You have to wonder why unrefined sugar costs more than refined. If there’s less processing involved, surely the product should cost less.

And if organic food has chemicals left out of it, shouldn’t organic be the norm? Shouldn’t we label other foods as Non Organic? And shouldn’t these be sold at a premium for the chemicals added to them?

Contentious perhaps. However, here are six questions about chemicals in the food we eat, how they got there and how we can avoid them.

Should you have to buy organic to avoid chemicals?

Of course the answer should be no. But it isn’t.

Buying organic is still the easiest way to avoid chemicals. Even so, some organic farms have been damaged by chemicals drifting from neighbouring farms.

Concern about chemicals in food prompts many to prefer organic. If only organic foods weren’t priced at a premium.

Why do organics cost more than non-organics?

Farmers use chemicals to boost production. Their land produces more for the same amount of work. This makes the produce off their farms cheaper.

Also, organic farms are generally small farms. They don’t enjoy the economies of scale that big farms do.

These are two reasons why organic fruit, veg and grains cost more than non-organic equivalents.

How much more expensive? In 2000, Choice magazine found that organic fruit and vegetables were 70 percent more expensive than non-organic. However, the gap is closing.

In 2021, Axios research found that organics were, on average, 15% more expensive than non-organics.

At a time when inflation is hitting the cost of food, something interesting is happening. DataWeave found that the cost of organics rose 3% in 12 months. Non-organics rose 11%.

It’s becoming cheaper to choose chemical-free food.

However, it’s sill cheaper to eat junk.

Why is it cheaper to eat processed food than fresh?

Say you have $100 for your supermarket shop. Why can you buy more processed food for your hundred dollars than you can fresh food?

There are four reasons for this.

Food processors pay farmers by the tonne. The more a farmer gets off each hectare, the cheaper the cost of production, the cheaper the cost to the manufacturer and the cheaper the processed food.

Produce destined for food processing doesn’t have to look good. Farmers sell processors produce that’s considered second grade. And that’s cheaper than perfect fruit & veg.

Also, because minor damage isn’t a worry, farmers can use mechanical harvesters in place of humans. So, it costs less to harvest.

The amount of fresh ingredient in the processed food is rarely 100%. A Pringle contains 42% potato. The rest of the ingredients in processed food consists of things that are cheaper than the fruit or veg or grains.

When did farmers start using chemicals in the field?

In the 1920s farmers began to use insecticides on their crops. Whilst this led to concerns about lead and arsenic residues on food, the practice continued. By the 1930s, chemical use was common. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the invention of chromatography allowed scientists to accurately detect the presence, quantity and risks of chemical residues in food.

Of course, chemicals were also added in the manufacturing process.

When did manufacturers start adding chemicals to food?

Processed foods often contain chemical additives – artificial colours and flavours, chemicals to improve shelf life and so on. Many of these chemicals are listed by code (E102, 127, 282, 951).

So, when did manufacturers start adding these chemicals? It really started back in the 1930s. Agrichemicals were growing in use. Food additives became common in processed food. It was another 20 years before advances in toxicology technology allowed scientists to fully assess the potential harm of the added chemicals contaminating food.

What do we know today about chemicals in food?

Some toxins in food are naturally occurring. Bamboo shoots and cassava roots contain cyanide. So too do apple and pear seeds, and peach and apricot kernels. Large fish contain mercury. Even potatoes, parsnips and kumara contain natural toxins.

Other toxins (such as acrylamide) are produced during the processing. Heavy metals (lead, arsenic, mercury, cadmium) enter food through contaminated soil.

Benzene, which has been declared carcinogenic to humans, enters food through the manufacturing process and through packaging. It is also used in some pesticides, so enters food in the farmer’s field.

Some chemicals are added legally. Some not. Melamine, a compound based on nitrogen, was once added to raw milk, pet food and baby formula to boost its apparent protein level.

Where does this leave us?

It’s impossible to totally avoid toxins in food – as it is in life.

Here’s what you can do to reduce your exposure to toxins:

  • Stop using toxic herbicides and insecticides on food-producing farms
  • Ask supermarkets to stop selling food produced with toxic herbicides
  • Ask hardware and garden stores to stop selling toxic herbicides
  • Stop using toxic herbicides and insecticides on home vegetable gardens
  • Cook fresh food properly to remove toxic properties
  • Stop – or reduce – eating processed food
  • Buy certified organic where possible

Photo by Raul Gonzales Escobar via Unsplash