Monday, May 25, 2009

Dysfunctional Top Ten, Part 2

Time to continue the countdown I began in my last post, Dysfunctional Top Ten, Part 1.

Number 5: When You're in Love with a Beautiful Woman

This song was recorded in 1978 by Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, and became a hit one year later. It was not, however, written by any of the band members but by Evan Stevens, about whom I am unable to find out anything (Source: When You're in Love with a Beautiful Woman - Wikipedia). Thematically, it's similar to Number 6 in this countdown, When a Man Loves a Woman, and so it's appropriate that they fall so close together in the list. Both songs assert that falling in love with a woman is something of a disaster for a man. The major difference is that Stevens is more specific: beautiful women are the problem. Still, did Percy Sledge experience his agony by falling in love with a plain woman? Certainly not. It is alleged that Sledge wrote the song after his girlfriend left him to pursue a modelling career (Source: Percy Sledge - Wikipedia).

It appears that some men get a little confused about the difference between love and lust. Stevens and Sledge, and perhaps also Eric Clapton (back at Number 8), would have done well to get clearer on the point. It could have saved them some pain.

Indeed, the protagonist of this song is suffering a good deal, even more than the protagonist of When a Man Loves a Woman. Neither of them can trust their women, but this guy can't even trust his friends, as he tells us: "When you're in love with a beautiful woman/You watch your friends." Why? Because:

Everybody wants her, everybody loves her
everybody wants to take your baby home (Source: When You're in Love with a Beautiful Woman @ Gunther W. Anderson's Home Page.)

He can't trust his lover. He can't trust his friends--which means, really, that he has no friends. He can't seem to trust anybody--a very unhappy position to be in.

Number 4: Beth

This ballad, released in 1976, was not a typical KISS offering, yet it became their biggest hit (source: Beth (song) - Wikipedia). Beth is another loving sufferer. Her man spends his time playing rock and roll with his bandmates while she sits at home all alone. The lyrics tell the story from the musician's point of view, as one might expect:

Beth, I hear you calling
But I can't come home right now
Me and the boys are playing
And we just can't find the sound
Just a few more hours
And I'll be right home to you
I think I hear them calling
Oh Beth, what can I do?
(Source: KISS - Beth Lyrics @
The tone of the song is mournful and pitying, but I think the subtext is nevertheless detectable: Beth is a pain in the butt. The musician wants to get on with work on the sound and she won't stop phoning up and whining at him. It's quite clear where her man wants to spend the bulk of his time, and it's not with her. Indeed, by the end of the song, he breaks the promise he made in the first verse: "Beth, I know you're lonely/And I hope you'll be all right/'Cause me and the boys will be playing/All night."

One wonders about the legitimacy of Beth's complaint. We only hear his side of the story, after all. Perhaps he really is gone so often, and puts so little energy into the relationship, that it is fair for her to complain that "our house just ain't a home." On the other hand, perhaps she's too clingy and needy. Doesn't she have any friends and hobbies of her own?

What's certain is that mutual feeling is lacking. The musician simply isn't interested in spending as much time with Beth as she would like him to. Further, he's willing to lie about it. He puts her off saying he'll only be a few more hours, but ends up spending the entire night away. His promises are casually broken, her feelings not important. Surely this relationship is doomed.

Number 3: Cruel to Be Kind

This song was Nick Lowe's biggest hit, peaking at number 12 on UK, US, Canadian and Australian charts in 1979 (Source: Nick Lowe - Wikipedia). I find it frankly kinky in a way reminiscent of 10,000 Maniacs' take on Because the Night (about which more later). I might have left it off the list if I felt it simply portrayed some kind of sadomasochistic roleplaying, which may take place within a functioning relationship. However, the consensuality of the torment is in doubt.

The protagonist declares himself mystified by his love's behaviour. "You say your love is bona fide/But that don't coincide/With the things that you do." Further, "I pick myself up off the ground/To have you knock me back down/Again and again..." But the chorus is where it gets interesting. When he asks her to be nice, or to explain herself, she says:

You gotta be
Cruel to be kind
In the right measure
Cruel to be kind
It's a very good sign
Cruel to be kind
Means that I love you
Baby, you gotta be cruel to be kind
(Source: Cruel to Be Kind lyrics @
It doesn't sound like a good situation that this fellow finds himself in, and yet he almost appears to be enjoying himself. The song is a bouncy, infectious little number. Still, it can't be good for his self-esteem to be knocked down again and again, whether literally or figuratively, and he does profess to confusion and to being at his wit's end. So I'm going to assume this activity is not consensual, and award Cruel to Be Kind the Number 3 slot.

