Another Reason to Read Food Labels

I have written before about why you should know what ingredients are in the processed or packaged food you bring home from the supermarket. But I really didn’t pay much attention to news stories about a whisky called Fireball being recalled from European shelves. Because we don’t drink whisky (just don’t like the taste or the feeling) this information didn’t register with me as a food issue. Boy, was I wrong!

Fireball whisky, propylene glycol, cinnamon whiskyIt turns out that this low-alcohol, cinnamon-flavored liquor has propylene glycol one of its ingredients. This is the same substance that is used in antifreeze and de-icing agents, only the Fireball version is “pharmaceutical grade” not “industrial grade.” Terrific. What’s the difference?  Well, the former is used in food and “handled according to stricter standards.” OK, that takes care of the handling, but what about the impact on the body?

Generally Recognized as Safe

The Food and Drug Administration, which is supposed to protect the American public from unsafe food and additives, has designated propylene glycol as “generally recognized as safe (GRAS).” This designation means that that a chemical or substance added to food is considered safe by experts. That exempts the substance, from the usual food additive tolerance requirements Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA).  Who are those “experts?” Who knows? They’re probably scientists and lawyers paid by the manufacturers to give their products a pass.

Does that mean propylene glycol is really safe?  According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, “Propylene glycol rarely causes toxic effects, and then only under very unusual circumstances.”  Europeans don’t like the odds on this, however. Norway, Sweden, and Finland have recalled Fireball whisky—because the company inadvertently shipped the North American formula, which contains more propylene glycol than is approved for consumption in Europe.

Another point of interest is that Fireball whisky is popular among college students for its sweet, cinnamon flavor. That tells me two things:

  1. Our college students are grown up enough to want to get drunk but prefer to do it with liquor that appeals to little-kid taste buds honed on Count Chocula and Little Debbie cakes.
  2. They are smart enough to get into college but not smart enough to read labels or figure out what those multi-syllable ingredients really are.

Generally Recognized as Safe, GRAS, Food and Drug Administration, FDA, FDA GRASBy now you’re thinking—as I did—no problem! I never touch Fireball whisky. Well, guess what?  Propylene glycol is used as an additive in lots of other packaged and process foods that are probably sitting on your pantry shelf because:

  1. You didn’t read the label.
  2. You assumed that anything the FDA generally recognizes as safe is OK to eat or drink.
  3. You don’t really pay any attention: you just open the box or the package and scarf down the contents.

Tighter European Regulations 

Propylene glycol gives us yet another reason to read food labels. While we depend on the FDA to protect us, Europe actually enforces tighter regulations on ingredients used in foods sold there. I guess their experts don’t agree with our experts on what can be recognized as safe. That means we ingest a variety of substances that are banned in other countries around the world. We sometimes get alerted to problems when foods are banned from the shelves there. Cases in point:

  • Azodicarbonamide, a chemical used in yoga mats is also used in some breads. It was banned in Australia, the European Union, China and Canada before Subway agreed to remove it from the “baked fresh every” day sub rolls you were chowing down on. You can probably still find it in hot dog and hamburger buns, though. This chemical bleaches the dough and makes it more elastic. Despite those benefits to manufacturers, Azodicarbonamide is linked to health conditions such as kidney and nervous system damage, thyroid problems, gastrointestinal discomfort, and cancer. Yum.
  • Brominated vegetable oil was removed from Pepsi and Coca-Cola sodas sold in North America after it was banned in Australia, Europe, India and Japan. This oil, usually derived from corn or soy, is bonded with the element bromine and is used in sodas and sports drinks to prevent the flavoring from separating and floating to the surface. On the other hand, bromine has been shown to alter the central nervous and endocrine systems.  This results in skin rashes, acne, loss of appetite, fatigue, and cardiac arrhythmia. Coke: Life Begins Here
  • Food coloring agents, particularly Yellow Dye #6, are consumed every day in products like candy and boxed macaroni-and-cheese. These agents, including blue #1 and #2, yellow #5 and #6, and red #40 are banned in Norway and Austria and require a warning label on packages sold in the European Union. They can cause behavioral problems, cancer, birth defects, and other health problems in laboratory animals and yellow #6 has been linked to hypersensitivity in children.  Ever wonder why little Jason climbs the curtains after his mac-and-cheese dinner?

It’s Hiding in Your Kitchen

Getting back to propylene glycol, here’s where you’re likely to find it outside a bottle of whisky:

  • Flavored iced teas
  • Ice cream
  • Packaged frostings
  • Boxed cake mix
  • Commercial food coloring
  • Salad dressings
  • Entenmann’s baked goods

Do you trust the experts on what’s safe to put in your body?  If so, great. Don’t bother with those pesky labels and just pile those boxes in your shopping cart. Good luck with that.

propylene glycol, food-grade propylene glycol, uses of propylene glycol, pharmaceutical propylene glycol

Read it and be warned

If not, though, you can take a few simple precautions:

  1. Read the labels. If you don’t know what it is or can’t pronounce it, put it back.
  2. Replace the brands of packaged food you’ve been using with brands that don’t include these ingredients. Annie’s Macaroni and Cheese, Amy’s Soups, or Newman’s Own products are usually pretty good.
  3. Make as much food from scratch as you can. That way you know it’s fresh. And, unless your pantry is stocked with propylene glycol, brominated vegetable oil, azodicarbonamide, yellow dye #6, monosodium glutamate, autolyzed yeast extract, sodium nitrite, and other wonky ingredients, you’ll be eating better and healthier—and so will your kids. 

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