What’s in My Food? Part One

When did food become so complex? Before the introduction of pesticides, chemical additives and preservatives, food was simpler – it was just food. In search of convenience, long shelf life, and a skewed perception of “perfect food” (apples aren’t naturally shiny), food is not at all simple. Looking further, I struggle when a food additive has approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) even though it’s not considered 100% healthy, or even food.

For the next two articles, July and August, I will explore what is in our food, and I’m not talking about the good stuff like vitamins and fiber. I’m talking about the ingredients you read on a label and can’t pronounce. To learn about these strange ingredients, I have done a lot of research and I have solved a few mysteries.

Deanna M. Minich, Ph.D., C.N., wrote a helpful book entitled An A-Z Guide to Food Additives – Never Eat What You Can’t Pronounce. She states that the average American consumes about 150 pounds of food additives a year, the bulk of it sugar and sweeteners, followed by salt, vitamins, flavors, colorings, and preservatives. That represents almost 10% of the food we eat each year. I’ve always wondered about ingredients with strange names and in this column I’ve focused primarily on additives.

Carrageenan is made from red seaweed and has been used for over a millennia. In 400 BC this “Irish Moss” was used in Ireland to make a thickener used in gels, puddings, and broths. This additive is widely used as a thickener and stabilizer in many foods. Its safety has been called into question, but the verdict is still out. While it is FDA approved, “Carrageenan predictably causes inflammation, which can lead to ulcerations and bleeding,” explains veteran carrageenan researcher Joanne Tobacman, MD, associate professor of clinical medicine at the University of Illinois School of Medicine at Chicago. She says the food ingredient irritates by activating an immune response that dials up inflammation. Her previous work showed a concerning connection between carrageenan and gastrointestinal cancer in lab animals, and she’s involved with ongoing research funded through the National Institutes of Health that is investigating carrageenan’s effect on ulcerative colitis and other diseases like diabetes.

Polysorbate 80 is an emulsifier, or a food stabilizer. According to an article written by Will Dunham, of Reuters, it is a common additive in ice cream and milk and may promote the inflammatory bowel diseases ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease as well as a group of obesity-related conditions. Researchers focused on emulsifiers, chemicals added to many food products, to improve texture and extend shelf life. In mouse experiments, they found emulsifiers can change the species’ composition of gut bacteria and induce intestinal inflammation. Such inflammation is associated with the frequently debilitating Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis as well as metabolic syndrome, a group of conditions that increase risk for type-2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke, writes Melissa Healy for the Los Angeles Times.

Sodium Benzoate (benzoic acid) is a chemically synthesized preservative used in soft drinks, fruit juices, preserves, jams, and margarine. Benzoic acid can occur in foods (plant and animal products) naturally, at levels that are lower than are typically needed in food for preservative action. In animal studies, high amounts caused damage to the nervous system and brain. Sensitive individuals may develop hives or other allergic reactions. It may encourage hyperactivity or decreased intellect in susceptible children. The joint FAO/WHO Expert committee on Food additives (JECFA) has set an acceptable daily intake (ADI) for humans at 0-5 mg. per kilogram of body weight. Sodium benzoate plus ascorbic acid can react under the right heat and light conditions to form benzene, a cancer-causing agent. According to Deanna Minich, due to all the press generated on benzene’s risks, soft drink companies are looking at substitutes for sodium benzoate.

Tocopherol is essentially vitamin E. Vitamin E is an antioxidant and nutrient that can boost your immune system.

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a flavor enhancer commonly added to Chinese food, canned vegetables, soups, and processed meats. The FDA has classified MSG as a food ingredient that’s “generally recognized as safe,” but its use remains controversial. For this reason, when MSG is added to food, the FDA requires that it be listed on the label. MSG has been used as a food additive for decades. Over the years, the FDA has received many anecdotal reports of adverse reactions to foods containing MSG. The Mayo Clinic describes these reactions – known as MSG symptom complex – to include headache, flushing, sweating, facial pressure or tightness, numbness, tingling or burning in the face, neck, and other areas, rapid, fluttering heartbeats (heart palpitations), chest pain; nausea, and weakness.

However, researchers have found no definitive evidence of a link between MSG and these symptoms. Researchers acknowledge, though, that a small percentage of people may have short-term reactions to MSG. Symptoms are usually mild and don’t require treatment. The only way to prevent a reaction is to avoid foods containing MSG.

In August, we will investigate: Sulfites, Potassium Bromate, Calcium Sulfate, Mono & Diglycerides, Red Dye #40 and Aspartame. In the meantime, start reading those labels and asking questions. What is Potassium Bromate anyway, and is it truly safe for me to eat?

Cathy Schmidt writes from Trappe where she and her husband Chef Brian Schmidt own Garden and Garnish Catering. Their family lives with multiple food allergies and intolerances, including: gluten, tree nut, peanut, fish and shellfish. Cathy loves to garden and cook from scratch.

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