This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Keeping it Fresh: Preservatives and the Poison Squad, first released on August 28, 2018. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
MUSIC (The Poison Squad by the UK’s)
CYNTHIA GRABER: This song by a group called the UK’s is about a science experiment—really. It was a pretty punk science experiment that transformed American food, while also kind of poisoning its subjects. It was called, as you already heard, the Poison Squad Trial.
NICOLA TWILLEY: And this episode we’re talking to Pulitzer Prize winning author Deborah Blum, who just published a brand new book all about the the Poison Squad. It’s called, yes, The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century.
GRABER: And its hero is a chemist named Harvey Washington Wiley.
DEBORAH BLUM: He’s a really, you know, difficult, prickly, moralistic, absolutely determined that he’s right kind of a guy. Which I think makes him difficult to deal with in the real world, and makes him a wonderful crusader for the things that he cared about, which was consumer protection and really good, safe, pure food.
TWILLEY: I’m Nicola Twilley, and you’re listening to Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history.
GRABER: I’m Cynthia Graber. And this episode, we’re going to be visiting the moment in American history—just a little more than a century ago—when our food finally became safe…er.
TWILLEY: Thanks to the valiant efforts of the all-volunteer Poison Squad—a dining club that I would definitely not want to join. Their job was to eat lots of preservatives. And the question was: What were all those preservatives doing to them?
GRABER: All those new chemicals that were being added to food at the time to keep it fresh, were they safe? And what about today? The preservatives in our food now, are they safe?
TWILLEY: Answers to all of the above, plus the story of our prickly hero, Harvey Washington Wiley.
TWILLEY: So, let’s get to know the central character of today’s episode: Harvey Washington Wiley. This is a man who fed volunteers with toxic doses of preservatives and then used the results of these poison squad dinners to make America’s first rules about what manufacturers could and couldn’t put into our food. So who was he?
GRABER: Harvey was born in a log cabin in Indiana in 1844.
BLUM: He grew up on a farm. By the time he was able to walk, he was herding cows. His father planted all the crops that the family lived on.
TWILLEY: Harvey’s dad was also a conductor on the Underground Railroad. That’s the network of safe houses that abolitionists set up to help slaves escape from the South to the free northern states and Canada.
GRABER: This all formed the bedrock of who Harvey would become as an adult. He was someone who cared deeply both about pure food and about making the world a better place.
BLUM: He was very interested in the kind of higher calling of medicine, until he realized that he really didn’t like sick people.
TWILLEY: Minor detail.
BLUM: And he literally I think looked around for another science that he would see as a higher calling. He needed to believe that he was doing good.
GRABER: Harvey found another science that would fit that higher calling. It was a new field of science called chemistry.
BLUM: And all at once he saw that this was an amazingly insightful science, that had helped you peel apart and understand everything that was alive around you.
TWILLEY: So Harvey got a job as the first ever chemistry professor at Purdue. This was in the 1870s. And this was the moment that Harvey first combined his love for pure food with his passion to do good and his chemical expertise.
BLUM: So while Wiley was in Indiana, the state asked him to take a look at two products in particular, honey and syrup.
GRABER: Harvey happened to have picked up some of the most cutting edge chemistry techniques and tools when he’d been on sabbatical at a food-quality lab in Germany. And he used these to test honey and maple syrup that you could buy in Indiana to find out if the honey and syrup were the real deal. He discovered that they weren’t.
BLUM: You think you’re buying honey, and you’re buying colored corn syrup with some paraffin wax crumbled into it. And you think you’re buying syrup. But guess again.
GRABER: And Harvey did not pull any punches with his final report. He published his results in Popular Science magazine, rather than a scientific journal.
BLUM: It caused a huge scandal. But it really elevated him in some ways to a national reputation on this issue that was just really starting to gain traction.
TWILLEY: Basically, with this fake honey report, Harvey had positioned himself right at the center of one of the hottest issues of the day: fake food.
GRABER: As you might remember from our episode called, yes, Fake Food, this was a time when a lot of food you could buy was not what it said it was. Black pepper was actually dust from the floor. Flour was filled with a toxic chemical to puff it up and crushed rocks to make it look white.
TWILLEY: Tea leaves were just any old dried leaves gathered from the hedgerow and painted to look either brown or green, as required. And, as Harvey had already discovered, honey was colored corn syrup with paraffin wax.
GRABER: Part of the problem was that people in cities had lost touch with how their food was produced. They didn’t see their tomatoes being grown or cows coming in to be milked, the way Harvey did as a kid.
TWILLEY: America was urbanizing and industrializing, and the food system was scaling up and industrializing along with it.
GRABER: And it wasn’t just that people couldn’t go outside and pick some corn or vegetables for dinner. They couldn’t even afford the farm-fresh food that did make it to the city.
BLUM: What they can afford is really cheap food. And here’s where the new industry is theoretically your friend. You know, it’s expensive to buy real milk right from the cow, but I can sell you something cheaper.
