Periodically independent research raises the alarm about the possible negative health impact of chemicals in commercially produced food and drink. While some scientists play down the risk factor, others warn of the cumulative effect when certain products are consumed in excess, or regularly over a protracted time period. However it's not always easy for the average consumer to get accurate information about potential dangers because industries have their own testing procedures and spin doctors in some cases, ready and willing to challenge negative findings.
Unlike microbiological agents, chemical contaminants in commercial food and drink are unaffected by thermal processing. Aside from known contaminants, researchers are also referring to so-called "emerging food contaminants" such as benzene, perchrorate, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) furan and others.
There is good reason to look more carefully at what we eat and drink these days. While there may be debate about the health hazards of additives, there is no debating the fact that we are absorbing more chemicals in combination. A chemical ingested alone in minute quantities isn't as much of a hazard as the combined effect, even when the amounts ingested are very low. The London School of Pharmacy did some research on this and it found that low doses of different chemicals work together to create a 'significant combination'.
Not all of the chemicals found in food products are added during the preparation process. Dutch researchers found that chemicals get into our food from both packaging sources and the environment. Their research uncovered an odd pot pourri of unintentional additives such as pesticides, flame retardants and phthalate chemical compounds present in plastics.
More alarming is the recent claim coming from a researcher in the UK that preservatives found in fizzy drinks of the pop variety, have the ability to interfere with DNA functioning. The main concern is focused on E211, or sodium benzoate, used as a preservative.
Professor Peter Piper, a professor of molecular biology and biotechnology at Sheffield University, tested sodium benzoate on living yeast cells in the lab. He discovered that the benzoate damaged DNA in the cells known as mitochondria. He described the damage as "severe" to the point where the DNA is inactivated – completely shuts down. Professor Piper gave more details about the possible health impact to The Independent on Sunday. You can link to the full story here.
An additional concern, is the evidence of benzene contamination in soft drinks, a debate that is ongoing after a number of well publicized studies in 2006. A test conducted by Beverage Daily for example, revealed that in some drinks benzene levels were as much as five times over the limit set by the World Health Organization for drinking water. The Times of London reported in 2006 that only 100 of 230 soft drinks tested for benzene met the standard for UK water. Some of the drinks high in benzene were as much as eight times over the limit. Even bottles of reputedly pristine Perrier Water were discovered not so long ago with unacceptably high levels of benzene, something the company put down to a production glitch.
How you might ask does benzene end up in commercial drinks? Well it does not. The sodium or potassium benzoate, used as a preservative in drinks, forms benzene when it interacts with ascorbic acid (vitamin C). This chemical reaction is accelerated when the drink is exposed to light or heat.
Part of the problem is the wide range of results recorded in the various tests. This introduces an elevated risk factor which is disguised since consumers have no way of knowing if the drink they purchase contains unacceptably high benzene levels. FDA testing confirms this wide range in results. In tests conducted on 100 beverages in 2006, the FDA reported low levels in most drinks but with two showing levels as much as 15-18 times above the drinking water standard.
Although benzene is a known cancer causing carcinogen, these findings should be kept in context. We breathe in benzene during a stroll down a city street and while filling up at a gas station. It is present in cigarette smoke – also in food and water in tiny amounts. The risk factor though is particularly tricky to assess with soft drinks as witnessed by the variability of the test results and the difficulty of establishing a standard across the board. The risk also fairly obviously relates to the type of drink preferred and the quantity consumed. If a young person has developed the habit of drinking copious amounts of pop, this presents a higher risk than the occasional drink. In one study a boy who had experienced excessive weight gain admitted to drinking as many as seven to ten cans of pop a day.
Aside from hazards associated with preservatives, there are other health risks that have conclusively been linked to soft drink consumption. A Yale study determined that consumption of soft drinks is associated with increased caloric intake, elevated body weight, decrease in calcium and other nutrients, and increased risk of Type 2 diabetes.
The Yale report also points out that studies funded by the food industry were less likely to show detrimental effects from the consumption of soft drinks than studies that receive no industry funding – no surprise there.