I’ve been writing a bit about real food and why it’s important. So far we’ve talked a bit about the time issue as well as some statistics on our current health crisis and why eating real food is important. In this third post, I’m going to talk a bit about food additives.
I also feel the need to say that this series is a general overview of some important food concepts that I feel like I need to write before I can go into depth. This is just the tip of the food world. For example, I could turn this post into 10 or 15 different posts where I break the information up and give lots more detail. I’m not ready to do that just yet. I think some of this information is overwhelming in and of itself, and it’s really meant as an introduction to real food.
How many of you have ever had this experience? You know you’re supposed to read labels when you shop so you look carefully at the packages. You notice there are words like “natural,” and “made with whole grains,” and “no high fructose corn syrup,” so you get excited that you think you found something healthy. And then you turn the box to the side and check out the ingredients. You start to read them and then your eyes just sort of glaze over a bit. But you shrug to yourself because at least this product you’re buying is all natural, right?
I’ve had that experience so it’s okay for you to admit you have too.
And by the way, the term “natural” on a food package means absolutely nothing. Those words can be used on Oreos and PopTarts if a company wants to. Why? Because there’s no regulations to use this word. It’s not defined anywhere.
Companies use these word strategies often when they label packages because they don’t want you to look at the ingredients list. Because if you’ve already decided that the product is healthy based on the claims you read on the front of the box, chances are you might not read the full ingredient list or you might just scan it because you are already decided to buy it. Plus, the words are often so darn small, your old eyes have trouble reading such fine print.
It’s a lovely term called “greenwashing.”
While that term is usually used for companies that make claims to be environmentally friendly and promote sustainable practices that help our earth while really spending more money or advertising and packaging, it applies to the food world as well.
Sometimes the package actually looks healthy, with a simple color scheme or pictures of farms. When we see the color green on a package or a more “natural” color scheme, we think healthy. We suddenly think this company is promoting healthy products.
Like this for example.
Just because Coca-Cola suddenly has a reduced calorie soda with stevia doesn’t mean soda is suddenly healthy and that the company has cleaned up it’s act and should be considered a company who cares about your health.
Here’s an example of how the labeling scenario I described above works. Now this package isn’t “green looking.” But it sure does a good job selling the consumer on its health value directly on the front of the package.
Let’s look at the claims this package is making:
- Gluten free
- Simply nutritious
- Naturally flavored
- No artificial colors, no artificial flavors, no high fructose corn syrup
- Real honey and natural almond flavor
Looks great, right? Why would I bother to check the ingredients?
Let’s take a quick look, though, shall we?
Now this list doesn’t look too bad, right? I can read all the ingredients and the list is short. But here’s what I notice.
- whole grain corn and corn meal-we haven’t talked about genetically modified ingredients (GMO) yet but this one is full of them since the corn isn’t organic
- 4 sugar ingredients-sugar, honey, brown sugar syrup and molasses. Why would we need 4 sugar ingredients?? Yes, it’s not high fructose corn syrup but it’s not any better when it’s that much sugar, and it’s all GMO sugar as well.
- Canola oil and/or rice bran oil-GMO again
- Natural almond flavor-a chemical additive
- BHT-a chemical preservative
So basically you have a processed box of genetically modified corn, sugar, oil and chemical additives. Blech! By the way, I make no apologies if this is your favorite cereal.
Why would a company do this you ask? It’s simple. To confuse you, the consumer.
To trick you some might say. To make you think something is true that’s not actually true. Because the bottom line? Profit.
Most major corporations are not looking out for your health. They just want to make money. And they don’t mind making you believe their products are healthy. They’ll do what it takes to sell. They want to sell you on the package before you look on the side and see the additives that they put into it.
Oh additives, that’s right! We were supposed to be talking about that today!
Real food in it’s natural state is just that, real. It doesn’t have anything added to it to preserve freshness or enhance it’s flavor with chemicals. All FBP’s have additives in them for a simple reason. Without them, the products would taste bland.
There are more natural ways of adding ingredients to a food to make it taste good. You know, simple things like spices and salt.
