The meat we eat is a mishmash of the political, practical, economic, and spiritual. Our taboos about protein vary by geography, even by household. Some eat pork, some don’t. Others serve camel as a delicacy – a tradition that would make many Americans faint from the cultural shock. We draw the line on what we put in our bodies in strange, often contradictory, places. Consumers decry the hazards of processed meats in one breath while complaining about the high price of fresh product with the next. Parents scream, “If only the good stuff was affordable, then our children wouldn’t be comically obese!” Is that the reason? Perhaps our perception of the ingredients inside the proteins we eat is a symptom of conditioning, a kind of advertising voodoo. How would our opinions change if we confronted the ingredients in the meats we eat? Would we care?
The Scandalous Evolution of Animal Protein
Americans consume 31 percent more processed foods than fresh food, according to a 2010 article in the New York Times. We also ingest more processed meals than just about any other industrialized nation. Japan eats a higher percentage of ready-to-eat meals, the data suggests, though these products of choice tend to be near-fresh items such as seafood or dried seaweed. On the whole, healthier options than what U.S. residents choose to put in front of them.
Doctors agree that diets with high amounts of processed foods, which contain large quantities of fat, salt, and sugar, lead to increased rates of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Processed animal protein, including meat and dairy, contributes the lion’s share of manufactured meals that Americans inhale every day. We’re eating a combined 481 pounds-per-capita of this stuff every year, according to the New York Times. We’re literally eating ourselves to death.
Questions we should all be asking: what’s actually in these items? Should chicken breast bought in a supermarket really have a list of ingredients?
The Tale of the Ballooning Poultry
As early as the 1930s, hormones assisted the food industry by increasing production levels for food companies, according to the Sprecher Institute at Cornell University. Chicken farmers today raise poultry that grows to weigh twice as much as similar birds in 1950, in less than half the time. Hormones, specifically the synthetic estrogen diethylstilbestrol (DES), administered to young poultry and other animals allow them to gain more weight in less time. Shorter life cycles from birth to the frozen food section lead to larger-scale production and higher profits. Pharmaceutical companies even used synthetic estrogen in pills to help menopausal women manage their symptoms.
Then scientists in the 1970s discovered a link between increased cancer risks in those using DES. Food companies promptly phased the compound out of their regular animal “treatment” regiments, but the damage was already done. The processed food industry in the United States wasn’t about the stop its use of synthetic compounds to stimulate growth and production. Today, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has given approval to six different hormones for use in food production: estradiol, progesterone, testosterone, zeranol, trenbolone acetate, and melengestrol acetate. Two of those compounds – progesterone and estradiol – are female sex hormones commonly found in prescription birth control pills. What quantities of these chemicals are present in the processed food we eat? According to the Sprecher Institute at Cornell University, there’s no way to measure levels of progesterone or estradiol in animal products because scientists can’t tell the administered portions from what the animal creates naturally. In an Italian study, researchers discovered a link between steroid hormone residues in beef and poultry with breast enlargement in young students – girls and boys.
If you’re consuming mass-produced beef or poultry, chances are you’re consuming estrogen and testosterone in high quantities. How much? The FDA has no idea.
Hormones, like estrogen and testosterone, remain active in the body after consumption, and can persist in food products post-slaughter. Do we think it’s actually safe to ingest compounds that make chickens grow to twice their natural size and force cows to produce twice the amount of milk?
Frankenstein’s Monster in Your Grocer’s Freezer
Finding animal products, meat or otherwise, that haven’t suffered manipulation in some way is harder than it sounds. Even foods baring the “natural” label can still have added estrogen and testosterone in them because the compounds are not “synthetic,” according to Web MD. Furthermore, the United States Department of Agriculture only regulates the labeling of items as natural when it applies to beef and poultry. Food companies could label glow in the dark fruit-like paste as natural and there’s really no way to prove otherwise because the regulation is completely absent.
Frozen meals are hot spots for processed foods with chemical preservatives and modified ingredients. Photo Credit: (Creative Commons license).
Genetic alteration of animals in our food supply is increasingly common. Genetically modified organisms or GMOs have had their structures changed by scientists to produce varying effects that food companies believe will be beneficial to consumers.
