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The Toxic Food Environment

Carcinogenic Chemicals | Poisonous Ingredients | Toxic Pesticides | Synthetic Packaging

an image depicting the toxic food environment: a plate with a scull and cross bones floating in a bowl of soup.

The toxic food environment is a concept that carries provocative connotations. Originally coined by Kelly D. Brownell, a professor at the prestigious Stanford School of Public Policy, a toxic food environment is one devoid of nutritional, health-fortifying foods but instead is suffuse in poisonous processed plastic-wrapped products that ‘corrode’ health and promote disease and obesity.

This article will be looking at the toxic food environment through the lens of a publication dedicated to describing it and bringing the consumer’s attention to how some food manufacturers are knowingly lacing their products with poisons.


The majority of ‘food books’ – that is, books concerned with best dietary practices – provide the reader either with dietary advice, which is usually wrong, or a scientific basis as to why we should exclude certain foods from our diet while including others, which is usually quickly contradicted by contemporary scientific research. Such books abound and they more often leave the reader confused and exasperated than edified and confident.

I’ve gorged my way through a plethora of the above species of food books and have often finished the feast feeling somewhat unsatiated. For not only do they fail to satisfy but you can’t help thinking that the author is either pushing an agenda, isn’t keeping up with the research or is blinkered by their pre-conceived dietary beliefs.

For a good while now I’ve hungered for a food book that tells me in plain English just what exactly manufacturers are doing to the edible products that are coming to form an ever-greater part of the human diet. I wanted the veil of ignorance that the food industry tries so hard to hold up banished. Truly, I believed that no such book had been written.

But then I serendipitously stumbled upon Joanna Blythman’s Swallow This which more than satiated my hunger and now I know just how toxic the food industry really is. Yet though I’ve had an inkling for a long time that food manufacturers, in the main, are unscrupulous, uncaring corporations who put profit over ethical food practices, even I found some of the information served up too unpalatable to swallow. Firstly, let’s consider Blythman’s exposé on the use of sugar in foods.

Now we all know (or at least should know) that sugar – aka ‘white death’ – is highly toxic to human health. The fact that it is so is nothing new. Dr Weston A. Price, in his hugely important but sadly forgotten book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, which was published in 1939, maintained that sugar consumption is not only one of the root causes of dental carries, but also disrupts correct teeth formation, deforms the jaw bone and contributes to general physical decline. In that gentlemanly language of his Price argued that sugar ‘thwarts Nature’s orderly process of life’ on account of the fact that it confers little to no nutritional value and is completely devoid of ‘body-building and repairing materials’ (p256).

But our understanding of the detrimental and health-robbing impacts sugar exerts on human health has moved on. Mark Bittman candidly talks about the dangers of sugar consumption is his landmark treatise on the global food system entitled Animal, Vegetable Junk. As well as sharing similar, though perhaps not as potent, addictive properties to nicotine, sugar ‘contributes to insulin resistance’ a precursor to type 2 diabetes, ‘obesity, heart disease, hyperactivity, and more,’ (p185).

In light of these facts any sane, morally minded person would think that food manufacturers would actively avoid this ingredient in their products; after all, they wouldn’t want to poison and pollute their customers – would they? However, the opposite has happened. Global sugar consumption has increased exponentially over the past hundred years. Before the first world war the average annual consumption of sugar per person didn’t exceed 5kg (around 10lbs). Today the average person consumes over 35kgs of white death and often without even knowing it.

But if sugar is so bad for us, which manufacturers surely know, as do the governments that are supposed to legislate them, why are they literally force feeding us the stuff? Besides the previously stated fact that sugar is highly addictive, an extremely useful quality in an ingredient if your objective is to get people hooked on your product, it also possesses a panoply of useful culinary properties. For example, it improves the viscosity, or ‘mouth feel’, of foods while also acting as a preservative: added sugar can extend the shelf life of foods for decades, on account of the fact that bacteria isn’t stupid enough to eat nutritionally deficient foods.

Moreover, sugar’s ‘water-binding property helps moisture retention, so you feel like you’re getting more for your money’ (p.106). And, as one industry report peppily put it when advising on the necessity of using sugar in commercial foods, it ‘provides bulk, textural elements, browning, caramelisation and other necessary functional elements beyond its [addictive] sweet taste.’ It is these qualities which has made sugar a favourite among food manufacturers and accounts for why it can be found in ‘drinks, confectionary, bread, breakfast cereals and deserts, but also a surprisingly important ingredient in many savoury products: mayonnaise, ketchup, soups and pasta sauces, ready meals, gravy and bread.’

