CNN Documentary Takes a Peek Behind the Food Industry Curtain

Story at-a-glance

  • The food system has changed dramatically in recent decades, and this has created many problems for food safety and human health; 1 in 6 Americans gets sick from eating contaminated food each year
  • Children can easily consume 100 mg of artificial food dye per day, and studies have found food colors can have a significant effect of on behavior and cognition
  • Seafood harvested in the U.S. is shipped to Asia for processing before then being shipped back again, allowing multiple opportunities for contamination and spoilage along the way


This is an older article that may not reflect Dr. Mercola’s current view on this topic. Use our search engine to find Dr. Mercola’s latest position on any health topic.

By Dr. Mercola

In the featured documentary, CNN Money reporter Cristina Alesci goes behind the scenes to investigate “the vast system behind every meal,” looking at how our food system has changed in recent decades, and what it has done to food safety and human health.

Divided into four segments, the video reviews the back-story of how your cereal, salad, fish, and meat is grown, shipped, processed, and adulterated, before it finally reaches your plate.

What’s Really in Your Kid’s Breakfast Cereal?

Cereal has been a breakfast staple for decades, but today’s processed rainbow-colored assortment is a far cry from its more wholesome origin. In recent years, sales have started slipping as parents are getting savvier about the hazards of added sugars and artificial ingredients.  

According to some researchers, children can easily consume 100 mg of artificial color in a day, and as noted in the video, a number of studies have found “small but significant” effects of artificial food dyes on children’s behavior and cognition.

In 1994, researchers found that 73 percent of children with ADHD responded favorably to an elimination diet that included removing artificial colors.1

More than a decade later, a carefully designed, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study2 published in The Lancet concluded that a variety of common food dyes and the preservative sodium benzoate cause some children to become measurably more hyperactive and distractible.

In a 58-page report, "Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks,”3 the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) reveals that several of the food dyes approved4 for use in the U.S. are in fact linked to health issues ranging from hyperactivity and allergy-like reactions to cancer.

And these results were from studies conducted by the chemical industry itself! For example:

  • Red #No. 40, which is the most widely used dye, may accelerate the appearance of immune system tumors in mice, while also triggering hyperactivity in children.
  • Blue #No. 2, used in candies, beverages, pet foods, and more, was linked to brain tumors.
  • Yellow #No. 5, used in baked goods, candies, cereal, and more, may not only be contaminated with several cancer-causing chemicals, but it's also linked to hyperactivity, hypersensitivity and other behavioral effects in children.

EU Requires Warning Labels for Many Synthetic Dyes; The U.S. Does Not

While the U.S. has more or less ignored such findings, the European Union (EU) decided to take action. As of July 2010, most foods in the EU containing artificial food dyes are required to carry a warning label stating the food "may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children."

This labeling requirement prompted many food manufacturers to voluntarily remove the dyes from their products sold in the EU. This is why if you eat a Nutri-Grain strawberry cereal bar in the U.S., it will contain artificial color, including Red 40, while that same bar in the U.K. contains only natural colors.

At the end of March 2011, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) did hold a session to discuss the science on food dyes and hyperactivity. In the end, they decided that warning labels would not be necessary, as a causal relationship had not been established in the general population.

Breakfast Cereal — A Not So Great Way to Start Your Day

Acquiescing to consumer demand, some cereal makers are starting to cut sugar and replace artificial ingredients with more natural flavors and colors, but that doesn’t necessarily make them any healthier or less processed.

As noted in the video, even though the color may come from carrots or blueberries, it’s still created in the lab — it’s not the whole food that’s being added.

Moreover, it doesn’t change the fact that processed grains promote chronic inflammation in your body, elevate low-density LDL cholesterol, and ultimately lead to insulin and leptin resistance.

Insulin and leptin resistance, in turn, are at the heart of obesity and most chronic disease, including diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer's — all the top killers in the U.S. 

Fresh Produce Accounts for About Half of All Foodborne Disease

Americans eat five times more leafy greens today compared to a couple of decades ago. While this is a good thing, the way this fresh produce is grown leaves much to be desired.

