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Additives in Foods

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Message Marcela Popa

Food Additives in Processed Foods Can Be Harmful
Food Additives in Processed Foods Can Be Harmful
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Once I started to be aware that many food products have components that may not be as healthy as we're lead to believe, I began studying the ingredient lists. As you can imagine, there are a lot of them typed in small print, hard to pronounce and even harder to understand what they do.

They serve different purposes, usually related to extending the shelf life and making the foods more presentable. Unfortunately, most of these are not useful for the consumers, who often are not aware what's in their food. Surely, the arguments usually are that the amounts added are so small, they're insignificant. Are they? Thinking about the fact that many are added to a large variety of products we eat or drink, I think the amounts are adding up to be significant.

What are some categories?

  • hydrogenated fats
  • artificial colors
  • sweeteners
  • artificial flavoring
  • emulsifiers
  • preservatives

There is a lot of information about what each of these may do to our health and I'll try to present the main points for each category.

Trans-fats, or hydrogenated fats, are chemically modified synthetic fats added to foods to prevent them from becoming rancid for a long time (years). Our body cannot break them down. Trans-fats are associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and possibly cancers. Mono- or diglycerides also contain small amount of trans-fats but are classified as emulsifiers.

Artificial colors are technically called FD&C or D&C synthetic colors, named this way after the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act that permits their use. They appear on the ingredients list of some foods and snacks as Red 40, or Yellow 5 and so on, or in medications (FD&C Yellow 6, aluminum lake, blue 1). These dyes can cause allergies and their widespread use complicates the diagnostic and treatment. Identifying the actually trigger of an allergic reaction becomes difficult, because it's not only a certain product, it's an ingredient present in many. Therefore, eliminating all the products containing the allergen is a very tedious task.

Sweeteners are added in many forms, some easier to spot, such as high fructose corn syrup, molasses, honey, maple syrup, or malt. Others, with more scientific names, such as sucrose, dextrose, mannitol, xylitol, or isomalt (the last three are generically referred to as sugar alcohols), are a bit more difficult to figure out.

Artificial flavoring is done through a mix of chemicals that often give foods an unnatural flavor or taste. Candies, cookies, cakes, numerous baking products can contain them.

Emulsifiers are substances that allow a better way for the fatty and watery ingredients to mix and are meant to give foods a more appealing look. They are often used ice-creams, creamy mixture for fat free cottage cheese, creamy salad dressings, whipped cream, among other foods.

Some of the names for these chemical emulsifiers are polysorbates followed by a number (20, 40, 65, 80), ethoxylated mono- or diglycerides.

Sometimes these ingredients are camouflaged under defoamers and used in wine and beer production as well as in breads and other bakery items. Gluten-free products usually contain higher quantities of them along with another emulsifier called croscarmellose. Frozen, low-calorie meals are often loaded with these emulsifiers that interfere with our gut friendly flora. Sooner or later this interference ironically impairs weight loss, despite the lower number of calories.

Other emulsifiers are plant derived, such as carrageenan, xanthan gum-these seem to have their own set of unhealthy effects, while lecithin (ideally sunflower derived), guar gum, or locust bean gum are better choices.

Preservatives are other chemicals like sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate, nitrates, sulfates and sulfites, sulfur dioxide, BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene), BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole), parabens, and many more, used usually on processed foods. Sulfur dioxide, however, is used on fresh grapes and dried fruits as well, as it's heavily used by wine makers.

Yes, it is true that all these synthetic chemicals are considered GRAS by the regulating authorities, but there are so many of them! And our constant exposure to all of them day-in and day-out cannot be without consequences. I noticed this not only on myself, but on other people I closely know and couldn't explain certain health concerns (allergies, weight gain, headaches, digestive issues, hair or skin problems-just to name a few).

It doesn't surprise me anymore, because these additives were not meant to be present in our body or environment. Many of them, not just the emulsifiers, can interfere with the friendly flora in our gut and recently, more and more research articles point to health conditions (not just digestive problems), being possibly associated with this disturbance.

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BIO Marcela Magda Popa, M.D., author of the Amazon bestseller Keep Away from GRAS, and founder of Healthy Strategies Consulting, is a Board Certified Internal Medicine physician who graduated from Carol Davilla Medical School in Bucharest, (more...)

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