06 February 2009

Cancer-causing carrots?

Until now, carrots have been celebrated for their many health benefits, including lowering blood cholesterol, and guarding against heart disease and certain cancers.

Until now, carrots have been celebrated for their many health benefits, including lowering blood cholesterol, and guarding against heart disease and certain cancers.

However, recent claims that baby carrots are made from deformed carrots soaked in chlorine have many consumers wondering whether these vitamin-packed vegetables are really more harmful than healthy.

According to an e-mail, which has been extensively circulated both in South Africa and abroad, consumers should be wary of the processing methods involved in the production of baby carrots. The e-mail suggests that these carrots are actually made from larger, deformed carrots that have been cut and shaped into “cocktail” carrots and then dipped in a preservative solution of water and chlorine.

It furthermore urges consumers to warn family and friends of the potential carcinogenic effects of eating produce dipped in “the same chlorine used in your pool”.

So, what are the facts?

Baby carrots vs. cocktail carrots
Although cocktail carrots are made from misshapen carrots (a fact that's accurately stated in the e-mail), these carrots are grown under the same food safety systems and regulations as whole carrots. The only thing wrong with these carrots, then, is that they're crooked, or don't meet regular size specifications.

A strong distinction should also be drawn between baby carrots and cocktail carrots, as baby carrots are in fact a particular variety of carrots, rather than cut-down or immature regular carrots.

The e-mail erroneously assumes that baby carrots and cocktail carrots are one and the same thing. But while this inaccurate fact casts a measure of doubt on the message’s accuracy and value, it is hardly enough to calm the nerves of carcinogen-conscious consumers. The unnerving chlorine-dipping process outlined in the carrot-alert e-mail, however, is just as misleading.

Cause for concern?
Contrary to the e-mail’s claims, chlorine is not used as a cocktail-carrot preservative. Instead, it's used in food sanitation.

Chlorine is commonly combined with inorganic compounds such as sodium and calcium in order to produce hypochlorites, which are effective and widely used food disinfectants. These compounds are used in the food industry to kill microorganisms on raw fruit and vegetables, after which the produce is thoroughly rinsed.

According to Pick n Pay’s official statement in response to the carrot scare, “All food-grade chemical and additives, including chlorine, are put through stringent tests to ensure safety for use in products intended for human consumption.”

The organisation’s statement further emphasises that the chlorine used in food sanitation is not the same as the chlorine compounds used in swimming pools.

Pick n Pay has defended chlorine-compound sanitation stating that, “No scientific proof has been found to date that the residual levels, if any, that may be present in the final product, are sufficient to have carcinogenic effects.”

Concerned consumers may also take comfort in knowing that, according to researchers from the University of Oklahoma, we would both smell and taste residual chlorine on vegetables long before they became a safety hazard.

A white chlorine covering?
The carrot e-mail may have some people puzzling over the white film that forms on carrots after they've been in the refrigerator for a few days. The e-mail pointed to this film as evidence of the “chlorine coming to the surface”. In reality, however, this “white blush” is simply the result of dehydration.

Because of their low moisture content, carrots are particularly prone to dehydration, especially when surfaces have been “injured” or peeled. Carrots are sometimes soaked in a sugar solution after being peeled or cut in order to combat or reduce the effects of dehydration. The chalk-like white film that sometimes develops, then, is caused by this natural process and can be prevented by storing carrots in low-temperature, moist environments.

While it's good to be aware of the processes involved in the production of the food we eat, South Africans can sleep, and eat, a little easier knowing that our home-grown cocktail and baby carrots are both safe to eat, and nutritionally valuable.

(Donna Steyn, Health24, November 2008)

Official press release by Pick n Pay: "Facts about baby carrots", 20 November 2008.


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