Stop worrying so much about such hazards as nitrites in bacon and Red Dye Number 3. Concentrate instead on eating a balanced diet with less fat, salt, sugar and cholesterol and more roughage. And, of course, don't smoke.
That was the message from health experts assembled by the Washington Journalism Center for a marathon seminar entitled: "The Food We Eat: How Good and How Safe?"
Experts who typically disagree on everything from sulfites to sweets were essentially in agreement on the importance of diet in helping keep a person healthy and disease free.
Here is how Dr. Sanford A. Miller, director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, Food and Drug Administration, put it at the March 26-28 seminar:
"Food additives are responsible for less than one percent of cancer. To get rid of cancer, you ban tobacco and look at the pattern of the diet -- eat less fat, cholesterol, sodium, and eat more fiber. Together, those two things would knock off 75 percent of the cancer."
Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group that has a long history of challenging FDA actions and inactions, had this to say:
"Additives have gotten a lot of ink -- more than the harm they do -- compared to smoking, alcohol and fat consumption . . . . If I had to put a number on it, I'd say that high fat, salt, sugar, cholesterol and not enough roughage in the diet can do 100 times more harm than additives."
That doesn't mean that additives are safe, however, Jacobson said. A 10-year-old girl died in late February in Salem, Ore., after eating guacamole salad sprinkled with sulfite preservative at a restaurant.
Peter Barton Hutt, a former FDA attorney who is now in private practice and often represents industry in trying to influence FDA decisions, played down the dangers of additives when it comes to cancer. He said that diet and smoking are more important considerations.
"The risks are in the diet and the way we eat, not the specific chemicals," he said.
Hutt said that if all the foods containing carcinogens were banned, there would be no food left for consumers to eat. As a result, regulators now are trying to devise a system that will enable consumers to make intelligent choices about which foods to eat, he said.
One way to approach the problem, Hutt said, would be to divide food risks into three broad categories. He said that high risk should include aflatoxin, a potent carcinogen found in mold-contaminated foods such as corn and peanut butter; low risk, he said, should include additives. Between those two extremes, he said, would be such foods as cauliflower and mustard, which have been found to contain carcinogens naturally.
Dr. Artemis P. Simopoulos, chairman of the Nutrition Coordinating Committee, National Institutes of Health, said there are links between obesity, hypertension, cancer and heart disease.
A 40-year-old woman whose weight is 10 percent above normal has eight times the chance of developing hypertension as a woman with normal weight, Simopoulos said.
"Obesity is a marker for early demise, particularly if it occurs before 45," she said.
Simopoulos said it is possible to decrease the level of estrogen, which can cause cancer, and of cholesterol in the system by following a low-fat, high-fiber diet. Her advice:
"Eat in moderation. Keep your weight down. Exercise to lower estrogen levels and to increase body defenses."