Part 1: Food additives, are they safe?

MSG, GMO, HFCS, and on and on and on. I dunno about you, but it’s really confusing to eat healthy these days because it seems there is always someone around the corner saying what once was thought to be a health food is now going to disrupt my hormones, upset my gut health, or wreak havoc on my immune system. I thought it was just an apple?

Seriously, when I was growing up my dad always told me those kept the doctor away. And so far for him, they have…..but he’s also from the generation that doesn’t go to the doctor. Not unless there’s a limb hanging off. (That’s another topic, because I don’t necessarily support that mindset, we’ve had a few scares with him over the years.)

So which is it? What do you need to look for? I know if I’m confused and I’m a Dietitian, others must be too. And unfortunately in my research on this topic, our food supply ain’t what it used to be. With growing food trends to make more, make more that lasts longer, and feed the masses from far away places, we need to be aware of what’s in our foods and what we are comfortable feeding ourselves and our families. There are many and I won’t be able to cover them all in this post, but I’ll start with a few today:

  • Sodium nitrites and nitrates: if you have EVER talked to me about eating processed meat of any kind, I’ve likely told you to take the extra second and find some without this ingredient. This includes your bacon, deli meat, hot dogs (should you choose to indulge), sausage and any canned or cured meats like vienna sausage. They are added to these foods to enhance the color and acts as a preservative. If you’ve ever had a nitrite/nitrate free slice of bacon or deli turkey slice, you would NOT taste the difference. But you would be ridding yourself of the cancer-causing effects. We now know that there is a very strong link to digestive cancer and this food preservative. Here is what the American Institute of Cancer Research says: “Research shows that any amount of processed meat eaten regularly increases the risk of both stomach and colorectal cancers. Why risk it when there are other options easily available?
  • Carrageenan: it’s extracted from red seaweed and used in a wide variety of applications in the food industry as a thickening, gelling, stabilizing and suspending agent in water and milk systems. So you are going to find it mostly in dairy products including liquid coffee creamer, cottage cheese, yogurt, soy milk, almond milk, processed cheese, chocolate milk, ice cream, frosting mix, and infant formulas. According to numerous research studies, it’s linked to various harmful effects in the gastrointestinal system including cancer and inflammatory bowel disease (such as ulcers and ulcerative colitis.) The article linked is a review of multiple animal studies – note I don’t always take these types of studies seriously because we’re people and our bodies are very different from rats, guinea pigs, rabbits, and monkeys. But here’s the deal – the results were profound. In just one example, they noted that 100% of guinea pigs given 2% degraded carrageenan as liquid for 20–30 days had colonic ulcerations and  75% of the animals developed > 200 ulcers. When guinea pigs were given 1% undegraded carrageenan as liquid for 20–30 days, 80% developed colonic ulcerations. The review concluded:
• Degraded carrageenan is a known carcinogen in animal models
• Undegraded carrageenan is a known co-carcinogen in animal models of carcinogenesis• In animal models, both degraded and undegraded carrageenan have been associated with development of intestinal ulcerations that resemble ulcerative colitis
• Hydrolysis such as may occur by exposure to gastric acid in the human stomach can lead to the depolymerization of undegraded carrageenan and the availability of degraded carrageenan
• Food-grade carrageenan may be contaminated with low molecular weight, degraded carrageenan that may arise during food processing
• The use of a viscosity measurement to characterize a carrageenan sample is insufficient because the presence of a small number of large molecules (and undegraded carrageenan may have molecular weight in the millions) may obscure a significant low molecular weight fraction.

Personally, my soy milk is carrageenan free. I’m sure it creeps up in my diet elsewhere but when I can, I will be avoiding it.

  • Potassium Bromate: used as a flour enhancer – it increases the volume of bread and produces a fine crumb structure. Most bromate rapidly breaks down to form innocuous bromide during the baking process. The problem is that bromate itself is a known carcinogen in animals and if tiny amounts remain in the end product, it poses a risk to those who eat it. I dunno about you, but I’m getting pretty upset about the amount of known cancer-causing additives in our food products, even if “tiny” and in animals. Especially since many of them, including bromate have been banned everywhere else except in the United States (bromate is also allowed in Japan although most manufacturers have voluntary stopped using it.) Just a side note, if you live in California, you are less likely to consume it because a cancer warning is required on the label when they use it. I will mention many of the brands we are familiar with, like Pepperidge Farm, Arnolds, Entenmann’s and several large supermarket chains have switched to non-bromate bread more than a decade ago, but there are still several products on the market you should be aware of that still use it. For the most updated list I could find on the internet, click here.  If you aren’t sure, read the ingredients list and look for “potassium bromate” or “bromated flour.”

I’m gonna stop here for now because frankly, it takes quite a bit of research on my part to give you sound advice on what’s going on out there. I’m not about instilling the fear in you so you don’t want to eat anything and I know that the world of nutrition can be quite dramatic sometimes. Get on google for a few minutes and you will want to start your own garden and wonder if you have what it takes to milk a cow.

I am going to continue with this in future posts and I would love to hear from you. If there are any food additives or preservatives that you have been wondering about – safety, etc., please contact me or comment on this post.

P.S. If you’re looking for online support with like minded moms striving to live a healthier lifestyle, you may be interested in joining my free support group here.

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Jillian McMullen, RDN, CSOWM, LDN