One of the national government’s positive missions has been to grow the food that we need in Sri Lanka instead of busting up millions of dollars to import junk food or processed rubbish. As a tropical paradise, Sri Lanka has been blessed with thousands of varieties of nutritious vegetables, grains and fruits and we need to be aware of the need not just to eat well but to eat wisely.
According to physician and nutritionist Dr. Al Sears we need to monitor what chemicals go into our food. And even when there’s science to prove the health risks of new ingredients, the authorities drag their feet. It can take years or even decades before the authorities pull harmful additives out of the market.
He says that when a processor wants to add a new chemical to food, the authorities do not
require testing. The food company just sends a notice to the officials saying the ingredient is “generally recognized as safe” or as safe.
In other words, the food industry tells the authorities what’s safe instead of the other way round. The officials allow untested and unsafe ingredients in the market. And once they are in the market they usually just stay there.
The officials rarely yank safe status and sadly when they do, it usually only happens when people get sick and die. Dr. Al Sears says for example, in the United States it happened with partially hydrogenated oils or trans fats (Margarines). They were considered safe for years. But in 2013 the US Food and Drugs Administration (UDA) withdrew it’s safe status after these fats were linked to serious heart disease. Yet the FDA still permits trans fats at low levels in foods.
Artificial food colourings are another example. At least six of them were considered safe for years and later banned by the FDA. Two others -- Red No.3 and caramel colouring used in colas -- have been found to cause cancer in animals. But the FDA still lists them as safe.
There’s another so-called safe ingredient we need to reflect upon, Dr. Al sears says.
It’s widely used in food products in the US even though it’s banned in the European Union.
It’s called carrageenan. This common food additive is extracted from red seaweed (Chondrus crispus). It’s sometimes called Irish moss. Carrageenan has no nutritional value. It’s used as a thickener and emulsifier. Food companies add it to improve the texture of ice cream, yogurt, cottage cheese, soy milk, almond milk, chicken stock, deli meats and other processed foods.
There are two forms of carrageenan -- degraded and food grade. In animal studies, the degraded form has been proven to cause tumours. The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies it as a possible human carcinogen.
But food grade carrageenan isn’t much better. Tests show that the food grade type also contains some of the degraded form -- in some cases as much as 25%, Dr. Al Sears says.
The food grade version can become degraded. When we eat food-grade carrageenan, it can break down and become degraded in the gastrointestinal tract. It also becomes degraded with exposure to heat, bacteria and mechanical processing.
Even the food grade version has been shown to cause inflammation and colon cancer in animals. It causes the same kind of inflammation that is the root cause of many serious diseases.
In Sri Lanka, the Consumer Protection Authority responsible for food safety needs to play a much bigger role in making the people aware of unsafe or dangerous substances in some of the imported junk foods or processed food that we are importing and giving even to children.