Food Paranoia

You know how you sometimes know things but really don’t know them?

I had come across this article in the New York Daily News about veggie burgers. Veggie burgers are looked upon by many as superior replacement for the much-maligned hamburger made from ground up cows. Leaving out the fact that cows are considered a stupid, but somewhat charming and endearing animal that no one wants to watch being ground up, veggie burgers are considered much healthier than the flesh of our barnyard friend and resident of children’s books. It is also supposed to be better for the environment: you picture fields of crops gently swaying in the breeze rather than the chaos of the feedlot and the horror of the slaughterhouse.

Most people don’t picture vats of hexane, a petrochemical byproduct found in gasoline, being used to extract the oil from the pesticide-laden GMO soy that makes up the main ingredient of your oh-so-low-fat veggie burger.

Yep – to make that veggie burger – or a lot of them, at least, you take the soybeans, crush them up, and soak them in this gasoline byproduct, which acts as a solvent and helps the manufacturer extract the oils from the beans and allow the consumer to feel proud of how little fat they are eating compared to those nasty, nasty burgers made from animals.

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about the toxicity of hexane – slightly redacted so you don’t nod off:

The long-term toxicity of n-hexane in humans is well known.[6] Extensive peripheral nervous system failure is known to occur in humans chronically exposed to levels of n-hexane ranging from 400 to 600 ppm, with occasional exposures up to 2,500 ppm. The initial symptoms are tingling and cramps in the arms and legs, followed by general muscular weakness. In severe cases, atrophy of the skeletal muscles is observed, along with a loss of coordination and problems of vision. Similar symptoms are observed in animal models. They are associated with a degeneration of the peripheral nervous system (and eventually the central nervous system), starting with the distal portions of the longer and wider nerve axons.

In 1994, n-hexane was included in the list of chemicals on the US Toxic Release Inventory (TRI).[8] In 2001, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued regulations on the control of emissions of hexane gas due to its potential carcinogenic properties and environmental concerns.[9]


Anyway, it can’t be all that bad, right? Manufacturers must get all that stuff out. When the extraction is done, it must be completely removed, or evaporate…or something…right?

Again, from Wikipedia:

According to a report by the Cornucopia Institute, hexane is used to extract oil from grains as well as protein from soy, to such an extent that in 2007, grain processors were responsible for more than two-thirds of hexane emissions in the United States.[10] The report also pointed out that the hexane can persist in the final food product created; in a sample of processed soy, the oil contained 10 ppm, the meal 21 ppm and the grits 14 ppm hexane.[10] The adverse health effects seem specific to n-hexane; they are much reduced or absent for other isomers. Therefore, the food oil extraction industry, which relied heavily on hexane, has been considering switching to other solvents, including isohexane.[11][12][13]

If you would like to read the full report from the Cornucopia Institute on soy, it’s here. It’s well worth the read if you are curious about the health benefits of soy.

The issue is larger than just veggie burgers, though. It turns out that most cooking oils are also extracted from their seeds in a similar process, so unless you buy expensive cold expeller-pressed oils where the oil is squeezed out rather than extracted through solvents, your oil – soybean, canola, olive, corn, etc. – has had a little hexane bath.

And don’t think if you don’t use those oils, you aren’t exposed. After the oil is extracted, what remains (at least for corn and soybean) ends up in a myriad of ‘low fat’ products.

This leads me to a larger – much larger conclusion that I already knew, but didn’t really act upon – until now.

I do not trust government to protect me from unsafe food. Nor do I believe their guidelines for healthy eating.

But I am not a scientist. And I take everything I read with a grain of salt. People have agendas. People distort findings. The truth is impossibly hard to find in all the conflicting messages.

So I am proceeding on my own personal set of assumptions. I don’t know if they are right. I don’t know if I am wasting my time. I don’t really know if my low carb diet is going to kill me tomorrow – but it is my decision. If I am wrong, I only have myself to blame. Here they are:

  • Become a hell of a lot fussier about what I eat. Even more so than I am already. ¬†Yes, it makes me even more of a pain in the ass, which might be hard for some to imagine. So be it.
  • Eat animal fat and protein from animals raised properly – from a real farm, not a corporate farm.
  • Get all my carbs from veggies. No grains.
  • Eat minimally-processed foods.
  • Eat everything possible organic.
  • Read every damn label. If any ingredient sounds like something from chemistry class – don’t buy it.
  • If it comes in a box, has a glorious 4-color picture of what it’s supposed to look like when served – don’t buy it.
  • If it comes in a box and is endorsed by the American Heart Association – don’t buy it.
  • If it has the word ‘healthy’ anywhere on the box – don’t buy it.
  • If it is considered a ‘convenience food’ – don’t buy it.
This totally eliminates a wide swath of what I call ‘crutch foods’ – ones that help you stay on a low carb diet because they mimic high carb foods.
Sorry, Atkins bars – this means you, too. And my beloved low carb bread. And my cheap bologna habit.
It means eating a much smaller variety of foods. It means paying a lot more for the organic versions. It means cooking more. It means going to 3 or 4 stores to find what I want. It’s a big damn hassle.
And it might not change a damn thing with respect to my health or my weight.
But I’ve placed my bet.