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US Version of Kraft Mac and Cheese versus UK Version

May 3, 2011 •  23 comments.

 •  Blog, News, Uncategorized

Written by Robyn O’Brien

As we are quickly learning, other countries have chosen not to allow things like artificial growth hormones, food dyes derived from petrochemicals and genetically engineered ingredients into their food supplies – particularly in the foods fed to children.

And in response to this demand, especially the European Union’s labeling regulations on genetically modified food, many American food manufacturers now create two versions of their product, one for the US and a “cleaner” version for the moms, dads and kids in the 27 countries in Europe, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and the U.K.

So how different could those two versions be, you ask? After all, “food is food”, right?

Well, let’s take a look at one of our staples, macaroni and cheese:

U.S. Version of Kraft Mac & Cheese:

ENRICHED MACARONI PRODUCT (WHEAT FLOUR, NIACIN, FERROUS SULFATE [IRON], THIAMIN MONONITRATE [VITAMIN B1], RIBOFLAVIN [VITAMIN B2], FOLIC ACID), CHEESE SAUCE MIX (WHEY, MODIFIED FOOD STARCH, WHEY PROTEIN CONCENTRATE, CHEDDAR CHEESE [MILK, CHEESE CULTURE, SALT, ENZYMES], GRANULAR CHEESE [MILK, CHEESE CULTURE, SALT, ENZYMES], SALT, CALCIUM CARBONATE, POTASSIUM CHLORIDE, CONTAINS LESS THAN 2% OF PARMESAN CHEESE [PART-SKIM MILK, CHEESE CULTURE, SALT, ENZYMES, DRIED BUTTERMILK, SODIUM TRIPOLYPHOSPHATE, BLUE CHEESE [MILK, CHEESE CULTURE, SALT, ENZYMES], SODIUM PHOSPHATE, MEDIUM CHAIN TRIGLYCERIDES, CREAM, CITRIC ACID, LACTIC ACID, ENZYMES, YELLOW 5, YELLOW 6).

U.K. Version of Kraft Mac & Cheese:

Macaroni (Durum Wheat Semolina), Cheese (10%), Whey Powder (from milk), Lactose, Salt, Emulsifying Salts (E339, E341), Colours (Paprika Extract, Beta-Carotene)

Given that Kraft’s latest ad campaign invites us to “Bring Back the Fun”, while we’re at it, how about they bring back products that don’t contain ingredients that have been shown to cause things like hyperactivity, cancer and allergies? You know, products like their UK version of mac and cheese that don’t contain the artificial dyes like the ones seen on these kids’ tongues?

Wouldn’t that be fun?

Healthy Food for Hungry People

April 23, 2011 •  no comments.

 •  Blog, News, Uncategorized

Written by Lynette Johnson is Tennessee Regional Director for the Society of St. Andrew

When you’re choosing peaches in the grocery store, do you ever marvel at how they’re all the same size and shape, how the colors are so perfectly matched from one to the next, how there aren’t any blemishes or spots on them? And then, do you ever wonder about how that happens? I mean, really, is that the way peaches grow?

American consumers expect the freshest and the best, ideal fruits and vegetables, not too ripe, not too tender, and definitely pretty. (Tell the truth, don’t you even pick through those peaches in the display to make your selection?) And the USDA has grading standards that shape our expectations for peaches and for every other type of produce we buy.

But peaches (and every other fruit or vegetable), outside of supermarkets, aren’t nearly so similar or so perfect. What happens to the rest of them?

More than 96 billion pounds of food goes to waste every year in this country. And that’s pre-consumer waste! We’re not talking about the kale I bought, but didn’t use, that’s slowly turning to mush in the crisper of my refrigerator. This is produce that never even gets to the grocery store. It is food left unharvested in fields or graded out in packing houses. It is mislabeled, mispackaged, or misdirected in shipping. Ultimately, it becomes fodder for livestock, it’s plowed under or is left to rot in landfills.

There’s a high environmental cost for all of this, of course. There’s the water and energy used in growing and harvesting that are wasted, and then there’s the greenhouse gases produced as all that produce rots away. Every ton of food rotting in a landfill produces emissions equivalent to driving a car for a year[i].

