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Food Additives

What You Don't See Can Hurt You

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The use of food additives can probably be traced back to early civilization when it was discovered that adding salt to meat slowed spoilag.

The use of food additives can probably be traced back to early civilization when it was discovered that adding salt to meat slowed spoilage. By the 1950s food manufacturers were adding hundreds of emulsifiers, thickeners, stabilizers, dyes, conditioners, flavorings and preservatives to their products using one or more of the following six rationalizations:

1. To improve shelf-life or storage time

This was the original reason for using additives, in response to urbanization and the increasingly industrialized and decentralized approach to the manufacture and distribution of food. With communities sacrificing self-sufficiency in favor of the unlimited selection available in the world market, food simply had to be kept from spoiling in transit and in storage. This ensures maximum profit for the manufacturers and perhaps convenience for the consumer, but certainly offers no real health or lifestyle benefits to anybody.

2. To make food more available

It worked. Once upon a time you would have to go to market or even to the farm to get the day’s food stuffs. Now you can buy a huge selection of "food" from any mega-store, gas station, fast food restaurant or even vending machine.

3. To increase the nutritional value

This begs the question, "How do you improve on the real thing?" The answer of course is that you do not. So-called "enriched" foods are generally heavily processed and stripped of their original nutritional value, then supplemented with a few synthetic vitamins and minerals in a misguided attempt to reclaim some real health value. Why do we do this? It typically comes back to shelf-life. Whole, unadulterated foods spoil more quickly than processed foods which are essentially sterile and lifeless.

4. To improve the flavor of foods

Salt and sugar are the two most common flavorings but a host of other natural and artificial flavorings are employed by food manufacturers in an attempt to create an identity for their products. As we move further away from unprocessed and whole foods, there is a highly calculated and much researched attempt on the part of food manufacturers and marketers to come up with tantalizing new flavors to capture greater market shares.

5. To make food easier to prepare

With the increased polarization of our lives into work time and recreation time, the act of preparing and eating meals has taken a back seat to our desire for the convenience at seemingly any cost. While canned, instant, frozen and processed foods such as TV dinners, hot dogs, cake mixes, cookies and breakfast cereals may initially seem like great time and energy savers, there is a high price to pay for this convenience. Processed and adulterated foods are, in fact, much more costly than whole foods when you take into account their low nutritional value and high health risks as compared to a diet built upon whole, unadulterated foods.

6. To improve consumer acceptance

Some of the food industry’s most potentially toxic substances are added to alter a food’s color, consistency or appearance. We maintain naive and nostalgic ideas of how our food should look based on images and ideals that we perhaps perceive as being from the "good old days" but that may be simply engrained in our psyches through clever marketing. Oranges are picked green and dyed orange because that’s obviously the image that we associate with quality. Bread is full of stabilizers, conditioners and caramel color to represent "freshness" and "wholesomeness." Soft drinks and fruit-flavored beverages are major culprits, being comprised almost entirely of artificial colors, flavors and even textures, with typically little or no real food ingredients.

In the US it was not until 1958 that food and chemical companies were required to even test food additives for safety. Previously the onus was on the concerned individual or group to prove the danger of suspect additives. Subsequent to the 1958 food additive testing laws came the GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) list. This was a list of additives that had been widely used previous to 1958 and were granted exemption from the testing that would be required of newly developed food additives. Unfortunately, additives with GRAS status are used liberally, even indiscriminately, although many have been recalled over the years and others still raise questions of health and safety from concerned doctors, scientists and health advocates.

Chipping Away at Ingredients

Is there really a difference between health food store products and the supermarket products? The ingredient labels tell the story.

A typical tortilla chip available at your local health food store:

  • Ingredients: Yellow corn, salt, lime

Compared to a tortilla chip variety available in supermarkets:

  • Ingredients: Corn, vegetable oil (contains one or more of the following: canola, corn, sunflower, soybean or partially hydrogenated canola or soybean oil), cheeses (cheddar, romano, from cow’s milk & parmesan), salt, buttermilk solids, wheat flour, whey protein, monosodium glutamate, onion powder, whey, garlic powder, dextrose, sugar, disodium phosphate, lactic acid, natural flavor, spice, citric acid, artificial colors (including yellow #6 & red #40), disodium inosinate, disodium guanylate

Source: Excerpt from Health Foods Business, May 1996.

Common Food Additives To Avoid

1. Aspartame

Possible effects:

  • Rashes, depression, headaches, nausea, seizures, blurred vision, ringing in the ears, insomnia

Common sources:

  • Diet and sugar-free soft drinks, gum, candy and instant desserts

2. Brominated Vegetable Oil (BVO)

Possible effects:

  • (The risks associated with BVO are not known but bromate, its main ingredient, is a deadly poison, especially for children.)