Number 2: Lovefool

At this point, you may be wondering if dysfunctional relationships are a thing of the past. After all, the most recent song I've mentioned so far was recorded in 1982 (Sexual Healing). Don't I wish! If there are more neurotic songs in ancient than in recent history, it's because ancient history is a lot longer than recent history. So fear not; these next two songs are more recent--and they top the list! Maybe we're getting more dysfunctional rather than less, or at least more willing to sing openly about it.

Another interesting thing about these two most recent songs is that they are both sung and written (or co-written) by women. All the previous selections were written by men. Female dysfunction is at last coming to the fore. You go, girl! To a shrink, as quickly as possible.

In this strange, very unfeminist piece of work recorded in 1996 by Swedish band The Cardigans (source: Lovefool - Wikipedia), the protagonist cries, prays and begs her increasingly disinterested boyfriend to: "Love me love me/Say that you love me/Fool me fool me/Go on and fool me/Love me love me/Pretend that you love me/Leave me leave me/Just say that you need me."

Her mother is, quite rightly, concerned: "Mother tells me I shouldn't bother/That I ought to stick to another/Man, a man that surely deserves me, but/I think you do." She appears to be saying that her boyfriend is better and more worthy of respect than she is. After all, he deserves to have her despite the fact that... he doesn't really want her that much. She, on the other hand, does not deserve the opportunity to find someone better (an opportunity she is unlikely to have if she can't let go of this guy).

It's all a bit convoluted, and to find a clearer truth, we need to look beyond what the lyrics are, on the surface, saying. She is afraid to leave him. Most probably, she is terrified to be alone, afraid that she will cease to exist without someone to see her reflection in. So she clings to him no matter what, even to the point of losing her grip on reality. She begs for the opportunity to live in a dream world, where she can pretend she is loved when she really isn't. Even that is better than the alternative.

When you lose your grip on reality, you begin the dangerous slide into insanity, and that appears to be happening here. Although she declares in the chorus "Leave me, leave me/Just say that you need me," she concludes in the second verse, "I don't care if you really care/As long as you don't go." So, leave... but don't leave. No wonder she also declares in the second verse, "Reason will not lead to solution/I will end up lost in confusion" (Source: The Cardigans - Lovefool lyrics - Lyrics on Demand). You already are, honey.

It is interesting to note that her mother, although wanting to help, does not appear to have a better conception of a healthy relationship than her daughter does. Consider that mother says she should, "stick to another man." What does this mean? Usually, "stick to" is a colloquialism meaning to stay with what you currently have. But this woman doesn't have another man. If she did, she'd be comfortable letting go of the one who no longer loves her, knowing that she wouldn't have to experience the terror of being alone, even temporarily. The fact that she clings so desperately to the current disinterested man indicates that there is no one else.

So what does her mother mean? The only possibility left, as far as I can see, is the more literal meaning of the word: find another man and stick to him, cling to him, glue herself to him. Mother does not see the clinging and terrible neediness as a problem, only the choice of target. But then, if mother had been capable of modelling a healthy relationship for her daughter, she wouldn't be in this position. We get our conception of relationships from the earliest relationship we witness: that between our parents. If our parents had a dysfunctional relationship, we are liable to waste years of our lives duplicating the sort of relationship we witnessed. In short, we are screwed, as is this unfortunate creature.

Number 1: Strong Enough

This Sheryl Crow single hit number 5 in the US in 1995. It has since been covered by Cher, among others (maybe because she couldn't resist covering a song by an artist with a name so similar to hers?) and the Dixie Chicks have performed it live. Travis Tritt, whoever that is, recorded an answering song, Strong Enough to Be Your Man. God help him. (Source: Strong Enough (Sheryl Crow song) - Wikipedia.)

This song takes a little time to get into its dysfunctional stride. The first couple of verses seem not so unreasonable: "God, I feel like hell tonight/Tears of rage I cannot fight" and "Nothing's true and nothing's right/so let me be alone tonight." Fair enough--she's having a really bad day. Everybody has those from time to time.