When you really look at the labels of FBP’s, particularly baked snack products like cereal, crackers and cookies, you’ll find a repetition of the same sort of basic ingredient profiles. The basic backbone of the food products you find on a shelf are generally a combination of some sort of grain, sugar, and oil. What separates one product from the next are flavors. Since a FBP has been stripped of everything natural in the manufacturing process, you have to add flavor, texture, and color back into it in some form. Plus, the food products need to sit on the shelf for awhile. Hence, the addition of food additives in the form of preservatives and flavors.
While 10,000 additives are allowed in food (yes, you read that correctly), the Environmental Working Group (EWG) lists 12 food additives that they call the “dirty dozen” of food additives. Not only are additives directly added to food for flavor and preservation, some are indirectly added while the food is being processed, stored or packaged.
Some additives have been shown to be linked to various diseases and endocrine disruption and are still approved to be added to your food. Some additives are Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) and don’t need approval from the FDA due to a loophole in the 1958 Food Additives Ammendment.
Here’s a quick video that explains that process.
Here’s a summary of some of the food additives to avoid. If you want more details, please check out the complete list and descriptions from EWG.
Additives to avoid
1. Flavor ingredients such as “natural flavor” or “artificial flavor”
- This is a vague term used to define any number of chemical flavors added to a food.
- They may contain solvents, preservatives or emulsifiers including propylene glycol (a “food safe” form of antifreeze) and BHA (see below). They may be GMO.
- It’s just like using a personal care product with the word “fragrance.” You have no idea what combination of chemicals are in either one. Often, the same companies that make flavors also make fragrances. So when you see “natural flavors” or “artificial flavors” on a package, know that the ingredient list might not fit on the side of a box because they don’t have to be disclosed.
2. Nitrates and Nitrites
- Added as a preservative to cured meats to retain color and add flavor; they are being linked to cancer.
3. Potassium Bromate
- Added to bread and cracker products to help with rising; also being linked to cancer.
4. Propyl paraben
- Added as a preservative in foods. It is an endocrine disruptor and can also be found in personal care products. Hmmm…parabens in lotion and tortillas?
- They are linked to infertility, weakened sperm count, and breast cancer. One study showed that 91% of Americans had detected levels of propyl paraben in their urine. Yikes!
5. BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene)
- Added as preservatives, often in combination.
- BHA is a classified endocrine disruptor in the EU and also a possible human carcinogen.
- BHT is considered a possible endocrine disruptor.
6. Propyl gallate
- Added as a preservative and considered a possible endocrine disruptor.
- Alkaloid found in chocolate with a similar effect as caffeine.
- This is an example of a food additive being allowed to be approved as GRAS without the FDA’s approval (see above video).
8. Artificial colors
- Added to make food look more appealing. Because what color would fruit loops and popsicles be without it?
- There’s a lot of debate on the overall safety of these additives, particularly with children.
9. Aluminum additives such as sodium aluminum phosphate and sodium aluminum sulfate
- Added as stabilizers.
- While aluminum can occur naturally in foods, the majority of exposure comes through food additvies. Aluminum is toxic to the nervous system.
Does this information make you raise your eyebrows a bit? Or make you want to punch someone?
The other kicker? There are many countries who ban the use of some of these additives.
Additives are found in FBP’s to improve flavor, texture, appearance and preservation. The easiest way to avoid them? Eat real food. Eat food in it’s original form. Look for foods that have real ingredients added instead of chemical ingredients.
And I get it. It’s easier to eat processed food. And darn those additves can make it taste good. I realize you can’t just dump out your entire cupboard and start over.
But you can look at the packages you have and check for these ingredients. Before you put something in your shopping cart, look at see if you recognize additives on the label.
Chances are if you pick up a conventional box of aFPB you’ll find at least one of these additives.
I dare you. Pick up a box from your cupboard and just look.
You know you want to.
And please know, this information isn’t to make you feel bad about what you are buying. If anything, it should make you mad. It should make you mad that we have a food system that allows these chemicals to be put into our food supply to wreck havoc on our bodies. It should make you want to spend money with companies who aren’t being deceitful.
It should make you want to find alternatives.