But the impact is much more than environmental. While all this fresh, nutrient rich produce is going to waste, 50 million Americans will face food hardship this year; 44 million Americans now receive SNAP (food stamp) benefits. And these struggling neighbors of ours are turning to non-profits for food assistance, even as non-profit budgets have been pruned, pared, and puréed. Feeding America™ affiliates and thousands of other food banks, food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, emergency food programs, senior and child nutrition programs, etc. across the country are struggling to find nutritious food to serve their clients.

Somebody ought to do something. Somebody ought to connect the dots. Somebody ought to find a way to recover some of that staggering quantity of produce that’s being wasted and move it to agencies feeding people at risk for hunger.

Somebody is. A lot of people are, actually.

The Society of St. Andrew has, in fact, been doing just that since 1979. Recovering produce in 35 states and distributing it in 48, over the last 32 years we’ve recovered 622 million pounds of fruits and vegetables (1.866 billion servings) that we’ve always provided free of charge and always in quantities that can be used quickly and without waste to agencies serving people in need. In 2010 alone, we recovered and distributed 28.1 million pounds of produce—that’s roughly equivalent to four football fields, piled four feet high with fruits and vegetables!

Our Potato and Produce Project works to secure large-load (28,000-45,000 pound) donations by networking with trucking companies, packing houses, warehousers, and distributors. We’ll move these loads to areas where they’re most needed, distributing them either through large food banks or through volunteer-intensive ‘crop drops’, in which the load is ‘dropped’ at a central location and quickly parceled out to many partner agencies nearby.

The Gleaning Network connects farmers and growers with volunteers in their immediate area who enter fields and orchards to ‘glean’ (pick, gather, or dig) produce remaining after harvest. Produce is taken immediately to nearby agencies for their use, creating a rapid, local farm-to-fork cycle that is often complete in 72 hours or less, as gleaned produce is served at table in a feeding program or distributed in food boxes through a local food pantry. This effective, efficient grassroots, neighbor-to-neighbor program, with its community sharing model, mobilized 31,000 volunteers in 2010 and provided 54.3 million servings of food.

Everything that the Society of St. Andrew does is a ‘win’ for the community and the country, in both the short and the long terms:

  • Farmers share what they cannot sell—and their on-farm food waste is reduced. Their hauling and composting costs go down, and they get a receipt for their donations that helps them on their taxes next year.
  • Volunteers glean—and grow community spirit. They work together and achieve measurable results that make a real difference in the lives of people nearby. Even people who are in need can join in gleaning, doing what they can to help themselves and to help others.
  • Receiving agencies get good, nutritious food at no cost—and that frees more of their limited budget funds to acquire and serve critical proteins to their clients, too—a double benefit!—enhancing the nutritional quality of what they provide even more.
  • Hungry people—men, women, and children—eat better foods. They are healthier, less at risk for diseases, and better able to function, because their bodies are nourished.
  • The state, covering health care costs for many of the poor, benefits by spending less for health services as nutrition improves. Emergency hospitalizations decline; obesity declines; diseases related to poor nutrition decline; child health improves; prenatal outcomes improve; and children attend school more often and perform better while they’re there.
  • Landfills are less burdened, and the environment is less taxed as food is eaten rather than trashed.

Other organizations all across the country are waking up to the challenges of recovering food waste to feed the hungry. If you’re interested in being part of a growing movement, see if there’s an organization already at work in your community and join their efforts. If you’d like to find out more about the Society of St. Andrew, visit our website, www.endhunger.org, and consider partnering with us.

An NPR feature about the Society of St. Andrew’s Gleaning Network

To learn more about food waste in the United States, see Jonathan Bloom’s Wasted Food blog.

To learn more about gleaning (and who’s doing it), read the USDA’s pamphlet, Let’s Glean.

To find a food pantry near your home that will accept fresh produce from your tree or garden, visit Ample Harvest.

Lynette Johnson is Tennessee Regional Director for the Society of St. Andrew. Follow her on Twitter @SoSATN.


