What's Aluminum Doing In My Food?

Top 10 Health Tips | My Health Formulas

Browsing my collection of Gahan Wilson cartoons, I came across a picture of a man reading a story to a couple of children sitting by his side. The caption reads: "Then Mrs. Cratchit entered, smiling proudly, with the pudding. Oh, a wonderful pudding! Shaped like a cannonball, blazing in half-a- quartern of ignited brandy bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top, and stuffed full with plums and sweetmeats and sodium diacetate and monoglyceride and potassium bromate and aluminum phosphate and calcium phosphate monobasic and chloromine T and aluminum potassium sulfate and calcium propionate and sodium alginate and butylated hydroxyanisole and ...." 

Then I went shopping at Acme. Exploring the isle of frozen dinners, I decided to read the ingredients labels on a couple of products known by the brand name of "Healthy Choice." I found several of the same ingredients listed above, plus a few trans fats and aluminum based food colorings thrown in for good measure. They left out the pudding, brandy, plums and sweetmeats. I found this to be about as absurd as a cigarette manufacturer marketing a new brand called "Healthy Smokes" and advertising it "with added cadmium." 

I then poked my nose down the isle of health products and came across a scary amount of aluminum showing up not only in foods, but in vitamins and medicines as well. Many antacids contain aluminum formulations, and many vitamin supplements contain aluminum lake food coloring. I have not yet figured out why I need my vitamin pills to have a pretty color. But of all the additives in packaged processed foods, there are three culprits any of which would cause me to put it back on the shelf. These are: nitrites (carcinogenic preservatives usually found in lunch meats), partially hydrogenated vegetable oil (a.k.a. trans fats), and aluminum (often disguised as food coloring). 

My interest in aluminum began with the discovery of its ease in crossing the blood brain barrier, especially when complexed with other substances. When aluminum is complexed with organic ligands such as citrate, tartarate or glutamate, it stays in the body longer and accumulates in the brain and in bones. Aluminum creates oxidative damage, makes the blood brain barrier more permeable, and has been found in greater than normal quantities in the brains of Alzheimers patients. 

In the past, aluminum salts were used as chelating agents to bind with phosphate in patients suffering from renal diseases. This practice was abandoned when aluminum salts were found to be toxic to the central nervous system and bone, causing hallucinations, seizures, dementia, bone pain, fracturing and thinning, and death in uremic patients. So if you feel inclined to take an antacid to relieve what is inappropriately referred to as "heart burn," don't hold your breath waiting for the Food and Drug Administration to remove dangerous aluminum complexes from several of these products. Read the labels and decide for yourself what health risks you are willing to take. 

Although aluminum is a rather ubiquitous metal found in the Earth's crust, plants have ways of sequestering and chelating aluminum, which reduces the amount of aluminum absorbed by the animals that eat them. The joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives established the tolerable weekly intake of aluminum at 7mg/kg body weight, which is about 60 mg/day for an adult man. Yet the leaching of aluminum from aluminum cookware into food often exceeds that amount. Cooking rhubarb in aluminum vessels, for example, results in aluminum concentrations up to 170 mg/kg. Aluminum can also migrate from containers such as aluminum foil into food during storage. 

Even if you don't use aluminum cookware or aluminum foil, aluminum utensils and packaging are often used by manufacturers of processed foods. The longer a food product is stored in an aluminum container, the more aluminum will leach into the food. This is not just the case with acidic foods and beverages, but has also been found to occur in salty foods, and to a lesser extent with just plain water. 

As a general rule, however, the lower the pH value of the food or beverage (Coca Cola being about the lowest), the greater the danger of aluminum content in the final product if it has been prepared or stored in aluminum containers. (Coke cans are now lacquered in order to reduce leaching.) Tomato sauce, with its high ascorbic acid content, and dairy products, which contain lactic acid, should not be exposed to aluminum during processing, cooking or storage. 

If you value your bones and brain, avoid aluminum-enhanced food. Read labels on all packaged processed items. If the ingredients list contains more chemicals than farm products, consider the item suspect. Use stainless steel or Pyrex glassware for cooking. And don't assume that because something is marketed as healthy, that it contains only healthy ingredients. Read labels even on medicines and vitamin supplements, for many of these contain potentially harmful aluminum formulations.