The FDA: A good source of irony

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Why the Food and Drug Administration needs to rethink practices

Sean Stoker | Opinions Editor | @theroyalthey

I’m often amused—and a wee bit horrified—by the lengths food companies are willing to go to in order to put garbage in my mouth, and what the FDA allows them to get away with. Most often I see this when buying bread. I’m a whole wheat kind of guy. Even taking health out of the equation, I haven’t been a fan of white bread since I turned 8. Something inside of me rebels whenever I feel that bland cottony bolus slither its way down my throat.

When my early love affair with whole wheat bread began, I rejoiced at the meaty heft of the bread’s composition, that beautifully crumbly texture, the rustic flavors, all combining to envelope delicious sandwiches in its firm but loving embrace.

I understand what people like about white bread. It’s simple, chewy and doesn’t demand much of your palette. It’s accessible. But at this point, my taste has adapted, and I’ve learned too much to go back to white.

The key difference between the two is white bread’s scant supply of nutrients. According to Becki Mercuri’s “American Sandwich”, wheat bread’s flour is made from the entire wheat berry: bran, germ and endosperm, giving a full range of nutrients. White bread only uses the endosperm; the starchy innards of the wheat berry, resulting in the characteristically soft and homogenous texture we associate with white bread. But sadly it doesn’t stop there.

You see, at this point, the white bread is a natural yellow hue. But that’s icky, right? We ought to Clorox the stuff to get it to almost fluorescent levels of whiteness, shouldn’t we?

I’m only half joking. White bread has chemicals in it known as “flour bleaching agents.” Things like potassium bromate, azodicarbonamide, or chlorine dioxide, all of which are toxic at the right levels. For instance, in a 1961 experiment at the University of Cambridge, rats fed on wheat treated with chlorine dioxide were shown to have slower growth rates than the control group.

While more civilized nations have banned these substances, the FDA still allows their use in the United States. Potassium bromate for example, is banned as a food additive in Canada, Nigeria, South Korea, Brazil, Argentina, Peru and the entire European Union, just to name a few.

A little over a century ago, when rat poison—along with the rats it poisoned—often found its way into meat grinders and when children’s cough syrup contained copious amounts of morphine, the FDA was a long overdue godsend. Its purpose was to be a government watchdog, keeping the American public safe from poisonous foods and drugs, which they have done to our great benefit.

But the modern FDA has one big strike against it. Half of the FDA’s budget is financed by American taxes. Sounds fair, right? It’s a government agency and that’s what taxes are for. But the other half comes from the food and drug companies that the FDA is supposed to be supervising. The relationship has become less of an auditor/auditee dynamic and more of a service to the companies in question, which is the definition of a conflict-of-interest. That would be like if half my professor’s paycheck came directly from me, and I insisted that the payment was for “the privilege of grading my papers. Wink, wink.”

I’m not saying the FDA is all bad. For many decades it has protected us from toxic goods. But as it stands now, the FDA stamp of approval has about as much worth as a Chuck E. Cheese token.

To understand what I mean, let’s go back to my bread example. Even with all those “improvements,” food companies have the audacity to try to make us think that these chemical-soaked sponges are actually as healthy as their whole wheat counterparts. Many brands like to emblazon their packaging with a huge “100 percent whole wheat” banner prominently displayed. But scrunched up against that proud proclamation, in size .001 font are the words “Made with.” Those two words change the entire meaning of what Wonderbread is promising you. Notice it doesn’t say how much of that 100 percent whole wheat this beautiful specimen was “made with.” From those words alone, we can safely assume that the product is mostly white flour with a dash of whole wheat flour and a spoonful of fresh deceit.

Juice companies are repeat offenders as well. What does it mean if my drink is “100 percent juice”? That could mean any number of things, but usually means that a bunch of different fruits and veggies had their essence sucked out, concentrated and recombined into a witch’s brew of liquid sugar. “No added sugar”? They don’t have to add more sugar to it because there’s already a boatload in your glass.

It seems like the FDA appreciates a little bit of humor, allowing companies to divulge the unhealthiness of their product in such a roundabout manner, you come off thinking it’s a cure-all.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t have access to junk food. That’s over-regulation and I enjoy a chocolate bar as much as the next guy. But don’t insult my intelligence by holding it up as a reasonable source of calcium.