[i] “[The UK’s Waste Resources and Action Programme] revealed before Christmas that about 6.7 million tonnes of food a year is dumped in bins. This represents a third of all food bought for consumption at home and is worth a total of £8 billion, or an average £400 for every household. However, by preventing this scale of food waste about 15 million tonnes of CO2 emissions a year would be saved, the equivalent of taking one in five cars off the roads.” (emphasis added) http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/environment/article3701660.ece

31,035,791 cars on road in Britain (2009) ::: 1/5 cars = 6,207,158 cars http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1264282/Number-cars-road-falls-time-Second-World-War.html

6.7 million metric tonnes of food waste reduction is equivalent to removing 6.2 million cars from road

[Metric tonne conversion to US ton: 1 metric to .907184 US]

6.1 million US tons of food waste reduction is equivalent to removing 6.2 million cars from road

Fast Food Follies

April 22, 2011 •  no comments.

 •  Blog, News, Uncategorized

By Alex Formuzis, EWG Vice-President for Media Relations and father of two

Around this time last year the health-conscience crew at KFC headquarters gave the American consumer the Double Down chicken sandwich – 540 calories of bacon and cheese with no veggies, smashed between slabs of fried chicken instead of buns.

At the time I thought Fast Food couldn’t sink any lower.

I was wrong.

This time the cause for my stomach churn is Burger King and its latest product, the Meat Monster burger that delivers 1,160 calories via a mountain of:

  • two beef patties
  • a piece of chicken
  • two strips of bacon
  • two slices of cheese
  • teriyaki sauce
  • if you want, add a fried egg and/or a fish patty on top – but that’s extra.

Along with the whopping calorie count come 24 grams of saturated fat, 12 grams of sugar, 240 miligrams of cholesterol, 54 grams of carbs and 2,290 miligrams of salt, according to a breakdown by the folks at Consumerist.

Currently, this is only available in Japan.

Here in the U.S. it’s estimated that roughly 75 percent of all health care-related spending goes to treat chronic diseases, many of them associated with a diet high in calories, fat and sodium from regularly indulging in meals like the Meat Monster.

Comparatively little is spent on preventive care, including helping people get access to and eat healthy, nutritious food like fruits and vegetables.

We’re the richest and one of the fattest populations in the world. Not our proudest achievement.

The number of American adolescents who are overweight or obese has tripled since 1980. One of the primary reasons is the easy access kids have to cheap, ready-made fast foods and sweet, fizzy drinks. In many places the fast food joint has replaced the park as the place where kids hang out before and after school.

A 2009 study conducted by economists at Cal/Berkeley and Columbia universities found that kids at schools within walking distance (500 feet) of a fast food restaurant will likely have an obesity rate at least 5 percent higher than kids who aren’t so “lucky.”

Another 2009 study cited in the same Reuters article, by a team of researchers at the University of Michigan, found that residents of neighborhoods heavily populated with fast food restaurants are at greater risk of suffering a stroke.

Both these scenarios typically confront families who live in inner-city neighborhoods and depressed rural communities throughout the country, where fast food chains and junk food mini-marts are often the only available and affordable options.

In a recent analysis by Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, researchers reported that:

“Fast food is the most unhealthy food product marketed to children, other than sugar-sweetened beverages, and is relentlessly and aggressively targeted toward children starting as young as age two. Food marketing to children negatively influences the dietary choices and health of society’s most vulnerable citizens.”

The report by the Rudd Center may be the most extensive to date focusing on Fast Food’s marketing assault on American children. According to the Yale researchers, the industry spent more than $4.2 billion in 2009 on advertising and other media, and the average child between 2 and 5 years of age watches 2.8 fast food ads every day.

Our friends at Burger King and McDonalds pledged to clean up their acts and improve the way they pitch to children. But the Rudd researchers found that both chains ramped up their television advertising to kids from 2007 to ’09:

“Preschoolers saw 21% more ads for McDonald’s and 9% more for Burger King, and children viewed 26% more ads for McDonald’s and 10% more for Burger King.”

The report goes on:

  • McDonald’s web-based marketing starts with children as young as 2 at Ronald.com.
  • McDonald’s and Burger King created sophisticated websites with 60 to 100 pages of adver-games and virtual worlds to engage children (McWorld.com, HappyMeal. com, and ClubBK.com).
  • McDonald’s 13 websites attracted an average of 365,000 unique child visitors and 294,000 unique teen visitors each month in 2009.
  • Nine restaurant Facebook pages had more than one million fans each as of July 2010.