But things deteriorate from there. "I have a face I cannot show/I make the rules up as I go." And worse: "When I've shown you that I just don't care..." Don't care about what? Presumably the man himself. What else could this refer to? And then the chorus: in spite of all this, "Are you strong enough to be my man?"

This is so wrong on so many levels. First and foremost is the implication that a strong man will stay with a woman who treats him like crap. (Maybe "do you have low enough self-esteem to be my man" didn't scan well enough?) Then there's this plea: "Lie to me/I promise I'll believe/Lie to me/But please don't leave." That makes two songs that frame lying as a positive thing, something that allows the relationship to keep limping on instead of getting a decent burial. This is actually a first-rate portrayal of how people behave in dysfunctional relationships: there is little openness or honesty. Instead, anything that allows the status quo to continue is embraced, being it lying to your partner or to yourself.

And as if that isn't enough, she attacks his manhood! Later in the song, the refrain changes to, "Are you man enough to be my man?" She is saying that if he leaves her, despite the fact that she's inconsistent and crazy-making ("I make the rules up as I go") and has shown him that she doesn't care, not only is he weak, he's not a real man. Whoa, talk about manipulative! And certainly, immature people in dysfunctional relationships are manipulative. They basically have to be, because once they've given up on honest, open communication, they have no other way to get their needs met.

On a side note, the site where I looked up the lyrics allows comments, and the first comment claims that this song refers to Sheryl Crow's trials with breast cancer. According to commenter kooki, "she's asking her boyfriend if he is strong enough to understand what she's going trhough" [sic]. I say, bullshit. It's plausible if you look only at the first two verses, but beyond that the theory falls apart. What about "Lie to me/I promise I'll believe"? What about "I've shown you that I just don't care"? How does that fit in with cancer?

It doesn't. Furthermore, while Sheryl Crow was diagnosed with breast cancer fairly recently--in 2006 (see Wildflower section of Sheryl Crow - Wikipedia)--Strong Enough came out in 1994. So, nice theory, and self-serving for any Sheryl Crow fan, but... totally wrong. Sorry.

If this and other comments are any indication, fans do sense that there is something about these lyrics that is not entirely kosher. There are several attempts to explain away or gloss over the troubling aspects of the song. Some of them are quite amusing, and not just for the bad grammar and spelling, so if you've got a little extra time, you might want to read a few. See Sheryl Crow - Strong Enough lyrics @

While the other songs in my list are dysfunctional in just one way, Sheryl Crow serves up a smorgasbord of immaturity and messedupedness in this wonderfully multilayered paean to relationship dysfunctionality. For this, Strong Enough is the hands-down winner.

So that's it for the dysfunctional countdown. Readers, if you see yourself in any of these songs, I hope you will take action. Remember that, whatever Sheryl Crow might say, sometimes the strongest thing you can do... is leave.

Coming Up: Later, I hope to have an Honorable Mention section, and perhaps a list of all those wife-beating songs I ended up leaving out of this list. I would also like to present a list of healthy songs, as contrast. Unfortunately, it will be much shorter. I don't expect to even have ten. So stay tuned for more song discussion.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Dysfunctional Top Ten, Part 1

Do you ever listen to a popular love song, perhaps something that's in heavy rotation on the radio, and think, wow, that is messed up?

OK, maybe you don't, but I do. Popular songs often portray, if not celebrate, remarkably immature, neurotic and generally dysfunctional attitudes toward romantic love and relationships. I have long thought it would be fun to compile a Dysfunctional Top Ten list. Well, I finally got around to it.

In order for a song to make the list, I decided, it must be both dysfunctional and a big hit, something that was, and preferably still is, played over and over again on the radio. That helped narrow the field; there may be lots of incredibly screwed-up, obscure songs out there--in fact, I know there are, having listened to Black Flag--but I didn't have to worry about them. If it wasn't something that most people have heard on the radio, it didn't count.

Even with these criteria, I ran into problems. At one point, it appeared that songs about beating or killing women would dominate the list. There are a lot of such songs, and some of them are extremely popular. Granted that beating your wife or girlfriend is dysfunctional, and killing her even more so, I didn't want such extreme stuff to take attention away from the subtler, more everyday ways that people make their relationships miserable.

