What do Allura Red, acrylamide, and atrazine have in common? (Aside from alliteration, of course). These three compounds are among the most prevalent within their class of chemicals and have gone under the consumer radar for years. Allura Red is the most popular red food dye; acrylamide can be found in the most popular carbohydrate-rich foods we consume; and atrazine is among the most popular pesticides used in corn crops—itself an incredibly widespread food. Today TellSpec is finally bringing these baddies into the light.
Allura Red AC, otherwise known as Red 40, is the most commonly used red food dye. Derived from petroleum, Allura Red is an azo dye that contains benzidene, a human and animal carcinogen. While studies of toxicity in animals have shown negative effects primarily at very high intake, case reports of human health effects differ somewhat. Indeed recent studies have suggested that consumption of artificial dyes, including Allura Red, in combination with benzoates, a type of preservative, can lead to hyperactive behaviour in children. Now this sounds like a fairly far-fetched concern, however given the prevalence of Allura Red in processed foods–processed foods which are likely to contain benzoate preservatives. Notably, sodium benzoate is used in acidic foods like salad dressings, soft drinks, fruit juice, and jam–all of which are prime targets for a dash of Allura to punch up the Red. Interestingly, Allura Red’s usage is discouraged in Europe and outright banned in certain countries, such as Denmark, Belgium, France, and Switzerland. It is also forbidden from use in animal feed due to concerns over its potential to interact with genetic material.
Whereas Allura’s status as an additive is fairly recent, acrylamide is something that has, as far as we know, been present in food for as long as we’ve been heating our carbohydrate sources–but it is only now coming under scrutiny. Acrylamide is a naturally occurring chemical that develops when high-starch foods meet high-heat (above 248oF or 120oC) cooking (though it is also present in less starchy foods like coffee and high fructose corn syrup.) Baking, frying, grilling, and roasting are associated with the greatest level of acrylamide production, whereas boiling and microwaving starches appears not to generate the compound. Generally speaking, the more browned the starch, the greater its acrylamide content. Something to consider when reaching for another slice of bread, with it’s golden crust, let alone tossing it into the toaster. So why are we focusing now on something that’s been around for ages? Because acrylamide has been classified as probably carcinogenic to humans; high intake has shown neurotoxic effects in humans, including cognitive impairment, muscle weakness, and loss of motor control; and the compound can cross the placenta to interact with the fetus–and maternal acrylamide intake has been associated with low birth weight and poor fetal growth, both of which are predictors for later health risks.
We can see Allura by its distinctive colour, and the golden hue and cooking method gives us a clue about acrylamide, but atrazine is undetectable to the ill-equipped consumer. Atrazine is an herbicide and pesticide, used in a great variety of crops to prevent weed growth. In fact it is reported to be one of the most widely used agricultural pesticides in the US (and Australia… the European Union has banned it entirely) and one of the most common pesticide contaminants of drinking water. What crops are the prime targets and of most relevance to consumers? Sugarcane, canola, and corn–and what processed foods don’t contain sugar, vegetable oils, and corn in some form, be that starch or syrup? Of course atrazine would be present in trace amounts, but awareness is important when we consider the health effects. Atrazine is an endocrine disruptor: it inhibits testosterone production in male rats; it disrupts communication between the brain and ovaries in female rats, likewise interfering with hormone production; and it leads to hermaphroditism in frogs. Atrazine alters thyroid function and levels of corticosteroid hormones–even at the low concentrations expected in ground water. Atrazine exposure has been linked in humans to increased risk of low birth weight and premature birth and impaired fetal development, including malformation of the genitals. Atrazine is also carcinogenic, having induced a variety of types of tumors (including a link to ovarian cancer) in rodent studies, and possibly obesogenic, having been associated with increased body mass and insulin resistance.
So what can the consumer do to avoid these chemicals? For Allura Red, read your labels and accept a duller colour to your food. For acrylamide, while it is important to recall that this compound has always been around, being moderate in one’s consumption of starchy foods (particularly ones best served baked, roasted, or toasted) is an option. For atrazine, invisible that it is, short of lobbying our governments to change their stance on their favourite helper in the corn field, consumers must unfailingly choose organic and settle for uncertainty regarding trace amounts throughout the food stream.
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