Sometimes, Food Additives Are Pretty Innocuous

Guest

Robert Gravani, food science professor, Cornell University

The uproar over what critics call "pink slime" in some ground beef refocused attention on what's in the food we eat. Most packaged foods contain at least one item you wouldn't recognize. But many food experts caution that just because you don't know an ingredient doesn't mean you shouldn't eat it.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

By now, pretty much everyone knows that if you treat beef trimmings and fatty tissues with antimicrobial ammonium hydroxide, you get what markets label as lean, finely textured beef, also known as pink slime. The controversy over the cafeteria hamburger additive raises the question, why do we add ingredients to our food in the first place? Do you read the list of ingredients on the side of the package?

Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Robert Gravani is a professor of food science at Cornell University, joins us on the campus there in Ithaca, New York. Welcome to the program.

DR. ROBERT GRAVANI: Thank you, Neal. It's nice to be here today.

CONAN: And I understand you teach a class called Food Choices and Issues. Yesterday's topic was food additives. So why do we put additives in our food?

GRAVANI: Absolutely very important. If you think about what these substances are, they're really added to foods for very specific purposes. And certainly one of the things that we're interested in is maintaining and improving nutritional value. Clearly, we want to enhance the quality and maintain the freshness of foods. We want to reduce waste. We really want to make more foods readily available to consumers. And when feeding 310 million people in the United States, we really need to think about how we can transport this food from place to place and make sure that it's available when people want it.

Additives are also used to improve consumer acceptability, and they also aid in facilitating the production processing and preparation of foods. There are thousands of them. They're in about 12 major groups. And clearly, we as a society wouldn't be where we are today without food additives. Think about the things we take for granted in our foods. We have no major nutritional diseases that we can think of because of the nutrient addition to various products, like - we've eliminated, basically, the nutritional deficiency disease called pellagra by adding niacin to our bread products and our flours.

We think about iodized salt. I doubt anybody has seen in the United States a case of goiter, that we've eliminated that by adding iodine to our salt. So there's a lot of very good reasons to add these substances to foods. And many times the scientific names of them are very disconcerting to consumers. But I think today in our conversation, hopefully we can provide some perspectives about these products that will shed some light on why they're there and the importance that they play, the function that they play in our foods and in our food supply.

CONAN: And these are most present, I would think, in processed foods. And we've sent you a list of some of the ingredients. And the packaged lunch that one of our colleagues ate earlier today, this is a rice dish that cooks in 90 seconds, no washing, no refrigeration needed. And she reports it tastes pretty good. Nothing scary in the ingredients, but a lot of things that I just don't know what they are. What is ferrous sulfate? What is that doing? It's, I think, the fourth ingredient.

GRAVANI: Well, ferrous sulfate is an iron compound. And clearly that is there to enhance the nutritional quality of that product. There are some names that most people can't pronounce. And I think, certainly, manufacturers and companies around the world are trying to simplify their labels and providing some of these ingredients in plain English terms whenever available, so people have an understanding of why that particular ingredient is there. I think it's very important to look at the reasons we add them.

Companies don't just add products or substances just for the sake of adding them. They have some functional purpose in the production or preparation or the appeal of that particular product to consumers. And I think we need to keep those kinds of things in the back our mind as we look at some ingredients that are maybe difficult to pronounce. But hopefully some of these clean labeling designs are going to help consumers understand why a product like, let's say, citric acid is present in a product to provide some flavor. There may be some antimicrobial nature to it. We've got to preserve our foods to allow that shelf life to be maintained over time.

CONAN: Well, we...

GRAVANI: Again, it's not about adding products, substances to foods to make bad foods good. I think that's an important perspective to share. We want to make sure that we start off with excellent quality materials and use these additives to maintain that quality, to maintain the microbiological safety of the products and move forward in that regard.

CONAN: Sometimes the confusion is not in the terminology of the additive but the modifier, for example, modified cornstarch. We know what cornstarch is. Modified makes us a little nervous.

GRAVANI: Or, for instance, hydrolyzed, which means breaking down a particular product. If you look at an ingredient that says hydrolyzed wheat protein, it just means it's broken down into its amino acid components, and it could be added as a flavoring for that particular product that we're looking at.

CONAN: There was something in this lunch that's called autolyzed yeast extract.

GRAVANI: These are yeasts that are grown, and they reach a stage in their life that they then die and they autolyze. That is they break apart, and that yeast extract is used as a flavoring agent for this particular product.

