Friday, November 21, 2008
Everybody -- take a page from the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy -- Don't Panic. The message about baby carrots is wrong on pretty much every point. Whoever wrote it knows nothing about chemistry, produce production or water sanitation. (Yes, that's my way of saying whoever wrote it originally is an idiot.) Unfortunately, the ignorant sometimes sound plausible so here's the real information.
Chlorine CAN be a carcinogen, but it depends on the type of chlorine. Chlorine is a gas -- you will never find a chlorine rock. Being a gas, it reacts well with everything, but there are two types of chlorine -- ionic and covalent. Covalent chlorine has the normal number of atoms on its molecule which means it can bond to stuff -- it's like a burr or sticky tape. It likes hydrocarbons especially -- and fats are hydrocarbons -- everything from rice oil to canola oil to that extra ten pounds we're hauling around. So if you get dosed with covalent chlorine -- you take a bath in Agent Orange or breathe aerosolized dioxin or spend a lot of time around a chemical plant producing PCBs (photo-processing, metalworks, electrical anything, chemicals, plastics, that kind of thing) you're toast. Covalent chlorine will invade your tissues and hang out in your fat and that'll cause cancer eventually if something else doesn't get you first. Covalent chlorine is very nasty stuff and is why we have a Superfund (or used to) and most of what people mean by toxic waste.
Then there's ionic chlorine. It has an extra atom on the molecule. It's strong, it's secure. It doesn't bond. It's very safe -- it's the stuff that makes table salt and seawater (remember -- salt is one atom of chlorine and one atom of sodium). Ionic chlorine is not a worry. Household bleach is an ionic chlorine. It's caustic -- don't drink it! The concentration is WAY high -- but it can't attach to your fat cells. We've been using it for well over a century and we know exactly what it does. There is NO question about the safety of ionic chlorine and things which contain it.
When they make baby carrots, yes, they cut up larger ones and remove the skin, then rinse them, just like anybody in a kitchen does when we make our own carrot sticks -- they're just doing it on a MASSIVE scale. The rinse they're using is sodium hypochlorite -- household bleach. Baby carrots are dipped in a 100 to 150 ppm (parts per million) chlorine solution. It's pretty much a 1% bleach solution -- 1 part household bleach to 99 parts water. (Household bleach is 3-5% sodium hypochlorite depending on brand and age -- it oxidizes and becomes less effective with storage.) Anybody who has ever worked in a restaurant, a hotel, a daycare center, a hospital or anyplace where you have a "Sanitizing spray" is familiar with this solution. We use all the time in kitchens. It's really not a worry -- again, don't drink it straight but a few molecules won't hurt you, unlike a few molecules of dioxin or Agent Orange. What your municipal water supplier uses to clean your water is 12%; shock treatments for pools are 20% and you can drink pool water -- it's not tasty, you might get the runs because your intestinal flora die off, but it won't kill you or give you cancer in 20 years.
You want chlorine in your water before it comes to you -- when we don't have it, that's when we get cholera, dysentery, and all the other water-borne illnesses that used kill half of all children before the age of 5, and meant 40 was a ripe old age. You can filter tapwater chlorine out, but you really don't need to do -- chlorine evaporates and oxidizes very fast -- a 1 liter pitcher of tapwater that's been sitting on the counter for an hour has virtually no detectable chlorine in it. A Brita filter just does it faster and without the chance of other microbes getting in.
So that's bleach. Not meant to flavor a martini, but safe and very, very useful. Now on the carrots. It's not just baby carrots -- it's every bit of produce you eat -- organic or not. Believe me -- you WANT the producers to do this. The bleach kills e. coli, listeria, giardia and a lot of other nasty bacteria and microbes. No person, anywhere, anytime is ever perfectly clean -- it's not possible -- and if you're going to eat food, you will be exposed to microbes. Some microbes think making us very sick is an excellent strategy for reproduction. We don't like being very sick -- and sometimes dead -- so we want to stalemate this battle against the microbes. We're never gonna win and we don't want to do because we need them, but we can keep the nastier ones where they belong -- which is not in our bodies. That's what bleach in food processing and in the water does. It's our best weapon against water and food-borne illness.
Here's why you don't have to worry that your carrots ( or your apples or lettuce or spinach) are going to cause cancer: 1) they're rinsed again in regular old tap water after they're cleaned in the bleach solution. 2) The bleach solution oxidizes very quickly -- probably shortly after the bag of carrots is sealed closed and well before it reaches your grocery store. 3) You're exposed to far more and more deadly chemical contaminants when you walk across a new carpet or stand on a busy street corner. The 100 ppb (part per billion) of ionic chlorine left on the water on the carrots is not a problem. The carrots themselves have more ionic chlorine. And it's ionic -- it doesn't react badly. Unless the carrots are grown on top of an old ammo dump or chemical factory, they won't have the bad, covalent chlorine.
As for the white blushing on baby carrots -- it doesn't matter if the carrots are washed in bleach solution, vinegar solution (some producers use vinegar) or otherwise treated. It's not the chlorine that causes it -- it's the oxygen in the air. It will happen. It's a natural process that happens as the peeled surface of the carrot dries out. Cut apples turn brown, cut carrots turn white. That's why baby carrot bags usually have some moisture inside. You can see this in yourself -- take a regular, unpeeled carrot, peel it and leave it in the fridge for a couple days. It'll blush. It's normal. It's not as pretty, but it's safe. And it's safe before it blushes, too.
For further reading, if this hasn't reassured you, here are my sources:
And the USDA.
For information on covalent and ionic chlorine, if you don't want to slog through your old organic chemistry text again (and I wouldn't) then I recommend Neal Stephenson's Zodiac. It's an SF novel, it's very fun, but it's a good, quick education on chemicals and the health and environmental aspects of chemicals.
If you've already forwarded the previous email to someone else, please feel free to forward this one, too. We have much bigger problems in the world than worrying that our fruits and veggies are gonna kill us. They aren't -- but not eating them will.