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Food Additives: an In-depth Analysis

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Food Additives: An In-Depth Analysis

Carcinogens have plagued our society for many years. For example, radon and arsenic have been around since the Paleolithic era. According to the American Cancer Society:

Long-term exposure to radon can lead to lung cancer. Radon gas in the air breaks down to other radioactive elements (radon progeny). Radon progeny are tiny radioactive particles that can lodge in the lining of the lungs, where they continue to break down into other radioactive elements by releasing radiation (American Cancer Society 1)

Not only do we have to be conscious of the natural causes, but we have artificially manufactured cancer into everyday habits. From smoking cigarettes to ingesting processed ingredients as harmless as diet soda, forms of cancer-causing agents inhabit within these products. According to Tortora, Funke, and Case, “X rays and gamma rays are forms of radiation that are potent mutagens because of their ability to ionize atoms and molecules. The penetrating rays of ionizing radiation cause electrons to pop out of their usual shells” (Tortora, Funke, Case 227). X rays can be found in medical environments used to diagnose patients for broken bones, torn ligaments, and other bodily anomalies. The problem lies not within the use of these instruments, but the control and the amount of allowable concentration before the chemicals inside cause mutations within the cells. Gerard Tortora, Berdell Funke, and Christine Case have stated:

A mutation is a permanent change in the base sequence of DNA. Such a change in the base sequence of a gene will sometimes cause a change in the product encoded by that gene. For example, when the gene for an enzyme mutates, the enzyme encoded by the gene may become inactive or less active because its amino acid sequence has changed. Such a change in genotype may be disadvantageous or even lethal, if the cell loses a >phenotypic trait it needs (Tortora, Funke, Case 223-224)

Concerning mutagens or mutation-causing agents found in artificial ingredients, the probability of causing a mutation increases, especially when the amount of exposure has been either compromised or unknown. Carcinogens take the place of natural food as quickly as their chemical counterpart has been recalled and taken off the shelf. Although we recognize the problem, the profits gained from the distribution of certain products outweigh the long-term effects associated with them. Especially when you take into account that although chemicals like aspartame have been around since the 1960’s, scientists have found lethal doses within the product but the FDA keeps the sugar derivative around. John Casely of Nutrition and Food Science reports:

The sweet taste of the compound N-L-[alpha]-aspartyl-L-phenylalanine-1-methyl ester (APM) was discovered in December 1965 by the pharmaceutical company G.D. Searle & Co. Chemist James Schlatter was synthesising the tetrapeptide gastrin when the APM intermediate spilled on his hand, and because he knew the amino acid mixture was not toxic, he did not bother to wash it off. Later, when he licked his finger to pick up a piece of paper, he discovered the sugarlike taste of the dipeptide ester (O’Brien Nabors & Gelardi, 1985) (Caseley & Dixon 23)

Given the facts that the compound had been accidentally discovered in a laboratory, a lot of health concerns exist as well. For example, what had James Schlatter originally been trying to yield using these chemical components? Esters are primarily aromatic compounds that arise from the combination of a carboxylic acid and an alcohol. Coincidentally, these chemicals also form hydration reactions, increasing combustibility, nuclear activity, and toxicity. Specifically, allowing copious amounts of a harmful substance into the body increases susceptibly of immune system responses, which raises a red flag.

The safe or allowable amount to be ingested should not be in question. You would not ask yourself how long you should be able to expose yourself to the sun until you have cancer. As farfetched as this may sound, even a small portion of carcinogens may cause mutations genetically, while altering metabolic pathways and decreasing necessary products to make ATP. ATP or Adenosine Triphosphate, known for its necessity in cellular metabolism, fuels energy for cells to replicate, thrive, and survive harsh conditions. However, mutations cause a drastic change in the genetic makeup of the genome, while not only altering the processes of transcription of translation, but also severely hindering protein synthesis from making a sufficient protein to catalyze a chemical reaction. For example, Beta-galactosidase primarily breaks down lactose into glucose and galactose. Glucose functions as a catalyst for metabolism, breaking down in the process known as glycolysis, and through the Prep Step, Citric Acid Cycle, and Electron Transport Chain, creates 36 ATP. These numbers must be sufficient enough to sustain a cell’s life. In the event that Beta-galactosidase cannot be produced, the amount of necessary energy for cellular function lowers to a dangerous level, causing cellular dysfunction and possibly death.

Now, you might ask why we do not take action to stop this from occurring. However, the problem lies within the amount of counterevidence suggesting that while these chemicals may pose a threat to the livelihood of modern society, as long as we control the amount we ingest, we do not have to worry about the negative consequences. An assumption like this shows why proactive campaigns against smoking have become prevalent within the past twenty years. If someone with a shred of credibility can convince the general public its safety does not need to be of concern, everyone turns a blind eye toward the subject and moves on.

