Processed food has become more American than apple pie. But chemical additives in the food, if consumed in large quantities, may be a health concern. Here are five additives you should avoid.
August 17, 2015 / By Heart & Vascular Team
“Mmm, sodium nitrate.”
When is the last time you heard someone say that? Right before you sunk your teeth into some juicy sodium nitrite?
People typically don’t consider the chemicals in their cuisine. However, additive-laced processed foods have become more American than apple pie.
Americans spend 90 percent of their food budget on processed food, claim some sources. It’s more convenient. It can be less expensive. But is it as healthy?
Dietitian Kate Patton and intern Sara Saliba of Cleveland Clinic’s Section of Preventive Cardiology & Rehabilitation explain.
What is processed food?
“Processed food has been altered in some way from its natural state,” says Ms. Patton. “Often, that means it has been treated with additives – substances that add color, enhance flavor or increase shelf-life, for example. Additives are not necessarily bad. Most foods do require additives to prevent spoilage and maintain their nutritional value.”
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved thousands of additives for use in food. But while consuming small amounts is safe, it may be warranted to limit the amount of these foods you consume.
What’s so bad about food additives?
“People should eat a healthy diet, rich in fresh vegetables and fruits. Eating a diet rich in processed foods is linked to many health problems, such as high blood pressure, heart disease and cancer,” says Ms. Saliba.
- Sodium nitrites help stabilize, flavor, and provide a bright red color to meat. When the meat is heated at high temperatures or combines with stomach acid, sodium nitrite can produce nitrosamines, which is linked to an increased risk of pancreatic and colorectal cancer.
- Sulfites are a popular preservative that many people are sensitive to; and can aggravate asthma and deplete vitamin B1 (thiamine). These additives have already been banned from use on fresh fruits and vegetables in the U.S., but are still present in other foods. (Look for these ingredients on the label: sulfur dioxide, potassium bisulfite, sodium bisulfite, sodium sulfite.)
- Trans fats is a type of fat added to foods to extend its shelf life or improve the consistency. It increases LDL or bad cholesterol, which increases the risk for heart disease.
- Monosodium glutamate (MSG) enhances flavor and texture in Asian foods, soups and other processed foods. Many people are sensitive to MSG. People with MSG sensitivity can experience nausea, breathing problems and other reactions. It also adds extra sodium, which can elevate blood pressure. (Look for these ingredients on the label: natural flavoring or hydrolyzed vegetable protein).
- FD&C yellow #5 and #6 has been linked to hyperactivity in children. It can cause severe allergic reactions, especially in people with asthma. Food dyes come from chemicals, so try to choose foods that are in their natural state and color.
How can you avoid unhealthy additives?
The best way to eat healthy is to:
- Buy more fresh foods than processed (or “convenience”) foods. Farmers markets are good places to shop.
- If fresh foods are not available, choose frozen fruits and vegetables without any additives.
- Avoid prepackaged, pre-cooked meals. Cook your own meals so you know what is in your food.
- Check food labels. Don’t buy products with known additives, and beware of other ingredients you can’t pronounce.
“By following these tips, your food will be healthier and more nutritious as well as fresher and more naturally flavorful,” says Ms. Patton.
Schlosser, E. (2002). Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company.