In addition to non-irradiated and non-GMO being on food labels, you’re starting to see brands boast about being non-ETO, too.
Why does that matter?
Well for starters, the National Cancer Institute describes the chemical used for it, ethylene oxide, as being “highly explosive and reactive” and they categorize it under cancer-causing substances (1). The World Health Organization classifies it at as Group 1 carcinogen, which is their most dangerous category for known and suspected agents (2).
Despite how dangerous it is, this chemical is used to make what you wear, what you wash with, and even what you eat. Its prevalence will shock you.
What is ethylene oxide (ETO)?
Also known as EO and ETO, at lower temperatures it takes the form of a liquid. At 51.3° F (10.7° C) and above, ethylene oxide becomes a colorless flammable gas. It can have a sweet pleasing scent, as the glycol form is almost indistinguishable from maple syrup. However ETO should never be eaten or smelled. The side effects of exposure include sore throat, coughing, difficulty breathing, blurred vision, headaches, nausea, vomiting, and convulsions. It is a known mutagen and carcinogen. (3)
35% of global EO demand is used for textile production (e.g. polyester), 25% for the manufacturing of soaps and detergents, and 10% or less for each of the following; cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, oilfield chemicals, and agricultural chemicals (4).
Among those uses include countless activities which are spewing this cancer causing chemical into the environment.
Next time you’re at the airport watching the crew de-ice the plane and runway, keep in mind they may be spraying it in the form of monoethylene glycol. That’s also used in your car’s antifreeze and coolant. Your brake fluid uses another form of it; ethylene glycol ether. If you’ve ever dealt with engine troubles before and experienced a maple aroma, this highly toxic chemical is what you were smelling!
5% is used for other purposes, which includes sterilizing seasonings.
What is ETO sterilization?
Ethylene oxide gas is pumped into an airtight chamber to sterilize whatever is inside. Typically, that’s things like surgical devices and dental equipment, but this treatment process is also also used for some edible items like spices. Whether its bacteria, viruses, fungi, insects, or other organisms, any forms of life in the gas chamber are quickly killed. The EO alters proteins in their cells which are essential for life and permanently mutates their DNA, leaving them unable to survive.
Is food sterilization safe?
Food has been treated with ETO since the 1930’s, when the inventor Lloyd Hall promoted its use for the fumigation of foods. Patent #2,107,697 was granted to him in 1938 for this process (5).
While his technology was best known for spices, the patent also covered meats, breads, beverages, vegetables, and more. During the 60’s and 70’s, this treatment was the top choice for sanitizing herbs and powders, but its popularity has waned following the approval of irradiated food treatment in 1988.
Any bacteria, viruses, or fungi growing on these edible items are destroyed, which is usually something that’s good for you. But is ETO treated food safe afterward?
Despite being a cancerous substance, the theory has been that since it’s a gas, usage on foods was quite safe because this gas would evaporate following the fumigation and hence, there would be no difference before and after treatment.
At least that’s the theory as to why it’s not bad for you.
But is it possible that in certain situations and for specific types of food, the following problems may alter that answer?
1st problem = organic matter vs. metals and plastics
The sterilization of a catheter or dental instruments is quite different than the type of matter you eat.
One is made of organic matter (previously living organisms) while the other is made of inorganic matter like metals and plastics.
Medical equipment is made out of non-porous materials like highly refined stainless steel and smooth plastic surfaces. There is nowhere for the gas to hide in these inert materials. The biggest danger of fumigating these instruments is for the humans conducting the process, as leaks of the gas could be inhaled.
Contrast those things with highly-porous foods. The surfaces of spices like basil, oregano, paprika, and black pepper are irregular, with microscopic folds and crevices. Is gas or its residue more likely to be trapped in those cavities or not?
Chicken, beef, and meats seem even more concerning. Not only are they irregular, but their water content is high at 66% to 71% (6). Is it possible that water may encase and entrap ETO gas molecules before they have an opportunity to evaporate?
2nd problem = temperature for gas vs. liquid
Just like how water is liquid at warm temperatures but solid at lower temperatures, this gas can manifest itself in different forms. As mentioned above, it becomes liquefied at temperatures below 51.3° F.
With a max temperature of 40 degrees, your refrigerator is significantly cooler than that. If you follow the best practices for food safety, you probably have set it even lower – in the mid 30’s – which is around 15 degrees below EO’s liquid-to-gas threshold.
