In an effort to eat as close to nature as possible and lead healthful lifestyles, many of us have growing concerns about what is added to our foods, especially processed foods. The array of chemicals meant to thicken, stabilize, color, and flavor can be intimidating enough to make one question their safety.
As I pointed out in an earlier Mythbuster, The International Food Information Council Foundation (IFIC Foundation) defines food processing as any deliberate change in a food that occurs before it’s available for us to eat. This includes any food other than in its raw form that has been subject to processing, such as canning, cooking, freezing, dehydration, or milling.
For example, one of my favorite sprouted wheat breads is a whole grain source of fiber and protein. As I look further down on the label, I scrutinize the ingredients.
At first glance, one would question ingredients like ascorbic acid or soy lecithin being added to the bread. However, in order to allow foods to maintain a level of quality, nutritional value, texture, and taste we expect, such ingredients are added. Ascorbic acid or Vitamin C is an antioxidant and color stabilizer. It helps prevent loss of color and flavor in foods by reacting with unwanted oxygen. Soy lecithin is an emulsifier and antioxidant used in baked goods. The source is from soybeans. It keeps oil and water from separating out, retards rancidity, and leads to a fluffier bread product.
These ingredients are known as food additives and are part of a group of food ingredients regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that includes food and color additives and GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) ingredients. A food additive is any substance added to food. The term refers to any substance used in the production, processing, treatment, packaging, transportation or storage of food.
Any substance that is added to food and imparts color to the food is a color additive. Therefore, any dye, pigment or substance which when added or applied to a food, drug or cosmetic, or to the human body, is capable (alone or through reactions with other substances) of imparting color Is considered a food additive.
A great resource to keep on hand is Chemical Cuisine and is put out by the Centers for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). It is a guide of the most commonly used additives that ranking their safety and includes detailed summaries of the chemicals’ uses in foods.
When it comes to food additives in general, CSPI advises it is best to avoid food dyes, partially hydrogenated oils (trans fats), artificial sweeteners, and Mycoprotein (manmade fungi protein), but of course not without controversy.
Here are other safe food additives you may notice in your bread:
Monoglycerides, carrageenan, cellulose gum, and diglycerides are just a few. Mono- and diglycerides are stabilizers naturally present in many seed oils. They are emulsifiers that prevent ingredients from separating and are deemed safe even by CSPI. Cellulose gum is a texture improver, thickener, and fat replacer. It is produced from the woody parts and cell walls of plants. It is a type of dietary fiber typically found in fruits, vegetables, and cereals, but it is not as healthful as the fiber that comes from natural foods such as whole grains.
Awareness and education
As important as it is to eat whole real foods that are minimally processed, it is just as apparent to be aware of what food additives are in foods and their purposes and safety, rather than dismissing them altogether. Of course, if you do your homework and feel uncomfortable consuming particular ingredients, then do not eat them. However, avoid authorities that falsely alarm you with claims that something is harmful when it is not.
I agree that words such as chemicals and additives sound frightening, but the general population should not be concerned there. All the foods we consume, that are processed at some level, contain some type of additive that has been tested for safety. If you are concerned about color additives, start reading food labels when you are at the grocery store. You will notice that artificial coloring ingredients are being replaced with natural ones.
A registered dietitian can help alleviate some concerns about food additives by explaining their roles and safety levels. Keep things in perspective, the salt and sugar added to foods are much more harmful that all the approved safe food additives we eat.
So if you are concerned, limit the amount of highly processed foods you eat. Get most of your nutrition from whole and minimally processed foods that make it convenient to eat foods closest to their natural state, with as few added ingredients as possible. Foods like candy, snack chips, fried foods, fruit drinks, soft drinks, and desserts, are offering more calories, salt, and fat than nutrition. So limit these types of highly processed foods by using good judgment and reading labels. Ingredients to watch out for include hidden sugar, sodium, and fat, as well as undesirable additives.
Lela Iliopoulos is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator and an expert in nutrition therapy, health promotion, and education. She is passionate about impacting nutritional health through the practical application of science-based information.