But where does this leave the concerned citizen who cares about their health and harbours the desire to avoid disease and physical degeneration? What if you want to extricate yourself from this region of the toxic food environment? How can that rare person avoid consuming white death? Short of taking drastic action and reverting to a stone age hunter gatherer, you will have to reform your eating habits in radical ways while maintain the vigilance of someone who has been target by the KGB for nuclear poisoning.

If you wish to purge white death from your diet, and you’d be wise to do so, you must implement the cessation of the consumption of all processed foods effective immediately. Why all processed foods? Well, because of some of the toxic connotations that the word sugar is saddled with, ‘the food industry has been quietly working on losing mentions’ of it in their products. Thus, even for the discerning and dedicated decipherer of ingredient lists, sugar can slip beneath the radar under the guise of another name. Such names include:

an image showing the different names food manufacturers use to disguise sugar in their products. Such names include: Dextrose, Fructose, Galactose, Glucose, Lactose, Maltose, Sucrose, Beet, Cane juice crystal, Coconut sugar, Corn syrup solids, Crystalline fructose, Date sugar, Dextrin, Diastatic malt, Ethyl maltol, Florida crystals, Glucose syrup solids, Maltodextrin, Sucanat, Agave Nectar/Syrup, Barley malt, Blackstrap molasses, Brown rice syrup, Caramel, Carob syrup, Corn syrup, Evaporated cane juice, Fruit juice, Fruit juice concentrate, Golden syrup, High-Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), Honey, Malt syrup, Maple syrup, Molasses, Rice syrup, Refiner's syrup, Sorghum syrup, Treacle. There are more.

As disturbing as all this is, it only serves as an aperitif before the banquet of food processing horrors. Truly, the toxic food environment is about to Chernobyl. Let’s shift our focus away from health-degrading ingredients to cancer-causing chemical additives. ‘Controversy over chemicals,’ Blythman writes, ‘has been aired for decades.’ But as long as those chemicals were used sparingly and didn’t exceed safe range guidelines, manufacturers were given the greenlight to use them as they saw fit. Yet while the controversy rages over the use of what are now old chemicals, such as bisphenol A and phthalates, new and far more frightening ones are entering out foods.

In this caption box it says: A ready-made pizza, for instance, often sits on a polystyrene disc, swathed in clingy plastic wrapping, inside a plasticised cardboard sleeve or box. When we pull off the wrapper, some of the pizza topping usually comes away with it, evidence of contact. In factory food, a number of polymer plastics hold pre-cooked ingredients in their sticky, clammy embrace, all the while exchanging body fluids. The film on ready meals that turns brittle once cooked according to manufacturer’s instructions is dotted with steamy brown liquid that drips onto the food contents in the shallow plastic tray, a humid haze of reheated industrial ingredients and how plastic. Prawn mayonnaise sandwiches and Peking duck wraps sit in the supermarket and takeaway shop chiller for 48 hours, oozing their sweet, oily innards onto the plastic and cardboard carton, a carton that has absorbed printing ink, and is more likely laminated with an ultra-fine plastic film.

Take the emerging technology of nanoparticles as an example. As their name implies, these super small particles, ‘which are far too minute to see with a microscope, are derived from materials such as clay, silver, titanium, silica and zinc oxide, and are increasingly used in food and drink packaging,’ (pp. 247-248). The function of nanoparticles in food is largely one of preservation while also decreasing the ‘permeability’ of plastics and warding off bacteria. But the question on your lips should be: are they – the nanoparticle not the bacteria – dangerous?

At this stage in their use it is too difficult to accurately answer that question because there is yet to be a spike in inexplicable deaths – like there was twenty years after cigarettes were first introduced and widely adopted as a statement of fashion. However, as Blythman makes abundantly clear, ‘The potential health problem with nanoparticles is their minuteness. They are about one ten-thousandth the width of a human hair, which makes them more reactive and more bioactive than larger particles of the same substance.’ What does all this mean though? It ‘means they can end up in places that larger particles would not – our cells, tissues and organs, where they can accumulate to ill effect.’