At any refrigerated temperature, if there’s ethylene oxide present, it’s not going to evaporate. It will be a solid, in the form of a liquid similar to water.
Yes, jars of spices have airtight seals, but at least they’re processed and packaged at room temperature. The same can’t be said about cold items like meats, beverages, cheese, and some produce like clamshells of lettuce.
Some foods may never be warmed to 51.3° or above. Using ETO sterilization on them would be quite risky, since the gas could condense into a liquid upon contact with their cold surface.
Fortunately, higher than room temperature is the level used for seasoning treatment (or at least, it’s supposed to be).
3rd problem = residue remains after sterilizing
Even when used on items at room temperature and above, there is still a non-volatile residue which gets left behind that is not good for you.
The gas converts to these two toxic residues:
- ethylene chlorohydrin (ECH)
- ethylene glycol (EG)
Both byproducts in and of themselves are toxic and pose health risks for humans.
This residue has been reported as being bioavailable and therefore, it’s likely absorbed during digestion (7). Even when small amounts of ECH have been applied to unbroken skin, fatality has resulted in animal studies (8).
In humans, exposure to ethylene chlorohydrin at a concentration of just 300 ppm has resulted in death within 2 hours, according to the CDC (9). Ethylene glycol affects the central nervous system, heart, and kidneys (10).
Given the dangers of this residue from EO gas, treated foods must be allowed to aerate for a period of time following fumigation, which typically is up to 24 hours.
Even after the period, some residue may still be left behind. One study tested 15 spices and condiments, finding ECH in 20% of them (11). While those amounts are considered safe, why would you choose to intentionally eat any amount of a potent poison – it’s a renal, hepatic, vascular, and nerve toxin.
Furthermore, are you confident the manufacturer is allowing them to aerate for the proper amount of time?
Keep in mind that most spices come from outside the United States. They’re produced in China, India, Indonesia, and other countries. Are you 100% confident that a foreign supplier isn’t bending the rules?
Who does not support it is surprising
If you had to guess one company that would be all for it, there’s a good chance you would name The Dow Chemical Company, who is among the largest manufacturers of this chemical. They sell many different forms of it, for numerous industrial applications, but guess what they do NOT support it for?
“Dow will not knowingly sell into non-supported applications. Non-supported applications of Dow-manufactured ethylene oxide include but are not limited to: sterilant applications, fumigant applications and manufacturing of weapons systems. This list is not intended to be all-inclusive.”
That’s right, sterilant applications using their EO is the first thing listed as being non-supported (12).
That, in the same breathe as weapons systems, is not what you would expect to hear from a chemical conglomerate!
Non ETO vs. ETO treated food
Similar to GMOs, it’s a Wild West mentality out there. Finding a list of foods which do and don’t use this type of sterilization is not easy, as most of it hinges on the honor system… the manufacturers choosing to tell you.
Do you think they really want to do that?!
In fact, some companies may specifically be choosing this treatment because it doesn’t have to be disclosed. Unlike irradiation, which the US and EU require labeling for, the same doesn’t yet apply to ethylene oxide sterilization.
Sterigenics, a company which describes themselves as “the world’s leading supplier of microbial reduction services for food products” has a PDF online for marketing to the industry that says this (13):
“Since ethylene oxide processing does not require labeling in the US, it remains a favoured sanitation agent for a significant number of the country’s food processors…”
Seems like a “significant number” are choosing ETO specifically because they want to hide it from you!
The good and bad news
Starting with the bad stuff, first. The American Spice Trade Association (ASTA) is a lobbying group whose members include McCormick spices, Hormel Foods, The Spice Hunter, and numerous other companies. The president of ASTA has been quoted as saying (14):
“In the U.S., we grow some onion, garlic and chilies. Canada is a major producer of mustard seed. Virtually everything else is imported and has always been imported.”
That’s a lot of imported spice and as you would guess, when it comes from overseas it is even more scrutinized for safety versus that which is domestically grown. It’s no surprise the use of gassing and nuking (irradiating) is widespread for these imports.
That trade association also reported that ethylene oxide treatment is estimated to be used for 40 to 85% of spices.
That means the odds your turmeric or cayenne pepper are non-ETO may be no better than the flip of a coin.
Without disclosure being required, it really is a gamble as to whether or not you think it has been used.
