What’s Really in Your Food?
By Lindsey Woodkey
As you sit down to enjoy your next meal, take an honest look at your plate. Do you really know what is in your food? Can you pronounce all the ingredients? Do you know where it came from or how it was made? Sadly enough, most of us don’t.
When it comes to eating healthy, we need to take into account much more than just calories, carbs and fat. It is more than a simple math equation. What I tell you today is not to scare you, or to make you run to your pantry and begin throwing away food. My goal is to make you an educated consumer, and let you decide what is right for you and your family. These are the facts, not my opinion, on what is already listed on any food label. If you can read, you can make a conscious effort to improve the health of your family and yourself.
Our discussion begins with food additives. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defines “additives” as “Any substance the intended use of which results or may reasonably be expected to result, directly or indirectly, in its becoming a component or otherwise affecting the characteristic of any food.” Confusing, right? Basically, they are added to foods to make up for a lack of color, poor texture and to increase shelf life. Let’s touch on a few of the most controversial food additives. (Information from the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s “Chemical Cuisine” publication).
- Artificial Flavor- These are synthetic chemicals designed to mimic natural flavors. Food companies are not required to identify what compound they are using, but instead can use the umbrella term “artificial flavor”. They are found mostly in processed foods and can lead to headaches, nausea, and drowsiness in some individuals.
- Modified Starch- This is used as a thickening agent and is often genetically modified. Commonly listed on labels as “sodium hydroxide”, “hydrochloric acid” “potassium hydroxide” and others. Often found in powdered drinks and baby food.
- Artificial Colors- Many artificial colors have been banned by the FDA. Even approved ones are derived from coal tar making them carcinogens. Visit http://www.cspinet.org/reports/chemcuisine.htm#dyes to read more about artificial colors and their effects on your health.
- Partially Hydrogenated Oil (trans fat) – Also known as “trans fat”, this is polyunsaturated vegetable in which hydrogen has been added to create a solid substance. This increases the shelf life of many baked goods and other processed foods. Recently, trans fat was banned in restaurants across the nation. May be listed on label as any “partially hydrogenated” oil (corn, sunflower, etc.).
- BHA (Butylated Hydroxyanisole) , BHT(Butylated Hydroxytoluene), Propyl Gallate and TBHQ (Tertiary Butylhydroquinone)- These are used as preservatives (BHA, BHT, and Propyl Gallate) and to prevent rancidity in oils and fats (TBHQ). Banned in some countries, these are found mostly in processed foods and fast foods. All are known carcinogens and also linked to hormone disruption and even birth defects (TBHQ).
- Potassium Benzoate- Found mostly in soft drinks and juices (when sodium benzoate and vitamin C are mixed) and used as a preservative. Derived from coal tar or petroleum making it a carcinogen.
- Potassium Bromate- Used in bread and other dough as a bleaching agent and conditioner. It has been banned in many countries (as called for by the World Health Organization) but is still used in the USA. Found mostly in white breads and flours.
- Sodium Nitrate/Nitrite- Used as a flavoring agent and responsible for coloring and preserving processed meats. Found in canned, cured, and processed meats, this is a carcinogen and neurotoxin especially when heated.
So how do you stay away from all of these chemical additives? It’s not easy, and if you eat any processed foods (including chewing gum) impossible. My advice? Be a label reader. Compare brands and products and search for those that keep foods as close to their natural state as possible. Do most of your cooking at home and stay away from processed foods as much as possible. It is a case where a little may not be harmful, but too much can be. A hotdog once or twice a year at barbeques? You’re probably safe. One every day for lunch? You may be setting yourself up for health problems later on in life.
Be an educated consumer. Know what you’re putting in your body. Pick foods with short ingredient lists and few additives. It may take a little more time and effort, but you and your family are worth it.
Want more information on food additives and the FDA’s GRAS (generally recognized as safe) certification process? Visit http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodIngredientsPackaging/FoodAdditives/default.htm. Or consider reading Michael Pollan’s book, “An Omnivore’s Dilemma”.
Lindsey Woodkey of Ellensburg is a certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor with bachelors’ degrees in exercise science and nutrition from Central Washington University.