God, it’s all so depressing! Before all we had to worry about when choosing food was a surfeit of sugar. Now we’ve got to consider whether this packet of processed poison is encased in a coffin of cell-infiltrating nanoparticles! And what’s worse, as well as having disguised the name of sugar, the food manufacturer isn’t legally required to inform us of the chemicals they may have used as they are not classed as ‘edible ingredients’ – even though they almost certainly will be ingested.

If you are feeling unsettled by all this there’s always the option of purging your diet of processed packaged foods and transitioning to vegetarianism. After all, fruit and vegetables are safe for they have been provided by mother nature. Right?

Wrong. Even fruit and vegetables are routinely encased in a chemical straitjacket. Thus the health conscious person is being unknowingly subjected to a soup of chemicals known to cause an ‘increase in prostate and breast cancer, urogenital abnormalities in male babies, a decline in sperm quality in men, early onset of puberty in girls, metabolic disorders including insulin resistant (type 2) diabetes and obesity, and neurobehavioral problems such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder,’ (p. 245).

Take MAP – Modified Atmosphere Packing – as another example of the disgusting practices of contemporary food manufactory. The chief aim of this food adulteration ‘technology’ is to prolong the freshness of food and extend its shelf life. ‘MAP can add 5 or 6 days to the shelf life of a sandwich,’ (p. 226). In the food processing industry alternative terminologies for MAP include ‘gas-flushed’, ‘gas-packaged’, ‘gas-shocked’. Other benefits of MAP include:

  • It delays the onset of what is known in the factory food trade as ‘‘warmed over flavour’ or WOF, an off-taste likened to ‘damp dog hair’’ (p. 227).

  • Processed food manufacturers can transport their normally perishable produces around the globe without the worry of them spoiling. ‘Meat imported frozen to the UK from aboard, New Zealand lamb for instance, can be defrosted at a processing plant, then flushed with MAP,’ as it extends the shelf life and maintains the illusion of freshness.

Perhaps, on conclusion of this dire outline of contemporary food manufacturing practices, you might be left asking ‘Well what can I eat that won’t pollute my body and increase disease risk? And can you lead me out of the toxic food environment?’ The truth is the task of maintaining one’s health is becoming increasingly harder. This is because the food industry, through actively deceiving us and ruthlessly sabotaging any attempt to mandate full processing disclosure, have created a toxic food labyrinth. The only solution is one that the industry itself resorts to when they face any kind of criticism: the onus is on consumers to change their behaviour. You can do this by following the escape plan below.

Toxic Food Environment Escape Plan

Firstly, you’ve got to get informed.

The toxic food environment is a complex issue and to understand it, even vaguely, requires and investment of time and energy. You can start this part of the process by purchasing a copy of Blythman’s book Swallow This, as it is both accessible and provides a comprehensive insight into how food manufacturers are knowingly positioning us.

Secondly, you need to stop suckling at the toxic teat of supermarkets and start shopping at local markets, small producers and whole food shops.

Frances Moore Lappé, in her book Diet for a Small Planet, brings the reader’s attention to the depressing drudgery of gathering food from the long monotone shelves of a supermarket. In such food warehouses you are often unknowingly manipulate in your buying habits as toxic temptations seem to stalk you wherever you go. Marion Nestle talks about this in What To Eat. ‘Think of the supermarket,’ she tells us, ‘as a particularly intense real estate market in which every product competes fiercely against every other for precious space. Because you can see products more easily at eye level, at the ends of isles, and at the checkout counters, these areas are prime real estate. Which products get the prime space? The obvious answer: the ones most profitable for the store,’ (p. 20). This explains why supermarkets go to great trouble to design store layouts that ‘shepherd’ their flock of grazers past those products most profitable.

Next, you need to transition to a plant-based diet.

This is important for more reasons than just personal health. It is well understood just how detrimental intensive farming and animal agribusiness is to the environment. I won’t go into detail here, as I’ve taken up enough of your time already, but if you are interested in further understanding this extremely important subject consult Mark Bittman’s brilliant book: Animal, Vegetable, Junk (see below).

Buy organic where possible.

Arguably there is no such thing as ‘true’ organic foods anymore, on account of the profuseness of chemical pesticides (millions of tons of the toxic stuff are sprayed over crops every year) – one research group found traces of pesticides a metre beneath the surface pack ice in the Arctic tundra. However, organic producers don’t spray their produce with chemicals which significantly reduces exposure for the consumer.

Cultivate a Victorian garden of your own.

