On the main floor of a red brick building in west-end Toronto, there is a laboratory where scientists in white coats work silently with test tubes and microscopes amid tight security and the glow from fluorescent lights and computer screens. The laboratory is owned by Canada Packers Inc., the nation’s biggest food producer and its largest manufacturer of processed meats. The centre’s 80 microbiologists, food chemists and technicians are part of a $7million-a-year research and development program. Its objectives: to develop new products—closely guarded from the competition—monitor the quality of existing ones and explore the use of food additives, chemicals that preserve quality, texture, appearance and shelf life.
Drugs: The growth in the use of food additives since the Second World War has created a controversy fuelled by consumer and scientific activists who say that many of the chemicals should be prohibited. One argument is that certain food chemicals cause cancer or other abnormalities in test animals, which makes the substances not worth the risk. A second argument is that scientists do not know enough about how additives react in the body with the chemicals from polluted air, cosmetics and drugs. On the other side of the debate are members of the federal Health Protection Branch—which says that the 330 additives permitted in Canada have been thoroughly tested and are safe—and the country’s 3,500 food processors and manufacturers, who argue that without the chemical preservatives, emulsifiers, colors and drying agents, their products would quickly become unappealing or contaminated and likely both.
But manufacturers say that they are not solely interested in getting additives into food; there are some that they would like to remove. An example is sodium nitrite, a preservative used in a wide range of processed beef, pork and chicken to prevent the growth of such bacteria as the one that causes the often-fatal botulism. But nitrite has another aspect, as well. When meat containing it is cooked, the nitrite can combine with the protein in the meat to form compounds called nitrosamines, which readily cause cancer in laboratory animals. Because bacon is thinly sliced and usually cooked at a high temperature, the nitrite-protein
reaction occurs rapidly. At the Canada Packers research centre, scientists are trying to find a way of reducing the amount of sodium nitrite added to bacon.
Company research director Bern
Schnyder says that consumers must realize that long-distance transportation and storage make many additives essential. Said Schnyder: “The problem is that you cannot eliminate something you need until you find a satisfactory replacement.”
Even critics of food additives con-
cede that some of them are, if not essential, at least safe. Michael Jacobson, director of the activist Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, said that although some food chemicals pose a risk, “it would be fair
to say that many are perfectly safe.” And Susan Daglish, executive director of the national Allergy Information Association, said that she did not “deplore the use of food chemicals that protect people from bacteria and keep the cost of food down—as long as labels tell me what is in a product,
and I can choose whether to eat it.”
However, manufacturers have mixed views about whether detailed lists of chemical ingredients on labels, which the federal Food and Drugs Act requires, really enlighten the average shopper. Said Dewey Peterson, director of scientific and consumer affairs for Kellogg Salada Canada Inc.: “What people don’t realize is that all foods, even apples and oranges, have natural chemicals. The implication that chemicals are bad signals a lack of understanding and a need for improved education where food additives are concerned.”
Paired: But officials at General Foods Inc. said that it is trying to remove some of the mystery from labelling. Said Ronald Knight, the food giant’s manager of technical affairs: “There is a general feeling that if you can’t pronounce it, you shouldn’t eat it.” As a result, the company has embarked on a program to introduce what it calls “user-friendly” labels on which chemical names are paired with simple definitions in plain English. For example, the emulsifier carrageenan is described as a “thickener,” and the flavoring agent adipic acid “provides tartness.”
Simplifying labels is part of an industry-wide campaign to answer consumer demands for information. Knight said that executives at General Foods, aware of the growing popularity of so-called natural foods, have responded to “contemporary attitudes” by introducing three new fruit-and-fibre cereals, which do not contain the preservative BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole).
Shop: Consumer advocates say that most preservatives could be discontinued with a return to decentralized merchandising, a system under which people could shop more often, in stores closer to them, for food to be prepared and eaten within a day or two. But industry spokesmen claim that cannot be done in a highly urbanized society. Zan Lyon, the quality assurance manager at Weston’s Bakery in Toronto, said that durable ready-to-eat products meet the needs of households in which both husband and wife work. Said Lyon: “How many women want to stay home and bake bread?” Weston’s bakes 4,000 loaves of bread an hour, adding the mould-inhibitor calcium propionate to 10-foot-long cast-iron bins filled with dough to make the bread last longer. Echoing General Foods’ Ronald Knight, Lyon added, “Industry is just responding to what the customer wants.”
Food manufacturers were not always as aware of what the customer wanted. In 1895 Pearl Wait of LeRoy,
N.Y., developed a new dessert and struggled unsuccessfully for two years to find a market. Finally, he gave up in frustration and sold the patent for $450 to a neighbor, Orator F. Woodward. The product: Jell-O. General Foods Inc., the current manufacturer of the most popular dessert in North
America, said that the flavored gelatin did not sell because “women of that era were not used to work savers in the kitchen. A housewife was the subject of gossip if she did not stand over a hot coal stove and bake bread and pies in addition to the usual dusting, cleaning, mending, cooking and gardening.”
Fast: Now, said Diane Kirkpatrick, director of the Health Protection Branch’s Bureau of Chemical Safety, food additives have become necessary “if consumers are to have the foods they apparently want— the processed foods. I always have one or two fast foods in my freezer just in case it’s one of those days where things haven’t gone just right, and you need something quick.” Richard Ronk, deputy director of food safety and applied nutrition for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, added that much of the controversy over additives arises from popular misconceptions about the nature of food itself. Said Ronk: “Food itself is a series of chemi-
cals. The consumer does not see food in that way, and so any chemicals that are added to food, as they see it, are not proper. What they don’t realize is that in an urban society we simply cannot have food delivered to us without preservatives and other sorts of things unless we want to die of some of
the microbiological risks.”
Additives themselves are not the only target for critics of the system. Said Rose Sheinin, 56, a microbiologist and cancer research scientist at the University of Toronto: “Are we safe? I don’t think we are. Is it getting worse? I think it is, because we live in a chemical environment. The chemical industries are very powerful, and they just keep churning out the chemicals.” But Canada Packers’ Bern Schnyder said that federal legislation and his own company’s quality controls provide adequate protection.
‘Trade-off’: As for the risk posed by additives, g said Kellogg’s Dewey I Peterson: “With life, I there is an inherent % risk. If you’re asking whether you can deliver anything 100-per-cent risk-free, the answer is no. It’s a risk-benefit tradeoff subject to different conclusions by each consumer.”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.