For the week of March 25, 1996
America's Real Health Risks
By Joan Waldoch
The National Research Council issued a report recently that offers some common-sense dietary advice for Americans: eat those fruits and vegetables, but watch the calories, fats, and alcohol.
The council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, found that chemicals in foods--whether natural or synthetic-- are consumed at levels so low that they appear to pose little threat to human health. A far greater threat comes not from minor chemicals in food, but from diets too rich in calories, fats or alcohol. Cancer is the second leading killer in the United States, responsible for more than 500,000 deaths each year. Cancers from excess calories and alcohol may account for up to one-third of those deaths.
The council's report also found that naturally-occurring cancer- causing chemicals are far more numerous in the human diet than synthetic carcinogens, which include man-made pesticides, flavoring and coloring agents, and preservatives. But neither type poses a significant health risk-- unless they are present in foods that form an "unusually large part of the diet," according to biochemist Ronald Estabrook of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, who headed the study committee.
Estabrook said the balanced diet needed for good nutrition-- including fruits and vegetables--seems to provide significant protection from the natural toxicants in foods. So Americans who avoid fruits and vegetables for fear of chemical residues are doing themselves more nutritional harm than good.
The report proves what many nutritionists and scientists have been saying for years: consumers should focus on real food risks rather than the insignificant risks posed by synthetic or natural carcinogens.
Ironically, at the same time the benefits of fruits and vegetables are being extolled, growers are finding it more difficult to produce those crops. Because of a court-ordered enforcement of an outdated pesticide regulation called the Delaney clause, the Environmental Protection Agency is canceling the use of several safe and essential ingredients for crop protection chemicals.
The Delaney clause has a chance of being reformed, but only if Congress takes action quickly on legislation pending in both houses. The bills would replace Delaney's prohibition of food additives that may cause cancer, no matter how small the concentration, to allow the use of pesticides that pose an insignificant health risk.
The legislation has broad bipartisan support, but could fall victim to a crowded congressional calendar. Congress should make it a priority and act quickly, because if Delaney is not fixed, consumers will soon face higher prices and fewer choices of nutritional, safe foods at the grocery store. And that would be a real health risk.
Joan Waldoch is editor of Farm Bureau News in the American Farm Bureau Washington, D.C. Office.