You’ve been in aisle 5 at your local grocer for 20 minutes debating what loaf of bread to buy. One contains “no artificial flavoring”, another boasts “no sugar”, and a third claims to be “all natural”. You look to the ingredients list so you can further weigh out your options and are faced with multiple “supercalifradgilisticexpialidocious” looking words (aka food additives). Left defeated and now 20 minutes behind schedule, you do a blind grab and end up with the “all natural” loaf – but are all the items on that lengthy ingredient list really “all natural”?
Food additives range from vitamins to synthetic compounds and are put into foods to either enhance nutritional value, taste, preserve color, protect against bacteria formation, prevent emulsification, or add pretty coloring to make the food more aesthetically pleasing. Many additives have been properly tested and considered perfectly safe for use, while others have been banned or recalled – making it ever important to be aware of the different ingredients added to food.
A health-conscious shopper must look past the claims on labels and make informed purchases. This means thoroughly examining nutrition labels and being aware of the ingredients that you might not want in your body. Admittedly not the most educated on additives, I threw myself into the field (Busch’s Market) to see what’s in our food. I got my hands on ingredient information from 5 processed items that you will commonly find on shelves at the grocery store: Brownberry 12 Grain Bread, V8 Fusion Strawberry Banana Juice, Fiber One Oats & Caramel Bars, Tostitos Salsa Con Queso, and Multigrain Cheerios. After the investigation phase, I went to some of the websites that are often visited by the public to see what information on additives is readily available. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) websites served as sources for initial information. Here’s what is out there on some of the additives (and possibly badditives) found on these products’ ingredient lists:
CSPI & FDA GIVE INFO FOR THESE ADDIVITES:
Ascorbic acid/Sodium ascorbate (Vitamin C): Antioxidant, nutrient, and color stabilizer used in cereals, fruit drinks, and cured meats. Preserves red color of cured meat, prevents loss of color in other foods, and pumps up vitamin content.
Glycerin/Glycerol: Maintains water content in candy, fudge, and baked goods. It is considered a carbohydrate and can be used by the body for energy.
Diacetyl tartaric acid ester of monoglycerides (DATEM): Emulsifier (keeps water and oil mixed together) in bread and biscuits. Builds a strong gluten network to improve bread volume and keep dough from getting sticky or collapsing.
(Soy) Lecithin: Emulsifier and antioxidant used in baked goods, margarine, chocolate, and ice cream. Source of the nutrient choline which occurs naturally in egg yolk and soybeans.
Maltodextrin: Texturizer in processed foods. Made from starch and consists of glucose molecules, which are easily digested and absorbed by the body.
Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA): Antioxidant used in cereals, chewing gum, potato chips, and vegetable oil.
Natural and Artificial Flavoring: Used in soda pop, candy, breakfast cereals, and gelatin desserts usually when the real food that provides that flavor is absent. Some flavoring may occur in nature, while others are synthetic.
Yellow 5: Artificial coloring used in gelatin dessert, candy, pet food, and baked goods. Many studies have shown Yellow 5 to be completely safe, while some have linked it to hyperactivity in children.
Yellow 6: Artificial coloring used in beverages, candy, and baked goods. Yellow 6 has been shown to contain small amounts of carcinogens, but most studies have shown that it is safe in the doses that we consume and the FDA has inspected and approved the use of this coloring.
Caramel Coloring: Artificial coloring used in colas, baked goods, pre-cooked meats, soy and worcestershire sauces, chocolate-flavored products, and beer.
*All additives listed above have been tested and considered safe for use in foods at certain doses by the FDA.
These additives are really only a chip off the old block. You will have to put in a little work yourself to be a smart shopper. Start by becoming familiar with the additives whose safety is debatable by using resources like the FDA and CSPI website, as well as CSPI’s Chemical Cuisine Mobile App (get info on an unknown additive while you’re on-the-go). Have the website or app on hand and go through all of your already purchased processed foods at home, to see which ones might contain debatable “badditives”. Make a list of the products that you may be unsure about and look for healthier substitutes during your next shopping trip.
While the safety of food additives is very controversial (and most studies showing them to be harmful can not be proven significiant) you may have made the connection that many of them are used in foods that don’t exactly scream nutrition (pop, candy, baked goods, etc.), which leads me to my second piece of advice: While you’re going through your pantry raid, take note of processed foods that could be swapped for the real thing. Additives aside – most processed foods rank low on the nutrition scale and fresh, whole foods are almost always your better option. Do you have cereal for breakfast? What about having rolled oats with fresh fruit instead? These switches will make your shopping trips easier and your body healthier.
Lastly, CSPI recommends taking their information on additives with a grain of salt (and I agree). There is usually not a definite answer when establishing additives as safe or unsafe. Some may get a bad rap due to conclusions of a poorly designed study, while others might be considered safe because they haven’t been around long enough to exhibit their long-term effects in humans. The bottom line is that it is important to be aware of the information that is out there. You should do the research and educate yourself, so you can make confident and healthy choices that you feel comfortable with.
[Updated on 2/24/13 @ 7:29 pm]