Smartphone apps were available for eight fast food chains, providing another opportunity to reach young consumers anytime, anywhere.

Overworked, exhausted parents don’t stand a chance against this onslaught. It’s the equivalent of the Erickson family from two doors down facing the NFC champs in the Super Bowl.

Crunchtimefood’s Sherri York does provide some helpful tips for parents looking for ways to steer their kids away from junk food and eater more fruits and vegetables. But perhaps the best advice on this front is: Just do it — the longer you wait, the harder it gets.

A Warning Label on Aspartame for European Moms (Only?)

April 21, 2011 •  6 comments.

 •  Blog, News, Uncategorized

Artificial colors are everywhere, it seems. But so is the artificial sweetener, aspartame—the basis for NutraSweet and Equal. It’s used in everything from Diet Coke to Yoplait yogurt. And since it was one of the chemical additives mentioned in association with the Southampton study, a groundbreaking study in England that led to consumers insisting that artificial dyes and preservatives be removed from Kraft’s food products sold in the UK, it’s probably a good idea to take a look at its use here in the United States.

Aspartame has been linked to a host of deadly diseases, including brain tumors, brain lesions, and lymphoma and removed from children’s products in other countries. But if you want to understand both the science and the politics of synthetic ingredients and how they have been so widely adopted, aspartame is a classic example.

The story of aspartame begins in 1981, when the substance was first approved by the FDA as an artificial sweetener for human consumption. Fourteen years later, in 1995, the chief of the FDA’s Epidemiology Branch—the division that monitors the incidence of diseases and medical problems—reported that in those fourteen years, complaints about aspartame constituted 75 percent of all FDA reports concerning adverse reactions to food.

Of course, just because someone reports a complaint doesn’t mean the complaint is justified. Either a patient or a doctor might believe, incorrectly, that aspartame caused a condition that was actually caused by something else. So let’s not rely on people’s (and doctors’) reports. Let’s take a look at the scientific research that has been done.

Here are just a few conditions that aspartame has been accused of causing:

* Weight gain: A 1997 study at the university of Texas Health Sciences Center, reported at a meeting of the American Diabetes Association, found a “41 percent increase in the risk of being overweight for every can or bottle of diet soft drink a person consumes each day.” These findings were supported by another study, published in the Journal of Applied Nutrition, showing that 5 percent of subjects who reported symptoms from aspartame also reported a “paradoxic weight gain.” And a study in the International Journal of Obesity likewise found that women who were dieting tended to take in more calories after consuming aspartame than after ingesting either sugar or water.

* Memory lapses: A 2001 Psychology Today article reported on a Texas Christian University study suggesting that aspartame users were more likely to report long-term memory lapses. “After reporting his findings at a recent Society for Neuroscience meeting,” the article continued, “[psychology professor Timothy M.] Barth [,Ph.D.,] cautioned that he thinks it’s premature to condemn aspartame. But he does worry about the largely untested effects of long-term use.”

* Brain tumors: In November 2006, the Journal of Neuropathology & Experimental Neurology published a scientific paper saying that aspartame, might be responsible for a dramatic increase in the number of people who develop brain tumors. Reported in a 60 Minutes broadcast, the Swedish study found a link among elderly and middle-aged people between drinking diet sodas and developing certain types of large brain tumors.

* Lymphomas, leukemia, and other cancers: A long-term Italian study conducted by Italy’s Ramazzini Foundation by Morando Soffritti and his colleagues and published in the summer of 2005 in the European Journal of Oncology linked aspartame to lymphomas and leukemias in animals. A 2005 followup study published in Environmental Health Perspectives showed that aspartame was linked to a significant increase in cancer of the kidney and peripheral nerves.

Now, this Italian study has also been the subject of controversy. Both the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and our own FDA concluded that these findings were not cause for concern.

Likewise, the FDA claimed to have found “significant shortcomings” in the Italian study, shortcomings that “compromised” its findings. In August 2007, the New Zealand Food Safety Authority concurred, issuing a press release criticizing the study and affirming the safety of aspartame.