Foodborne disease is a significant problem, with 1 in 6 Americans, about 48 million people, getting sick from eating contaminated food each year. An estimated 3,000 of them die.

While most of these cases can be traced back to contaminated and undercooked meat and seafood, fresh produce also has its share of problems. In fact, nearly half of all foodborne illness is due to contaminated produce.

It may not occur to you that fresh produce also undergoes a number of different processing steps, including an antibacterial wash before it’s cut or shredded and packaged.

So just how do contaminants like E.coli get into your vegetables? Typically via contaminated manure, which is used to fertilize crop fields. Contamination can then spread like wildfire in the processing plant.

Manure is a great fertilizer. The problem is that most of the manure now comes from animals raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) — animals that, due to their abnormal living arrangements and unnatural diet are more prone to disease, including antibiotic-resistant disease.

For example, one study5 that looked at the link between CAFOs and MRSA in Pennsylvania concluded that:

"Proximity to swine manure application to crop fields and livestock operations each was associated with MRSA ... These findings contribute to the growing concern about the potential public health impacts of high-density livestock production."

The Fishy Reality Behind Most Seafood

The U.S. imports 90 percent of its seafood — about 50 million pounds a day. Inspecting all this seafood is an impossible task. Of the billions of pounds of seafood entering the country each year, only about 4 percent is sampled for inspection, and as noted in the film, the U.S. cannot enforce its safety standards on producers overseas.

Much of the seafood sold in the U.S. comes from China, where it’s grown in aquafarms. The FDA recently issued an import alert6 warning that residues of unapproved animal drugs and/or unsafe food additives have been found in catfish, Basa, shrimp, dace and eel imported from China.

Mansour Samadpour, Ph.D., president of IEH Laboratories, has done a lot of food testing, and some of the worst results, in terms of harmful pathogens, have been in imported seafood. There are two basic problems with seafood:

  • Wild seafood may be contaminated with heavy metals, PCBs and other contaminants now found in virtually all waterways
  • Farmed fish, which accounts for about half of all the seafood harvested in the world today, uses drugs, unnatural diets, and confinement — just like their landlocked CAFO counterparts.

As a result, diseases are prevalent and can spread quickly. The nutritional content of the fish is also compromised, but in terms of health hazards, the drugs and feed additives pose the greatest risk

Crazy enough, much of the seafood harvested in the U.S. is also shipped to Asia for processing. So even if the fish was caught right off the U.S. coast, by the time the fillets or cans reach an American grocery store, they may have traveled across the world and back, with countless opportunities for contamination and spoilage along the way.  

Although there are serious concerns with most fish supplies there are still high quality vendors out there, like Vital Choice, which is where I purchase most of my fish from. They only sell sustainably certified fish that are regularly tested to be free of heavy metals and radiation.

Factory Farmed Meats — A Major Source of Ill Health 

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Americans eat about 126 pounds of poultry, beef, and pork per capita each year. What many don’t realize is that growing 1 pound of meat may require anywhere from 2 to 6 pounds of feed, and as noted in the film, “what some of our livestock are eating are things you’d never put in your mouth.”

Alesci visits a hog finishing farm in Iowa. In a matter of five to six months, they grow from 13 pounds to 270 pounds. To fatten them up that fast, the animals are fed an unnatural diet consisting largely of corn and a secret formula of a dozen or so ingredients, including proteins (often sourced from animal byproducts) and pig fat.

As mentioned in the film, livestock are essentially “corn-conversion machines,” without which the corn industry would not survive. Nearly 40 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. is used for animal feed. (Another 40 percent goes to making ethanol.)

Renderings, i.e. animal byproducts like meat, bone, blood, and feather meal are also used in the animal feed, along with a variety of drugs, including antibiotics — a practice that has been definitively linked to the rise in antibiotic-resistant disease in both animals and humans.

A 2013 investigation by Keeve Nachman, Ph.D. of Johns Hopkins University discovered arsenic in chicken meat, the origin of which was a growth promoting drug called Roxarsone. The drug has since been suspended by the FDA.  