- In 2011, scientists in Argentina transformed the genes of dairy cows to produce milk that mimics the makeup of human breast milk, according to the Daily Telegraph.
- Genetically-modified fish – salmon spliced with eel DNA – grow much faster and larger than their naturally-born counterparts, says the Huffington Post. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considered the first transgenic salmon for approval for nationwide sale in 2013.
- AquaBounty, a private fish developer responsible for the creation of the first GMO salmon, estimates that the release of just 60 GMO salmon into a wild population of 60,000 would cause the extinction of the wild population in less than 40 generations.
Consumers can find GMOs in more than just cow’s milk and the seafood section. At least 70 percent of processed food products in the United States have GMOs in them; everything from soda to frozen waffles. How these compounds interact with our bodies remains largely unknown. In the case of genetically altered salmon, no long-term studies exist on the effects the consumption of so-called “Frankenfish” might have on us because its creation is so new. It is more interesting or frightening that the FDA believes AquaBounty’s GMO salmon to be safe despite the absence of this information?
Consumers wanting to buy non-GMO products can visit this website for a continually-updated list of items that do not intentionally contain modified ingredients.
The Economics of Our Food
Eating healthy is often seen as a function of our privilege. Those with higher incomes can afford to buy products raised in the wild that haven’t been genetically manipulated to grow faster in shorter amounts of time. The rich can absorb the cost of fresh produce, while the working poor have to buy frozen meals with artificial ingredients.
Spam, the ubiquitous canned meat sold in grocery stores around the world, has actually fewer artificial ingredients than some fast food meats and other products. Photo Credit: Flickr (Creative Commons license).
Organic farming is also less efficient than conventional systems. According to CNN Health, organic crops yield only 75 to 90 percent of the amount harvested from fields using GMO products that resist disease or artificial pesticides. This means more land is necessary to produce the same quantity, which leads to higher costs.
Then there’s the higher price to consider at checkout. A study from researchers at the University of California-Davis indicated that U.S. consumers who consistently buy healthy foods spend 20 percent more on groceries than those who do not. The higher price associated with these items, researchers say, can gobble up 35 to 40 percent of the grocery budget for low-income families. Many simply cannot afford to pay $4 a gallon for organic milk when there are cheaper alternatives. Consumers commented to UC Davis researchers that price was a barrier to purchasing organic products 70 percent of the time.
We want healthy food, but we don’t want to blow the entire budget in the process. Because organic farms produce lower crop yields than others, there’s a premium supply for those interested in buying them. Couple low supply with increasing demands and it is basic economics to find the reason for the higher price.
The Dirty Ingredients in Cheap Meats
So we buy cheaper products, including meats, because we don’t want to hand over the cash for the healthier, more natural options. Do we fully understand what it means when we buy processed foods, including low-cost proteins in fast food meals? Let’s take a look at some of the ingredients in the average McDonald’s chicken nugget as reported by the International Human Press:
- Tertiary Butyl Hydroquinone – Dubbed TBHQ, this petroleum derivative is a form of butane, the very same gas used in fuel blending for gasoline and propane. McDonald’s sprays the compound onto its chicken nuggets as a preservative, which the FDA claims is safe if used “sparingly.” Consuming one gram of TBHQ can cause vomiting, delirium, and diarrhea. A five gram dose is usually fatal.
- Dimethylpolysiloxane – Try saying that three times fast. An anti-foaming agent, this chemical keeps nuggets from leaking…yes, leaking. It’s a polymer of silicone, a suspected carcinogen, and was one of the main ingredients in Silly Putty.
- Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate – This buffering agent helps maintain color in frozen foods, particularly potatoes and cured meats. It also has applications in the leatherworking industry for its ability to remove hair when incorporated into scalding water.
Photo Credit: Flickr (Creative Commons license).
Ignoring the very real health implications of synthetic compounds in our food supply has resulted in negative consequences across the board, from skyrocketing cases of juvenile diabetes to a ridiculous rise in obesity rates in young people as well as adults. If more people demand lower-cost, healthier alternatives to affordable, yet potentially unsafe, genetically modified organisms, we can compel real change in our national marketplace. Vote with dollars. Spend money on products with short lists of ingredients that look like actual food and not a college chemistry exam.
If we can’t pronounce it, we shouldn’t eat it.