Most manufacturers remain tight-lipped on the topic. The websites for the following companies provide little or no information as to which of their products may be treated with it; McCormick, Lawry’s, Goya, Mrs. Dash, Morton, Maggi, French’s, Old Bay, Spice Islands, Badia, and Durkee.
Now for the good news…
Per 10CFR §185, the FDA has only approved ethylene oxide fumigation for raw spices, dehydrated vegetables, and spice blends which do not contain salt. Its use in other foods is banned.
That’s good news, at least on a relative basis. Now you have a category to focus on, if you want ETO free foods.
The catch-22 is that almost everything processed and premade contains seasonings of some sort. Though if you’re cooking from scratch, at least you don’t have to worry about your produce, meat, and everything else.
But why does the FDA only allow it for spices?
Up to 30KiloGray of gamma radiation can be used on spices. That’s the equivalent of 500,000,000 chest X-rays!
To put that in perspective, 0.03-0.15 kGy might be used on fruit to delay its ripening. For delaying the spoilage of meat, it might be a treatment of 1.50–3.00 kGy.
The exact techniques and how much radiation is used on food by type is detailed thoroughly in Irradiation of Food Commodities.
A reason why regulators allow so much to be used on spices is because it is assumed that you are using very little of them. Never mind the fact that those rules were put forth ages ago. Today, you have people who are practically drinking sriracha sauce.
It’s kind of like how the original Chex Mix recipe from 1952 is so much different than today. Back then, the American palate only used spices sparingly. Taste was one factor and the other was cost – using them liberally was too expensive.
Both of those things have changed. Some modern Chex Mix recipes include 10x or more the seasoning amount which was originally called for.
This is not your grandma’s generation. Today’s America has ethnic culinary influences and as a result, we love hot and spicy food. We’re using these powders and peppers more than ever before, which is all the more reason why these sterilization methods warrant increased scrutiny.
ETO vs. radiation, which is worse?
Officially, we’re assured both are perfectly safe, even in spite of their drawbacks.
Speaking of which, we haven’t yet discussed the dark side of irradiated foods. Sure, some vitamins and phytonutrients may be decreased by it, but that’s not the most concerning thing.
Cobalt-60 is a radioactive material that comes from nuclear power plant reactors and it’s used for irradiation. It’s actually the most common source for this type of energy (17).
When the colbalt-60’s gamma rays bombard your meats, seafood, eggs, vegetables, fruits, and seasonings, it creates the radiolytic derivative, 2-alkylcyclobutanones (2-ACBs). While these are assumed to also be safe, the fact that they are a foreign molecule that would otherwise not be found in your food definitely raises eyebrows.
In the US, disclosure of irradiation is not required when the treated ingredient is part of a multi-ingredient food. The vast majority of what you buy falls into that category, whether it’s a spice blend, a box of crackers, or a frozen pizza. Restaurants don’t have to tell you, either.
How do you avoid both?
The solution is not to avoid seasonings. They make up the lion’s share of the highest antioxidant foods, according to their ORAC values. Eating more of them is actually healthier, assuming they don’t contain chemical residue.
Since the laws vary by country, it’s not always easy to figure out how something was sanitized.
In addition to herbs and spices, there might even be other ETO ingredients in processed foods being imported, if that method is legal in the exporting country for other applications.
ETO treated food is banned in Europe, but they’re under pressure to change that. The EU Parliament recently floated the idea of overruling the ban (18):
“ETO chemical food decontamination has been banned in the EU, but it appears, under pressure from the USA and in the context of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, that the Commission is considering the removal of the ban.”
Will they allow political pressures to trump the safety concerns which led to the ban in the first place? We will have to wait and see.
But whether your food is from the EU, the US, Canada, Australia, China, or elsewhere, there is one way you avoid both of these decontamination methods.
Can organic spices be irradiated? Nope. How about treated with ethylene oxide? Nope. The only allowable method for USDA certified organic is steam sterilization.
If you can afford it, we recommend the Simply Organic brand 24 spices set, which is 100% USDA certified organic.
For a more modest investment in your health, there is also their top 12 culinary organic spice set which contains all-purpose seasoning, basil, cayenne pepper, chili powder, cinnamon, cumin, garlic powder, Italian seasoning, onion powder, oregano, crushed red pepper, thyme. You can get it on Amazon.