TWILLEY: And how exactly did the food industry make milk cheaper? Using the wonders of this fabulous new science of chemistry—Harvey’s own chosen field.
BLUM: Chemistry was so new at that time. I mean, they had just started to put together a periodic table. No one knew how it worked. He called it a wilderness.
GRABER: It’s hard to imagine now, but the scientific study of chemistry was so new and exciting. And discoveries were being made all the time. Naming these elements that made up the world and understanding what they did, this was new.
TWILLEY: Chemists were isolating elements for the first time and even combining them into magical new compounds with all sorts of properties. They felt like they had super powers.
GRABER: And some entrepreneurs thought it would be a great idea to use these superpowers to help make food last longer and stay fresh on its journey from the distant farm all the way into the city.
TWILLEY: Rather than these poor city folk having to eat food that had gone bad and would maybe even make them sick from food poisoning, food manufacturers could add some of these groovy new chemical preservatives, and hey presto—
BLUM: Butter didn’t get rancid.
GRABER: Milk, too. Parents wanted to give their kids milk, but the milk was coming in from the countryside without the benefit of refrigeration. And so it was either already rancid or went bad almost as soon as they bought it.
BLUM: You could see the appeal of something that made your milk last a little longer.
TWILLEY: So what were these magical chemical preservatives that kept food so delightfully fresh?
BLUM: Preservaline and Rosaline and Freezine. I love those names.
GRABER: These fresh and modern-sounding names, these really do sound like something that could transform your life. But while the names might not be common today, you might recognize the main ingredient in all three—it’s formaldehyde. And synthesizing formaldehyde was a recent discovery in this brave new world of chemistry.
BLUM: Formaldehyde really comes to the forefront during the Civil War, because they’re doing massive amounts of sort of on-the-fly embalming. And they need one good chemical that they can just use to you know save those corpses. And it turns out to be formaldehyde. And afterwards people were like. ‘Wow look at this. It really preserves rotting tissue—well, I bet it would preserve rotting meat and I’d bet it would preserve rotting milk.’
TWILLEY: As it turns out formaldehyde was just the ticket for milk that was going—or even had gone—bad.
BLUM: You can pour formaldehyde into rotting milk itself. And it actually will change the look of the rotting milk and make it look a little more drinkable. The milk would taste a little sweeter and fresher. It didn’t rot in front of you, you could just leave it around for days.
GRABER: Food was filled with all these wondrous new preserving chemicals.
TWILLEY: There was salicylic acid, which today you might know as a teenager’s best friend—it’s the active ingredient in a lot of acne creams. But at the time, manufacturers were using it to preserve beer and wine, as well as the fruit juices and syrups served at soda fountains.
GRABER: Borax was another popular chemical of the day, and another one you might find today at Target.
BLUM: 20 Mule Team Borax, which you can use to scrub counters and sterilize things.
GRABER: But the time, it was used to preserve beef and butter. Sodium sulfites were used in canned peaches and in pickles. Sulfuric acid helped canned scallops taste fresh. A lot of Americans were eating preservatives for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
TWILLEY: I mean, yum. But exactly how much of these wonders of modern chemistry would you be treating yourself to on daily basis?
GRABER: Nobody had any clue.
BLUM: They really didn’t know how to get at that question of what the dose was, because there was nothing controlling how much anyone was putting into anything at the time.
GRABER: But it’s actually worse than that. It’s not just that you wouldn’t know how much you were getting—you wouldn’t have known you were eating those preservatives at all.
TWILLEY: Food manufacturers didn’t feel the need to let you know.
BLUM: I’m not going to put any label on it, because there’s no requirement for me to label anything. And I’m not going to tell you what is in it, because there is no requirement for me to tell you that. And I’m not going to list any of the additives, or even safety test them because there’s no requirement for that.
TWILLEY: Seriously, this was the wild west. All these shiny new chemicals
BLUM: And at a time when there was zero food regulation in the United States.
GRABER: No labels on foods. No ingredient lists. No testing.
BLUM: There was regulation in other countries in Europe, but the United States, as is its wont, was very resistant to government telling people what to do. So there was no national regulation of food for quality or safety or what went in it.
GRABER: Like Deborah says, Europe was a little ahead of the US in regulating these new chemicals.
BLUM: In Germany, the use of salicylic acid was outlawed, because there was actually very good science that salicylic acid is corrosive in the gastrointestinal system.
TWILLEY: But it wasn’t illegal in America, because nothing was illegal in the land of the free. And that German beer had a long way to travel to market.
BLUM: And so the Germans were, great. We can super preserve this beer and ship it over to the United States. So ladle in the salicylic acid. And that will be great for the United States, but we’re not doing it to our own citizens.
GRABER: Same thing with wine. The French didn’t use salicylic acid in their own wine, but they loved loading it into wine they shipped to America.
TWILLEY: But some Americans—mostly scientists—were starting to feel like maybe all this freedom was in fact poisoning us.
