A Chemist’s Response to “How Junk Food Can End Obesity”

This post is for Steph, who wanted to know what I though about the Atlantic’s July/Aug cover article. 

Last March, my mother was oh so excited that McDonalds’ Shamrock Shakes were back, but I spoiled her fast food party plans with this info graphic on the ingredients in one of those processed premixed cup-full-of-chemicals.

Just look at this image, and you will never want one again, not because of the calories, carbs, fat, and sugar, but because of all that other crap in there too. I prefer my milkshakes made with good old ice cream and milk, hold the polysorbate 80 please.

As an environmental chemist and foodie, I have a lot to say about David H. Freedman’s Atlantic piece “How Junk Food Can End Obesity.”  His main argument is that we can solve the obesity crisis in America by putting pressure on the fast and processed food industry to be healthier, rather than shunning it altogether.  The nineteen page article also devotes a significant amount of space to disparaging the grassroots real food movement and getting the science of common food additives disturbingly wrong.

In my green chemistry class last spring, I grappled in a few writing exercises with how to bring widespread change to America’s exposure to toxic chemicals in everything from body products to food to occupational exposure. The tug of war between producers (corporations) and consumers (real people) in supply and demand is hard to navigate.  Is the best way to cause change to educate the public? Is legislation the only way to regulate corporations? Can consumers force change by increasing demand for new products, or do corporations and advertising have too much power over what we think we choose to buy? Freedman wants America to trust that public demand will change the supply of nutritious food.  Processed food is here to stay, he says, so we’d be much better off if we embraced it rather than trying to avoid it altogether.  People like it too much for it to totally disappear, so we may as well make it healthier.

I like this approach, despite its flaws.  This solution to America’s food problems would be cheap and widespread, with significant impact on those who live where fresh produce is scarce, in food deserts, and it wouldn’t require major infrastructure rearrangements. I often think while blogging about the problem of reaching my target audience.  I know that my readers aren’t going to have an aha! moment about chemicals in their body lotion and their favorite snacks.  They’re probably the sort of people who already clean with vinegar instead of 409 and who were just as enraged as me to learn that the lids of their favorite glass jars are coated in a combination of BPA, plasticizers, and PVC. Yum. So reaching the right audience is a big problem; everybody eats, but not everybody reads green living blogs.

Freedman makes what I would consider to be a big mistake in his writing by lumping every aspect of the real/slow food movement under the term “wholesome,” and then complaining that real food isn’t synonymous with low cal/low fat.  Real food is about so much more than just being healthy, and there is certainly no guise of low fat; just google real food and the first guideline you will come across advocates for whole milk products. For me, real food is about environmentalism, localism, and whole body health, and I focus particularly on avoiding chemicals I don’t want to in my body, like BPA. I want to eat food that is free of pesticides and support local farms. Freedman came across a wide range of real food philosophies in his travels to LA, and didn’t take them very well because nothing was low cal enough.  My notes on all over his article say “this is not the point!!!”  The real food movement was not started to solve the obesity problem, and even if it does impede Freedman’s solutions, there are many other problems out there to consider as well.  What about the state of our environment and global warming?

As I’ve said before, avoiding unsafe or at least questionable chemical additives in my food is one of the main reasons I prefer local organic produce over processed dinners. (That, and it tastes better.)  Here’s an example: Freedman criticizes Mark Bittman’s recipe for corn cooked with bacon as fatty and unhealthy.  But I would much rather eat and will encourage others to eat this same dish cooked at home vs. frozen TV dinner style.  It’s not the bacon fat that real foodies are afraid of; it’s the preservatives, emulsifiers, dyes, and packaging that are most harmful.  The chemistry of processed food is clearly not something that Freedman understands very well:

“Hold on, you may be thinking. Leaving fat, sugar, and salt aside, what about all the nasty things that wholesome foods do not, by definition, contain and processed foods do? A central claim of the wholesome-food movement is that wholesome is healthier because it doesn’t have the artificial flavors, preservatives, other additives, or genetically modified ingredients found in industrialized food… (This is the complaint against the McDonald’s smoothie, which contains artificial flavors and texture additives, and which is pre-mixed.)

