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How pure is our food?

The subtle effects from tiny traces of secondary products and drugs are difficult to imagine because they need only occur in quantities which we, the general public, assume are too small to be important, despite well-documented scientific data. So I will ask, ‘What level of background rubbish are we consuming in our normal lives?’ Impurity contamination is easily measurable, and there is legislation as to the levels considered an acceptable norm. Standards are well defined for products such as food. It is interesting to reflect on what is considered acceptable as background rubbish or cleanliness standards. Our normal experience with ‘high’ purity materials is often very modest. For example, in school chemistry labs, the chemicals may contain a few per cent of other compounds. In most aspects of our lives, we are very tolerant of unwanted impurities, and tend to ignore them. Examination of labels on any packet of food, or bottle of drink, will happily tell us that our ‘pure’ natural product contains several per cent of additives to control the flavour, extend the storage life, or things which just happen to be included. Many impurities are never even discussed, so we forget them or tacitly accept their existence.

This delusional ignorance may be a defence mechanism, as we do not wish to think about the fact that our daily bread (or rice) is made not just from wheat grain (or rice). Farmers and bakers are well aware that the grain storage silos inevitably include soil, weeds, and mouse droppings (or even dead mice). Rodent contamination is definitely an imperfection we would prefer to avoid, but it is a problem, as worldwide, rodents contaminate, or eat, 20 per cent of our food supplies. Perhaps we hope that cooking sterilizes the products, but it does not remove the impurities.

The rules governing acceptable levels of inevitable contamination vary between countries, but as an example one can consider a popular item such as chocolate. The cacao beans are left to ferment for a time before processing into chocolate, so are the focus of attention for many animals and bugs. This includes creatures that spend part of their life cycle within the cacao beans. Bug removal would be feasible with very large doses of insecticides, but the chocolate would be unpalatable and dangerous for humans. Accepting some contamination is therefore the only solution. Guidelines for ‘purity’ of chocolate range from a maximum of 50 to 75 insect fragments per 100 g of chocolate. Other items such as hairs from rodents (e.g. mice and rats) should similarly be kept below about four hairs per 100 g. Just ponder on this with your next piece of chocolate, or any other food!

In general, we have a natural reluctance to consider such inclusions, so have glossy advertising portraying ‘pure’ healthy products. In our mental rejection of these impurities, we can also forget the bonus side in which the ‘natural additives’ provide us with a diet containing important trace elements. The focus on ‘perfection’ in advertising is equally a distortion of reality, which makes us aspire to something that may be quite unattainable in everything from consumer goods to the shape of our bodies.

Before we become too depressed, it is important to know there is a positive side to all these traces of dirt and contaminants. If we are exposed to them from an early age, we are far more likely to develop antibodies to diseases we will be exposed to later in life. There is also evidence that the exposure to soil and contaminants of the real world reduces the chance that we will develop allergies as we grow up. We were designed as a wild animal, and trying to isolate ourselves in a super clean, protected environment is counterproductive. The modern medical profession uses this conditioning response in all of their immunization programmes.

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