BLUM: And so when people sit down and they are eating you know a normal diet, they’re actually getting what could be a toxic dose of some of these compounds. Because it’s in every single thing that they eat.
GRABER: This is the scene. It’s the 1870s, the 1880s. So let’s get back to our hero. After Harvey did his honey and syrup study, he got really interested in what he called pure food. And the more he looked into it, the more worried he became about all these new preservatives.
TWILLEY: Harvey’s honey paper had come to the attention of the commissioner at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And with the folks in Indiana angry with him for pulling back the curtain on their honey scams, it was a good time for Harvey to get out of town and head to D.C.
BLUM: And so he became head of what was known as the Bureau of Chemistry. And the Bureau of Chemistry is the forerunner of our FDA today. But it was this tiny six-man—all the scientists were men, this is the 19th century—six-man operation, and it was responsible for food safety across the United States.
TWILLEY: Harvey arrived in DC in 1882. And right away, he started considering how to tackle the issue of all these preservatives in the American food supply.
BLUM: Well, he started out in this very moderate “Couldn’t we just label our food” kind of position.
GRABER: Harvey went to government hearings and argued in favor of creating a food label that had preservatives listed on it. But the food industry had the ear of Congressional representatives.
BLUM: He kept arguing it, and that didn’t happen. And so eventually this led him to say, ‘Well, then let’s just test it on people. We’ll just set up an experiment with human volunteers.’
TWILLEY: Harvey’s plan was revolutionary, but simple. He called it a Hygienic Table Trial.
BLUM: He said, I’m going to get a bunch of healthy volunteers. I’m going to have them sit down and dine dangerously. Every day of the week, three meals a day, they are going to be eating food that is laced with one of these preservatives.
GRABER: Harvey decided to start with borax.
BLUM: And he recruited all of these young government workers. They you know were poor, they didn’t have much money, but they could get three meals a day for free.
TWILLEY: Harvey set up a room in the basement of the USDA building as his preservative cafeteria.
BLUM: They had round tables and white tablecloths. And they hired a very high end cook who had cooked for aristocratic families in D.C. And they made a point of carefully bringing in only the best ingredients, butter, and milk from farms and fresh vegetables.
GRABER: Half of the young men would eat this beautiful, amazing fresh meal. It was much better food than these office workers could afford on a government salary. And half of the young men ate the same delicious meal—laced with borax.
BLUM: They had started out trying to hide the preservatives. They had put the borax in the milk, and then figured out that it was in the milk and they wouldn’t drink the milk. And then they tried putting it in the butter and then they wouldn’t butter their bread. So finally they just gave them these capsules. And then a scientist would stand there and make sure they took the capsules.
TWILLEY: Harvey tried to make this trial as scientific as possible.
BLUM: They had to agree that this was all the food and drink they were going to have during the day. And they had to come back and have all their excreta measured. They had to be weighed every day. They had to be health checked, their temperature was taken. They analyzed what was in their urine, etc., so that they could figure out if there was anything sneaking into what they were eating. That was the best way they had to chemically spy on them.
GRABER: Harvey was being super scientific, but he also wanted the public to know what he was doing. And so he told a lot of reporters about his hygienic table trials. And so his super scientific name got slightly changed.
BLUM: As soon as he started it it got the nickname the poison squad, which came from a very enterprising Washington Post reporter. And it was known nationwide as the Poison Squad Study.
TWILLEY: To be honest, even Harvey was a little tongue-in-cheek about his experiment. He put a sign above the doorway to the dining room that said: Only the Brave Dare Eat The Fare.
GRABER: I wouldn’t have been that brave. But Harvey knew how to play to a crowd. And the press ate it up. Reporters wrote a ton of stories about the Poison Squad Trials.
BLUM: It catches the public imagination in a way that I think nothing else in the agriculture department of the time had done. So it starts turning up in songs and minstrel shows. There’s comedy sketches about it.
TWILLEY: Lew Dockstader was a popular comedian and vaudeville star at the time. And if you went to his shows in 1903, you would have heard a whole song about the Poison Squad. It starts like this: “If ever you should visit the Smithsonian Institute, Look out that Professor Wiley doesn’t make you a recruit.”
GRABER: “He’s got a lot of fellows there that tell him how they feel, They take a batch of poison every time they eat a meal.”
TWILLEY: “For breakfast, they get cyanide of liver, coffin shaped. For dinner, undertaker’s pie, all trimmed with crepe.”
GRABER: “For supper, arsenic fritters, fried in appetizing shade, And late at night they get a prussic acid lemonade.”
TWILLEY: Everyone was talking about the Poison Squad. But Harvey wouldn’t discuss his findings till the end of the trial. So the press just made stuff up.
BLUM: At one point the Post did a story suggesting that borax had improved the complexion of every single member of the poison squad and they now have these beautiful pink cheeks. And the Agriculture Department was deluged with letters from women around the country who were hoping for the special borax solution.
TWILLEY: So the nation was abuzz with the story of the Poison Squad trial. But what was the science saying? Half of these guys were eating borax laced food—so what was happening to them?
