Dangerous Chemicals in Fast Food

Fast food doesn’t offer much in the way of nutrition.

Monosodium glutamate, or MSG, is far from the only chemical additive used in fast food. Limiting your intake of fast food reduces your exposure to numerous other harmful substances, such as trans fats and artificial dyes. It also cuts your overall intake of calories, sugar and salt if you replace them with more nutritious choices.

Terrible Trans Fats

Though some fast-food restaurants are phasing out their use of trans fats, these chemicals are still present in many fast-food fried items and desserts. Trans fats are made by adding hydrogen to unsaturated fats, which means they have a longer shelf life than other types of fat, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. Trans fats raise bad cholesterol levels and lower good cholesterol, a combination that is harmful to your heart health. Trans fats also increase inflammation, which is linked to heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes. In fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration no longer considers trans fats to be “generally recognized as safe.”

Bad Butylated Hydroxyanisole

Butylated hydroxyanisole, or BHA, is a chemical added to foods that contain oils to help prevent them from going rancid, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The chemical, however, is a carcinogen, which means it has the potential to cause cancer. The National Toxicology Program reports that animal studies suggest a strong link between the chemical and the formation of cancerous tumors and that human studies suggest that it raises the risk of stomach cancer. BHA is found in foods fried in animal fats, baked goods, dehydrated potatoes, sausage, chicken and meat products.

Horrible Hydrolyzed Vegetable Proteins

Hydrolyzed vegetable proteins are low-quality sources of protein, and they contain a large amount of salt, including monosodium glutamate. The chemical is used to lend a meaty flavor to certain fast foods, and it also helps fast-food restaurants cut down on how much of the actual food they use in their recipes. Further studies must be done to determine the long-term effects of the chemical, especially in children, according to Ruth Winter, author of “A Consumer’s Dictionary of Food Additives.”

Dangerous Dyes and Artificial Flavors

Many fast foods, such as brightly colored soda and desserts, contain artificial dyes and flavors. These are often used to replace real food, such as fruits, vegetables and eggs. Certain dyes, such as Yellow #5 and #6, are potential carcinogens. Dyes can also increase the risk of behavior problems and hyperactivity in children, according to David W. Schab, an assistant professor at Columbia University, and Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Artificial flavors and sweeteners also have the potential to be carcinogens.

The Average Fast-Food Meal

Order a burger and fries with a soda, and you’re likely to consume all of these dangerous chemicals. The burger likely contains BHA and hydrolyzed vegetable proteins, and many fast-food restaurants still cook their fries in oil that contains trans fats. If you order a colored soda, you’re consuming artificial dyes, and if it’s fruit-flavored soda, you’re also getting a dose of artificial flavors. Swap the burger for chicken nuggets, and you’ll still consume BHA and hydrolyzed vegetable proteins. If you opt for pizza, you’ll probably be consuming trans fats in the crust, and if you go for Chinese food you’ll likely be eating MSG, BHA and, depending on the entree, artificial dyes and flavors.

Penicillin: Discovery, Benefits and Resistance

Penicillin is a drug used to fight bacterial infection. Its accidental discovery ushered in a new age of medicine. It was hailed as a “miracle drug” that would eradicate infectious diseases. Today, there are many types of natural and synthetic types of penicillin, which are used to treat a wide range of ailments. However, over the years, some bacteria have become resistant to penicillin, making some infections difficult to treat.

It isn’t really known who first realized that mold contained medicinal qualities, but it is acknowledged that ancient Egyptians would poultice wounds with moldy bread, according to the American Chemical Society (ACS).

Alexander Fleming, a professor of bacteriology in London, is credited with discovering penicillin in 1928. Returning from vacation, he started cleaning up his messy lab and noticed that some petri dishes containing Staphylococcus bacteria had been contaminated with a mold, Penicillium notatum, which was inhibiting the growth of the bacteria, according to Dr. Howard Markel in a column for PBS NewHour. Fleming researched the juice produced by the mold and determined that it killed many types of bacteria. His team then went on to isolate pure penicillin from the mold juice.

“When I woke up just after dawn on September 28, 1928, I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionize all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer. But I guess that was exactly what I did,” Fleming later wrote about his discovery.

Fleming didn’t have the resources to fully develop his discovery. Other bacteriologists tried to purify penicillin but failed. Finally, in 1939, Howard Florey, a pathology professor at Oxford University, read Fleming’s paper in the British Journal of Experimental Pathology, and he and his colleagues worked to purify and create useable penicillin.

After churning out around 132 gallons (500 liters) of mold filtrate per week and testing on animals, they were finally able to try the new drug on a human. On February 12, 1941, Albert Alexander got the first dose of penicillin, according to the ACS. The treatment started to heal him of a life-threatening infection in just a few days. Unfortunately, the Oxford team ran out of the drug before Alexander was completely healed, and he died.

A close-up of penicillin growing in a flask, circa 1943.
A close-up of penicillin growing in a flask, circa 1943.

Credit: Everett Historical/Shutterstock

The first successful treatment happened a year later in 1942. It was given to Anne Miller, a patient at New Haven Hospital in Connecticut who had suffered a miscarriage and developed an infection that led to blood poisoning.

During World War II, penicillin was mass-produced and used to fight infections among soldiers. Throughout history, infections had killed more soldiers than battle injuries, Markel wrote. “In World War I, the death rate from bacterial pneumonia was 18 percent; in WWII, it fell to less than 1 percent.”

In 1945, Fleming, Florey and Florey’s teammate, Ernst Chain, received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of penicillin. [The 10 Noblest Nobel Prize Winners of All Time]

Penicillin is given to patients with an infection caused by bacteria. As an antibiotic, it inhibits the growth of bacteria or kills it. It does this by preventing bacterial enzymes from creating cell wall growth. It also activates other enzymes so that they will break down the cell walls of microorganisms, as well, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.

Sometimes penicillin is also prescribed to help medical problems not related to bacterial infections, such as leptospirosis, chlamydia in pregnant women, helicobacter pylori-associated gastritis or peptic ulcer disease, gas gangrene, Lyme disease and typhoid fever, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Different kinds of penicillin are used for various infections. Some types of penicillin are amoxicillin, ampicillin, penicillin G and penicillin V.

Though penicillin has saved many lives, it isn’t always helpful for everyone. For example, some people have penicillin allergies that can cause hives, rashes, itching, anaphylaxis and other symptoms.

Beyond allergies, penicillin is becoming less useful over time. At least 2 million people in the United States become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics each year, and at least 23,000 people die as a result, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Simply using antibiotics creates resistance, according to the CDC. While antibiotics kill bacteria causing illness, they also kill “good” bacteria that protect the body from infection. The drug-resistant bacteria grow and take over, and some bacteria give their drug resistance to other bacteria. Resistant germs spread to other patients from unclean hands or surfaces.

For this reason, antibiotics should only be used to treat infections, and should not be prescribed for viruses, according to the Mayo Clinic.

And yet, many sore throats and upper respiratory infections that are caused by viruses are often prescribed antibiotics to treat these illnesses because it is a perceived quick fix, said Dr. Saul R. Hymes, medical director for Pediatric Antimicrobial Stewardship at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital.

“Overall, there is a major problem with inappropriate antibiotic prescribing in the United States,” said Hymes. “Recent studies by Katherine Fleming-Dutra and Adam Hersh in 2016 have shown anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of all outpatient prescriptions for antibiotics for common conditions like ear infections, sore throat and other upper respiratory-type infections are inappropriate.”