When it comes to my diet, I’m very picky about what I put in my body. From produce on the Dirty Dozen list to where my food comes from, I like to know my food facts. A friend of mine recently brought to my attention that “olives are bad for you” because commercially produced olives are soaked in Lye to help them cure quickly.
What is lye? It’s sodium hydroxide which is commonly found in many industrial solvents and cleaners, including flooring stripping products, brick cleaners, cements, and many others.
It may also be found in certain household products, including:
- Aquarium products
- Clinitest tablets
- Drain cleaners
- Hair straighteners
- Metal polishes
- Oven cleaners
According to MedlinePlus (a service of the US National Library of Medicine) ingesting lye can result in the following health defects:
Damange to the esophagus, intestines, and stomach
- Blood in the stool
- Burns of the esophagus (food pipe) and stomach
- Severe abdominal pain
- Vomiting, possibly bloody
Damage to heart and blood
- Low blood pressure (develops rapidly)
- Severe change in pH (too much or too little acid in the blood)
It may not be all that bad.
Honest-food.net mentions raw, pure lye will burn the hell out of you, but it is not a systemic poison. That means that even if you eat an olive that still has a lot of lye in it — as they did — all you will taste is a nasty soapy flavour. If you eat a bunch of them, the alkaline PH in the olives will counteract your stomach acid and it might give you indigestion. That’s all, and that’s a worst-case scenario. That said, you need to be damn careful at that one moment you are moving raw, pure lye from the container to the crock you are curing into.
After doing some research on Wikipedia, I found out that lye or sodium hydroxide is all around us. It’s commonly used in washing or chemical peeling of fruits and vegetables, chocolate and cocoa processing, caramel coloring production, poultry scalding, soft drink processing, and thickening ice cream. Olives are often soaked in sodium hydroxide for softening; Pretzels and German lye rolls are glazed with a sodium hydroxide solution before baking to make them crisp. Owing to the difficulty in obtaining food grade sodium hydroxide in small quantities for home use, sodium carbonate is often used in place of sodium hydroxide.
So what’s the big deal? Well, I don’t really know. I haven’t found any scientific papers on the long term effects of eating lye processed foods. Although I would love to find one on the subject.
Olives are a great source of monounsaturated fats, potassium, iron, copper, fibre and vitamin E. So I have made it a personal choice to continue to eat them, however, I will be switching over to olives that have been softened by water or brine. The reason I am choosing to do this is because I’m risk adverse and I only have one body. The chances lye/sodium hydroxide in my food could harm me may be 0% however left unstudied there may actually be a risk, until the facts are out there, I will avoid putting trace amounts of poison in my body.