Further criticism of the Italian study came, implicitly, from the National Cancer Institute (NCI), which published a study in April 2006 finding no meaningful link between aspartame and leukemia, lymphoma, or brain tumor. The study relied on 1995 and 1996 surveys completed by 340,045 men and 226,945 women—obviously, a huge number—detailing what they ate and drank. Based on followup data from this sample, the NCI concluded, you couldn’t link aspartame and cancer.

However, the NCI study also had its critics, who pointed out that the Italian study was designed to measure lifelong consumption of aspartame, focusing on its cumulative effects, rather than considering only a few years. Moreover, the humans in the NCI study were middle-aged, whereas, according to neurosurgeon Dr. Russell Blaylock, “The greatest risk of leukemia and lymphoma would be in a younger population (young children and adolescents) and they would need to be exposed regularly from early in life.” (I shuddered at this one, thinking about how many diet sodas unknowingly are consumed by moms during pregnancy).

Clearly, this is a case where the experts would appear to disagree. So, let’s dig deeper. Who benefits from saying aspartame is safe? The aspartame industry. And guess what? An analysis of peer-reviewed medical literature conducted by Ralph G. Walton, M.D. and cited in a CBS/60 Minutes segment that aired in December 1996, found that 100 percent of the studies in their review that had been funded by the aspartame industry found that aspartame was safe.

And what about the non-industry funded studies? Dr. Walton’s analysis found that of the 90 non-industry funded studies, 82 of them, or a whopping 92 percent, identified one or more problems with aspartame.

You got it: All the industry-funded studies said aspartame was completely safe. Ninety-two percent of the independent studies said aspartame poses at least some dangers.

And if you need a little more insight into industry-funded research, I can cite a very unlikely source: a group of leading agrichemical corporations (you know, Monsanto, DuPont and ADM): “The report said private companies’ research is directed toward their own sales and profits, and that federal research is needed to address long-term and overlooked needs.”

That point is reiterated by a team of researchers, including Harvard’s David Ludwig, as well as other researchers from Children’s Hospital in Boston and the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C., who reviewed 206 articles published during 1999-2003. The researchers concluded, “Funding source was significantly related to conclusions when considering all article types. . . Industry funding of nutrition-related scientific articles may bias conclusions in favor of sponsors’ products, with potentially significant implications for public health.”

In other words, when industry pays for a study, it tends to get science that supports the safety of its products. And when a study is independently funded—as with the 82 aspartame studies—it is far more likely (in the case of aspartame, 92 percent more likely) to be critical of a food, drink, or additive, with, as Dr. Ludwig at Harvard had just pointed out, “potentially significant implications for public health.”

So if someone tells you that there’s still a lot of controversy about aspartame, technically, they’re right. But as Europe takes precautionary measures and Kraft, Coca Cola and other American companies remove it from the products they are selling in other countries, the French are now asking for a warning label of this synthetic sweetener for pregnant moms.

Sure, the industry insists that it’s safe. But the independent scientists, on the other hand, insist that aspartame is dangerous—and it’s a message that they’ve been repeating for more than forty years.

In light of the fact that the Centers for Disease Control recently reported that cancer is the leading cause of death by disease in American children under the age of 15 and that 1 in 8 women are expected to get cancer in their lifetimes (with 90% of those cancers being environmentally triggered), wouldn’t it make sense to exercise this precaution in the United States, too, so that pregnant moms could make an informed choice when it comes to exposing their unborn babies?

And while correlation is not causation, given how many complaints have been filed with the FDA and the fact that aspartame has been removed from children’s products in other countries, a warning label might not be a bad place to start.

What’s Gotten Into Us?

April 17, 2011 •  4 comments.

 •  Blog, News, Uncategorized
This article is an adapted excerpt from McKay Jenkins’ new book, “What’s Gotten Into Us?,” available April 14 and appeared on www.salon.com

On a crisp fall afternoon a couple of years ago, I went in for a routine two-year checkup with my internist. Everything seemed to be fine: My home life was happy and nurturing. I had never smoked. I ate right, got plenty of rest, and had been a dedicated runner and cyclist my entire adult life. Save for the usual aches and pains, nothing had ever been wrong with my body, and as long as I was smart about it, I figured, I’d still be riding my Fausto Coppi racing bike well into my ’80s.

