What’s really in your food? 4/12
(This article is adapted from the April issue of ShopSmart magazine.)
Which of these three common food ingredients is worse for you—sugar, salt, or polyglycerol polyricinoleate? Can you even pronounce polyglycerol polyricinoleate? Okay, both are sort of trick questions because none of the three substances are horrible—and because polyglycerol polyricinoleate, or PGPR, is almost unpronounceable. But if you guessed that PGPR was the worst ingredient in the list because of its long chemical name, read on!
Cutting down on packaged foods with long lists of manufactured ingredients in favor of foods like fresh fruits, vegetables, and nuts is a good start if you’re trying to eat better. As Consumer Reports has reported, some chemical additives are questionable for your health. But not all are worrisome. In fact, the giant amounts of sugar and salt added to so many processed foods are a much bigger problem than chemical additives, most health experts agree.
Michael Jacobson, Ph.D., executive director of the nonprofit advocacy organization Center for Science in the Public Interest, says that food safety debates can get sidetracked by scary sounding multi-syllabic chemical names. When Consumer Reports took a closer look at the thousands of substances added to your food, there were many surprises. Here are five things that you should know about food additives, according to the experts.
Some additives make foods safer and healthier
When you think additives, you might think only of extras that color kids’ cereal or make junk food snacks seemingly last forever. But in addition to the red dyes in sugary snacks, additives include:
• emulsifiers to keep foods like peanut butter from separating (e.g.,soy lecithin, egg yolk, and polysorbates); "The convenience, quality, safety, and variety we enjoy at the supermarket are often enhanced by food additives," says Gregory Möller, Ph.D., professor of environmental chemistry and toxicology at the University of Idaho-Washington State University joint School of Food Science.
• anti-caking agents to keep powdered foods such as baking mixes free-flowing (e.g.,calcium silicate and silicon dioxide);
• vitamins to fortify cereal; and
• preservatives to discourage mold from growing (e.g., sodium benzoate, calcium sorbate, and sodium erythorbate).
Another expert, Roger Clemens, Dr.P.H., adjunct professor of pharmacology and pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Southern California School of Pharmacy and president of the nonprofit Institute of Food Technologists, says that additives contribute to public health. "In the 1920s the thyroid condition goiter virtually disappeared when iodine was added to salt. More recently, the incidence of neural tube defects in infants dropped more than 35 percent in about a decade, thanks in part to the fortification of grains with folic acid," Clemens says.
Added sugars and salt are biggest concerns
In your kitchen, sugar and sodium chloride, or table salt, count as ingredients, but food makers use lots more than you do and in different forms for different reasons. For example, carbonated drinks often contain sodium benzoate to preserve them and deflect off-flavors. And added sugars wind up in products as varied as crackers and canned three-bean salad to affect color, flavor, and texture.
In fact, more than 3,000 food additives are listed in the Food and Drug Administration database, but just four constitute 93 percent of the total used: sodium and three forms of sugar—corn syrup, dextrose, and sucrose. "We know that added sugars contribute to the obesity epidemic. We know sodium can raise blood pressure," Möller says. "If you want to have a big impact on your diet, that’s where to look first."
Check ingredient and nutrition labels
The amount of sugar per serving in a product might include natural and added sugars. And a drink labeled 100 percent juice might contain more sugars than a product with only 10 percent juice, even though it could be a better nutritional choice. The solution, at least when it comes to sugars: Check to see whether some form of sugar is one of the top three ingredients. If it is, the product probably contains lots of added sugars.
When it comes to salt, keep in mind that most foods are naturally low in sodium, so the amount listed generally reflects what was added during processing. To help meet the dietary guidelines recommendation of no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day for healthy adults, look for products whose sodium (in milligrams) does not exceed the number of calories. If it does, look for a lower-salt version. Children and those at risk for hypertension should consume no more than 1500 milligrams/day.
'Natural' additives aren’t necessarily better
For starters, there’s no standard definition for "natural" except on meat and poultry products, so that’s generally not a meaningful claim. Also, even a product free of artificial ingredients isn’t necessarily a good choice.
Another thing to keep in mind: Even organic items may contain some synthetic additives. Only products labeled "100 percent organic" are free of synthetics. Also, natural additives aren’t all what you might expect. Carmine, a coloring used in foods such as yogurts and juices, is made from insects.
Start by kicking your soda habit
"Soft drinks are the single biggest category for additive use," Möller says. Drink fewer sodas and you’ll consume many fewer additives. Two more simple rules come from the author Michael Pollan’s book, Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual (Penguin Press, 2011). He says: Don’t eat breakfast cereals that change the color of the milk. Also, don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.
Emphasize foods that come in their own natural packaging, such as a shell, over those that come in boxes and wrappers. In general, unless you have a specific sensitivity, even the more controversial additives are of concern only if you eat a lot of them. Nitrites from the occasional hot dog are no big deal, but a steady diet of processed meats might be a bad idea for many reasons.
Which food additives to avoid? 4/12
Pink slime and other weird additives. 4/12
10 types of food account for more than 40 % of your sodium intake. 2/12
Where sugar hides and how to eat less. 1/11
Center for Science in the Public Interest.