By Rachel Fiske
Food additives are ingredients that are added to our foods (typically processed/packaged foods) in order to enhance their appearance, flavor, color and shelf-life. While they might sound harmless enough, some of these additives can pose very real health risks, and learning which ones to be on the lookout for is important to your health
Sadly, among the US population, 90% of the food we eat is processed. This means that instead of coming from nature (plants, meats, nuts, seeds, etc), these “foods” are produced in labs. Author Michael Pollan eloquently states in his bestselling book, The Omnivores Dilemma, “don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” Needless to say, the vast majority of processed and packaged foods fall into this category.
However, there are thousands of food additives used in our food supply, and some cause more harm than others. In this article, we’ll take a look at the top additives to avoid, and dig a little deeper into why.
Food colorings are color additives that are meant to give foods added colors, and they can come in liquid, gel, powder or paste form. There is always a current, approved list under the FD&C (Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act) that tells us which dyes are approved for human consumption, and supposedly safe. Interestingly (and perhaps frighteningly), many dyes that were once on that list and considered safe have since been removed after more research, and other countries (such as the UK) require warning labels on foods that include artificial food colorings.
The Center for Science in Public Interest found that blue 1 food coloring can cause severe allergic reactions, including the risk of inhibiting nerve cell development in children. Yellow 6 is know to contain carcinogenic (cancer-causing) compounds, and could even put us at risk for adrenal and testicular tumors (https://cspinet.org/new/pdf/food-dyes-rainbow-of-risks.pdf). Various dyes have been connected with thyroid cancer, and many have been linked to hyperactivity in children.
Limiting or avoiding food colorings completely is well advised, especially if you have children. Considering the dyes that were originally thought to be safe and then proved otherwise, why run the risk?
High Fructose Corn Syrup and Processed Sugars
You might already consider refined sugar to definitely not be part of a healthy diet, but would you consider it a toxin? All processed sugar in its many forms are empty calories, meaning they offer absolutely no nutritional value, and your body actually has to expend nutrients in order to process it (otherwise known as an anti-nutrient).
High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) has received a lot of negative attention, and for good reason. It is a particular type of processed sugar derived from corn syrup, and multiple studies have linked it to serious conditions such as diabetes and obesity (ajcn.nutrition.org/content/79/4/537.full).
Refined sugar of all kinds can have devastating effects on your body’s metabolism, which can lead to possibly life-threatening conditions such as fatty liver disease, high triglycerides and insulin resistance, among others. Reading labels carefully is key, and be on the lookout for all words that end with “ol” or “ose,” as these are chemically-derived sweeteners. Some common examples are dextrose, sucrose, fructose, maltose, glucose, lactose, along with cane juice, cane syrup, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, malt syrup and more.
Sodium benzoate is a preservative commonly added to salad dressings, sodas and fruit juices, along with other food items. One study concluded that this particular additive dramatically increased hyperactivity in three year old children, and had the potential to lead to behavioral and learning problems later in life (www.armored.us/cracker/1451195726_b170ee4239/food_additives_and_hyperactivity.070906.pdf). Again, if you are a parent, be very careful about reading ingredient lists and avoiding this additive.
Aspartame is a controversial additive (some experts claim it is completely safe while others disagree), enough studies have been done that are convincing enough to avoid it. Aspartame is a very commonly used artificial sweetener, and is the primary ingredient in Equal and NutraSweet. It is made by combining the amino acids aspartic acid and phenylalanine, and several studies have linked it to cancer (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16507461). Other conditions that are suspected to have a connection with high aspartame consumption include obesity, diabetes and cognitive dysfunction.
Trans-fats have also received a lot of attention and (thankfully) more knowledge exists around their dangers. Also known as hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils/fats, trans fats can wreak havoc on your body and should be avoided at all costs.
It is now widely accepted and understood that the chemical make-up of trans fats is linked to heart disease, chronic inflammation, and can actually increase our risk of developing diabetes by 40% (www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa010492).
Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) is also quite controversial, and conflicting studies and information exist. MSG is a flavoring agent added to many foods around the world, and is derived from glutamate. While many think this additive is most found in Asian cuisines (especially Chinese food), it is shockingly popular in all types of cooking, including in the United States.
MSG is an excitotoxin, which is a chemical that over-stimulates the neuron receptors of the brain. While some people notice no ill side effects, sensitive individuals might experience headaches and migraines, muscle tension and heart palpitations. One study even showed that MSG might bring on and worsen asthma attacks (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3312372).
How Can I Avoid Food Additives?
Food additives are mainly found in processed foods that tend to be high in carbs. So, if you are following a low-carb diet centered around real, whole foods, you are already well on your way to avoiding them. When grocery shopping, stick to the perimeter of the store where you’ll find the fresh produce, meats, nuts and seeds in bulk and healthy fats.
As skilled of a detective as you might be, food additives are hidden in unassuming places sometimes, so the only way to totally avoid them is to eat a whole foods diet.
Last but certainly not least is the importance of reading labels. Even in packaged “health foods,” you are hard pressed to find one without food additives, so spending some time deconstructing the nutrition label is key. Names you don’t recognize and can’t pronounce and a long list of ingredients is a sign that there probably additives present you’d rather avoid.
While not all food additives will cause serious harm, you can be certain that real, nutrient-dense foods that come from nature are far superior. If you eat foods with additives once in awhile this might not be a huge problem, but best to avoid them with their known (and unknown) risks as often as possible.
Carb Manager is the easiest and most powerful way to count carbs and live the low carb life. In this blog, we've invited experts on LCHF to contribute their views on everything low carb.