, and vitamins are chemicals. In a (chemical) nutshell, without chemicals there is no life. We are made of chemicals, and the chemical reactions in our bodies’ cells turn food into energy so that we may function.

As Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer, said about what people mean when they say “chemical-free,” “They mean a product free — so far as they know — of industrial or synthetic chemical compounds. It’s a concept invented by a marketing genius to sell products…”

We chemically fuel ourselves in the morning. You probably start the day with coffee, as I do; it’s a veritable witches’ brew of 2,000 chemical compounds, including: benzo(a)pyrene, benzaldehyde, benzene, benzofuran, caffeic acid, catechol, 1,2,5,6-dibenz(a)anthracene, ethyl benzene, furan, furfural, hydrogen peroxide, hydroquinone, d-limonene, and 4-methylcatechol. Tea is not much better. In fact, all food is naturally loaded with chemical poisons, toxins, carcinogens and mutagens because Nature put it there.

Consider any potato, organically grown or conventionally grown matters not a whit. It provides three times the calories per acre of rye or wheat and it is easy to grow. It is not sexy but it is filling and nutritious. Yet, “the potato is a regular Chernobyl among vegetables,” writes P. J. O’Rourke in his 1994 book, All the Trouble in the World, “Within the dread spud we find solanine, chaconine, amylase inhibitors, and isonavones —which, respectively, cause gastrointestinal-tract irritation, harm your nervous system, interfere with digestive enzymes, and mimic female sex-hormone activity. An extra helping of au gratin and you’re a toilet-bound neurasthenic hermaphrodite with gas. If you live that long. Potatoes also contain arsenic.”

Potatoes and coffee are but two examples, the point is the presence of natural poisons, toxins, carcinogens and mutagens applies to virtually all foods.

The ‘chemicals are bad’ mantra begins, as Deborah Blum points out, when food producers intentionally put chemicals, synthetic chemicals especially (usually for preserving and extending shelf life), in our food. Never mind that people have practiced food preservation using chemicals for several millennia. For instance they have used sodium chloride (salt), dihydrogen monoxide (water) and acetic acid (vinegar) to preserve various vegetables by pickling them to have them through the winter.

Which brings us to the use of ammonia (NH3) and boneless lean beef trimmings (BLBT) or what detractors, such as U.S. Department of Agriculture whistleblower, Gerald Zirnstein, and celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, sneeringly call ‘Pink Slime.’

On March 7, ABC News ran a story titled, “70 Percent of Ground Beef at Supermarkets Contains ‘Pink Slime’” The story contends that at some time between 1989 and 1993 former undersecretary of agriculture, Joann Smith okayed the use of BLBT over the objections of some USDA scientists, and upon leaving the USDA, was rewarded with an appointment to a board of directors for one of Beef Products, Incorporated’s (BPI) suppliers.

BPI uses centrifuges to separate bits of meat from fat to make BLBT. According to a 2008 story in the Washington Post, around 1998 Eldon Roth and his engineers at BPI, the makers of BLBT, “began working with ammonium hydroxide, a food additive already approved by federal regulators for use in processing cheese, chocolate and soda. It also exists naturally in beef.” Because pathogens such as E.coli O157:H7 are used to the acidic conditions in the intestinal tract, Roth hoped that lowering the pH would “create less hospitable conditions for bacteria.” It did.

There you have it. Around 14 years ago, BPI developed a way to treat bits of meat with a USDA approved anti-microbial food additive that is used in sodas, cheeses and chocolates. In other words, we have been eating ‘Pink Slime’ without complaining for over a decade and swallowing ammonium hydroxide even longer.

No one is accusing BPI of creating an unsafe product, only one that sounds icky.

This is a first-world problem friends, worrying about icky-sounding food. “Until comparatively recently,” Rob Lyons writes in Panic on Plate, “there was only one question that the majority of people needed to ask in relation to food: how will we get enough?”

BPI’s produces safer ground beef, reduces waste and keeps down food costs. Shame on them!

“Waiter, may I have some more chemicals, please?”

Update (3/26/2012):

J. Patrick Boyle of the American Meat Institute has issued a statement about ABC News’ report:

Congratulations, ABC World News. Your relentless coverage and uninformed criticism of a safe and wholesome beef product has now delivered a hook for yet another nightly news broadcast.

