Petroleum dependence has our food system in an increasingly suffocating vice grip. Plastic packaging — a by-product of oil refining — is ubiquitous, livestock operations gobble up fossil fuels in mind-blowing amounts, and the concept of “food miles” (the total distance food travels from farm to table, often times including multiple stops at factories and processing plants) has entered public discourse, albeit with some controversy.
As important as packaging and transportation are to environmental concerns, it turns out that ingredients also matter. Processed foods are consumed at all hours of the day, but one of the most startling examples of foods high in petroleum-derived ingredients can be seen with popular breakfast products — especially cereals. The ingredients listed below do a better job of feeding our food system’s reliance on petroleum than they do nourishing our bodies.
1. Artificial flavors:
The cereal industry loves artificial flavors. Kellogg’s Frosted Mini Wheats, for example, uses it in their “blueberry muffin” variety to make “blueberry crunchlets”. Why use actual blueberries in any way, shape, or form when you can instead create a cutesy name for this cheap, heavily-subsidized concoction:
- Corn cereal
- Soybean oil
- Modified cornstarch
- Natural and artificial flavor
- Corn Syrup
- Red #40 Lake
- Blue #2 Lake
With so many artificial flavors out there, you can make as many different varieties of “crunchlets” as your heart desires (and, boom, next thing you know, you have eight new products on the market!). Artificial flavors are chemical monsters in and of themselves. Take a look, for example, at the laundry list of chemicals that go into the production of strawberry flavoring, many of which are derived from petroleum. Note the use of solvents.
Breakfast products that contain artificial flavors: Countless cereals, including, but not limited to: Trix, Lucky Charms, Cocoa Krispies, Froot Loops, Fruity Pebbles, Apple Jacks, flavored varieties of Special K, Honey Bunches of Oats. Also in: Pop-Tarts, Eggo waffles and pancakes.
2. Artificial Dyes:
What would most cereals be without artificial dyes? Colorless bits of grain and corn syrup. Trix, for example, utilizes three petroleum-derived dyes (Red 40, Yellow 5, and Blue 1). Post’s Cupcake Pebbles, meanwhile (mind-boggingly described as “wholesome”), manages to pack in SEVEN dyes — Yellow 5, Yellow 5 Lake, Red 3, Yellow 6, Blue 1 Lake, Red 40, and Blue 2.
All you science buffs may be interested in knowing that Red 40 is simply the “laymen’s term” for 6-hydroxy-5-[(2-methoxy-5-methyl-4-sulfophenyl)azo]-2-naphthalenesulfonic acid.
Breakfast products that contain artificial dyes: Countless cereals, including, but not limited to: Trix, Lucky Charms, Cocoa Krispies, Froot Loops, Fruity Pebbles, Apple Jacks. Also in Pop-Tarts.
3. BHA, BHT, TBHQ:
BHA (butylated hydroxyanysole), BHT (butylated hydroxytoulene), and TBHQ (tert-Butylhydroquinone) are petroleum-derived antioxidants that slow down oil rancidity, thereby enabling a box of cereal to sit on a supermarket shelf for months without developing “funny odors”. Curiously, some of the Big Cereal companies (Kellogg’s, Post, General Mills) have switched to alpha-tocopherols (the natural form of vitamin E) for antioxidants purposes; why this change has not happened across the board is a mystery to me.
Breakfast products that contain BHA and/or BHT and/or TBHQ: Countless cereals, including Corn Flakes, FiberPlus, Golden Grahams, Wheaties, Reese’s Puffs, Smart Start.
4. Fortified vitamins:
When it comes to vitamins and minerals, my philosophy has always been “food first, then supplements”. Not only do we know that most vitamins and minerals need to be consumed within their respective food matrices to operate efficiently (i.e.: vitamin E), but many synthetic vitamins — A, B1, B3 (niacin), B6, B9 (folic acid), and K — are petroleum-derived.
5. Pesticides and Fertilizers:
Many conventional pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers are petroleum-derived. The production of synthetic fertilizers, for instance, is estimated to require five and a half gallons of oil per acre. As Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences professor David Pimentel explained in his findings in 2001, “an acre of U.S. corn yields about 7,110 pounds of corn for processing into 328 gallons of ethanol. But planting, growing and harvesting that much corn requires about 140 gallons of fossil fuels and costs $347 per acre.” Startling, especially when one considers that the United States devotes approximately 88 million acres to corn (while the majority of that goes to animal feed and ethanol production, it also supplies the pervasive corn starch and corn syrup in breakfast cereals).
While the above-listed ingredients appear in minimal amounts in cereals, keep in mind that approximately 2.7 billion boxes of cereal are consumed in the United States each year. Not all of them contain these petroleum-derived ingredients, but even if a mere 10% do (and that is a low estimate), that is close to 3 million units of cereal a year made with an array of petroleum-derived ingredients.
And, of course, many of these ingredients — the dyes, the conventionally-grown subsidized crops, the synthetic vitamins and minerals, and the spoil retardants — are in a litany of processed foods, from frozen dinners and shelf-stable “au gratin” potato products to puddings and cake mixes.
There is no doubt that significantly minimizing consumption of heavily processed foods is a good move for human and environmental health. If oil dependence is something our country wants to wean itself from, it must look beyond food packaging and transportation, and consider the number of ubiquitous petroleum-derived