If you were to walk through the Brooklyn neighborhood of East New York, you might happen upon something that seems completely out of place. Before you would be a thriving three-quarter-acre urban farm filled with kids picking a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables they have planted – and are now harvesting – under the watchful eye of an adult farmer. This oasis in the urban landscape is the work of the New York chapter of Slow Food USA, a nationwide network of volunteers that educates the community about the importance of reconnecting people to the food they eat through the eyes and experiences of their children.
Later in the day, these kids will take their harvest to a cooking class and create dishes designed to make eating fresh food fun and tasty. They are encouraged to go home and start a small garden of their own. Projects like this urban farm and today’s farm-to-table movement are encouraging. But the fact remains that supermarkets continue to overwhelmingly shape our understanding of food, making us less connected to and more apathetic toward the food we eat.
Highly processed food is seen as affordable, even cheap, to most Americans. What the folks at Slow Food USA are addressing is the antidote to the hidden costs and negative health consequences to consumers who do not think carefully about the food they eat. The hope is the children of East New York will bring their newfound enthusiasm for and curiosity about food home to their families and create a ripple effect throughout the community.
To be fair, there remains a clear divide between people who consider processed foods to be a tasty, convenient and affordable choice and those who contend that the combination of sugar, fat, salt and flavoring in these foods promotes overeating and contributes to obesity.
If we are talking about nutritional value, that debate is settled. An American Society for Nutrition report found highly processed foods that households are purchasing are higher in fat, sugar and salt, on average, compared to less-processed foods they buy. Health experts firmly believe the key to an overall healthy diet is to limit your intake of “ultra-processed” foods. At present, these foods make up about more than 60 percent of the calories in food Americans buy. They contribute 90 percent of calories from added sugars.
At present, a new concern is brewing over allergic reactions to food additive dyes used in ultra-processed foods and in medications. Medical journals document cases of allergic responses to these food additives that include anaphylaxis, a potentially life-threatening reaction that causes the throat to constrict. Allergists have responded to these concerns by noting such reactions are extremely rare. The medical community remains divided on this issue.
According to a recent article in the New York Times, in 1986 more than a dozen deaths were linked to severe allergic reactions to a sulfite food additive used to prevent green vegetables from turning brown. The Food and Drug Administration ultimately banned restaurants from using sulfites on raw fruits and vegetables. The agency also requires foods containing yellow dye No. 5 to list the color on the label, noting the dye can cause hives in “rare cases.” The Food and Drug Administration put that number at “fewer than one in 10,000 people.” According to my calculations (based on the most recent census population number of 321,605,012), we are talking about around 32,000 Americans.
While reactions to synthetic additives may indeed be “rare,” they also remain poorly understood by medical professionals. This makes identifying the source of an allergic reaction difficult to identify, leaving the public to rely on warning label instructions that people concerned about dye additives should watch for in regards to reactions to items that contain food coloring.
This issue is even more complex when it involves medication. Unlike severe allergic reactions to a food, which tend to occur immediately, the reaction to an additive tends to be a delayed one. It can occur several hours or even days after taking the medication. This makes the cause difficult to trace or account for. According to the New York Times report, in a 2013 paper, one doctor described 11 patients he had seen over a five-year period, all of whom came in with chronic skin disorders that cleared up significantly when drugs containing coloring were replaced by dye-free medications.
The doctor, dermatologist Robert Swerlick of Emory University, is known for taking on cases that are difficult to diagnose. He admits to the Times that locating the source of the problem takes more than a bit of detective work. He then described a case involving a 61-year-old patient with chronic skin problems on his hand. The patient said the rash flared up suddenly, shortly after he refilled a prescription for diabetes pills. He noticed the color of the pills was no longer off-white, but dark purple. The new pills, it turned out, contained a blue dye. Another patient, a 42-year-old man, had suffered from a rash for almost a year but noticed it resolved when he went on vacation and left his toothpaste, which contained a blue dye, at home.
“There’s reason to be skeptical,” Dr. Swerlick tells the Times. “But I think the allergy community historically has equated absence of proof with proof of absence.”
I believe it is fair to say equating “absence of proof with proof of absence” is a condition to be found within the entire medical and regulatory community and this has got to change.
Write to Chuck Norris with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook’s “Official Chuck Norris Page.” He blogs at ChuckNorrisNews.blogspot.com.