Today, a three-week war waged on a beef product called lean finely textured beef came to a painful head as hundreds of people lost their jobs when one of the primary processors shuttered three plants. While lean finely texture beef was given a catchy and clever nickname in ‘pink slime,’ the impact of alarming broadcasts about this safe and wholesome beef product by Jamie Oliver, ABC News and others are no joke to those families that are now out of work.

Lean finely textured beef has been processed for two decades, blended into ground beef at very low levels to enhance the leanness of ground beef and safely consumed. But the frenzy of misinformation that has swirled during the last several weeks gives new meaning to Winston Churchill’s great quote, ‘A lie gets half way around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.’


“70 Percent of Ground Beef at Supermarkets Contains ‘Pink Slime’” ABC News By Jim Avila, Mar 7, 2012 7:52pm http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/headlines/2012/03/70-percent-of-ground-beef-at-supermarkets-contains-pink-slime/ (accessed March 19, 2012)

All the Trouble in the World: The Lighter Side of Overpopulation, Famine, Ecological Disaster, Ethnic Hatred, Plague, and Poverty” by P. J. O’Rourke, 1994

“Ammonium Hydroxide.” Beef Products Inc. http://beefproducts.com/ammonium_hydroxide.php (accessed March 19, 2012)

“BPI Ground Beef Gets Support From Food Safety Leaders” Food Safety News by Dan Flynn Mar 09, 2012

“Chemical-Free Nonsense” Los Angeles Times By Deborah Blum, January 22, 2012. http://articles.latimes.com/2012/jan/22/opinion/la-oe-blum-chemicals-20120122 (accessed March 19, 2012).

“Eating ‘Pink Slime’: Why It’s NBD (No Big Deal).” JetLagged Magazine. http://jetlaggedmagazine.com/snobby-scholar/eating-pink-slime (accessed March 22, 2012).

“Engineering a Safer Burger” Washington Post by Annys Shin, June 12, 2008. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/06/11/AR2008061103656.html?sid=ST2008061200002 (accessed March 19, 2012)

“Lies, damned lies and ‘pink slime’.” Panic on a Plate blog by Rob Lyons. http://www.paniconaplate.com/index.php/site/article/liesdamnedliesandpink_slime/ (accessed March 22, 2012)

“Panic on a Plate: How Society Developed An Eating Disorder” by Rob Lyons, 2011

“Q&A with Elisabeth Hagen, Part II: Poultry, ‘Pink Slime’ and Labeling. ” Food Safety News http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2012/03/qa-with-elisabeth-hagen-part-ii-poultry-pink-slime-and-labeling/ (accessed March 22, 2012)

“Questions and Answers about Ammonium Hydroxide Use in Food Production.” Food Insight. http://www.foodinsight.org/Resources/Detail.aspx?topic=QuestionsandAnswersaboutAmmoniumHydroxideUseinFood_Production (accessed March 19, 2012)

“Thanksgiving dinner hazard.” American Council on Science and Health. http://www.wnd.com/2002/11/16035/ (accessed March 20, 2012).

“The Truth About Jamie Oliver’s ‘Pink Slime’” Huffington Post – UK. http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/rob-lyons/jamie-olivers-pink-slimeb1240983.html (Accessed February 2, 2012)

Post to Twitter

For Mice and Men, Dose Doth Make the Poison


Image by ky_olsen via Flickr

My latest Green Chain column in today’s Lake County Record-Bee:

Every day, I make my wife and myself a cup of coffee. Should I be arrested for spousal abuse? I am serving her a phenol-laced liquid, containing 826 volatile chemical substances, 16 of which are known by the state of California to cause cancer. One cup of this hot and astoundingly delicious pick-me-up contains at least 10 milligrams of known carcinogens including: caffeic acid, catechol, furfural, hydroquinone and hydrogen peroxide.[1]

In one cup, my wife and I take in more carcinogens than we would from one year’s worth of pesticide residue on fruits and vegetables. [2]

Let’s be clear: we are talking about food from plants, not just coffee; you can find naturally occurring carcinogenic chemicals in all kinds of food. Honey contains benzyl acetate. Orange juice and black peppers harbor d-limonene. Brussels sprouts, cabbages, cauliflower, collard greens, and horseradishes contain allyl isothiocyanate. And neochlorogenic acid lurks in apples, apricots, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cherries, coffee, kale, peaches, and pears. These are but a few; the list goes on. Whether the plant was grown without any synthetic pesticides or fertilizers is not the issue.

