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Fields & Applications Environmental, Food, Beverage & Agriculture

I Do Not Want Green Eggs and Ham

Food often contains substances that some of us do not wish to consume. Some substances may be considered undesirable for religious or ethical reasons, while others (for example allergens, lactose or gluten) can cause immediate serious illness or discomfort. Many consumers don’t feel comfortable consuming food containing measurable levels of agricultural chemicals (for example, pesticides, hormones or antibiotics) or environmental contaminants (for example, dioxins, PCBs or mercury).

In a perfect world, we consumers would be able to quickly and simply test our food for substances that we do not want to ingest. Although rapid test kits already exist for many allergens, agricultural chemicals and environmental contaminants, none are currently suitable for proper use by the average consumer, so we must rely on the food industry and governments for information through food labeling. Food labeling is not normally required for whole fresh foods such as fruits, vegetables and meat products. And consumers can be confident that the apples or potatoes they are buying do not contain peanuts... But this is not the case with processed foods – a frozen apple pie could very well contain traces of peanut protein. In addition, many non-food chemicals, such as emulsifiers, preservatives, stabilizers, artificial flavors and colors, may be added to processed foods. As a result, processed foods tend to require food labeling that provides the consumer with the information about ingredients with a potential health risk.

Label declarations for allergens and food intolerance substances have improved over the past decade, with suspect ingredients (or constituents) often being specifically highlighted and listed separately. Manufacturers may also include labels such as “gluten free”, “dairy free” or “peanut free” on their packages. However, not all statements are so helpful: “May contain peanuts” is of little help if you have a peanut allergy. If you are an allergy sufferer, your only safe option is to avoid anything with such vague information. And what about agricultural chemicals? There are no label requirements for them, which results in many consumers opting for “organic foods”. In fact, over the past decade there has been a significant shift in consumer preferences to “organically grown” food and it is a steadily growing segment of the food industry. In the past, the term “organic” was poorly defined and there was no regulation of these types of products. Now, many countries have standards, definitions, certification programs, inspection programs and industry associations. All of this is good news for the consumer.

However, several examples above demonstrate that, despite major improvements in regulation and labeling, we have yet to achieve a point where consumers can be completely confident about what’s in their food. So, where do we go from here? Although personalized food testing is still some way off, I believe it will have great value – especially for those who suffer from life-threatening allergies. The challenge for the analytical scientist is to take the current state of rapid testing technology to the next level: into the hands of the consumer. This may not be an easy task, but it is not impossible. Rapid test kits have been in use by consumers for many decades. For example, personalized blood glucose tests and home pregnancy test kits are readily available to consumers. We just haven’t yet developed the technology for food testing. In the more immediate future, we must do much more to further enhance the readability of labels, as well as including more substances that may pose a health risk to the consumer. Ultimately, we need to give consumers more power to make informed choices.

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About the Author
Jim Lawrence

James Lawrence is now retired, after a successful career at Health Canada, Ottawa, Canada.

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