CONAN: Let's see if we got some callers in on the conversation. Do you read the list of ingredients on the side of the package? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Julie(ph) is on the line with us from Fort Collins in Colorado.

JULIE: Hi. I'm Julie. Thank you for letting me speak today.

CONAN: Go ahead, you're on the air.

JULIE: I have a question on all the additives. The question is, if you can - I read labels all the time. My son has food allergies. So the question is, if you can find more natural products that are fresher and not use - or organic or other things that use less ingredients for additives, and you can find the same kind of food with a ton of ingredients that have, you know, so many additives that the list is more than a dozen different names, like the lunch you were explaining. So I don't understand why the need for all of those when there's clearly a market out there, and there's the desire for foods that have less additives, and they're still delicious and fresh and healthier as far as nutritional value.

CONAN: Robert Gravani?

GRAVANI: Yes, Julie. I think I agree with you totally. I think that, in our country, we are - we have a multitude of choices available, and certainly with your situation of a child with a food allergy, it's very important to make sure that those products do not contain that specific allergen that your child is allergic to. Just as an aside, I hope that you've touched base with the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network in Washington, D.C., suburbs. They have an outstanding website and some very, very good information and materials for food-allergic consumers. And you can reach them at FAAN, F-A-A-N, and an excellent resource if you haven't already checked it out.

CONAN: Well...

JULIE: Thank you.

CONAN: Julie, thanks very much for the call. But just to expand on her point, some people believe that these additives are there to increase profits of shelf life and to make products more attractive, nevertheless that they're really not that good for us, and we'd be better off eating those fresher and more natural ingredients.

GRAVANI: Well, remember, too, that these serve a specific need. And when we look at the level of use of these additives, their level of use is relatively insignificant in our total human diet. And, again, choice is a great thing. If we're looking for convenience, if we're looking for products that fulfill our needs as consumers, we can, indeed, go to these products and have those, the taste appeal, the quality, the safety, the nutritional components, et cetera, in these products, as well as other alternatives that are on the market. So choice is a great thing. And, again, I think once people kind of think about what some of these products are and how long they've been being added to foods back in the 1800s, 1700s, where we're extracting things from algae and gums to add stability and thickening to our foods.

Let me give you an example. The use of gums in foods. How do you think are poppy seeds stick to our bagels? Use of gums. Gums are extracts from trees or from seeds, and they provide thickening. Some of them are from algal sources, algae in the sea, that they're extracted from. They provide a thickening, products that have been used for a long time in various cultures around the world. So, again, these weren't necessarily new, synthetic additives. They're - there's a wide variety...

CONAN: They look like that on the label, so.

GRAVANI: Yeah. Well, sometimes, it's hard to find a term, a non-scientific term to describe it, and I think that's an important perspective as well.

CONAN: Let's go next to Robert. Robert with us from Vacaville in California.

ROBERT: Good afternoon, gentlemen.

CONAN: Hi.

ROBERT: I'm an attorney and I read a lot, and I read a lot of labels. And I think I'm a savvy consumer. But one question is, when we are inundated with two sides of the same story - for example, the high fructose corn syrup, one group says it's bad, one group says it's good - how do we know which is - which to believe and, you know, who is the advertiser? I mean, how, as a consumer, do we resolve those kinds of questions when...

CONAN: You know...

ROBERT: ...with the profit margin?

CONAN: ...every one of these gets advocates on both sides, yeah.

GRAVANI: Absolutely. Great question, Robert. I think you have to go to credible sources. And I may be a little biased in this answer, but I think you go to university professors and professionals who do research in the area, who don't work for companies, who have no ax to grind either way, to get solid, sound, scientific information. You can certainly also go to a number of scientific societies, and I know there are people who would criticize some of those as well.

But, clearly, an organization like the Institute of Food Technologists, where 18,000 food technologists around the world address many of these issues in chemistry, in microbiology and product technology, and new product development, clearly have some unbiased answers for some of the questions that consumers have. Also, land-grant universities, cooperative extension associations in various counties around the country are all very, very important and credible sources. With our Internet situation and the ability to get a lot of information very, very quickly, I think we all recognize that some of that information is opinion, is personal perspective, is not necessarily scientifically sound.

And everybody's entitled to an opinion, and certainly, you know, we respect some of those opinions. But clearly, there's some scientific inaccuracies in many of those perspectives, and we need to take this all into consideration. So I think credible sources are important. And again, if you look at some of the consumer survey information out there, people highly regard university professors who are independent and do research in many of these areas.