My only complaint, I told my doctor, was a faint tightness in my hip that I had felt off and on for two years — and odd, sharp twinges between my left thigh, knee and shin that occasionally accompanied it. My internist looked me over and agreed that my pains were probably related to exercise, and he suggested I see an orthopedist at a nearby sports medicine clinic. The orthopedist, in turn, suggested I get an MRI to help him see a bit more clearly what was going on with my soft tissue.

I was standing in my living room when the phone rang just a few hours later. When I picked up the phone and heard the orthopedist’s voice, I knew even before he spoke that something was amiss. “Hello, Mr. Jenkins,” he said, then paused. “You have a suspicious mass in your abdomen,” he said. “It’s growing inside your left hip. Here is the number for an oncologist. You need to call him right away.”

What can you say about such moments? I remember hanging up the phone. I remember looking at my wife, Katherine, and looking at my children putting together a puzzle on the floor in the next room. My son was 4, my daughter not yet 18 months. I fell apart.

Katherine and I passed the next three weeks in a kind of silent panic. When I met with my oncologist, he sketched out what he thought was going on. Although he couldn’t be certain without further tests, the tumor was likely a soft-tissue sarcoma, an ugly cancer of the fibers connecting my hip to the muscles and nerve tissues of my left leg. The prognosis depended on how big the tumor was, where precisely it was growing, exactly how aggressive it was.

At worst, this was, well, very bad. At best, a surgeon could cut out the tumor, but might be compelled to sever my femoral nerve, the trunk line that connects the nerves in the leg to the spine. Which meant I would probably never run or ride my bike again. And then I’d have to remain vigilant to see if the cancer returned. To this day, the ride home has remained indelible.

This was really happening. But how? This was not a grinding descent into illness; it was a bolt from the blue. I did not feel sick, and never had. My mind raced. How could I possibly have cancer? A few weeks later, I was being prepared for surgery at the hospital when two researchers approached me with questions. The first ones were pretty standard: What ethnic group best describes you? Um, white. How far did you make it in school? I have a Ph.D., I said. How many packs of cigarettes have you smoked per day, on average? None, I said. Ever. Then the questions changed, from ones I had been asked by doctors dozens of times before to ones I had never been asked in my life.

How much exposure had I had to toxic chemicals and other contaminants? In my life? I asked. This seemed like an odd question. What kind of chemicals do you mean? The researcher began reading from a list, which turned out to be long. Some things I had heard of, many others I had not. Metal filings? Asbestos dust? Cutting oils? I didn’t think so. What’s a cutting oil? How about gasoline exhaust? Asphalt? Foam insulation? Natural gas fumes?

Where was this going?

The words kept coming. Vinyl chloride? I wasn’t sure. What was that? How about plastics? Are you kidding? Everything is made of plastic. Dry-cleaning agents? Detergents or fumes from plastic meat wrap? Benzene or other solvents? Formaldehyde? Varnishes? Adhesives? Lacquers? Glues? Acrylic or oil paints? Inks or dyes? Tanning solutions? Cotton textiles? Fiberglass? Bug killers or pesticides? Weed killers or herbicides? Heat-transfer fluids? Hydraulic lubricants? Electricfluids? Flame retardants?

By now I had begun to feel distinctly uncomfortable. Not about my history of “industrial” exposures, which were nonexistent, but about the myriad, and mostly invisible, chemicals the researchers seemed to be curious about. What was a flame retardant, exactly, and how in the world would I know if I had been exposed to one? I had never used pesticides, but Lord knows there were plenty in my neighborhood.

A couple of hours later, a doctor led me into the operating room, and I lay down on the table. A moment later, it seemed, I awoke. My eyes felt fuzzy, and blurred by bright overhead lights. Where was I? I blinked. There, at the foot of my bed, stood Katherine and my surgeon. Both were beaming. Something must have gone well, I thought. You’re a lucky man, the doctor said. The tumor was as big as an orange, but it turned out to be growing out of a nerve cell rather than a muscle cell. We sent a slice of it down to the lab; it turned out to be benign. Of a hundred cases like this, about four turn out this way. Not only that, we managed to peel the tumor off your femoral nerve. Once you recover, you can get back to running and riding your bike. You’re a very lucky man.

And so I was.

