“I’ll Have The Poison on the Side Please.” Chemicals in our Food (part 2)
And Then There's Roundup
This post is part of the Geeking Out series which presents data-driven information on food and farming, safety in the kitchen, practical science for cooks, cooking techniques and processes and other relevant nerdy stuff that every cook should know. For the next few weeks, we will be covering topics from the chapter, Safety 101. This is the second of a four part series.
In part 1 of “I’ll Have The Poison on the Side Please,” we gave an overview on how and why American agriculture had devolved into a monoculture landscape of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. We continue the discussion by introducing a poison used not only in commercial farms, but in home gardens.
Have you wondered why “gluten-free” is all the rage these days? In North America and Europe, an estimated 5% are either diagnosed with Celiac disease or are gluten-intolerant. Symptoms include “nausea, diarrhea, skin rashes, macrocytic anemia and depression,” and is “associated with numerous nutritional deficiencies as well as reproductive issues and increased risk to thyroid disease, kidney failure and cancer,” according to a study published by the US National Library of Medicine.1 Guess what it’s largely attributed to? Glyphosate, the active ingredient in a product we all know: Roundup.
Roundup, manufactured by Monsanto and recently acquired by Bayer, is the largest selling herbicide in the world. Many home gardeners use it to kill weeds unaware that its main ingredient, glyphosate, has been linked to cancer, specifically non-Hodgkin lymphoma,2 currently the subject of several lawsuits.
But that’s not all. A team of French scientists from the University of Caen found that an inert ingredient in Roundup, specifically polyethoxylated tallowamine, or POEA was “more deadly to human embryonic, placental and umbilical cord cells than the herbicide itself,” according to an article published by the Scientific American.3 They concluded that the formulation itself-- the combination of various ingredients in Roundup, “could cause cell damage and even death [at the] residual levels.”
In the US, many farm products have an inordinately high amount of Roundup. According to an article published by the Environmental Working Group4:
“Most glyphosate is sprayed on “Roundup ready” corn and soybeans genetically engineered to withstand the herbicide. Increasingly, glyphosate is also sprayed just before harvest on wheat, barley, oats and beans that are not genetically engineered. Glyphosate kills the crop, drying it out so it can be harvested sooner than if the plant were allowed to die naturally.”
The use of Roundup as a pre-harvest dessicant increases the chances of residuals, making wheat, barley, oats and beans particularly noxious. Fortunately, there is some good news.
At the end of 2019, Kellogg’s, the ubiquitous cereals manufacturer, made a commitment to phase out oats and wheat treated with glyphosate by 2025.5 Second only to General Mills, Kellogg’s holds enormous sway over farms and suppliers and one can only hope that this will have a positive ripple effect across the industry. Even if a disingenuous marketing move (would you serve your child a bowl of poisoned cereal when you have an option that isn’t?), it is still a step in the right direction. However, it does beg the question of how many children and adults were and are still being slowly poisoned by common food items containing glyphosate?
In tests commissioned by several groups including the Environmental Working Group, Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Friends of the Earth and even the FDA, glyphosate was detected in most wheat-based products such as pizza, crackers, pasta and cereals. 6 So yes, your typical American commercial food is pretty toxic and we’re all getting slowly poisoned every day.
Herbicides with glyphosate, are already banned or restricted in many parts of the world including France, Germany, Argentina, India, Australia, and in some US cities like San Francisco, Seattle, Miami, Austin and Portland, ME.7 Why isn’t it banned everywhere? Capitalism, baby. The same reason the EPA under the previous administration allowed corporations to make our air and water dirtier by scrapping or relaxing regulations that limit pollution.
After around 30,000 legal claims from customers who believed they developed cancer from glyphosate, there’s a bit of environmental good news: Bayer announced last year that it would no longer sell glyphosate-containing products, including Roundup, to home gardeners starting 2023. That’s a start. But unless it is banned completely, there’s still 280 million pounds applied annually to crop lands8. You can bet a lot of that is making its way into our food system.
While the sad reality is that we can’t currently rely on government or big business to safeguard our interests, specifically our health, we are not entirely helpless. How we choose to spend our dollar makes a difference and can influence how food is produced in the US. Buying organic or from local, sustainable farms is not just a hipster trend, it’s a commitment to consume healthy food, limit the impact on the environment and support farms and companies that are doing the right thing. If money were no object, everything we buy should be organic and/or local. But it’s expensive, initially. Over time, it’s much cheaper if you consider how much you’d be spending on outrageous medical bills and a reduced quality of life caused by a toxic diet. But for most of us, our brains don’t work this way. When you see organic bell peppers at nearly twice the price of conventionally grown ones, it’s easy to chuck good intentions aside and reach for the conventional ones. I’ve been there. And, it’s still an ongoing battle with my husband who has a difficult time resisting deals and sales. Thankfully, there’s the Dirty Dozen list.
The Dirty Dozen
Fruits, vegetables and other crops have varying degrees of pesticide, herbicide and other chemical residues based on their particular farming practices.
Chemical residues, including petroleum-based wax applied to some produce for cosmetic purposes or to retain freshness, are mostly found on the outer layer of produce. So eating conventional spinach would be more toxic than a conventional banana where most of the chemical residues are on the discarded peel.
Making sense of all this and recognizing that most of us can’t afford to buy everything organic, the Environmental Working Group releases an annual list of the twelve fruits and vegetables that have the most chemicals in them, and therefore are the produce that we should buy organic.
The Dirty Dozen List (aka What You Should Buy Organic)
(2021 list according to most toxic)
10. Bell Peppers
You can check their website for the full list at : https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/
The list above pertains to fresh produce. But given what we now know of the high levels of Roundup in our wheat, barley, oats and beans, buying organic, including organic flour (pasta, cereals and other derivatives) and avoiding GMO products is also highly recommended.
Then there’s the Clean Fifteen. The Environmental Working Group also releases an annual list of produce that don’t have as much chemicals in them.
The Clean Fifteen (aka What You Don’t Have To Buy Organic)
(2021 list according to cleanest/least toxic)
2. Sweet Corn
6. Sweet Peas Frozen
14. Honeydew Melons
Coming up next in part 3: Steroids, Antibiotics and other Chemicals in Meat and Poultry
Interested to learn more? Check out companion posts on Cooking Subversive:
“I’ll Have The Poison on the Side Please” : Chemicals in our Food
part 1: Chemical Fertilizers, Herbicides and Pesticides