How often do you actually check the labels of foods you buy, including all the little extra words you cannot pronounce? The reality is, shopping would take hours if we did.
What’s in our food that we unknowingly “indulge in” everyday?
To be honest with you, you might not want to read this. This stuff always makes me depressed and then angry. Why can’t we just have “clean” food on our plate?—basic, great, healthy good-tasting food. Why is that so hard?
Well the good news is, we can. But it does mean staying away from packaged food, and maybe even learning how to cook … and you do need to keep up the job of mindful attention when choosing your food.
To help you with that, please read on.
Food additives are legal, but do you want them?
In the U.S., about 3000 additives can be used legally in our foods. They are used for food preservation, coloring, texture, increasing taste, and so on.
Avoiding processed and packaged food is of course the easiest way to omit these unwanted “extras.” That not only means choosing whole foods, but also staying mindful of the pesticides and fertilizers used in non-organic foods. And yes, it is a bother to have to pay attention to all of this, I agree. Unfortunately, with our overconsumption comes production, and with that comes all the extras to keep yield up for the food manufacturers. That’s also why supporting local farmers is a really good idea, as is insisting on organic produce as much as possible.
One of the most important things to know first is how to read the nutrition label. Be mindful of serving sizes. Most packaged food contains more than one serving size but the label only gives you the nutritional information for one serving. Often we think one muffin or one bagel is one serving—this isn’t always the case. A regular sized muffin is actually two servings and most bagels are more than two servings. (And that’s without the topping.)
Ingredients are listed in descending order, so what there is most of comes first. Often that also means that all the little additions come toward the end of the label. Many people will have stopped reading by then and miss them. Ingredients that make up less than 2 percent can be listed in any order after the heading “contains less than 2 percent of the following.”
Other ingredients called incidental additives don’t even have to be listed on labels. They’re the substances that come into the food from the packaging and ingredients of other ingredients that are present at “insignificant levels” and have no “technical or functional effect.” Yes, it’s scary.
Natural and artificial flavors are also often grouped together under one name. The manufacturers do not have to disclose what “artificial flavors” really means unless it’s a food containing a major food allergen. These would include milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy and wheat, and the food ingredients containing the proteins derived from these.
Even worse, the statement “all natural” has no nutritional meaning. They can indeed include unnatural ingredients. It’s actually not required by law to have unnatural ingredients and still be called all natural. How messed up is that?
What does “free from” really mean?
It actually might just mean that there’s less than 0.5 grams per serving because the food manufacturer may round down to zero. Not to mention that you might eat more than one serving of something, as well as the fact that it is adding up over time too.
This is the same issue with transfat and partially hydrogenated oil. If it is less than 0.5 in one serving it is still listed as having no transfat. Yes, they are deceiving us.
What’s in a name?
Food manufacturers can use other names on a label so that we cannot recognize what’s really in there. For example, if you’re trying to avoid MSG, you need to look for all of the following terms, as they all contain MSG: autolyzed yeast, calcium caseinate, gelatin, glutamate, glutamic acid, hydrolyzed protein, monopotassium glutamate, monosodium glutamate, modium caseinate, textured protein, yeast extract, yeast food, and yeast nutrient.
Misleading ingredient claims.
Sometimes foods that claim to include healthy ingredients actually do not have them, or only have them in small amounts. Take, for example, the strawberry yogurt with no strawberries. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) recently asked the FDA to immediately stop misleading food labels. Another misguidance are so-called wholegrain products that are mostly made from regular white flour with only very little wholegrain. They often contain high-fructose corn syrup as well, which makes them rather unhealthy instead of healthy.
“Food manufacturers are shamelessly tricking consumers who are trying to eat more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains,” said CSPI Director of Legal Affairs, Bruce Silverglade. “Too many processed foods contain only token amounts of the healthful ingredients highlighted on labels and are typically loaded with fats, refined sugars, refined flour, and salt, in various combinations.”
Which are the toxins?
The food colorings that make candy pretty colors have been linked to cancer and tumors of the brain, thyroid, adrenal gland, and kidneys in animal studies.
Blue 1, used to color candy, beverages, and baked goods, may cause cancer. Blue 2, found in pet food, candy, and beverages, has caused brain tumors in mice.
Red 3 is a food coloring used in cherries (fruit cocktails), baked goods, and candy. It causes thyroid tumors in rats, which means it may do so in humans as well.
Yellow 6 is the third most often used food coloring, and is found in many products, including backed goods, candy, gelatin, and sausages. It has been found to cause adrenal gland and kidney tumors, and contains small amounts of many carcinogens. M&Ms anyone?
Food preservatives and additives.
Propyl gallate is used to prevent fats and oils from spoiling and might cause cancer. It is used in vegetable oil, meat products, potato sticks, chicken soup base, chewing gum, and is often used with BHA and BHT.
BHA and BHT—butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)—are also used to keep fats and oils from going rancid. It’s often used in cereals, chewing gum, vegetable oil, and potato chips, and can also be found in some food packaging to preserve freshness.
Potassium bromate is used in breads and rolls to increase the volume and produce the fine crumb structure. Although most bromate breaks down into bromide, which is harmless, the bromate that does remain causes cancer in animal studies. Bromate has been banned throughout the world, except for in the United States and Japan. In California, a cancer warning would likely be required if it were used, which is why it rarely is in that state.
Aspartame is in Equal and NutraSweet and the products that contain them, such as diet sodas and other low-cal and diet foods. It’s been found to cause brain tumors in rats as far back as the 1970s. A study in 2005 found that even small doses increase the incidence of lymphomas and leukemia in rats, along with brain tumors. People who are sensitive to aspartame may also suffer from headaches, dizziness, and hallucinations after consuming it. Why is this still in our food, I wonder?
Olestra is a fat substitute used in crackers and potato chips, marketed under the brand name Olean. This synthetic fat is not absorbed by the body (instead it goes right through it), so it can cause diarrhea, loose stools, abdominal cramps, and flatulence, among other symptoms. Furthermore, olestra reduces the body’s ability to absorb beneficial fat-soluble nutrients, including lycopene, lutein, and beta-carotene.
Sodium nitrite (or sodium nitrate) is used as a preservative, coloring, and flavoring in bacon, ham, hot dogs, cold cuts, corned beef, smoked fish, and other processed meats. These additives can lead to the formation of cancer-causing chemicals called nitrosamines. Some studies have found a link between consuming cured meats and nitrite with cancer in humans.
There is one easy thing you can do about it—avoid packaged and processed food.
“There are probably things in our lives from which we could unburden ourselves.”—Matthieu Ricard