What to do? I toyed with the idea of selecting just one song to represent all the musical wife-beating. But that didn't work out. For one thing, how do you choose between Run For Your Life by The Beatles and Only Women Bleed by Alice Cooper? Any such selection could only be arbitrary. For another, where would it go in the list? If I put such a song anywhere other than first place, I would be guilty of minimizing such abuse. But if I made it number one, I would have the same problem as before, with showy wife-beating taking attention away from everyday neurosis.

I decided that wife-beating deserves its very own category. Perhaps later I'll do a separate post devoted to the Battering Top Ten, if I feel like it. I make no promises. Anyway, this is why there are no wife-beating songs in the list. And now, on to the songs.

Number 10: Love Hurts

I'll 'fess up--this song may be dysfunctional, but I love it. What a great ballad. Still, it clearly was not inspired by a happy, healthy relationship.

I've always thought of this as a Nazareth song, so I got a surprise when I looked it up on Wikipedia and discovered that it was first recorded by The Everly Brothers in 1960. That's 15 years before Nazareth did their version. Apparently I'm not the only one who loves it--Wikipedia's list of covers of Love Hurts is so extensive they had to use a table to hold it, a table that extends over four screens. (See Love Hurts - Wikipedia.)

Most people have been through bad relationships at some point in their lives, and can identify with the lyrics: "Love is like a cloud/It holds a lot of rain" and "Love is like a flame/It burns you when it's hot." Sure, sometimes it's like that. However, in the bridge, the protagonist denies that it can ever be otherwise. "Some fools rave on happiness/Blissfulness, togetherness/Some folks fool themselves I guess/But they're not fooling me," he says, and then concludes, "Love is just a lie/Made to make you blue." (Source: Love Hurts lyrics @

To claim that love hurts in certain situations, with certain partners, is fair and accurate. To claim that love can never make you happy, that it is in fact a lie, earns you a place in the Pantheon of Dysfunction.

Number 9: Why Do Fools Fall In Love?

This song was first recorded way back in 1956 by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, but has been covered by multiple artists since then, including Diana Ross, who covered it in 1981. (Source: Why Do Fools Fall in Love (song) - Wikipedia)

The song asks, essentially, since we can take it as understood that love can only be a bad thing, why are people stupid enough to get into it? This question, why do fools fall in love, is juxtaposed with questions about things that can be taken for granted: Why do birds sing so gay? Why does the rain fall from up above? The implication is that the foolishness of falling in love is as much an incontrovertible fact of life as the birds singing and the rain falling. (See Why Do Fools Fall in Love lyrics @

It's this attitude that earns this song the Number 9 spot. Why Do Fools Fall In Love? and Love Hurts have a similar message, but at least in Love Hurts, the protagonist makes a case for his conclusions. The second verse of Love Hurts begins, "I'm young, I know/But even so/I know a thing or two/I learned from you." His condemnation of love is based on his own experience. That makes Love Hurts a notch less dysfunctional than Why Do Fools Fall in Love?, a song that not only doesn't make a case but never considers the possibility that anyone might see things otherwise.

Number 8: Wonderful Tonight

Ooh, I'm going to get in trouble now. So many people love this song and think it's sooo romantic. And it's Eric Clapton. How dare I criticize the guitar god? Well, I don't care. This song is a train wreck.

The first verse is largely about the woman's appearance and her attention to it: "She's wondering what clothes to wear/She puts on her makeup/Brushes her long blond hair." After all that, she asks him, "Do I look all right?" like an insecure child seeking validation for her existence. Yes, he assures her, "You look wonderful tonight." And that's what it's all about, as the second verse reveals: "We go to a party/Everyone turns to see/This beautiful lady/Walking around with me." He's already focused laserlike on her looks in the first verse, and now he returns to her looks in the second verse and states it flat out: she's beautiful. Can there be any question of this man's priorities? He's with this woman because she's beautiful. No doubt he loves looking at her--he appears to be watching her intently in verse one as she fixes herself up--but he also loves knowing that other people are looking, seeing him with his delicious little trophy wife draped over his arm. There's no indication that anything else matters.