The health concerns raised about processing itself—rather than the amount of fat and problem carbs in any given dish—are not, by and large, related to weight gain or obesity. That’s important to keep in mind, because obesity is, by an enormous margin, the largest health problem created by what we eat. But even putting that aside, concerns about processed food have been magnified out of all proportion.”

BIG FAT WRONG. Holy crap. I cannot believe he just said that processed food additives are no big deal.  How many times have we seen these pop new articles listing all the food additives permitted by the FDA that are banned in other parts of the world? Like this and this.  And what about BPA and plasticizers that end up in our canned and plastic packaged goods? They aren’t bad for us? BPA is a known endocrine disruptor that can have a major impact on our hormone systems at very small concentrations, especially over an extended period of time (chronic exposure).  BPA has recently been shown to disrupt human egg development at concentrations lower than those measured in real women’s ovaries.

A few paragraphs later, Freedman mentions bromine and states that “there is no conclusive evidence that bromine itself is a threat.” I don’t know where Freedman got this information (never trust anything that doesn’t cite peer reviewed scientific literature), but I do know that the environmental and food chemistry of bromine is a lot more complex than Freedman sums it up to be.  Bromine can enter the body as part of a bigger organic molecule, such as in brominated vegetable oil (BVO) or the brominated flame retardants Freedman mentions, or as an inorganic salt such as potassium bromate. BVO and the flame retardants have gotten a lot of press recently; I can see how Freedman concluded that bromine poses no established threat after reading this Scientific American article on BVO, which concludes only that the safety of BVO needs to be reassessed. BVO is similar in structure to a variety of endocrine disrupting flame retardants, so the cause for concern is not unjustified.  Additionally, potassium bromate, a common additive in bread flour, is a known carcinogen and is banned in several areas of the world.

Yes, it’s really there

You get the point.  Freedman clearly has never googled “food additives.” I’m not surprised that his solution later in the article is to engineer our food with as many chemicals as possible to make it seem like we’re eating more fat and sugar than we really are. With science, we can make low fat cream cheese feel and taste just like the real stuff, and it will solve obesity.

What causes obesity? This is a discussion Freedman could have benefitted from. He implies in his piece that it is caused by non-health conscious people eating too much junk food.  He believes that if we get rid of the fat, we will all slim down. He doesn’t consider the fact that obesity may be a symptom of a larger problem.  Recent research shows that endocrine disruptors, which interfere with our hormones, are linked to obesity and diabetes.  In fact, some of those flame retardants have been identified as potential obesogens. If obesity is caused by engineered, processed “foodlike substances,” eating more of them will certainly not solve the problem.

As we know from reading countless news articles about food additives banned in other countries, the FDA is not particularly strict.  Potassium bromate is permitted in food by the FDA. Freedman notes that “the FDA only directly reviews about 70% of ingredients found in food,” which he seems to think is plenty, but given recent scientific revelations on the low dose non linear effects of some harmful chemicals, i.e. consuming a smaller amount does not have a proportionally smaller toxic effect, I think that this is not nearly enough.  If Freedman’s solution of using more synthetic additives in our food is to work, we would need the FDA to step it up a lot and extensively test the safety of more ingredients.

I hope that Freedman offended enough foodies out there to fuel the anti-processed foods movement even more.  The chemicals that he knows nothing about really are bad for you, to me even worse than lots of fat or sugar.  That being said, we all know that McDonald’s isn’t going anywhere, so any way that we can encourage them to make healthier, more sustainable, less processed meals will be a step in the right direction.


Further reading:

Freedman’s original article

Freedman’s response to various critiques (and links to them)


3 thoughts on “A Chemist’s Response to “How Junk Food Can End Obesity”

    • Laura, thank you! I do so love your writing and ideas.
      p.s. I bought my couch, which is being delivered today(!), based on all of your posts and recommendations, and will be writing about it soon.

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