Common sources:

  • Soft drinks

3. BHA and BHT (Preservative)

Possible effects:

  • Elevated cholesterol, liver and kidney damage, infertility, sterility, immune disorders, increased susceptibility to carcinogens, behavioral problems

Common sources:

  • Chewing gum, candy, breakfast cereal, shortening, sausage, desserts

4. Citrus Red Dye #2

Possible effects:

  • Cancer, chromosomal damage

Common sources:

  • Orange peels

5. Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)

Possible effects:

  • Allergic reactions, headaches, eye inflammation, brain edema, central nervous and vascular system problems

Common sources:

  • Chinese food, salt substitutes, soups, condiments, seasonings

6. Nitrites

Possible effects:

  • Cancer, birth defects, childhood leukemia

Common sources:

  • Bacon, ham, sausages, smoked meats, luncheon meats

7. Saccharin

Possible effects:

  • Cancer

Common sources:

  • Sugar-free sweeteners, soft drinks

8. Sulfur Dioxide, Bisulfite & Sulfites

Possible effects:

  • Asthma attacks, allergic reactions

Common sources:

  • Dried fruit, shrimp, frozen potatoes, wine
  • (Often applied to restaurant salad bar items and grocery store produce)


9. Tertiary Butydroquinone (TBHG)

Possible effects:

  • Childhood behavioral problems

Common sources:

  • Candy bars, baking sprays, fast foods

10. Yellow Dye #6

Possible effects:

  • Kidney and adrenal damage, chromosomal damage, allergic reactions

Common sources:

  • Candy, soft drinks

12. Acacia Gum (Gum Arabic)

Possible effects:

  • Asthma attacks, skin rashes, pregnancy and fetal development problems

Common sources:

  • Chewing gum, candies, frosting, soft drinks and related beverages

13. Alginic Acid

Possible effects:

  • Pregnancy complications, birth defects

Common sources:

  • Ice cream and other frozen desserts, salad dressings, cheese spreads and dips

14. Benzoic Acid

Possible effects:

  • Asthma attacks, rashes, irritation of eyes and mucous membranes, hyperactivity in children neurological disorders

Common sources:

  • Margarine, beer, pickled vegetables, soft drinks, jelly, jams, fruit juice, mincemeat, barbecue sauce

15. Propyl Gallate

Possible effects:

  • Asthma attacks, allergic reactions, liver and kidney damage, gastric irritation

Common sources:

  • Breakfast cereals, vegetable oil and shortening, candies, chewing gum, frozen dairy products

PDF of Top 10 Reasons to Buy Organic Foods

Refined Foods To Avoid

Simply utilize your common sense. Avoid heavily processed, packaged, colored and otherwise adulterated foods. While this comes naturally to those fortunate enough to be raised with good eating habits and an understanding of the connection between what we put in our bodies and the way we feel, for others, this way of approaching diet may be intimidating and requires the development of a whole new way of thinking about food. To assist in the transition, here is a list of the top eight adulterated foods to avoid:

  1. Cured meats, sausages, luncheon meats, hot dogs
  2. Soda pop and artificial fruit-flavored beverages
  3. Ice cream and frozen desserts (there are a couple of relatively "pure" brands on the market if you simply must indulge)
  4. Commercial breakfast cereals (stick to the health food store brands and check the ingredients)
  5. Commercial breads and packaged baked goods
  6. Processed cheese products
  7. Margarine, lard, shortening (unsalted, uncolored butter is still your best bet)
  8. Cookies and biscuits
  9. Fried fast foods
  10. Candy and candy bars

Food Irradiation

Irradiating food is being used more often, supposedly to preserve food from bacterial decay and lengthen its shelf-life. Irradiation is done by exposing foods to gamma rays emitted from a nuclear waste product, such as cobalt-60, as the food passes by on a conveyor belt.

The food industry and nuclear industry claim that irradiated foods are not harmful for consumers. However, food irradiation is an unnatural process. Irradiating food alters its molecular structure, causing nutrient losses and making the food risky to eat. Effects of irradiation are cumulative and irreversible; the long-term effects on our health are unknown at present. Over the next twenty to thirty years, food irradiation will likely increase the incidence of cancers.

Avoid irradiated foods. Lobby against the implementation of irradiation and for the clear labeling of all irradiated foods. Microwave ovens cook food with a much less harmful type of radiation, but the term "food irradiation" commonly refers to the food preservation method. Microwave ovens should be used sparingly, if at all.

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