FoodPolitik: Science Literacy Month

Richard Berman President, Berman and Company
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If you have school-age kids, you might know that February was National Science Literacy Month. Once you get past the baking-soda-and-vinegar experiments, it’s also important that grown-ups know their hydrogen peroxides from their dihydrogen monoxides. (Google it.)

Why not declare May “Adult Science Literacy Month”?

If you want to understand the news — at least the news about food, energy or the environment — it’s important to have some basic knowledge about science. Otherwise, you find yourself consistently at the mercy of shallow scientific claims passed off by crafty advocates.

We see this in news stories about chemicals in our food. People have a natural fear of putting “chemicals” in their bodies. Our minds summon pictures of test tubes, protective goggles and frothing glass flasks. But a cup of coffee, morning relief for millions, contains more than 1,000 chemicals — some with appetizing names like “1,2,5,6-dibenz(a)anthracen.”

News broke last month that scientists had discovered two scary-sounding chemicals in the caramel coloring used in some soft drinks. They’re called 2-methylimidazole and 4-methylimidazole (“2MeI” and “4MeI” for short). Yummy, right? And an activist group called the Center for Science in the Public Interest (you may know them as the nation’s “food police”) now claims this coloring can cause cancer.

Before you drop your pop, remember the basic rule of toxicology: The dose makes the poison. A high enough dose of almost anything can — and let’s emphasize “can” — cause a negative health effect. Drinking too much water can kill you. (It’s called hyponatremia.) Too much Vitamin C can be fatal, too.

So how dangerous is this soft-drink coloring? You’d have to drink 1,000 cans of soda every day (for life!) to reach the level of chemical exposure that caused cancer in lab-rat studies.

Most people understand the basics of drug dosages. You wouldn’t give your 2 -year-old and your spouse the same dose of a pain reliever. But for some reason it’s difficult to apply the same basic logic to chemicals with scary names.

One reason the market for organic foods has grown so quickly is the activist campaigns hyping pesticide residues on conventional fruits and vegetables. Most farmers use synthetic pesticides, and if you don’t wash your grapes you can end up eating a parts-per-trillion (that is, super-duper miniscule) level of a man-made pesticide.

But UC-Berkeley biochemist Bruce Ames estimates that 99.9 percent of the pesticides people ingest are natural, not synthetic. Many plants produce their own bug-killing and pest-thwarting chemicals; we consume 5,000 to 10,000 of them on a regular basis.

These “natural” pesticides are A-OK in organic agriculture, but they’re not dangerous because the dose is ridiculously low. The same is true of man-made pesticides. (If you’re concerned anyway, just wash your produce.)

Professor Ames put it like this during a 1994 interview: “People got in their head, well, if it’s man-made somehow it’s potentially dangerous, but if it’s natural, it isn’t. That doesn’t really fit with anything we know about toxicology.”

Food writer Michael Pollan writes that people shouldn’t eat foods containing ingredients they can’t pronounce. Pollan’s beef is generally with foods that have been “processed” to help preserve their flavor or color. These additives have technical names like “calcium propionate,” but there’s nothing wrong with them health-wise.

It’s helpful to remember that many of the people making a big fuss over chemicals in our food have their own agendas. Pollan and many organic-only activists want everybody to buy organic in order to economically punish big food companies they don’t like. The Center for Science in the Public Interest’s leaders want to stigmatize foods they considers “bad,” including fizzy drinks.

Whatever their motivation, activists recognize and exploit every day the fact that very few of us have chemistry degrees. But there’s no reason most Americans can’t add a healthy dose of skepticism to their grocery lists.

We live in a chemical soup, and a vanishingly small dash of this or that doesn’t greatly impact our health one way or another. Once we understand this basic scientific idea, dinner isn’t such an unpalatable thing.

Rick Berman is President of the public affairs firm Berman and Company. He has worked extensively in the food and beverage industries for the past 30 years. To learn more, visit http://www.BermanCo.com.

Richard Berman