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The Soy and Other 'Natural' Food Products in Your Cabinet May Contain a Dangerous Neurotoxin

All too often it's the companies playing the "natural" card that are doing the most unnatural things to your food.
 
 
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Food purists often fuss about the inadequacies of USDA's organic food standards, how pitifully watered down they are from the lofty principles that built the organic movement. They have a point. After all, the USDA's National Organic Program was created to deal with the big agribusinesses determined to exploit the lucrative organic market. But for all the complaints about federal organic standards, the non-certified alternatives -- with some foods especially -- can be downright scary.

It's ironic that many of the scariest, non-certified organic foods are labeled "natural" -- a term that could not mean less, or mislead more. Like "home-style" or "old-fashioned," the label "natural" can mean whatever the labeler wants it to mean. You could put "natural" on a lab-grade jar of MSG crystals, or on a packet of 10-year-old Twinkies, without violating any law. And all too often it's the companies playing the "natural" card that are doing the most unnatural things to your food.

Consider the widespread use of hexane, a neurotoxin, in processed foods that aren't certified organic (those lame organic standards do at least prohibit hexane use). Hexane is a highly flammable EPA-listed air pollutant that is used in the manufacture of cleaning agents, glues, roof sealer, automobile tires, energy bars, veggie burgers, and soy, corn, and canola oils. If these food products are not certified organic, some of the ingredients have probably been processed with hexane, no matter how many times the word "natural" is stamped on the package. Since hexane is used in the manufacturing process, it's not listed as an ingredient in the foods it helps produce, though residues find their way into the finished product. The European Union has strict standards for acceptable hexane residue levels in soy and oilseed products, but in the U.S., there are no such limits.

The organic watchdog group Cornucopia Institute arranged for a lab to test samples of U.S. soy products for hexane content. Hexane was found, in levels as high as 21 parts per million -- more than twice the 10 ppm allowed by the EU in comparable products.

Technology and Solvents for Extracting Oilseeds and Nonpetroleum Oils is a manual for managers and engineers. According to this book, published in 1997, the principle reason that hexane has been the solvent of choice for oilseed extraction since the 1930s is "its availability at a reasonable cost."

The reason hexane is so reasonably priced is that it's a byproduct of gasoline production that would otherwise be expensive to dispose of properly. Petroleum companies gain handsomely from the fact that industrial oilseed extraction -- under status quo production methods since the 1930s -- provides a profitable market for its toxic waste. Oilseed extraction is currently responsible for more than two thirds of hexane use nationwide. Not surprisingly, much of the research cited in the book is funded by the likes of Exxon and Phillips Petroleum.

A chapter devoted to "Toxicity Data for Commercial Hexane" appears to give serious consideration to concerns about hexane's impact on human health, while presenting no evidence that such concerns have been seriously investigated. The chapter explains that "commercial hexane," the type used to extract oilseeds, is a mix of petrochemicals. One of these, n-hexane, which composes more than 50 percent of commercial hexane, has been shown to be a neurotoxin.

The chapter acknowledges that humans are about four times as sensitive as rats to n-hexane, especially over prolonged exposures. Nonetheless, in the very next paragraph it's revealed that only one acute neurotoxicity study was considered. The study evaluated the ability of rats to retain a learned behavior immediately following inhalation of commercial hexane, and 1 and 2 days later. That's like conducting a carcinogen trial that only monitors the subjects for signs of cancer in the two days following exposure. The chapter concludes that "commercial hexane is a relatively safe chemical," despite the fact that it consists mostly of a known neurotoxin.

 
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