BLUM: Borax, Wiley said, was the test that changed his mind about everything. Because borax was really widely used. It was in all kinds of foods. And he had gone into it making an assumption that, yeah, it’s in everything people are not dropping dead in the streets, so therefore it’s probably safe. And what happened was over the weeks they started seeing this real pattern of sickness among the poison squad members who were getting this borax meals. I mean it was really got more and more severe.
TWILLEY: The higher the dose, the more toxic the borax became. These sturdy young men, at the peak of physical fitness, were starting to lose their appetites and suffer from headaches. And then they complained of stomach pains and brain fog. And by the end they were nauseous and vomiting. Wiley suspected damage to their kidneys.
GRABER: After the shock of the borax test results, Wiley continued testing common preservatives that were in the food supply. He studied sulfuric acid, and saltpeter, and of course the ever popular formaldehyde.
BLUM: They actually had to end the formaldehyde test early because people got so sick.
TWILLEY: So far, so conclusive, right? But there are some limitations to bear in mind with these trials. First of all, Harvey was only studying healthy young men.
BLUM: But what about people who are elderly or sick, or what about small children?
GRABER: Some critics said the trials were too short, and the amount of preservatives was too high. After all, people didn’t eat those rather larger doses every meal for two weeks, they ate somewhat smaller amounts for years.
TWILLEY: But obviously, that’s much harder to study. So is the cocktail effect of eating all these different preservatives in smaller doses, over the years, in combination with each other.
BLUM: It’s really easy to look at it today and say, man, that was astonishingly primitive science. But he’s not wrong that it was the best they had.
GRABER: It was the best they had—and it was literally the first of its kind. Today it might seem obvious that you would test a food additive to see how safe it would be to eat…
BLUM: But then it was like throwing a bomb into established business practice.
TWILLEY: OK, so then what? Surely we took the borax out of our food, right?
GRABER: Well, it was not that easy or straightforward. Harvey still had quite a fight ahead of him.
BLUM: And so even though Wiley had done this first borax study—it came out in about 1904. It wasn’t taken out of the food supply, because there was no mechanism to do that. We didn’t have a legal apparatus to take dangerous things out of the food supply. It’s so crazy when you actually say that sentence: There was no law in the United States that said it was illegal to put something poisonous into food.
TWILLEY: So Wiley proved that borax is dangerous and he published his results, and yet the food manufacturers were still putting it in food.
BLUM: Well the public was horrified. Even when you read The New York Times story of the time, and they’re basically saying in the Times stories—and the Times is as sedate you get at this time—that food manufacturers are just flat poisoning people.
GRABER: Wiley did have a plan to make these dangerous substances illegal. He’d started out campaigning for labeling. But as he learned more about how dangerous these preservatives were, he upped the stakes and started pressuring Congress for a bill to regulate food and drugs. He had been pushing for legislation for years.
BLUM: The food industry hated it. You know everyone hated it. The chemical industry hated it. It never passed. And he continued to bring it up every year or every other year, consulting with someone or another, and it continued to get shot down.
TWILLEY: Food manufacturers argued that using preservatives like borax or formaldehyde was actually better for people. Really, they were putting this stuff in food out of the kindness of their own hearts.
BLUM: So they’re really saying, you know, don’t you want this durable food? Don’t you want the whitest of bread and the most golden of butter? We’re doing this all for you. And there was a one guy from the company that made Preservaline and he said, “And I just want to say to you that everyone in this country eats embalmed beef and likes it.” You know? And they really felt that way, that you know there was good in this, too.
GRABER: So one of the arguments from the preservative manufacturers was that their products reduced the risk of food poisoning. They weren’t entirely wrong. But they also didn’t have pure motives or methods for convincing the public of their benevolence.
BLUM: Well, one of the most curious things that happened with borax for instance is that the borax industry had a publicist put fake stories in newspapers around the country, under an assumed name, that were connecting people’s deaths with unpreserved food.
TWILLEY: Fake news ahead of its time, people.
GRABER: Because if it’s not obvious, these deaths were NOT connected to unpreserved food.
TWILLEY: The food manufacturers were running a full-blown hate campaign against our poor hero Harvey.
BLUM: So you saw a lot of also public trashing of Wiley. You know, “the policemen of the nation’s stomachs” and “the janitor of the kitchen.” And just a lot of “this is a horrible person who’s trying to interfere with your private life” kind of pushback.
GRABER: But one food manufacturer was listening to Harvey and he decided to try to do something different. His name was Henry J. Heinz.
TWILLEY: Yes, *the* Heinz.
BLUM: The whole story of Henry J. Heinz was one of the most fascinating things to me, because I just had never said to myself, well, Heinz Ketchup, they were a real pioneer of progressive food manufacturing. But in fact they were. The modern ketchup actually came from Heinz, because he was experimenting with a preservative free ketchup.