As joyful as my outcome had been, I was left feeling somehow bereft. Had this whole thing been bad luck? Where had this tumor, this navel orange, come from? It wasn’t until I’d answered the hospital questionnaire that I had ever even considered the vast arrays of chemicals I had been exposed to over the years. Was it possible that the questions constituted a trail of bread crumbs that could lead me to some answers? Suddenly, these questions began to take on a whole new sense of urgency.

In the four years that have passed since my surgery, cancer has burned its way through a swath of my family and friends. My beloved aunt Julie recently passed from a combination of breast cancer, bone marrow cancer, and Parkinson’s disease. My friend Scott, still in his 40s, just learned that he has pancreatic cancer. Like me, he has small children. So do Leah and Suzie and Susan, young women who have all recently suffered terrible bouts with breast cancer. My cousin’s husband, Phil, died of a brain tumor before his 40th birthday. He left a wife and a young daughter. And on and on and on.

What is going on here?

No one goes through a cancer scare without experiencing a kind of awakening. Here’s what mine looked like: I went from being a passive observer of other people’s suffering to feeling an intimate desire to prevent that suffering. I wanted to know if there were root causes. I wanted to try to see things just as they are, how they came to be that way, and what I could do to protect myself and my children.

It’s worth thinking about what a relatively short time we’ve been swimming in synthetic chemicals. The Synthetic Century, let us say, has been full of grand achievements and equally grand consequences, many of them unintended. In 1918, a scientist named Fritz Haber won the Nobel Prize for figuring out how to make synthetic nitrogen, a key component of soil, and thus “improving the standards of agriculture and the well-being of mankind.” But during World War I, his technology also helped Germany make bombs from synthetic nitrate and, later, poison chlorine and phosgene gas. In World War II, Hitler used another one of Haber’s compounds, Zyklon B, in Nazi concentration camps. After the wars, synthetic fertilizers paved the way for the explosion of industrial-scale agribusiness, which has, in turn, created great wealth but also unprecedented levels of pollution, monoculture and processed foods.

In his book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” Michael Pollan outlines the way our industrial food chain floats on an ocean of cheap oil. This is also true of our vast array of consumer products. Although coal companies in the mid-1800s were processing coal gas for lighting and synthesizing other products like dyes, this was but a baby step compared to what happened a hundred years later. Since World War II, Big Oil and, more recently, Big Coal and Big Natural Gas, have supplied our economy not just with energy for our homes and cars but with the very building blocks of our domestic lives: not only our plastics but our fertilizers and pesticides, our furniture, our personal care products, even our clothing. Consider this: in the last 25 years, the country’s consumption of synthetic chemicals has increased 8,200 percent.

The trouble with such rapid proliferation of products made from petrochemicals, of course, has been that the production and use of synthetic chemicals has vastly outpaced our ability to monitor their effects on our health and the environment. We learned to love what chemicals could make; we just never bothered to wonder if there could be a downside. By the mid-1970s, there were some 62,000 chemicals in use; today the number is thought to be closer to 80,000. The EPA has a full set of toxicity information for just 7 percent of these chemicals, and the U.S. chemical industry, a $637-billion-a-year business, is so woefully underregulated that 99 percent of chemicals in use today have never been tested for their effects on human health. Fewer than 3 percent of these chemicals have ever been tested for carcinogenicity. Far fewer (or none) have been assessed for their effect on things like the human endocrine system or reproductive health.

The human immune system has evolved over millennia to combat naturally occurring bacterial and viral agents. It has had only a few decades to adjust to most man-made contaminants, many of which are chemically similar to substances produced naturally by our own bodies. The effects of this are far from fully understood. “We face an ocean of biologically active synthetic organic compounds,” the ecologist Sandra Steingraber writes. “Some interfere with our hormones, some attach to chromosomes, some cripple the immune system, some overstimulate certain enzymes. If we could metabolize them into benign compounds and excrete them, they would be less of a worry. Instead, many accumulate. So they are doubly bad: they are similar enough to react with us, but different enough not to go away easily.”