I think it's interesting that we know only one specific thing about her appearance: she's got long blond hair. That's important. Blond hair is highly valued in our society, especially on women's heads. If she had brown hair, she wouldn't have the same cachet. I wouldn't be surprised if he dumped a brunette to go out with her.

The bridge goes, "I feel wonderful/Because I see the love light in your eyes," (pardon me while I puke,) "And the wonder of it all/Is that you just don't realize/How much I love you." (Source: Wonderful Tonight lyrics @ Well of course she doesn't. For one thing, she's terribly insecure, as her question in verse one made clear. For another, he doesn't love her, he loves her looks, and she probably senses that.

Songs that come right out and knock love are, to my mind, less dysfunctional than songs that describe or celebrate troubled relationships with no apparent awareness of how dysfunctional they are. For its chilling portrayal of a shallow, status-seeking man and his beautiful but desperately insecure wife, this song earns the eighth spot.

Number 7: Sexual Healing

I didn't plan for Wonderful Tonight and Sexual Healing to come out next to each other, but I'm happy they did, because they both make me twitch with revulsion. Sexual Healing is a song about a guy who won't let his lover get a good night's sleep because he "needs" to get laid.

But let him speak for himself: "Get up, Get up, Get up, Get up, let's make love tonight/Wake up, Wake up, Wake up, Wake up, 'cause you do it right." These lyrics make me want to yell, "Leave her alone, dammit! She's sleeping!" Has it ever crossed his mind that maybe his lover doesn't want to be roused in the middle of the night for sex, that maybe she'd rather sleep?

Apparently not. It's all about him. "Baby, I'm hot just like an oven/I need some lovin'." He's got a keen awareness of his own needs, as the lyrics make clear. He goes on to add that when he's not feeling well--say that "blue tears are falling," or his "emotional stability is leaving" him--he knows he can get relief from her and her services. "If you don't know the thing you're dealing/Oh, I can tell you darling that's it's sexual healing."

I'm sure I read somewhere, although I'm not sure where, that the mark of a sexual addict is that instead of learning to deal with his problems, he escapes them by seeking sex. He doesn't care particularly who it's with (although if he's got a steady lover, that's obviously convenient), he doesn't care about connecting emotionally with his sexual object, he cares about getting his fix and making his feelings go away. Gaye describes this grasping, selfish stance so well: "You're my medicine/Open up and let me in" (Ugh!)

I knew most of this song's lyrics, certainly enough to disgust me, but reading them in their entirety has been illuminating. Apparently I missed a bit of ad lib about masturbation. The sites are divided on whether he says, "Please don't procrastinate/'Cause I may have to masturbate" (Sexual Healing lyrics @ or "Please don't procrastinate/It's not good to masturbate" (Sexual Healing lyrics @ If it's the latter, Sexual Healing should be higher up in the Top Ten list. (What's wrong with masturbation? Any man who wakes his woman up from a sound sleep demanding sex needs to become better acquainted with it.) If it's the former, it fits in well with the overall selfishness displayed throughout the song.

But enough. If I read any more of Gaye's lyrics, I'll have to go take a shower. Let's move on.

Number 6: When a Man Loves a Woman

I guess this is a classic. One comes across it often. When I looked it up on Wikipedia, I was surprised to find out how old it is. It was first recorded in 1966 by Percy Sledge. (See When a Man Loves a Woman (song) - Wikipedia). It has been covered by several artists, including Montreal-based singer Luba. What was she thinking? I wondered at the time.

I hate this song. What a negative portrayal, not only of love but of women. "When a man loves a woman... she can bring him such misery," he tells us. According to this song, nothing could be a bigger disaster for a man than to fall in love with a woman. He won't be able to keep his mind on anything, he'll spend his last dime, sleep out in the rain... sounds like a good argument for turning gay, doesn't it?

After all, Sledge assures us, all that abuse and badness is only going one way. "When a man loves a woman, he can do no wrong... he can never own some other girl." (Source: When a Man Loves a Woman lyrics @ Own? I assume he means sleep with. A man in love, he appears to be claiming, is incapable of cheating. This should come as quite a surprise to the many cheated-on wives who have had to listen to that old chestnut, "It didn't mean anything."