GRABER: Mr. Heinz had to change the recipe for his ketchup in order to keep it lasting for a long time without preservatives. Back then, bottled tomato ketchup wasn’t actually made of tomatoes. There were some tomatoes, yes, but there were also random food trimmings from other food products, like ground pumpkin rinds, apple seeds and stems, cornstarch.
TWILLEY: It was like a thin liquidy tangy compost.
GRABER: And so producers dumped sodium benzoate in to keep unwelcome microbes away.
TWILLEY: Originally Mr. Heinz did that too. But he saw Harvey’s poison squad results. And unlike most of his colleagues in the food industry, he didn’t feel great about poisoning Americans. So he figured out how to make a tomato ketchup that didn’t require sodium benzoate to stay fresh.
GRABER: Mr. Heinz looked at home recipes that kept for a long time. And based on those recipes, his cooks tweaked the vinegar content to kill more microbes. He also found out that it helped if he used higher quality tomatoes and a lot of pulp.
BLUM: And it changed American ketchup. Because to make it work, you had to have enough of you know the actual real tomato in it. The ketchup became very thick. I kind of love that.
GRABER: So when you’re shaking or squeezing that bottle of Heinz trying desperately to get that thick ketchup out—
TWILLEY: Instead of pouring a thin stream of liquid compost onto your fries—
GRABER: You can thank Mr. Heinz, Harvey Washington Wiley, and the pure food crusade!
TWILLEY: But even though Mr. Heinz was on Team Harvey, there were a lot of haters and they were really hating pretty hard. It wasn’t surprising that the food industry and the chemical industry were angry, but even people who should have been on Harvey’s side weren’t.
BLUM: Some of Wiley’s later poisoned squad experiments were suppressed by the U.S. government. I mean Wiley’s boss, then Secretary of Agriculture James Wilson, he just wouldn’t publish them. He wouldn’t publish the copper sulfate study. He tried not to publish the sodium benzoate study.
GRABER: Despite industry opposition and even his boss’s undermining him, Harvey kept pushing a bill to regulate American food and drugs for years.
BLUM: What happened is it got picked up and carried along at just the right moment by the Meat Inspection Act.
TWILLEY: The backstory here is that Upton Sinclair, who was a relatively unknown reporter at the time—he went to Chicago to report on labor conditions in the meat packing factories. And in his book, The Jungle, he described horrible working conditions, yes. But also, frankly, just horrible conditions. Maggots and rats and diseased carcasses and all sorts of disgusting things falling in the meat grinder and ending up in the cans of quote unquote beef and pork.
GRABER: The book created a huge scandal. And the publishers sent a copy to then President Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt was like: wait, what? Could the situation in the nation’s meat packing factories possibly be that bad? He sent his own inspectors to Chicago, and they said it was even worse than in the book. So Roosevelt said to Congress: Give me a meat inspection act. Do it.
BLUM: And when that act passed, Wiley and his friends rushed over, and they were able to get Congress to also pass the Food and Drug Act.
TWILLEY: Hello and welcome to America’s first pieces of food regulation. Finally, it was actually illegal to put borax in food. Go Harvey!
GRABER: Yes, definitely go Harvey. But the food manufacturers found ways to make the bill not so effective. They pushed through a bunch of compromises.
BLUM: One was that friends of the food and chemical industry made sure to undermine its funding. So the enforcement of it was very underfunded at that time. But the other thing, and probably the most problematic thing in the bill, was that it itself didn’t set strict standards. How do we quantify a poisonous substance, how do we define a poisonous substance?
TWILLEY: And these gaps set up a situation where every time the government wanted a manufacturer to take something out of a food, it had to build a whole scientific case for why they should. So instead of just a simple list of preservatives that were permitted, companies could add anything. And then it was up to the government to do the research, take them to court, and prove that the chemical was harmful and had to be taken out.
GRABER: The government wasn’t doing that too much. They couldn’t afford to, because the whole program was underfunded. But Harvey was a bulldog about getting all these additives out of food. His own poison squad tests had really convinced him that people had to know what they were eating, and that it had to be proven safe.
DBLUM: You see him in these dog fights in which he’d say, “I know we don’t have everything on the substance but you know it’s primarily goes into food for children. Let’s just take it out until we know it’s safe.” And you see other people saying, “Come back when you have proof.”
TWILLEY: This was an argument in food regulation then, and it still is today. Harvey’s attitude is called the precautionary principle. It’s the approach that has long been taken in Europe.
BLUM: Europe tends to take a much more play-it-safe approach than we do. and the approach in the United States is is, well, you know, people aren’t keeling over so it’s probably not harmful. It tends to be kind of, prove the harm before we do anything. Whereas in Europe, it’s, there some really serious risk here that we don’t fully understand. So we’re going to block it until we’ve been able to establish safety. And a lot of companies actually even today will make one formulation for the United States and a different formulation for Europe, because things that are allowed in this country today are not allowed there.
GRABER: Just like companies used to do in Harvey’s time, when German brewers would add preservatives to beer shipped to the U.S. that they wouldn’t sell in Germany, and French wine companies would do the same with wine.