What becomes clear, if you stop to think about it, is that what’s gotten into us is not just chemicals but culture. We aren’t just saturated with chemicals, after all; we are saturated with products, and marketing, and advertising, and political lobbying. Fifty years ago, it was not uncommon to see advertisements for DDT featuring an aproned housewife in spike heels and a pith helmet aiming a spray gun at two giant cockroaches standing on her kitchen counter. The caption below reads, “Super Ammunition for the Continued Battle on the Home Front.” Another ad shows a picture of a different aproned woman standing in a chorus line of dancing farm animals, who sing, “DDT is good for me!” DDT was marketed as the “atomic bomb of the insect world,” but also as “benign” for human beings. And we believed it.

Our ignorance is not an accident. We are not meant to know what goes into the products we use every day. The manufacturers of most American-made products tend to keep the ingredients and formulations of their products secret, and rarely mention that individual ingredients might (or do) cause cancer, or impede fetal development, or lead to hormone imbalances. It seems that the intention in packaging is to make information harder to find, not easier — an imitation of information, not information itself. With so little information, it’s easy to see why we have become so complacent. And why we have allowed ourselves to live, albeit uncomfortably, with assurances that these products are “safe.” A single exposure to these chemicals never killed anyone, we tell ourselves. This is true. But smoking a single cigarette never killed anyone, either. The trouble with exposure to toxic chemicals, as with exposure to tobacco, is that the impact is cumulative, long-lasting and, frequently, slow to reveal itself.

So here we are.

Almost 50 years after Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” and the tide of synthetic chemicals is only rising. We are faced, every day, with an overwhelming number of choices as consumers: Do I choose this detergent or that one? This mattress or that one? The chemical lawn-care company or the “green” one? This shouldn’t be so hard. We’re talking about washing our children’s hair. Or cleaning the sink. Or tending a garden. Why has this become so complicated? And on what information do we make our decisions?

The most important thing, as I have said, is finding the courage to see things clearly. But as I have learned, when it comes to toxic chemicals, seeing things clearly is harder than you might imagine. Every choice we make is a bargain with the devil. You go to get your suits dry-cleaned, only to learn that dry cleaners rely on perchloroethylene, or perc, a known carcinogen. Is having crisp creases worth the risk? You want to wash your infant’s hair. What could be more benign than baby shampoo? But look closer at the label on the bottle: the baby shampoo contains formaldehyde, which causes cancer and compromises the immune system. The more alienated we get from the things we use every day, the more confused we get. The more confused we get, the dumber we feel. The dumber we feel, the less confident we are in our decisions. The less confident we are, the more susceptible we become to the suggestion that everything is as it should be, that the experts (the manufacturers, the regulators) are keeping an eye on things. The more we bury our worries under such shaky ground, the more abstracted we become.

As overwhelming as some of the scientific evidence about our consumer products can seem, there can be real liberation in learning to look at things with clear and unblinking eyes. A good part of this has to do with reconnecting with our things. With understanding what things are for, and how they are made, and by whom. It’s worth relearning some of what we’ve forgotten. How to build and furnish and clean our houses. How to care for our lawns. How to feed and clothe and bathe our children. Strangely enough, you might find that some of these old ways actually feel empowering. We’ve been bombarded with advertising and marketing ploys for so many years that we have tended to make decisions out of unconscious habit rather than conscious choice. Not only is it increasingly clear that there is physical risk in such habits, there is also a genuine psychological sacrifice.

In the moment when we reach unthinkingly for a product, we suspend judgment and even, at times, common sense. When we act unconsciously, we implicitly grant authority — and trust — to what manufacturers have told us, that a product is “safe.” But the truth is, whether the product is an apple, a T-bone steak, a can of air freshener, or a mattress makes no difference: we have no idea what has gone into creating the product, even if someone, somewhere, has assured us that the product is benign. In many, many cases, this is clearly no longer true. And as the physical and psychological distance has grown between us and the products we consume, we have traded an intimate knowledge for a vague and anxious “trust,” a feeling that is inevitably accompanied by its darker corollary, fear and loss of control. This does not seem like a fair trade.

Excerpted from “What’s Gotten into Us?” by McKay Jenkins Copyright © 2011 by Mckay Jenkins. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

McKay Jenkins is the Cornelius A. Tilghman Professor of English and director of journalism at the University of Delaware. He is the author of “The Last Ridge,” “The White Death” and “Bloody Falls of the Coppermine.”