In another study, he found that chicken feather meal, which is used in animal feed, contained the active ingredients of the drugs Tylenol, Benadryl, and Prozac. It’s unclear how the drugs got there. Chicken litter, i.e. poultry poop, is also used in animal feed as a low cost high protein source. Despite being linked to the spread of Mad Cow disease, the FDA decided against banning the practice.

Industrialized Agriculture Externalizes the Costs of Their Cheap Food

While the industrialization of agriculture has lowered production costs, and to some extent made processed foods less expensive, the system has completely failed to secure food for all, which was and continues to be its stated mission.

Today, we have a higher percentage of people who are food insecure or go hungry in the U.S. than we had in the 1960s, before widespread industrialization started. About 15 percent of Americans are now classified as being food insecure. More than 20 percent of American children live in food insecure homes.

At the same time, the system is harmful to the environment, to animals (both wild and captive), to farmers, the soil, and ultimately, it’s harmful to consumers. Indeed, processed food may be inexpensive, but we’re all paying for it way down the line in the form of higher health care costs.

Sustainable agriculture is the answer to these and many other related problems. While it may not be the quickest or easiest solution, implementation wise, it's the best and most logical solution in the long term. Sustainable agriculture balances the need to produce food to be economically viable and efficient with a need to take care of the land, and support rural communities and society as a whole. Most importantly, it supports good health.

Some people question whether sustainable or organic agriculture would be economically viable, or whether that might make food insecurity even worse by raising food prices too high. According to John Ikerd, who has a Ph.D. in Agricultural Economics and whom I’ve interviewed about this topic, transitioning to a more sustainable food system may result in farm cost increases of 8 to 12 percent, but the actual price you pay for the food would only rise about 2 percent.

The reason for this is because only about 20 percent of the foods’ retail price relates to the costs incurred at the farm level. As explained by Ikerd:

“In other words, you can have a significant increase in the cost of production at the farm level without having a major impact on the consumer level. For example, it would cost you 10 percent more to produce [sustainable food] at the farm level, and the farm level is only 20 percent of the total value. That’s only a 2 percent increase in [retail] food cost.”

The Secret to Better Health: Eat Real Food

The solution to improving your health and losing weight is often as simple as swapping processed foods for real food. People have thrived on organically grown fruits and vegetables, grass-fed meats, pastured chicken eggs and other whole foods for centuries, while industrialized, chemical-dependent agriculture and processed foods were only recently invented.

Ditching processed foods requires that you plan your meals in advance, but if you take it step-by-step as described in my nutrition plan, it's quite possible, and manageable, to painlessly remove processed foods from your diet.

You can generally plan a week of meals at a time, making sure you have all ingredients necessary on hand, and then do any prep work you can ahead of time so that dinner is easy to prepare if you're short on time in the evenings (and you can use leftovers for lunches the next day).

As for finding high-quality ingredients, your best bet is to connect with a local farmer that raises crops and animals according to organic standards. In the U.S., the following organizations can help you locate farm-fresh foods:

Weston Price Foundation has local chapters in most states, and many of them are connected with buying clubs in which you can easily purchase organic foods, including grass fed raw dairy products like milk and butter.
Local Harvest — This website will help you find farmers' markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area where you can buy produce, grass-fed meats, and many other goodies.
Farmers' Markets — A national listing of farmers' markets.
Eat Well Guide: Wholesome Food from Healthy Animals — The Eat Well Guide is a free online directory of sustainably raised meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs from farms, stores, restaurants, inns, and hotels, and online outlets in the United States and Canada.
Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) — CISA is dedicated to sustaining agriculture and promoting the products of small farms.
FoodRoutes — The FoodRoutes "Find Good Food" map can help you connect with local farmers to find the freshest, tastiest food possible. On their interactive map, you can find a listing for local farmers, CSAs, and markets near you.
The Cornucopia Institute maintains web-based tools rating all certified organic brands of eggs, dairy products, and other commodities, based on their ethical sourcing and authentic farming practices separating CAFO "organic" production from authentic organic practices.


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