TWILLEY: Harvey was arguing that America should adopt the European approach. And that didn’t go down super well.
BLUM: And so he starts losing a lot of these internal battles. And he fights so vigorously and I think imperiously and he’s so, “it has to be the consumer about everything,” that eventually they start seeing him as kind of a fanatic.
GRABER: Harvey started to lose traction with President Roosevelt and with his supervisors and with Congress.
TWILLEY: So the legislation was kind of a mess from the beginning. But, on the other hand, some of the worst additives, like borax and formaldehyde, they were taken out of the food system, now that the government had a way to force companies to do that.
GRABER: And Harvey’s efforts eventually led to the birth of the Food and Drug Administration, the FDA.
TWILLEY: Today, the FDA is still the main government agency responsible for making sure that our food is safe and that manufacturers can’t just load it up with toxic preservatives.
GRABER: Great, we have an agency in charge of protecting our food supply and making sure that all preservatives are safe. So, how many preservatives ARE there in the food supply today?
LAURA MACCLEERY: I don’t know the answer to that, because we don’t have a comprehensive list of all of the different things that are added to food.
TWILLEY: This is Laura MacCleery. She is policy director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. And we were surprised—I mean, the whole point was in Harvey Washington Wiley’s day, we had no idea what was in our food. But surely things are different today. Do we really not know how many preservatives are in our food?
MACCLEERY: So we don’t have a sense of what the known universe is. I would say it’s probably, as a subcategory of additives, preservatives is probably in the several hundreds. But it’s just a guess.
GRABER: Okay, that’s kind of strange. We don’t know how many are added to food. But at the least we should know how many have been tested to be safe, right?
MACCLEERY: Again, we don’t have a way of knowing that because of the GRAS loophole. We can’t answer a really fundamental questions about the universe of additives being used. Because companies can just put stuff in food.
TWILLEY: Uh what? This was Harvey’s whole thing! This is exactly what the legislation was supposed to be dealing with? What went wrong?
GRABER: What went wrong, as Laura just said, is the GRAS loophole.
MACCLEERY: Yeah, so, in 1958, there was a series of hearings. And the Congress told the FDA to establish a pre-market approval process modeled on drugs actually. And they said you know here’s all this elaborate process, food manufacturers should apply for approvals. But it didn’t seem realistic or feasible to require food manufacturers to apply to use things that had long been in use.
TWILLEY: Congress was thinking of things like flour or cornstarch—things that had been in food for ever and were generally recognized as safe.
GRABER: Generally recognized as safe. G-R-A-S. GRAS.
MACCLEERY: And over time that carve-out for things that are generally recognized as safe has been expanded and expanded.
TWILLEY: And the result is a big fat loophole. The GRAS loophole.
MACCLEERY: Because the current law somewhat unbelievably allows companies to decide an ingredient is safe in a back room with scientists on their payroll, and to put that ingredient into food without telling the Food and Drug Administration or the public that they’ve done so or any of the basis for why they’ve made that decision. So this applies to preservatives, it applies to every other kind of food additive as well.
GRABER: This sounds shocking, and it really is. A manufacturer can literally decide for themselves that a substance is generally recognized as safe.
TWILLEY: They don’t even have to inform the FDA that they’ve made that decision. They can, and they can do lots of tests, too. But they don’t have to. It’s kind of crazy.
GRABER: In fact, the organization that Laura works for—the Center for Science in the Public Interest—they’ve challenged the GRAS loophole in court with Earthjustice just last year. It’s an ongoing legal battle.
TWILLEY: Now the FDA does have a set of guidelines for testing preservative safety that companies could follow. If they wanted.
MACCLEERY: There is a book at the federal level, called the red book, that lays out the testing requirements for assuring the safety of food additives.
CYNTHIA GRABER: Sometimes these tests are done. And when they are, they’re conducted on animals. And they’re designed to see whether the preservatives cause cancer.
TWILLEY: This is kind of the updated version of the poison squad. Preservatives are not tested on humans, because you can’t do that kind of thing anymore, but they are tested. Sometimes. Although they don’t have to be.
GRABER: But even if companies follow the red book rules, these modern day tests also have limitations.
MACCLEERY: They may not be sensitive to other kinds of outcomes. For example, in the case of artificial food colorings, there is significant data from human studies that it can cause inattention and kind of ADD like symptoms in susceptible children. And so you’re not going to see effects on animal behavior from, you know, standing at the cage side of a rat or a mouse. So there’s a very few number of endpoints that the substances are measured against. And the methodology really hasn’t been meaningfully updated in several decades.
GRABER: There’s the problem of the cocktail effect. We mentioned that was a major concern in Harvey’s day when preservatives were dumped in all sorts of foods in huge amounts. There’s not nearly as much in food today—after all, we have refrigeration. But you still might have different preservatives in different foods. You might be eating them over long periods of time, in combination. This is really hard to study.
