We consume thousands of chemicals everyday, approved as food additives. In fact, more than 10,000 additives are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It is hard to know what is harmful and what is not since there are too many to research. I will highlight those we know are harmful, especially to children. Having the knowledge is the first step in being able to avoid them.
What do food additives do?
Some additives act as a preservative to make food last longer. Salt has been used for centuries to keep meat from spoiling. Other additives are used in packaging or to change the taste, texture, or appearance of food to make it more palatable.
Why is this particularly important for children?
Children may be more susceptible to the effects of these chemicals due to
Their smaller size which means they have a greater food intake per body weight than adults, thus a higher exposure
Their organs are still immature, so they may not be able to metabolize things as well
Their rapid growth and development make them more vulnerable to the effects of these chemicals.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) developed a policy statement regarding food additives due to health concerns in children related to colorings, flavorings, and chemicals added directly to foods, and substances that food may come in contact with. The worry is that some of these may affect children’s hormones, growth, and development.
Some of these include what are known as endocrine disruptors. These will be explored in two separate articles in the next two weeks. This article will focus on additives in food. The AAP’s statement includes recommendations for the government and policymakers.
Which additives do we know have adverse effects?
1. Nitrates and nitrites
Processed meats are the main sources of nitrites
These are used as preservatives and color enhancers. They are commonly found in processed meats such as cured meats, lunch meats, hot dogs, bacon, salami, ham, and sausage. Nitrites are converted to nitrosamines when meats are grilled for a long time at high heat to the point of being overcooked or charred.
Overcooked meats and high heat convert nitrites to nitrosamines which have been linked to cancers of the GI tract
Nitrosamines have been linked to cancers of the digestive tract, tumors of the nervous system, problems with the thyroid, and interference with oxygen delivery by the blood.
2. Artificial food colorings (such as Blue 1, Red 40, Yellow 5 and 6)
These are very common in children’s foods, processed foods and beverages. They are used to enhance the appearance of the product.
Some of these, Yellow 5 & 6, can cause allergic reactions, especially in asthmatics. Others may affect children’s behavior and attention or be associated with hyperactivity in children who are sensitive. Red 3 has been related to an increased risk of thyroid tumors in animals, but this has been replaced by Red 40.
3. Sulfites - also sulfur dioxide, potassium bisulfite, sodium sulfite or sodium bisulfite
Sulfites are used as a preservative in some foods.
These compounds can trigger asthma attacks in those susceptible.
4. Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
Monosodium glutamate (MSG) adds additional sodium to dishes
This is commonly used in Asian foods and some processed foods, such as frozen dinners and canned soups, to enhance color and texture. It also increases the sodium content.
Those who are sensitive can experience headaches, nausea, breathing problems, and increased blood pressure.
5. High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
High-fructose corn syrup is a common sweetener in processed foods
This is a common sweetener made from corn with a high fructose content. It is found in many processed/snack foods, sodas, juices, candy, and cereals.
HFCS has been linked to weight gain, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, and inflammation. It adds calories but no nutrition.
6. Trans fats or hydrogenated fats and oils
Trans fats may still be found in some fast and fried foods
These fats are used to increase the palatability and shelf-life of foods. As of 2020, these were supposed to be banned, although trace amounts may still be found in numerous products. These may be in fried or battered foods, margarine sticks, shortening, some microwave popcorn, non-dairy creamers, pies, and processed foods.
Trans fats are associated with heart disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes.
7. Artificial Sweeteners
Refer to last week's article on these!
What is the best way to avoid these in our diet?
Eat mostly fresh foods (those that don’t require a label)
Minimize processed foods
Eat a variety of foods so you are not exposed to the same item frequently
Choose frozen produce over canned
Avoid prepackaged, precooked meals as much as you can
Cook your meals when possible to know what you eat
Eat fewer processed meats
When grilling, choose leaner meats (with less fat), don’t overcook, and use a barrier against the smoke, such as a stainless steel grill pan
Read labels to avoid unhealthy additives - the shorter the ingredient list, the better.
Read labels to know what is in the foods you consume
Food additives may be safe in small amounts, but consuming processed foods frequently increases your health risk. The above includes only those additives with known adverse effects. The future may reveal many more. The bottom line is to eat as naturally as you can.