CONAN: Robert, thanks very much for the call.

ROBERT: Thank you.

CONAN: Our guest is Robert Gravani, professor of food science at Cornell, with us from a studio there in Ithaca, New York. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And here's an email from Anne(ph) in Edina, Minnesota, following up on the allergy call earlier: Our family has to completely avoid MSG and corn syrup and the other high-fructose ingredients that we all read the contents between migraines and our inability to digest high fructose. This is very important. And this follow up from Ruby(ph): I've heard that autolyzed yeast protein and other such products are the same as or release the same chemical as MSG. Can you tell us all the ways that MSG might show up under other names?

GRAVANI: Certainly can't tell you all those things. As we said, there are thousands and thousands of additives, and all of them have very specific functions, so I apologize for not being able to address all of those. But clearly, when you autolyze the yeast, the contents of that yeast enhance some flavors. There are various compounds in those yeasts that do that. And while I'm not exactly familiar with the specific structure or substances in those, they do contribute to the flavor of the product.

CONAN: Let's go next to Kevin, Kevin with us from Plymouth in Michigan.

KEVIN: Yes, hi. I'm a self-entitled foodie, and I always read the label on my food, looking to avoid any artificial flavoring or sweeteners or genetically modified foods, which I studied as an undergrad, and the like. And the reason why is because when I was a child, my doctor used to keep a jar of just peanut butter on his desk, open and uncovered. And as I remember, it was there for about seven years and still looked and felt like the day it was opened. And the lesson was how something so obviously altered from its original state is going to react with our bodies and, you know, my thought is, well, why risk it?

GRAVANI: I'll bet you that some of that product that was wide open for that many years was awfully rancid and probably - maybe it looked OK, but clearly, would not taste very OK because of the oxidative rancidity that probably occurred in that product.

KEVIN: Yeah, I certainly wouldn't eat it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GRAVANI: No, and I concur.

CONAN: And I bet he didn't either.

KEVIN: No, no.

GRAVANI: I think that was - perhaps, he left that there as a conversation piece to stir some interesting discussions.

KEVIN: Indeed.

CONAN: Kevin, thanks very much.

KEVIN: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email from Matthew: I recently compared two major brands of cottage cheese, each with similar prices and expiration date. Why does one have three ingredients - cream, culture, vitamin A - and one have 33 ingredients?

GRAVANI: Well, you know, I think it's very important in a case like that that consumers contact the company who makes the product and ask them that very question.

CONAN: Oh, none of us are going to do that.

GRAVANI: Oh, no, I think that's very important. I think that's - the consumer's ability to ask the company that produces that product, the answer to that question, which is a very good question. I think they need to go to the source and say, OK, how come you've got this many ingredients in this particular product?

CONAN: Well, won't most of us simply look at that and say, similar price, three ingredients versus 33, I'm going for brand X?

GRAVANI: I think that's the choice aspect that I talked about before. That's the beauty of where we live, and we can certainly make those choices based on our own feelings and knowledge of the issues.

CONAN: This email from Michael: Why aren't food companies listing things including the pesticides they use on nuts and produce or the gas sprayed on commercially produced tomatoes as part of the ingredients? I'm currently eating some raw almonds from Trader Joe's. They're not organic, if that makes a difference, so I assume some type of pesticide was sprayed on the tree. I also assume some residuals from those sprays end up in the final product.

GRAVANI: I think if you look at pesticide residues in foods and you look at - and you live in California, I believe. If you look at the California Department of Agriculture and the other departments that regulate pesticides, you look at the FDA's pesticide residue report every year, you look at various states that test produce and other products, you will see that the violative rates of pesticide residues in foods are very, very, very low. And again, they do multi-screens. They look for a multiplicity of pesticides and their analytes. And if you look at the data over time, the residue levels are very low.

There are some groups that want us to believe that these are very high and they're killing us, and I don't think that's the case at all. And I encourage you to go to some of the websites, the FDA website, the California Department of Ag website, and look at some of these pesticide residue levels in the market basket studies they do and fruits and vegetables that they look at as well.

CONAN: Robert Gravani, thanks very much for your time today.

GRAVANI: Thank you very much, Neal, and really appreciated sharing these perspectives with your listeners.

CONAN: Robert Gravani, professor of food science at Cornell. Tomorrow, Jennifer Ludden will be here with a look at how many schools are reading - raising needed cash. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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