MACCLEERY: In general when you’re looking at very low levels of exposure and the data are difficult to track over time, it’s very hard to see amongst the noise what any particular impact might be.
GRABER: Nicky, one of the things you and I were both surprised about was the fact that some of the preservatives that Harvey was really concerned about and that Harvey tested are still being used today.
BLUM: I’ve actually turned that over and over my head, too. Because when you read his studies they did see notable and consistent health effects from sodium benzoate.
TWILLEY: Harvey had predicted that his Poison Squad would have no problems with sodium benzoate.
GRABER: He was surprised and quite dismayed to see that the opposite was true. The participants in the trial suffered from burning in their throat and esophagus, stomach pains, dizziness, nausea. Nearly all lost a lot of weight and had a really painful and slow recovery from the sodium benzoate trial.
TWILLEY: But you can go to any supermarket in America today and find sodium benzoate on a label. It’s really quite common. So we asked Laura, what’s the current science on the risk?
GRABER: She told us that when sodium benzoate is used in combination with ascorbic acid and they’re in an acidic solution, like a juice, then the two chemicals can react and form a small amount of benzene.
MACCLEERY: Which is a chemical that has been associated with leukemia and other cancers. The amounts of benzene that are formed in that acidic beverage are small. And when we’ve analyzed the question, we think it leads to a very very small risk of cancer. But, in terms of sodium benzoate, we don’t think that the research likely justifies taking it off the market, given the extremely low risk of cancer.
TWILLEY: This is a case where maybe the dose of sodium benzoate in today’s foods is low enough to not cause the kind of ill effects that Harvey’s Poison Squad suffered. But still. It makes you think. It certainly has made Deborah think.
BLUM: I’m inclined to say that I think Wiley saw signs of damage that we have not fully followed up on. And so that I’ve found myself less believing that these are entirely without risk.
GRABER: Harvey tested sulfites, too.
TWILLEY: Only nine of the twelve Poison Squad members made it to the end of the sulfite study. And everyone got sick to some degree. Again, the men reported stomach pains, headaches, dizziness, and weakness.
GRABER: It turns out that sulfites actually form naturally during the process of making wine. But everyone was adding extra sulfites to wine and dried fruit and all sorts of foods. In fact, sulfites are still used in wine and dried fruits today.
TWILLEY: One of the other common uses for sulfites in recent years was in restaurants. Kitchens would leave things like lettuce and chopped potatoes sitting in a sulfite solution, so they didn’t go bad. And the sulfite levels would get really high.
MACCLEERY: And they would occasionally trigger a very life threatening reactions and so that use has been discontinued after Center for Science in the Public Interest, where I work, helped push federal regulators to make that decision.
GRABER: The FDA banned this use of sulfites in 1986. Laura told us she thinks basically the worst risks of sulfites have been addressed. Some people get headaches from sulfites in red wine—and I’m one of those people—and people like me should try to avoid sulfites. Otherwise, Laura thinks we’re pretty much okay. Though I wish I could drink more red wine.
TWILLEY: I am not one of the sulfite sensitive people, although obviously too much red wine can cause headaches in anyone. But, like Laura said, the science is still developing. And there’s some recent research in mice that seems to show that sulfites can alter your gut microbiome in ways that are potentially linked to obesity and food allergies. That’s new research, in mice, so nothing definitive yet.
GRABER: Speaking of gut microbes—
GRABER: There’s research linking nitrates to these types of problems, too. Nitrates are used to preserve meat, like in pepperoni and beef jerky. And recent research in both humans and animals seems to show a link between nitrates and an increased risk of mania. And that link seems to be working through changes in the gut microbiome. Again, this is all really new, really emerging research. It’s something to keep an eye on. But just like the animal studies don’t look at the effect of food additives on behavior, the federal testing rules don’t take into account new research on gut microbe health at all.
TWILLEY: Nitrates were another common preservative that Harvey had concluded were dangerous back in the day. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has argued that they should be accompanied with a warning label, based on the current science. But, Laura told us, it’s also worth bearing in mind that there can be good reasons to use these preservatives.
MACCLEERY: They do apply nitrite and nitrate preservatives in foods to reduce botulism. So it has an important food safety function.
GRABER: Okay, so there are reasons to have these preservatives in food, but some might not be perfectly safe… Still, it’s all there on the label for us to see. You can tell if there’s sodium benzoate or nitrates or sulfites in what you buy.
TWILLEY: And some people—including many food manufacturers—claim that that’s enough. They argue that consumers are responsible for reading the label and educating themselves. But Deborah and Laura aren’t buying that.
BLUM: This is a big debate actually in consumer protection. Is it your job to protect yourself? I’ll just give you all the information and then, okay, buyer, you figure it out. Or is it the job of regulatory agencies. or do we trust business? And I’m all for being an educated consumer. Like I said, I’m insanely compulsive label reader. But the fact of the matter is that we’re not able to do that, all of us for ourselves. It’s not a civilized way to handle this to just say, well, it’s all on you. And if you weren’t smart enough to figure out what that label really meant then too bad for you. I don’t think that that’s morally right. And I would like—I’m going to sound like Harvey Wiley in a high moral sense—I think morally we should do the right thing in consumer protection and put consumers first.
