Back in the wildly free and untroubled days of 2007, newspaper headlines would have had you believe that food additives were going to be the cause of the apocalypse. While the subject has dropped in and out of news cycles ever since, the stigma about additives has never really gone away. As someone with a degree in nutrition, and my course leader being a toxicology expert, this has come to be one of my pet peeves (alongside student loans), particularly as there are some things lurking in our diets that pose a much bigger threat.
- Unfriendly Microbes.
At one time or another, we have all experienced the unpleasant side effects of ingesting microbes not meant to be ingested. Salmonella and certain species of E.Coli can cause a short period of evacuating the contents of the digestive system (isn’t it just amazing how much the digestive system can hold?), but for the majority of us no further effects are felt. There are, however, rarer microbes that can cause more problems; those problems being suspiciously grim reaper shaped.
Take the wonderfully named Listeria Monocytogenes, most famous for being the reason pregnant women are told to avoid soft cheese. This little gem can cause Listeriosis, which has a staggering mortality rate of 24%, and can cause miscarriages and neonatal death, as well as more cheerful things like meningitis.
Before the internet loses its mind and starts lobbying against soft cheeses, it should be said that cases are rare. Still, speaking from personal experience, meningitis is probably best avoided.
Then there are the things that microbes leave behind.
Clostridium Botulinum produces the deadliest toxin in the entire universe, to our knowledge. Admittedly, getting people to sign up for space exploration programmes to find an even deadlier toxin is proving difficult, but that’s beside the point.
Botulinum toxin blocks nerve function, causing paralysis and eventually death by not-being-able-to-move-the-diaphragm asphyxiation. It also happens to be what people inject into their faces to maintain that youthful plastic look we all desire, so at least the insides of your intestines will look nice when you absorb it.
Again, cases are rare, but also probably best avoided given the 5 – 10% mortality rate.
- Party Pooper; Not a Fungi.
I’m sure you’ll be delighted to know that microbes aren’t the only thing found in foods that are way more dangerous than additives.
Much like Clostridium Botulinum some fungi are able to produce toxins, albeit less deadly ones. Included in this group are the Ergot alkaloids from Claviceps species, which just so happens to have LSD as one of their many chemical derivatives. The most significant toxin of these, however, is from the Aspergillus species which can produce a family of toxins called aflatoxins.
To cut a long story short, the prolonged consumption of aflatoxins causes liver cancer. You’re unlikely to immediately drop dead after consuming this toxin, which must be a comforting thought if you’ve made it this far through the article, but that may simply be because it’s biding its time and choosing a more convenient moment to murder you. Think positive.
Hard-core Agatha Christie fans (a series of words I never expected to write) will know what cyanide, the world’s most famous poison, smells like; almonds. That would be because almonds are full of the stuff.
Obviously you may be wondering why everyone who has ever consumed an almond hasn’t dropped dead; we roast them (the heat kind, not the insult kind). The heat triggers a chemical reaction which gets rid of the cyanide, and we can safely eat them without becoming the next unfortunate subject of an Agatha Christie book.
Just to help you sleep at night, cyanide can also be found in cherry stones and apple pips. While swallowing apple pips doesn’t result in internal apple tree growth, consume too many of them (an insane amount), and you could become a victim of cyanide poisoning yourself. Safe to say an apple a day isn’t guaranteed to keep the doctor away.
- Essential Nutrient Vitamin A.
To the people who say you can never have too much of a good thing, I present to you; science – taking the fun out of everything forever.
Vitamin A is an essential nutrient needed for survival, and plays important roles in the immune system and eyesight among other things. Unfortunately vitamin A dissolves in fat, which means that if you get too much of it, you don’t flush it down the toilet if you catch my meaning. Instead, it gets stored with the rest of the fat, where it accumulates. The liver works itself senseless trying to process the extra vitamin A, but eventually the point of no return will be reached, and death becomes imminent.
So now you know; even something that is essential for survival can go ahead and kill you anyway, and there’s no justice in this bleak universe.
- All-natural Fruit Sugar.
The food industry likes to use the words “natural” and “organic” a lot because people think that means “healthy”. What it actually means is “I’m going to charge you more for this”.
We all know that fruit is good for us. It’s rich in fibre and nutrients, particularly vitamin C, and its low in calories. Unfortunately even fruit has turned against us with an all-natural sugar it produces; fructose.
The problem stems from the fact that humans were never meant to have year-round access to fruit, which only comes in season once a year without our intervention. Therefore the body simply never produced a mechanism to process fructose, and so the liver uncontrollably turns fructose into fats at a tremendous rate, this fat then being linked to a plethora of conditions like obesity and diabetes. For a few weeks of the year the liver could manage this with ease, but not on a constant basis.
The main cause of fructose damage is actually not fruit itself, but high-fructose corn syrup, so continuing to eat fruit regularly remains a good thing. This simply goes to prove that a typically healthy, organic, all-natural food still contains dangers far in excess of additives.
Also water and fortification with vitamins and minerals count as additives. So unless water is bad for us now…