Insights by Goldie
Diacetyl and bisphenol A: Peeling the onion

Sound Consumer | May 2008

by Goldie Caughlan
Quality Standards Specialist

No, I don’t mean literally peeling an onion ... although I admit that peeling back the layers of emerging food contamination issues, trying to separate facts from rumor, or finding corroborating sources — can bring me to the point of tears.

I typically feel outraged, questioning “Why? Why do ‘they’ do this to our food and why do ‘we’ continue to put up with it?”

I’m referring to reports that continue to surface about new findings on food adulterants, poisons and all sorts of questionable substances — sometimes from sources or causes unknown but frequently from substances readily available for use in foods.

The reports usually are followed quickly by denials, back-peddling and reassurances from the good ol’ U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or other agency: “There’s no problem, it’s perfectly safe, nothing to worry about.”

Government representatives may be flanked by whatever industry is in the hot seat — telling us, “It’s all FDA approved.” Then come the usual cross-fire exchanges — “my scientist can beat your scientist” — with a verbal shoot-out between the white coats, each claiming their turf at the OK Corral!

Okay, I’ll stop sputtering. But there are some serious issues, I’ll address two that we’ve been trying to sort out, though not yet to our (or your) satisfaction.

Diacetyl and “popcorn lung disease”
News circulated for years about how some restaurant cooks and workers in plants manufacturing butter flavors had developed incurable and ultimately fatal lung disorders from inhaling butter-flavoring fumes. The butter flavorings had dominated microwave popcorn but now most microwave popcorn brands, nonorganic and organic, have found safe replacements.

The FDA, however, continues to state that diacetyl is (surprise!) listed as GRAS, “generally recognized as safe.” What GRAS designation really means, typically, is that no testing ever was conducted, or was done decades ago. GRAS is a shameful excuse for safe food regulation. But GRAS status satisfies the FDA and industry loves it since it’s better than a get-out-of-jail-free card!

PCC delis don’t use butter-flavored margarines to make vegan baked goods anymore; they’ve switched to non-hydrogenated palm shortening. In the interest of serving the demand by vegans for table spreads, however, PCC is continuing to sell organic and non-organic Earth Balance butter-flavored spreads.

Shelf signs will advise customers to avoid heating these products while PCC merchandisers continue to seek more diacetyl-free options.

Bisphenol A
One of the most widely used synthetic chemicals on the planet is bisphenol A (BPA), a component of many #7 plastics used for baby bottles, in the lining of most canned foods, sippy cups, and in popular, colorful polycarbonate “sports” bottles. A stunning exposť, Bisphenol A: Toxic Plastics Chemical in Canned Food: Consumer tips to avoid BPA exposure, may be found on the Web site of the Environmental Working Group, www.ewg.org.

Health Canada in April officially declared BPA “dangerous,” the first regulatory agency in the world to do so. The agency is concerned that BPA, a strongly suspected hormone disruptor and carcinogen, leaches into foods and drinks, especially if the container is heated.

“Consumer Reports” magazine tells us in its May 2008 issue that more than 90 percent of Americans test positive for BPA in our bodies, though most people never have heard of it and don’t have information to form an opinion. Experts advise concerned consumers to avoid or limit foods from cans lined with polycarbonate epoxy, to choose glass or safer plastic baby bottles (PCC sells a BPA-free baby bottle), and to avoid infant formula in BPA-lined containers.

We’ve been questioning vendors, starting with the largest brands, and we’re sorry to say their standard answer is, “Yes, we use BPA. It’s approved as safe by the FDA.” So far, we haven’t confirmed more than a few canned foods that are in BPA-free packaging: these are the Hatch Chile Company’s Mexican chiles and sauces, Nature’s One organic powdered infant formula, and Eden Foods’ bean products. That’s all we know of, so far.

Help us by contacting companies that still use BPA and let them know your concerns. These include Wolfgang Puck, Shelton's, Walnut Acres, Health Valley, Muir Glen, Amy’s Kitchen and Westbrae. Ask them to switch to glass jars or aseptic containers, that it’s better to be safe than sorry. Send us copies of any replies, please!

This would support our merchandisers’ tireless efforts to provide for us the healthiest and safest products. In addition to BPA-free baby bottles, PCC offers stainless steel water bottles and polyethylene jugs as a BPA-free option to polycarbonates for bulk filtered water.

The U.S. National Toxicology Program is expected to issue a report on BPA this summer. A congressional inquiry also is looking at BPA in canned infant formulas. Maybe, just maybe, changes will follow.

More about: BPA, diacetyl, food politics

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