Personally, I find the song misogynist, if subtly so. Unlike Led Zeppelin, Sledge didn't go in for starkly condemnatory statements like, "The soul of a woman was created below" (from Dazed and Confused). But the message is clear that falling in love means that the man--that saintly man who is incapable of doing wrong--is going to be used, abused and cheated on. Not a glowing endorsement of women as a gender. Also interesting is the use of the word "own" in relation to women (or "girls") and its suggestion that sex puts a woman in a one-down position.

Still, it's got a good tune, one that a powerful singer can have some fun with, as Luba did. This probably accounts in large part for its staying power.

Oh my goodness, I'm only halfway through and I've topped 2000 words. That's enough for now. Look for the other half of my dysfunctional countdown in a few days.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Can You Believe It? Chemicals in Canned Foods

As fear is de rigeur these days--fear of terrorism, fear of disease, etc.--and swine flu is the illness du jour, James decided that we should stock up on a lot of canned food and bottled water in order to be prepared for any upcoming pandemics that may bring civilization to a crashing halt.

I don't buy a lot of canned food, and this shopping trip reminded me why. Many canned foods that are not desserts have sugar in them, in flagrant disregard of common sense and the obesity epidemic. It is also disheartening to see that high-fructose corn syrup has crept north across the border and is insinuating itself into more and more prepared foods, though studies show it destabilizes your blood sugar levels and encourages weight gain even more than plain table sugar does.

But it was the raft of mysterious chemicals in the cans that really made an impression on me. Actually, the worst offender didn't come in a can but in a jar. We happened to wander into the multicultural section of the supermarket. I saw they had gefilte fish, which made me come over all nostalgic. Gefilte fish was no big deal when I lived in Montreal, but here, Jewish things, edible or otherwise, are harder to come by. So I got a jar of Manischewitz Gefilte Fish. I picked that brand because it was the only one without sugar, but it turned out to be an unfortunate choice. There are worse things than refined sugar. I know that now.

It should have been good. How can you go wrong with carp, mullet, whitefish and pike? All tasty fish, or at least hairdos of the 70's. But it had an unpleasant, metallic taste, like a thallium patty. What could have imparted such a disgusting flavour? It wasn't the fish. It couldn't have been the onion or the egg whites. It probably wasn't the monosodium glutamate; sometimes I get a reaction to MSG, but I've never noticed that it had a taste. But it could have been the sodium hexametaphosphate. Or perhaps the sodium tripolyphosphate.

If my hair falls out, I'll let you know.

Manischewitz wasn't the only offender. Most of the canned foods we bought had some kind of laboratory oddity in them. I thought it would be interesting to round up all the chemicals in all the canned and bottled foods we bought and find out more about them. So here they are, in alphabetical order.

Chemicals in Cans

Autolyzed Yeast Extract
In No Name Chicken Stew. A flavour enhancer similar to MSG, which is also in No Name Chicken Stew. Why do they need the same thing twice? They must not have a lot of confidence in their stew. According to Wise Geek, autolyzed yeast is created by adding salt to yeast, which causes the yeast to digest itself[1]. Some sort of undisclosed further processing creates the final product. Autolyzed yeast extract is chemically similar to MSG and may therefore produce similar symptoms.
Calcium Chloride
In canned tomatoes, all brands I've checked. Used to keep canned vegetables firm. Disconcertingly, it's the same stuff they put on the road to melt ice in winter. Can be an irritant, though presumably in larger quantities than one finds in canned food. Considered safe.[2]
Citric Acid
In Aylmer's Canned Tomatoes. Naturally occurring in fruits and vegetables, especially citrus fruits. Added to foods as a flavouring and preservative[3]. My can of tomatoes explains that citric acid is an acidulant. Acidulants, also called acidity regulators, change or maintain the PH balance of foods[4]. This is a bit confusing. Tomatoes are acidic on their own. Why do they need an acid added to them? Could they lose acidity otherwise? Anyway, no safety concerns there.
Disodium EDTA
In Unico Bean Medley. EDTA is short for ethylene diamine tetraacetic acid. Now there's a mouthful. One study shows that sufficient quantities of the stuff cause negative effects in rats. All rats dosed with the rat equivalent of 500 mg died within nine days[5]. And 500 mg is not all that much. Vitamin C comes in 500 mg pills. The study concludes that "because of its effect on calcium, the use of disodium EDTA as a food additive is not recommended" [6]. Oh dear. Perhaps the bean medleys will have to go back to the store. The study adds that calcium disodium EDTA is safer than plain old disodium EDTA. That's good, because I just noticed it's in my mayonnaise.

