Once again we have the potential for new chemicals in our food that may end up being great news or it may be truly horrible. For those people who suffer from chemical sensitivity, allergies, and other ailments it may be the latter.
The short version: Produce often contains pathogens (like E. coli, Salmonella and Listeria) that have the potential to get humans really sick and can, depending on the situation, even kill people. To reduce the number of dangerous food-borne pathogens on produce, large (non-organic) food production operations engage in a costly process of applying chemicals (commonly chlorine-based) as washes or sprays on fruits and vegetables after they have been harvested. But now new research has demonstrated that it is possible to spray sanitizing chemicals (levulinic acid and sodium dodecyl sulfate) to produce preharvest–while it is still in the fields.
Hooray!, right? Not so fast. We will have to wait and see if this is a wonderful breakthrough or yet another case of the cure being worse than the disease. The primary reason is because for more than a decade the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has operated with softened requirements of food manufacturers and producers, allowing them to do their own in-house tests rather than hire independent scientific laboratories to conduct rigorous, peer-reviewed testing of food chemicals to determine the health impacts of those chemicals on varied populations (including pregnant women, babies and children). The result has been the FDA approval of tens of thousands of untested food chemicals for more than a decade and a half–and hundreds of after-the-fact scientific studies linking a number of those food chemicals to serious health outcomes.
While levulinic acid is already present in some U.S. foods (alcoholic beverages and non-organic cereals/cereal-based products, and some fruits and green vegetables) the other FDA-approved chemical, sodium dodecyl sulfate (aka sodium lauryl sulfate) as it was used in the preharvest chemical sanitizing spray study, like several other agro-chemicals already in use, lacks needed health effects data when used as a preharvest food additive. We do know from previous studies and clinical reports that when dodecyl is combined with gallates and used as a food preservative it can trigger adverse reactions in some consumers.* Will there be adverse reactions to consumers from sodium dodecyl sulfate when applied to food? To date this is an unknown. But if this preharvest chemical spray is approved and you want to reduce the risk, stick with organic produce and always wash it properly.
*“Dodecyl gallate is a synthetic antioxidant used as a preservative in processed foods and commonly found in salad dressings, margarine, oils, fats/lard, rice, bakery goods, cake mixes, dehydrated meats, soups, potatoes and broths, candy, cereals, processed nuts, spices, condiments, and a variety of snack foods, etc. Dodecyl gallate may cause allergic reactions in some people, especially swelling of the lips, dermatitis, chronic eczema or ulcerations. Chellitis (dry, scaly, cracked lips) and stomatis (oral inflammation/inflammation of mucous lining of the mouth including cheeks, gums, tongue, lips, throat, etc.) have been reported with exposure to dodecyl gallate.” Source: The Food Hacker’s Handbook
Journal Reference: Tong Zhao, Pingsheng Ji, Govindaraj Dev Kumar. Pre-harvest treatment for reduction of foodborne pathogens and microbial load on tomatoes. Food Control, 2021; 119: 107469 DOI: 10.1016/j.foodcont.2020.107469