Aldehyde Politics

Aldehydes are a class of potently toxic biochemicals. You might recognize the name from a notorious family member: formaldehyde. Aldehydes have been difficult to study because they are very reactive and therefore don’t hang around long enough to be examined. Nevertheless, it would be reasonable to assume that the extreme reactivity of aldehydes spells bad news from human and environmental health.

That intuition is confirmed in a literature review published in 1991—25 years ago—in which aldehydes are characterized in summary as causing “rapid cell death.” A recent article in the journal Wise Traditions, published by the Weston A. Price Foundation, describes how aldehydes have made their way into our food supply and the bodies of food workers and the patrons of food manufacturers such as fast food restaurants.

Ironically, these toxic exposures resulted from the success shared by the Weston A. Price Foundation with other food activists in eliminating another class of toxic chemicals from our food supply: that would be trans fatty acids.

As I’m sure you know, trans fats are the byproduct of heating hydrogenated vegetable oils. Once FDA accepted the science showing that trans fats are dangerous and banned their use, restaurants and other food manufacturers went scurrying for a substitute. What they landed on was polyunsaturated vegetable oils.

These oils are notoriously sensitive to heat. Since the 1990s, a group of scientists based in Europe and now working worldwide has been uncovering the toxic products of these oils when used in commercial food frying. Those toxicant byproducts not only end up in the food but also in the air of kitchens and other food manufacturing facilities.

From the air, the aldehydes and other toxicants move onto the cloths and skin and into the lungs of food workers. And when the food factory is also a restaurant or other emporium of consumption, the toxicants end up on the cloths and skin and in the lungs of the food factory’s patrons—not to mention what’s delivered to their stomachs.

Despite the substantial science that illuminates the risks of these exposures, the FDA apparently has no plans to investigate. So it will be left to activists such as Weston A. Price to eliminate yet another health threat.

I’m compelled to say that this new exposure to aldehydes from deep frying in vegetable oil is not in any way the fault of food activists. At the most superficial level, it’s the fault of food policy warped by an obsession with cholesterol and saturated fat. After all, as again I’m sure you know, the hydrogenated vegetable oils that are the source of trans fats were introduced into our food supply when consumption of saturated fats (from the consumption of foods such lard and butter) was associated with elevated serum cholesterol which was associated with the epidemic increase in heart attacks during the mid-20th Century.

At a deeper level, the current aldehyde poisoning outbreak is the fault of political actors and the institutions they control who propagate the myth of apolitical science and then use that myth as cover for the very political economic decisions that encourage one area of research and regulation while discouraging others. As I said, the cholesterol and saturated fat obsessions that dominate food science and the failure to acknowledge aldehyde risks are an example. At this deeper level the commercial interests that have grown around these obsessions—the pharmaceutical industry in particular with the proliferation of statins and their descendant drugs—contribute in numerous ways to this myth with money, expert testimony, research (directly and through funding), and services and money to scientific, academic, regulatory, and political institutions.

At an even deeper level, the growing outbreak of aldehyde poisoning is the fault of scientific institutions and personalities who represent those institutions that promote the myth of science as without politics by establishing, promoting, and then clinging to theories and facts like—dare I say it?—ecclesiastical pronouncements despite well-founded doubts. Again, the cholesterol and saturated fat obsessions were criticized from the beginning by a wide variety of scientists—for example, the International Network of Cholesterol Skeptics.

Those contrary voices are shut out by the myth of scientific consensus. The scientific consensus is that consumption of saturated fat increases serum cholesterol which increases the risk of heart attack and stroke.However, “consensus” doesn’t mean that every scientist agrees. It means that the big dogs in the scientific field agree.

Why are they scientific big dogs?

Because other scientific big dogs say so, because political and commercial big dogs say so, and because they have the microphone.

In other words, “the science” of health is deeply political—and I don’t mean in the tawdry and frankly uninteresting sense that commercial interests have their hand on the rudder. I mean that groups of men (and women, too) are able to decide what is true and what is not and have it enforced down to what does and does not get into your body.

Aldehyde politics are not the exception. Heart disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity, degenerative neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s. They all have their version of aldehyde politics, by which I mean political power used to prevent the use of science contrary the dominant ideology. As a consequence, our health likely becomes worse.

Historically, the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution that came with it provided social force to the idea, gave political force to the idea that there’s an external reality (Nature) that operates independently of human will, knowledge, emotions, morals, or desires. The myth of scientific consensus and the myth of apolitical science are the children of that idea. What’s hidden, quite intentionally, is that a human being—with his or her will, knowledge, emotions, morals, desires, and political commitments—or a group of them have to state what’s true—an inherently imperfect enterprise—as aldehyde politics demonstrate.