GRABER: In fact, Laura says that Congress actually agrees with Deborah. The government agrees that it’s the government’s responsibility to protect consumers.
MACCLEERY: In 1958, they told the Food and Drug Administration not to allow an ingredient in food unless there was a reasonable certainty that it would do no harm. So they charged FDA with the responsibility to protect the public from unsafe food ingredients. It’s clearly a burden that falls on the government. And they need to do a better job.
TWILLEY: And here’s the thing—when it’s under enough pressure, the FDA has shown that it can do its job and remove dangerous ingredients from the nation’s food supply.
MACCLEERY: They just did this with trans fat, so we know what can be done.
GRABER: The science kept piling up against trans fats, and so the government said that food manufacturers needed to take them out. The FDA can do its job. Laura wants that to happen with preservatives that are dangerous. And she wants the GRAS loophole closed so that we know that food ingredients have been tested and how.
TWILLEY: Plus she thinks that food additives should all be regularly reevaluated to see if there’s any new science about whether or not they’re safe.
GRABER: But even with all these issues, both Laura and Deborah say that our food system is way safer than it was in Harvey’s day.
MACCLEERY: Most of the things used in food don’t pose any risk to consumers. But what we have in the current food additive and GRAS loophole system is essentially mostly chaos. And consumer trust is what suffers.
TWILLEY: Laura’s point is that consumers know the system is kind of broken, and that’s why you have things like the whole “clean label” drive, where companies are trying to get artificial ingredients out of their products. But her point is, you can take out an artificial nitrate and replace it with celery salt, which is totally natural — but which is exactly the same chemical!
MACCLEERY: I think the brokenness of the regulatory process actually has real costs for food companies. I think it has deep costs for public trust and confidence in the safety of the food that we’re consuming. And it’s driving a lot of marketplace change without any real program to assure that those changes benefit public health. And that’s just tragic.
GRABER: There are maybe hundreds of preservatives and thousands of additives in general in foods, and most of them are probably safe. But right now we don’t necessarily trust the FDA to tell us that.
BLUM: It’s certainly not the insanely awful food of the 19th century before even basic regulation came in with Wiley. But we still have all kinds of additives in food that we don’t fully understand. I think we inadequately regulate food, even today. We still have a food supply that puts people at risk. It’s not as crazy as it was, but it shares some of the same problems, and it shares this ongoing issue in the United States of this deep suspicion of regulation, instead of seeing what it is if it’s done right, and that’s consumer protection.
MACCLEERY: And what needs to happen on food additives is that there needs to be a public and accountable process led by FDA, where we figure out, okay, what are the 40 or 50 things in foods and food packaging that do pose some risk to human health, and how can we phase out those uses?
TWILLEY: It sounds so simple. But as Harvey discovered, it’s really hard to get done. In the meantime, our only option is to educate ourselves. Well, and vote! And call your member of Congress!
GRABER: Deborah’s expertise is chemistry, and she’s written about chemistry for decades, and she’s not scared of weird sounding chemicals on labels. But she’s gotten a little more cautious after writing her book about the Poison Squad.
BLUM: I’ve found myself though in the weirdest way doing something I never did before, and that is—oh, it was with like those little plastic lemons of lemon juice, right. And I pick it up and I look at it and I go, oh, there’s sodium benzoate in this too. And I thought, you know, I’m just going to squeeze a lemon.
TWILLEY: Having written this whole book, knowing what she now knows, suddenly Deborah is feeling like a member of Poison Squad herself.
BLUM: So I’m just going to reduce my exposure. I mean that was a conversation I had right in the produce aisle. And I’m putting this little plastic deal back, which probably makes a lot of sense for the environment and everything else. And I’m just going to buy a bag of lemons. So that’s what I did.
TWILLEY: If you, like me, have been left with a little bit of concern about what might be in your food, there are a couple of good resources we have for you. Laura’s organization, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, maintains a website called Chemical Cuisine, with a lot of helpful science-based information. We have a link on our website, gastropod.com. And there’s actually a fabulous museum devoted entirely to this topic. It’s in Hamburg, it’s called the German Food Additives Museum. And I went last December. I highly recommend it! Links and photos on our website.
GRABER: Thanks so much to Deborah Blum. Her new book is called The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century. Super interesting. Thanks also to Laura MacCleery at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
TWILLEY: Stay tuned for a sneak peek at our next episode, where Cynthia and I participate in a three-woman mango orgy.
GRABER: Oh, it’s really coconut-y! Mmm, oh my gosh, it tastes like coconut!
TWILLEY: This is a coconut-mango hybrid.
GRABER: I’ve never had a mango that tastes this much like coconut.
NICOLA TWILLEY: So juicy it’s dripping, and we’re covered, and your microphone is going to be so sticky.
GRABER: Thank you, yes.