Just as some plants grow spines to hinder grazing, plants produce their own chemical pesticides, to combat predators and competitors. No human put them there. These natural pesticides help the plant ward off insects and animals and even other plants. That is why you will find chemicals such as allyl isothiocyanate and/or neochlorogenic acid in apples, apricots, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbages, cherries, coffee, collard greens, horseradishes, kale, peaches, and pears. The plants themselves developed the chemicals.

Researchers apply the Ames test to determine if a chemical has mutagenic (potentially cancer causing) properties. Developed in the 1970s, the Ames test doses bacteria, which reproduce rapidly, with the chemical being tested to see if mutations result. At that time scientists assumed only a small number of substances would cause cancer. Instead about half of the chemicals tested, whether man-made or natural, turn up positive as being rodent carcinogens. [3] So, Dr. Ames (the man who developed the cancer tests) notes we need to “rethink what we’re doing with animal cancer testing.”

“We’re eating natural pesticides,” Dr. Ames points out, “And we eat roughly 1,500 milligrams of them per day. We eat 0.09 milligrams of synthetic pesticide residues.” [4] In other words, each day we eat over 16,600 times more natural pesticide than synthetic.

Exposure to pesticides isn’t the same as toxicity because the toxicity of a substance depends on the amount. Even that chemical which our life needs, dihydrogen oxide (H2O, water), can be poisonous if you drink too much of it. As Paracelsus, the so-called father of toxicology, noted, “All things are poison, and nothing is without poison; only the dose permits something not to be poisonous.” [5] Or, as it’s paraphrased, “Dose makes the poison.”

About a month ago in the original Peet’s Coffeehouse in Berkeley, I stood behind a woman quizzing the barista if Peet’s used chemicals to produce its decaffeinated coffee. (Never mind that the Swiss Water Process uses water, a chemical composed of two hydrogen atoms bonded to one oxygen atom.) The barista assured her the levels of the chemicals used were too low to be of concern (“Dose makes the poison”). I pointed out that coffee already has 16 chemicals known to be carcinogenic; why worry about the minuscule amount of synthetic ones. She frowned at me. I think her next purchase was to be a chemical-free chemistry set for her grandson. (You think I made that up? “Chemistry 60” with its “60 fun activities with no chemicals” costs $21.88 on Amazon.com [6]. Don’t the makers know that water is…oh never mind.)

The moral of this story is eating fruits and vegetables that have many of these chemicals is much healthier for you than avoiding them. The jury remains deadlocked on the coffee.

[1] Ames, Bruce N., M Profet, AND Lois Swirsky Gold, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 87, pp. 7777-7781, October 1990, Medical Sciences, “Dietary pesticides (99.99% all natural)

[2] Dr. Bruce Ames, Reason Magazine, Of Mice and Men (http://reason.com/archives/1994/11/01/of-mice-and-men/singlepage)

[3] Ames writes in Spiked.com, “The main rule in toxicology is that ‘the dose makes the poison‘. At some level, every chemical becomes toxic, but there are safe levels below that.

“In contrast to that rule, a scientific consensus evolved in the 1970s that we should treat carcinogens differently, that we should assume that even low doses might cause cancer, even though we lacked the methods for measuring carcinogenic effects at low levels. In large part, this assumption was based on the idea that mutagens – chemicals that cause changes in DNA – are carcinogens and that the risk of mutations was directly related to the number of mutagens introduced into a cell.

It was also assumed that:

1. only a small proportion of chemicals would have carcinogenic potential;

2. testing at a high dose would not produce a carcinogenic effect unique to the high dose; and

3. carcinogens were likely to be synthetic industrial chemicals.

It is time to take account of information indicating that all three assumptions are wrong.”


[4] Ibid

[5] http://learn.caim.yale.edu/chemsafe/references/dose.html

[6] http://www.amazon.com/Elenco-Electronics-Inc-EDU-7075-Chem/dp/B002MR05HM/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1308866720&sr=8-1

Post to Twitter