Processed Foods Serve Up Questionable Additives
Even at the green grocery store, harmful food additives lurk behind innocent-looking labels. Hundreds of shoppers who reached for "Quorn" veggie burgers, for example, became ill with severe vomiting and diarrhea. Others developed hives and had trouble breathing. It wasn’t clear from the label, but Quorn is made from an allergy-inducing mold called Fusarium venenatum.
Others who purchased products like juice, yogurt and ice cream listing "natural colorings" ended up eating tiny ground-up bugs. Disguised as an additive called "carmine," the insects can cause a severe allergic reaction or even anaphylactic shock in sensitive people.
Government regulators protect the public from harmful food additives much of the time, but there are obvious holes in the system, says Craig Minowa, an environmental scientist with the Minnesota-based Organic Consumers Association. The FDA does not consider the synergistic effects of multiple food additives. And more specific tests are needed for special groups, such as diabetics and children.
Most of the FDA tests on food additives are conducted and paid for by the manufacturer, so there is a built-in potential for ethical conflicts. It pays, then, to read labels carefully. "It’s a matter of equipping your tool belt with knowledge about the most problematic additives," Minowa says. "There’s all sorts of stuff hidden in there."
Chicago nutritionist David Grotto, a spokesman for the American Dietetic Association, puts it this way: "If you can’t pronounce it, it would probably make sense to avoid it in food." He adds that if a product has an ingredient list longer than your arm, it should be avoided.
Minowa, Grotto and Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), offer this list of offenders:
Partially hydrogenated or hydrogenated vegetable oil. "The science is completely irrefutable as far as the toxic effects of consuming hydrogenated oil," says Minowa. "When you consume it, your body immediately goes into a defense mode." This stuff is in everything yummy, from donuts and fried chicken to French fries, chips and Twinkies. The health effects? Not so appetizing. These oils produce trans fat, which is linked to, among other things, heart disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer"s.
Sodium nitrite, sodium nitrate. If left on the shelf for a week, meat tends to turn an unpleasant grayish color. To keep their hotdogs, bacon and bologna looking pink, meat companies add sodium nitrite. There’s one problem: This additive turns into something cancerous called nitrosamine in the body. Recently, meat producers started adding ascorbic acid, which is supposed to prevent nitrosamines from forming. Still, for kids and pregnant women, it may be wise to steer clear. "The amount this one ingredient can add to your cancer risk is incredible," Minowa says. Indulging in the occasional hotdog at the ballpark won’t kill you, Grotto says. But eating nitrate-laden lunch meat several times a week isn’t a good idea, he says.
Aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet). Scientists and regulators have debated the potential link between aspartame and cancer since the 1970s. A 2005 Italian study found rats that drank aspartame equivalent to three or four cans of diet soda per day had a significantly higher chance of developing leukemia or lymphoma. A 2006 National Cancer Institute study—which used human subjects rather than animals—found no brain cancer link. "I think the Italian study raised a red flag," says CSPI’s Jacobson. Dr. Samuel S. Epstein, chairman of the Chicago-based Cancer Prevention Coalition, believes there is enough evidence to ban aspartame already. Aspartame breaks down into formaldehyde in the body, he explains. Formaldehyde, the same chemical used in embalming fluid, is a well-known carcinogen, Epstein points out.
Artificial coloring, food dyes. Some people appear to be more sensitive to food dyes than others. In certain children, the dyes, especially Blue 1 and Blue 2, have been linked to hyperactivity. Some of the most common dyes, Red 3 and Red 40, have not been adequately tested, according to CSPI reports. "Food colorings are used to replace real food, like fruit," Jacobson says. "If there are a lot of them, it’s usually a sign the food is junk." Another additive, Citrus Red 2, is a carcinogen, according to CSPI. Some Florida growers rub it onto the skin of their oranges to improve appearances. Although the dye has not been known to soak into the fruit, consumers should use caution.
What to Look For
In the tricky world of food additives, it pays to approach labels like a detective:
Companies can call their food organic even if they only have one natural ingredient combined with 20 synthetic ones. The only truly safe way to buy organic is to look for the green certified organic label.
Manufacturers don’t have to list MSG on labels. They can hide it in yeast extract, tuna broth, chicken broth and "hydrolyzed vegetable protein." One sure way to avoid MSG is to only buy certified-organic products. Organic companies can’t get the certification if MSG shows up in their food.
If you see "natural flavors" or "natural colorings," be cautious. "The definition of "natural" probably isn’t natural," Grotto says. For example, natural colorings could mean ground-up bugs. USDA certified-organic producers only use safe additives, like beet juice, to add a reddish color.
Consider the way additives might react together in the body or break down into different chemicals altogether. For example, recent news reports pointed to the carcinogen benzene in soda pop. If exposed to heat (like intense sunlight) the preservative sodium benzoate will mix with ascorbic acid to form a toxic cocktail.
In addition, food safety and nutrition experts offer the following tips for cutting back on food additives and processed food:
Consumers sticking to a budget should invest in organic meat and hormone-free milk first, suggests Epstein, author of What’s in Your Milk? Also, join an organic buying co-op or start one. Shop at farmer’s markets. Buying local produce is good for the environment because it prevents long-distance shipping. The produce also is lower in pesticides. Drink water, homemade sun tea or 100 percent fruit juice instead of soda laden with high fructose corn syrup or aspartame.
Food additives present so many pitfalls, shopping can be overwhelming. The key, experts say, is to prioritize. For Jacobson, the biggies are trans fat, sugar and salt. "Those three additives are 1,000 times more dangerous than anything else in the food supply," he says. "If fast-food chains would agree to cut them in half, we could save hundreds of thousands of lives lost to heart attacks and cancer." CONTACT: American Dietetic Association, (800) 877-1600, www.eatright.org; CSPI, (202) 332-9110, www.cspinet.org (food additives report at www.cspinet.org/reports/ chemcuisine.htm); Organic Consumers Association, (218)226-4164. www.or ganicconsumers.org.
MELISSA KNOPPER is a Colorado-based science writer.