- Honestly, Dara -

The Dark Side of Food Science

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Scary-Food-Science

Technology can make your meals fun or forbidding. It’s important to know the difference — and to have a choice in the matter.

Chefs and scientists love to play with our food. In restaurant kitchens, this infatuation with technology can be pretty harmless; in corporate laboratories, on the other hand, it can be downright frightening. In either case, it’s always controversial — this is our food, after all.

On the lighter side of the food-science spectrum is molecular gastronomy: the science and art of turning sauces into foams, soups into solid spheres, and dinners into snow. I recently sat through 27 courses of this magic, and little of what I ate resembled food in any real way. There was a glittering transparent leaf that tasted like a mango. In the middle of a sort of spider web, there was a crisp, raisin-size thing that tasted like a peanut. There were bubbles and cubes, rafts of flower petals, airy puffs crowned with tomatoes turned into caviar.

Everyone oohed and aahed, but one person in our party demanded that we make a run for an after-dinner burger because he was still hungry.

This is all good fun and silly — and certainly not for everyone. I’ve heard some people tut-tutting about technologically advanced chefs turning food into abstract art, but it doesn’t bother me. After all, these science experiments are purely optional; I’d be surprised if anyone eating spherified carrots with tangerine foam is doing so without knowledge or consent.

But there’s another sort of food technology that’s not so amusing, one that most of us would never knowingly welcome on our dinner tables. I’m talking about genetically modified crops and the rampant use of the potent plant-killer glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup and a variety of other popular herbicides.

If you’ve never heard of glyphosate, you’re not alone; many people haven’t. So you probably don’t know that it’s sprayed on about nine of every 10 acres of soybeans, sugar beets, and corn grown in the United States. All these crops have been genetically modified for a single trait: to be resistant to glyphosate, which is toxic to most other plants.

This is where advanced agricultural technology collides with the food on your plate. Glyphosate is not just covering the fields: It’s absorbed by the foods harvested from those fields.

That’s because the herbicide is “systemic” — any glyphosate-resistant plant treated with the substance can distribute it throughout the whole plant.

Does that include the parts people eat, like the soybean, the corn kernel, and the beet? Of course!

In 2013, scientists from GenØk–Centre for Biosafety and the Arctic University of Norway collected Iowa-grown soybeans and found high residual levels — as much as 8.8 milligrams per kilogram — of glyphosate.

Why should we care? Because glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans,” according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer at the World Health Organization.

That agency reviewed numerous published research studies, including several reporting that exposure to glyphosate increased a farmworker’s risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Another study, published in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology, concluded that glyphosate causes breast cancer cells to grow.

Many people assume that the government tests products to make sure they’re safe for human health before they become pervasive in the environment, but this isn’t always the case. In late 2014, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a report on pesticide residues in food, but didn’t test for glyphosate because, as an unnamed official told media outlets, it was too expensive.

Reuters soon reported a dramatic uptick in the number of Americans paying laboratories to conduct private glyphosate tests on the food in their pantry. A group called Moms Across America had samples of breast milk examined, revealing levels of glyphosate up to 1,600 times higher than the levels allowed in drinking water in the European Union.

Earlier this year, the Consumers Union — the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports — formally requested that both the USDA and U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) improve their efforts to measure pesticide residues. It also urged the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to take action regarding the riskiest chemicals.

The EPA responded by announcing that it “may” start testing for glyphosate in food. (The USDA has conducted such tests once before, in 2011, and found glyphosate residue on 271 of 300 soybean samples.)

Even if you’re choosing organic (your best defense), you’re likely still ingesting some glyphosate. Last winter, researchers from Boston University tested organic and conventional honey from Philadelphia-area markets and found glyphosate residues in 62 percent of the conventional honey and 45 percent of the organic honey.

So, when you hear about lefty activist types demanding the labeling of GE (genetically engineered) and GMO (genetically modified organism) foods, you should understand that they’re simply trying to make consumers aware of which foods are likely to be tainted by glyphosate and other hazardous chemicals.

And now that you’re aware, you can take measures to protect yourself and your family:

  • Buy organic. You’ll reduce the chances that the food you bring home from the grocery store is tainted by glyphosate, and you’ll support farmers who have chosen to raise their crops without using toxic herbicides or pesticides.
  • Choose conventional  carefully. If you don’t have easy access to organic produce, it’s important to know that certain conventionally raised fruits and vegetables are more likely than others to be tainted by chemical residue (you can start with “The Terrible 20,” at right).
  • Join a CSA. By joining a community-supported agriculture program, you’ll receive regular shipments of fresh produce from a farmer you can actually talk to about the farm’s agricultural practices. No secrets, no surprises.

And don’t be shy about letting your elected representatives know that you’d like to see them support GE- and GMO-labeling legislation. Remind them that it’s our food we’re talking about here — and that partaking of technology’s advances should be purely optional.

Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a James Beard Award–winning food and wine writer.

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