What’s in My Food? Part Two

In the last article, I began to explore what is in our food. The definition of food has challenged our intellect, so that educating ourselves and deciding what we should or shouldn’t put in our bodies has become paramount to our health. Here I continue to investigate food additives.


Sulfites have been used as a food additive since 1664 and have been approved for use in the United States for more than a century. Sulfites are inorganic salts that have antioxidant and preservative properties. Sulfites occur naturally in some foods and beverages as a result of fermentation, such as in beer and wine. Due to their history of use, sulfites have been generally regarded as safe, but regulatory status continues to change.

Currently, sulfiting agents are not considered GRAS (generally regarded as safe) for use in meats and other foods recognized as a major source of vitamin B-1 (sulfites have been found to destroy thiamin). The University of Florida IFAS Extension breaks it down even further, stating “fruits or vegetables intended to be served raw to consumers or to be presented to consumers as fresh.” There is also a small percentage of the population that is suspected of being sensitive to sulfites. This sensitivity can cause a wide range of reactions ranging from mild to severe. Sulfites may cause a reaction in asthmatics.

Potassium Bromate is a dough conditioner – white crystals or powder used to improve the function of flour in products like bread, rolls, and buns. It is also used for making fermented malt beverages or distilled spirits. Potassium bromate has been shown to cause cancer in animals and to be toxic in human cells. It is banned in Europe, Canada, China, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Brazil, and Peru. It is not banned in the United States. If used in a product in California, the label must carry a cancer warning. Some companies have removed potassium bromate from their manufacturing process. According to author Deanna Minich, it is present in a product if “bromated flour” is listed in the ingredients.

Calcium Sulfate is essentially Plaster of Paris and is found in foods like flour, tofu, and cereal. In very small amounts it as regarded as safe by not only the FDA but the European Union as well. The thought of ingesting Plaster of Paris just doesn’t settle well with me.

Mono- and Diglycerides are emulsifiers, which means they help oil and water to blend. As a result, they’re commonly used as food additives. Small quantities are often added to packaged and frozen foods to improve texture and stability, prevent oil from separating, and extend shelf life. They are found in many foods like breads, peanut butter and mayonnaise. Mono- and diglycerides contain small amounts of trans fat. They’re classified as emulsifiers and not lipids, so the FDA ban on trans fat doesn’t apply to them. As trans fat is phased out, food companies may turn to mono- and diglycerides as low-cost alternatives. Currently there is no way of knowing how much trans fat is in products with mono- and diglycerides listed on the label, according to Healthline, a health information website.

Red Dye #40 is an artificial food coloring. The Center for Science in the Public Interest wrote a report on January 19, 2016 entitled “Seeing Red: Time for Action on Food Dyes.” This report outlines the effects of food dyes on children’s behavior, the FDA’s inaction on regulating food dyes, and progress on eliminating dyes in foods. The report confirms that dyes affect behavior, especially in children. A warning label is required for foods containing dye in the European Union. That law helped rid the European food supply of most dyed foods. Red dye may be found in such foods as smoked salmon, flavored applesauce, cereals, flavored yogurt, salsa, and salad dressing.

Aspartame (aka “Nutrasweet”) is an artificial sweetener. There is an exhausting amount of conflicting literature available on aspartame. For every article I read on possible side effects there was another confirming its safety. This, of course, makes it difficult to define the safety of aspartame. Due to the unprecedented amount of articles of concern, I would proceed with caution.

According to Dr. Don Colbert, in his book The Seven Pillars of Health, “Aspartame is made of three components: aspartic acid, phenylalanine, and methanol.” Methanol is known as “wood alcohol,” and it is 10% of what is released from aspartame when this substance is broken down in the human digestive tract. When a beverage containing aspartame is exposed to heat, it releases methanol. In the body methanol is converted to formaldehyde (embalming fluid) and formic acid. Don goes on to explain that methanol and formaldehyde in high amounts can cause blindness and neurological damage. Most in-depth articles I perused involved deep chemistry. It left my head spinning and I wondered what others are taking away from these articles. Is this a case where the possible risks outweigh the benefits?

Personally, I discovered in the late 1980s that Nutrasweet made me feel absolutely awful. My symptoms included nausea, diarrhea, headache, racing heart, and a feeling of having no blood pressure at all. I literally felt so weak, I couldn’t move. While I know that I am a minority, there are other people like me out there. Literature and scientific experiments aside, when something make you feel terrible, you just shouldn’t eat it. The FDA may continue to debate the role of aspartame for many more decades, so I encourage you to investigate and decide for yourself.

With the widespread use of food additives in our food supply, it’s no wonder many of us are coping with confused body systems illustrated in the rise of allergies and autoimmune diseases. It’s time to stop challenging our bodies and start scrutinizing food labels. We should be challenging the food regulators instead.

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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