When we eat whole, real foods, such as a banana, a sweet potato, or beans, we know exactly what we’re putting into our bodies. But, when we consume items that have a large ingredient label, it’s hard to know if all those additives are safe to eat or if they might pose a risk to our health.
I know some people probably don’t care to look at food labels or ingredient lists while at the grocery store. Maybe they don’t have time or they trust that all the ingredients are safe. But being health conscientious, I read over the ingredient list before making a purchase. It may drive my husband and kids nuts, but I like to know what I’m eating!
Years ago it was much easier to decide on what foods to buy, as there weren’t as many processed foods available. Today, food “products” are so widely available and chemical additives have become a large part of one’s diet. According to Science Daily, “highly processed food makes up 60% of the calories in food we buy.”
Of course, there are hundreds of chemical additives that are used, so I am only going to go over some of the more common ones. Let me add that most additives are considered safe but there are some that can be of risk and are best to avoid.
APPEARS TO BE SAFE
- Citric acid: Flavoring and adds tanginess. It is versatile, cheap and widely used.
- Erythritol: Low calorie, sugar free sweetener. The only safety concern is that eating too much may cause nausea.
- Maltodextrin: Improves texture. Made from starch usually from corn, potato, or rice.
- Mono and diglycerides: Emulsifier (prevents ingredients from separating). Although safe, most of the foods they are used in are high in refined flour, sugar, or fat.
- Polyglycerol polyricinoleate: Emulsifier used in chocolate candy and margarine.
- Stearic Acid: Antioxidant, chewing gum base, flavoring, and anti-caking agent. This is a fatty acid that is in virtually all fats.
CUT BACK: Not toxic but large amounts may be unsafe or promote bad nutrition
- High Fructose Corn Syrup: Sweetener. It’s cheaper and easier to use than sugar. Large amounts promote tooth decay and also increases triglyceride (fat) levels in the blood.
- Invert Sugar: Sweetener that is a mixture of half fructose and half dextrose. This supplies “empty” calories and leads to tooth decay.
- Polydextrose: Bulking agent. Poorly digested. Eaten in excess may have a laxative effect in sensitive people.
- Sorbitol: Sweetener, thickening agent, helps maintain moisture. It occurs naturally in fruits and berries. It is absorbed slowly and doesn’t cause a rapid increase in blood sugar. Large amounts may have a strong laxative effect.
- Xylitol: Sweetener. It’s the sweetest of the sugar alcohols. It doesn’t promote tooth decay, but large amounts can have a laxative effect. While xylitol is safe for humans, even small amounts can be fatal to dogs!
CAUTION: May pose a risk and needs to be better tested. Try to avoid
- Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT): Antioxidant. Delays the rancidity in oils. Small amounts occur in human fat. BHT isn’t really needed and can be easily replaced with safe substitutes.
- Carrageenan: Thickener, stabilizer, and fat replacer. It comes from certain seaweeds and is indigestible. Could cause gastrointestinal issues in some people.
- Polysorbate 60, 65, and 80: Emulsifier. It keeps baked goods from going stale and prevents oil from separating out of artificial whipped cream. It’s possible that it may disrupt the gut. To determine long term effects, more research needs to be done.
- Transglutaminase (“meat glue”): Enzyme to bind proteins. This is never found on ingredient labels as it’s mainly used by restaurant chefs. It’s a natural enzyme, but it’s used to trick consumers. It is used by chef’s to “glue” together scraps of meat to sell as a steak, bind bacon to meat, and improve cheese texture.
CERTAIN PEOPLE SHOULD AVOID: May trigger an acute, allergic reaction, intolerance or other problems
- Artificial and Natural Flavoring: Hundreds of chemical are used to imitate natural flavors and are pretty much solely used in junk foods. It is not required for companies to list the identity of these flavorings on food labels, which is not good for people with certain sensitivities to flavorings such as MSG or HVP.
- Guar Gum: Thickening agent and stabilizer. Gums are made from natural sources and are most likely safe, but are insufficiently tested. Also, they are not absorbed by the body. Gums are often used in ice creams, salad dressings, and baked goods.
- Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein (HVP): Flavor enhancer that consists of vegetable protein, usually soybean. It contains MSG and can cause harmful reactions in sensitive people.
- Monosodium Glutamate (MSG): Flavor enhancer. Companies that use MSG are able to lessen the amount of real ingredients in their food. Studies show that some people are sensitive to MSG and can have symptoms such as headache, nausea, weakness, changes in heart rate, and difficulty breathing.
- Sulfites: Preservative that prevents discoloration (dried fruit) and bacterial growth (wine). Sulfites impair vitamin B-1 and can cause serious reactions to sensitive people and people with asthma.
AVOID: Unsafe in amounts consumed or is very poorly tested and not worth any risk
- Artificial Colorings (blue 1 & 2, red 3 & 40, yellow 5 & 6): Synthetic food dyes are pretty much only used in junk foods (no nutritional value) so it’s best to avoid all dyed foods. Synthetic dyes have been know to cause hyperactivity in sensitive kids. Red 3 was actually recommended by the FDA to be banned but was overruled. Red 40 is the most used dye and is tested the most. It can cause allergy- like reactions. Yellow 5 is the second most commonly used and can cause allergy like reactions mostly in people who have a sensitivity to aspirin. Yellow 6 can also cause hypersensitivity reactions.
- Aspartame: Artificial sweetener (Equal, NutraSweet). There has been several studies on aspartame. It has been know to cause headaches and dizziness in some people. The ultimate conclusion is that three studies have shown aspartame causes cancer in rats, and one study found that it can increase cancer risk in men (due to higher levels of a certain enzyme). It’s also recommended that pregnant women and children avoid this sweetener.
- Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA): Antioxidant that delays the rancidity in oils and fats. The US Dept. of Health and Human Services consider BHA to be “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen“, but the FDA still allows BHA to be used.
- Mycoprotein: Meat substitute in Quorn brand foods. This is made from processed mold and can cause serious, even fatal allergic reactions. The product’s label states that it is made from a mushroom protein, but this isn’t the case. It is made from a mold that is grown in a liquid solution. Apparently, many people have visited the ER to be treated for reactions from Quorn products.
- Olestra: Fat substitute that isn’t absorbed and has no calories used in snack chips. It has been known to cause diarrhea, cramping, and loose stools.
- Trans Fat (Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil): Fat, oil, shortening. Trans fats promote heart disease. In 2006, nutrition facts labels had to start listing the amount of trans fat per serving in the product. Foods labeled with zero grams of trans fats are allowed to have .5 grams of trans fat per serving. So, consumers must read the ingredient label and if partially hydrogenated oil is listed, then the food does in deed contain trans fat. In 2015, the FDA gave the food industry three years to remove trans fats from its products after concluding that it’s not safe.
This is a short list of chemical additives that can be our food. To see a complete list you can go to the Center for Science in the Public Interest website. It’s really eye opening! I think its fair to say that just because an additive is used in a food product, it doesn’t mean that it is totally safe to consume. We need to be diligent about checking food labels so we know exactly what we are eating and determine for ourselves if it is safe to eat.
Do you check ingredient lists?
Did any of these additives surprise you?
*Reference: Center for Science in the Public Interest website*