The Health Canada Food Additive Dictionary explains that disodium EDTA is a sequestering agent[7]. Sequestering agents "combine with metallic elements in food, thereby preventing their taking part in reactions leading to colour or flavour deterioration"[8]. So though it does bad things to blood calcium levels, at least if you're a rat, disodium EDTA is permitted in our food so that our canned beans will stay pretty. Uh, yeah. That's worth it. Not.

Granted, this is quite an old study. But I can't find anything more up to date. There's surprisingly little information out there about disodium EDTA as a food additive.
Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)
In No Name Chicken Stew, all Campbell's Soups, and Manischewitz Gefilte Fish. A sodium salt of glutamic acid. Glutamic acid occurs naturally in seaweed and was traditionally used in Asian cooking. MSG is added to foods as a flavour enhancer[9]. Although it is considered safe, in sufficient quantities it can cause a reaction known as MSG symptom complex or--more colourfully--Chinese restaurant syndrome[10]. I have experienced that myself. I get a weird, itchy feeling in my throat. Other people get headaches. Asthmatics may experience temporary worsening of their asthmatic symptoms[11]. I have only had problems in Chinese restaurants; presumably the amount found in some restaurant dishes is larger than in canned food. I suspect that the original seaweed extract caused fewer problems than the MSG cooked up in labs, but progress marches on.
Sodium Hexametaphosphate
In Manischewitz Gefilte Fish. This is another sequestering agent (see Disodium EDTA). Its Wikipedia entry claims it can cause chest pain, and in sufficient amounts, pancreatic cancer, but the citations are missing[12]. According to Cosmetic Database, there are a number of concerns regarding this chemical: it is persistent and "bioaccumulative," which means that it builds up in your body tissues[13]. As well, studies in animals show that it affects the brain and nervous system in high doses [14].
Sodium Tripolyphosphate
In Manischewitz Gefilte Fish. Used as a preservative in meats and fish. It is also added to soaps and detergents to improve their cleansing ability![15] Polyphosphates are irritating to the skin and may induce metabolic acidosis[16]. Which, by the way, can be fatal.
In No Name Chicken Stew. The specific type of sulfite was not mentioned; the ingredient listing simply said "sulfites (in potatoes)." Sulfites are used as a preservative. In some cases, they just make the food look prettier. If you've ever seen dried apricots in a health food store, you've probably noticed that they are dark brown, in contrast to supermarket apricots, which remain bright orange. That's because the health-food apricots have no sulfites in them. They still taste good though.

Sulfites occur naturally in wine and some foods. Yet they are a health concern. They can cause headaches, skin irritation and breathing difficulty[17]. Asthmatics are at greater risk of having a reaction to sulfites, a reaction that can sometimes be fatal[18].

Bon app├ętit!

Notable Exceptions

Having gone on at length about the additives in canned food, some benign and some scary, I feel it's only to fair to mention that some of the canned food we bought had no chemicals in it at all. If you prefer your food unadulterated, here are some products to watch for.

  1. I have to hand it to Blue Menu. They really do make healthy products without unnecessary additives. Their soups are free of MSG and their canned beans contain nothing but beans, water and salt, in constrast to Unico's beans with their rat-sickening disodium EDTA. Furthermore, Blue Menu's canned corn kernels contain no added sugar. Yet they still taste sweet, probably because they come from good quality corn.
  2. A can of Del Monte's Pineapple Chunks contains nothing but pineapple chunks and pineapple juice.
  3. President's Choice Just Apples "Appletreet" consists of little individual plastic cups of applesauce. It's not canned food per se, but it is similar to canned food, being sealed in airtight containers, and does indeed contain just apples. Too bad about the silly name though.
  4. NATUR Peanut Butter comes in a glass jar and consists of nothing but ground peanuts. Unlike most peanut butters, NATUR contains no hydrogenated oil.


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^ Ibid.
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^ Ibid.
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^ Ibid.
  15. ^
  16. ^
  17. ^
  18. ^ Ibid.