On the other hand, what if the evidence suggesting that chemicals in food preservatives such as nitrates, nitrites, aspartame, and MSG poses a larger threat than what we have originally believed? Scientific trials might show that exposing mutagens in moderation causes little to no change in the base sequence of DNA within cells, but the problems associated with the chemicals still exist.

Today, scientists concoct artificial products with low concentrations of cancer-causing agents found in sweeteners, diet soda, condiments, and even bacon and hot dogs. We cannot be certain that allowing a small amount of these chemicals to enter our bodies pose no harm to us. We have to stay proactive and conscientious instead of letting someone else think for us. Too often have patients been found in immunocompromised situations under little to no belief from their healthcare provider that anything other than genetic heredity and natural causes have allowed cancer to inhabit their bodies. Although I cannot suggest a valid solution other than avoiding the chemicals associated, I would like to present a credible amount of evidence from well-respected sources in an attempt to raise public awareness about the situation as a whole. Instead of leaving the issue on the backburner, I want to bring the situation to light and inform those who may have been left in the dark about the problem altogether.

First, we must take a look at the overall control distributing these potentially toxic chemicals into the economy. For instance, in the United Kingdom, the safety regulations using aspartame in food and beverage products has been supervised by the European Union’s (EU) Scientific Committee for Food (SCF), members of the Food Advisory Committee (FAC), and the Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment (COT). Similar to organizations in the United States, the SCF, FAC, and COT regulate specific products distributed in the United Kingdom to prevent caustic chemicals from being circulated into the economy. Caseley and Dixon have stated:

A new additive which requires authorisation [sic] must go through an exhaustive safety assessment process. The manufacturer of the potential new additive must not only produce evidence that there is a real need for the substance, but also commission research into that substance. The research must include toxicological tests (tests to determine whether a substance is harmful) including tests to assess the mutagenic potential of the compound, that is the ability to interfere with genetic material in the body, which could lead to the development of cancer or adverse effects in future generations. If there were any doubts about the safety of an additive, then that substance would not be authorised for use (Caseley & Dixon 23)

While we cannot say with certainty that these agencies can control every food additive in circulation, while also performing qualitative and quantitative tests to ensure safety, we at least know that larger political bodies stand watch. The Food and Drug Administration in the United States oversees the distribution of potentially toxic chemicals. However, their concern with aspartame remains absent. Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter have reported:

The FDA recently rejected two citizen petitions calling for an aspartame ban. The agency noted it had analyzed 195 reports of supposed aspartame-related side effects over a 10- year span and did not identify “any causal link between aspartame consumption and the reported adverse events” or “an established mechanism that would explain how aspartame is associated with the reported adverse events (Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter

However, the problem lies within the chemical’s composition. As stated before, aspartame contains a dipeptide ester bond within its structure. In order for these chemicals to synthesize, they undergo hydration reactions, which increase combustibility and toxicity. Unstable compounds in even the smallest amounts could have catastrophic effects in the body. First, break apart the simplest component of the compound. The dipeptide bonds contain nitrogen, hydrogen, and a carbonyl group that help synthesize them into proteins. Proteins can be denatured or unraveled, making them unstable and possibly harmful in large amounts. Examples of denaturation include a change in pH, temperature, the presence of salt, reactions with heavy metals, and several other environmental changes. With that being said, our bodies maintain a constant body temperature and pH, depending on the location and current immunological condition. Under a laboratory setting, trace amounts of aspartame have been found to be stable. However, under current environmental conditions within the lab, we have no possible way to maintain homeostasis, let alone test a stable pH. The human body contains variable pH levels systemically, from the blood to the stomach. Who can say with certainty that ingesting allowable amounts of this chemical in the body will be harmless? Proteins within aspartame must undergo the same chemical reactions that we produce proteins in the body. Translation, also known as protein synthesis, creates a series of amino acid chains that fold into functional proteins. However, one slight change in the sequence of the chain could cause mutations, leading to genetic disorders and even cancer. The problems lies not only within the chemical compounds, but also the way they are handled, synthesized, and broken down in the body. Until we can confirm that these chemicals pose no threat, the best way to substitute the chemical in foods would be by using its original derivative, pure cane sugar.

Along with aspartame, food additives such as nitrates and nitrites also pose potential threats to the sustainability of a healthy life. According to researchers from Tufts University:

Both compounds contain nitrogen and oxygen; nitrate has an extra oxygen atom. Animal experiments have shown that nitrite-whether directly from food, naturally converted from dietary nitrate or formed from nitric oxide-can combine with other dietary elements to form cancer-causing nitrosamines. But the relevance of these experiments to humans remains uncertain (Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter 1)

Nitrosamines have been linked to causing carcinogens. However most people believe the consumption of nitrites and nitrates pose no harm, since several organic foods such as vegetables contain both (Tortora, Funke, Case 197). While natural compounds within nitrites and nitrates have been found in natural foods, synthesized chemicals remain absent. Again, we must ask ourselves whether or not the risk factor matters. According to a study recorded by Oliver Tickell of The Ecologist, he says:

In high doses it induces a state of anoxia in the blood known as ‘blue-babysyndrome’ or methemoglobinemia – a potentially fatal but mercifully rare condition. Nitrite in high doses is also linked with cancer as it can make carcinogenic nitrosamine and N-nitroso compounds. For this reason regulators have tried to reduce nitrite levels in food, and make sure it is used with ascorbic acid (vitamin C), which inhibits the formation of the carcinogens… Hsu concludes that nitrite may boost cancer cells’ respiration, helping them produce energy and grow, but thinks there must be more to it than that. For example, low levels of nitrite may act as a growth signal to cancer cells. He also wonders why nitrite in drinking water seems to be more potent than nitrite in food. It may be, for example, that a continuous low level of nitrite sends a stronger cancer growth signal than high short-term levels fluctuating from a very low base (Tickell 14-15)

Given the facts, one might conclude that nitrates and nitrites pose no harm. On the other hand, cellular respiration can also be genetically modified to suit a pathogen’s needs. For instance, glycolysis, the breaking down of glucose, occurs within the first few steps of making ATP. When carcinogens take over metabolic machinery, they undergo reverse transcription, which produces proteins made from RNA or ribosomal nucleic acid. Usually, mRNA codes for specific amino acids from a DNA template. However, when we flip the script, we cause several problems within a cell, including its functionality, behavior, recognition to other cells, and many other issues as well. For instance, when a cell recognizes itself as foreign, immune responses signal B cells and T cells to fight the pathogen and destroy the host cell. When our body starts to attack its own cells, we find ourselves in immunocompromised situations. A far stretch to the imagination as this may seem, the truth lies within the science supporting the claim. True, nitrites and nitrates have been found more threatening in aqueous solutions, but we are made of 80% water. The more caustic substances we put into our body, the higher the chances of receiving such conditions.

Finally, food allergies have been found prevalent in food additives, increasing hypersensitivity and immune system responses. Fatih Gultekin and Duygu Kumbul Doguc of the scientific journal Clinical Reviews in Allergy & Immunology have reported:

Allergic reactions to food additives are a part of food allergies. Food allergy (hypersensitivity) is due to an immunologic reaction resulting from the ingestion of a food. The ingestion of food itself ends up with the greatest foreign antigenic load confronting the human immune system (Doguc & Gultekin 6)

Foreign substances recognized by the body, also known as antigens, trigger such responses, releasing different types of white blood cells that react to the antigen, possibly worsening conditions for the host. For instance, anything the body recognizes as foreign immediately sends a response to basophils, specific white blood cells that release histamine, a chemical used in alleviating allergic reactions. However, when too much histamine released from the basophil does not alleviate symptoms, separate white blood cells arrive and try to destroy the antigen, while potentially harming healthy human cells as well (Goode 57). Doguc and Gultekin continue their analysis:

The spectrum of food-induced reactions ranges from benign manifestations of disease, such as flushing or rhinorrhea to life-threatening symptoms such as systemic anaphylaxis with shock or enterocolitis syndrome. Following immunemediated [sic] mechanisms are the basic mechanisms of adverse food reactions: IgE-mediated, non-IgE-mediated, eosinophilic disorders and allergic responses due to combinations of immune mechanisms. The most usual type of food allergy occurs due to IgE-mediated mechanism, of which anaphylaxis should be the best example for this type of allergy. IgE-mediated food allergic reactions are rapid in onset (usually within minutes to 2 h) and are the most widely known reactions associated with food additives (Doguc & Gultekin 6)

Immunoglobulins also known as IgE, IgM, IgG, IgA, and IgD serve specific functions in cell-mediated immunology. When these types of white blood cells become disrupted and can no longer function, pathogens we could fight off before can easily enter the body and harm healthy cells (Goode 66). Specifically, when antigens start to target white blood cells, causing autoimmunity, we have little to no defense against symptoms as common as the flu. Food additives increase the chances of these responses occurring, especially to those who have been genetically predisposed to allergens.

Overall, the main issue within the distribution of these chemicals concerns the amount of regulation and the preventative measures taken to ensure the general public’s safety. These agencies have performed tests to prevent one possible outcome, but with one comes two more. We always expose ourselves to risks when we delve into what cannot be controlled, especially concerning chemicals. Even the slightest change could drastically affect the chemical composition within the body. Although I cannot prevent everyone from ingesting such chemicals, I can inform with valid claims and supporting arguments. I will leave it up to the reader to evaluate whether the risk factor outweighs the urge to consume. Given that food additives can be found in nearly every diet product, every animal product prone to food spoilage, and even as an artificial sweetener, the methods to contain the chemicals within a controlled environment may be impossible. Until large organizations stop caring about the profiteering of their product over the wellbeing of the general public, we could see a rise of other dangerous and even more harmful derivatives in the near future.

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