If you’ve got a patch of grass or a communal plot, consider converting it into an allotment and growing your own produce. I’m not suggesting going into production here, just start off with a couple of vegetables, preferably ones that tend to feature in your diet, and have a go. I know a number of people who have recently caught the veg plot bug and, I must say, considering they were your typical techno-toting TV-watching westerners, they’ve taken to it with surprising passion. ‘That’s great and all, but what if I live in a flat?’ Granted, for people who live in high-rises it wouldn’t be possible to cultivate a veg plot. However, vegetable garden balconies are becoming increasingly popular and many different types of herbs can be grown indoors on a windowsill. I suppose what I’m knocking at is: something – anything! – is better than nothing for not only will your own produce provide pleasing subsistence, but it will also bring about an appreciation of how food should be grown, which may well spark the motivation to want to procure produce that has been properly grown and without chemical pesticides.


Swallow This

Even with 25 years experience as a journalist and investigator of the food chain, Joanna Blythman still felt she had unanswered questions about the food we consume every day. How ‘natural’ is the process for making a ‘natural’ flavouring? What, exactly, is modified starch, and why is it an ingredient in so many foods? What is done to pitta bread to make it stay ‘fresh’ for six months? And why, when you eat a supermarket salad, does the taste linger in your mouth for several hours after?


Suggested Reading List

Nutrition and Physical Degeneration

For nearly 10 years, Weston Price and his wife traveled around the world in search of the secret to health. Instead of looking at people afflicted with disease symptoms, this highly-respected dentist and dental researcher chose to focus on healthy individuals, and challenged himself to understand how they achieved such amazing health. Dr. Price traveled to hundreds of cities in a total of 14 different countries in his search to find healthy people. He investigated some of the most remote areas in the world. He observed perfect dental arches, minimal tooth decay, high immunity to tuberculosis and overall excellent health in those groups of people who ate their indigenous foods. He found when these people were introduced to modernized foods, such as white flour, white sugar, refined vegetable oils and canned goods, signs of degeneration quickly became quite evident. Dental caries, deformed jaw structures, crooked teeth, arthritis and a low immunity to tuberculosis became rampant amongst them. Dr. Price documented this ancestral wisdom including hundreds of photos in his book, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration.


Animal, Vegetable, Junk

From hunting and gathering to GMOs and ultra-processed foods, this expansive tour of human history rewrites the story of our species - and points the way to a better future. The history of Homo sapiens is usually told as a story of technology or economics. But there is a more fundamental driver: food. How we hunted and gathered explains our emergence as a new species and our earliest technology; our first food systems, from fire to agriculture, tell where we settled and how civilizations expanded.


Not on the Label

In 2004 Felicity Lawrence published her ground-breaking book, Not on the Label, where, in a series of undercover investigations she provided a shocking account of what really goes into the food we eat. She discovered why beef waste ends up in chicken, why a single lettuce might be sprayed six times with chemicals before it ends up in our salad, why bread is full of water. And she showed how obesity, the appalling conditions of migrant workers, ravaged fields in Europe and the supermarket on our high street are all intimately connected.


Pure, White and Deadly

In 1972, when British scientist John Yudkin first proved that sugar was bad for our health, he was ignored by the majority of the medical profession and rubbished by the food industry. We should have heeded his warning. Today, one in four adults in the UK are overweight. There is an epidemic of obese six-month-olds around the globe. Sugar consumption has tripled since the Second World War.


Diet For a Small Planet

The extraordinary book that taught America the social and personal significance of a new way of eating is still a complete guide for eating well in the twenty-first century.

Sharing her personal evolution and how this groundbreaking book changed her own life, world-renowned food expert Frances Moore Lappé offers an all-new, even more fascinating philosophy on changing yourself--and the world--by changing the way you eat.


What To Eat

How we choose which foods to eat is growing more complicated by the day, and the straightforward, practical approach of What to Eat has been praised as welcome relief. As Nestle takes us through each supermarket section--produce, dairy, meat, fish--she explains the issues, cutting through foodie jargon and complicated nutrition labels, and debunking the misleading health claims made by big food companies. With Nestle as our guide, we are shown how to make wise food choices--and are inspired to eat sensibly and nutritiously.


(As we are very interested in user experience here at Hungry4Fitness, we would be very grateful if you could take a few seconds out of your day to leave a comment. Thanks in advance!)

Blog Author

Adam Priest, former Royal Marines Commando, is a personal trainer, lecturer, boxing and Thai boxing enthusiast.

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