The old adage says you can’t buy good health. That’s true, but you can certainly buy foods that give you your best chance for good health. And, on the opposite side of that coin, you can also most certainly buy foods that give you the best chance to have health problems.
That said, which foods are the right foods to eat and which ones are on the blacklist to avoid. Well, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is, healthy foods exists in abundance. The bad news is, many of the foods found on the blacklist taste really, really good—and that is usually due to the use of food additives.
The Good And The Bad
Want some fries with that shake?
Sure, why not. After all, what can be wrong with a potato? The answer is nothing. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a medium white potato contains approximately 160 calories, 1/4 gram of fat, 37 grams of carbohydrate, 4 grams of protein and 5 grams of dietary fiber. It also contains varying amounts of vitamins B3, B6 and C, pantothenic acid, potassium, copper, manganese and phosphorus.
But, according to the American Heart Association, when you fry that potato in saturated or trans fats, then you are introducing “bad cholesterol” into your bloodstream, increasing your chances of atherosclerosis, which can lead to heart attack or stroke. Trans fats have been shown to increase LDL (bad) cholesterol levels while simultaneously decreasing HDL (good) cholesterol levels.
Trans fats are one of many, many food additives that can adversely affect your health. These additives affect us in two ways—some are linked to cancer and other chemically induced diseases and some cause weight gain and can lead to type 2 diabetes. Some of these additives you may have heard of, but many either have slipped under the radar or go by aliases you may not recognize.
“Even trans fats, as much as we’ve heard of them in the news, can be hidden through tricky labeling,” says Carlos Serrano, Wellness Manager at Earth Fare in Ocala. “A label will rarely say ‘trans-fats,’ but instead might read hydrogenated vegetable oil or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. Deciphering food labels can be a challenge, even for consumers who are well informed.”
Serrano says that Earth Fare has an online “Food Boot List” that contains approximately 150 additives that are banned from the company’s shelves and that should be avoided by consumers.
“The products we carry are free of high fructose corn syrup, artificial fats and trans fats, artificial colors, artificial flavors, artificial preservatives, artificial sweeteners, bleached or bromated flour and administered antibiotics and synthetic growth hormones,” he says. “These are all food additives that we avoid, and we feel every consumer should avoid them also.”
What purpose do food additives serve? According to Serrano, additives are designed to improve freshness, taste, texture, appearance and to reduce cost; however, the company feels that additives do much more harm than good.
If these products are harmful to our health, then why can they be found in many of the products being sold in stores across America?
“Some additives have been deemed safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) but are known to be toxic by other U.S. regulatory agencies,” says Serrano. “A good example is butylated hydroxyanisole, or BHA. While it’s classified as ‘generally regarded as safe’ (GRAS) by the FDA, the National Toxicology Program rates BHA as ‘reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.’ Similarly, although potassium bromate, which is commonly used in baked goods, is a carcinogen in animals and has been banned in the use of food sold in Canada and the UK, its use is still sanctioned by the FDA.”
Serrano goes on to say that companies, such as Earth Fare, are there to read the labels for the consumer and to help shoppers make the right decisions.
“We have a team dedicated to evaluating research done on food additives and determining the healthiest options for our shoppers, regardless of what various regulatory agencies might decide,” he says. “If our team feels an ingredient could potentially harm our shoppers’ health, it won’t be put on our shelves.”
If harmful food additives are so prevalent in many of the items found in stores, what are our alternatives?
“The No. 1 thing someone can do to avoid foods with unhealthy additives is to eat a diet that is rich in plants, such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and to avoid processed foods that contain artificial ingredients and chemicals known to be harmful to our health,” says Serrano.
This sentiment is echoed by the USDA, which has developed the MyPlate program. This program is based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans that was created to help consumers make healthier food choices. MyPlate has a daily checklist that advises consumers on what foods to eat and how much to eat within their individual caloric allowance. Personalized food plans are based on age, sex, height, weight and physical activity level. The plan can be found online at cnpp.usda.gov/MyPlate.
Dietary plans, such as the Mediterranean Diet, also push natural alternatives to processed foods. This diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, olive oil, fish and poultry.
Additives To Avoid
According to the National Research Council (U.S.) Committee on Diet, Nutrition, and Cancer, “More than 2,500 chemical substances are intentionally added to foods to modify flavor, color, stability, texture or cost. In addition, an estimated 12,000 substances are used in such a way that they may unintentionally enter the food supply.” That’s a lot of additives, and not all of them have definitively been proven to be safe. Here are five that might best be avoided.
This additive is used as a preservative in sodas and a wide range of processed foods. By itself, a small amount of sodium benzoate is considered safe—in fact it can be found naturally in several fruits. However, when it is mixed with vitamin C, it produces benzene, a known carcinogen that can be found in products such as gasoline, construction adhesives and asphalt, to name a few. When you read a food label and see sodium benzoate listed as an ingredient, always check to determine if ascorbic acid (vitamin C) is listed also. If so, it might be best to avoid the product. Because sodium benzoate is naturally occurring, food-processing companies can label their products as “all-natural,” even when it has been added.
It can be found in soda, fruit juice, salsa, condiments, jams, jellies, pickles, dip, salad dressings, etc.
BHA and BHT
Butylated HydroxyAnisole (BHA) and Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) are petroleum-derived antioxidants used to preserve foods and cosmetics. Both have been found to induce cancer in laboratory animals. These additives are regarded as generally safe by the FDA but are considered likely to be carcinogens. Both are banned in Japan and many European countries.
BHA and BHT can be found in some breakfast cereals, crackers, potato chips, beer, butter, chewing gum, dry drink mixes, etc.
These fats are created when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil during processing. This process allows oil to remain solid at room temperature and gives certain foods a longer shelf life. It is used in restaurant deep fryers because it has to be changed out less often, thus saving on costs. It goes under the names partially hydrogenated vegetable oil or hydrogenated vegetable oil.
Trans fats can be found in shortening, cookies, cakes, baked goods, frozen pizza crusts, biscuits, some candies, French fries, some peanut butter, donuts, chips, canned doughs, cake frosting, some popcorn, non-dairy creamers, stick margarine, etc.
High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)
The FDA has declared HFCS to be safe for use in food manufacturing. It may not have carcinogenic effects, but it does adversely affect our health in two ways: through added calories and increased blood glucose levels. This sweetener is manufactured from cornstarch and replaces granulated sugar in an effort to lower food production costs.
HFCS can be found in soda, fruit juice, candy of all types, bread, steak sauce, salad dressing, ketchup, syrup (replaces maple syrup), canned fruit, peanut butter, flavored milk, canned soups, cranberry sauce, cottage cheese, boxed stuffing, etc.
This list includes saccharin and aspartame. Both of these additives are hundreds of times sweeter than sugar and in some independent studies have been linked to the formation of cancer in laboratory animals. The FDA has approved them for use based on industry studies, but outside organizations, such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest has listed them as additives to “avoid.”
Artificial sweeteners are found in soda, ice cream, baked goods, canned fruit, chewing gum, jelly, fruit juice, etc.
These blacklisted food additives are only a very small portion of those used in processed foods, fast foods and prepared foods. Make yourself aware of all the ingredients found in the foods you eat, and once you have the knowledge, then make it a point to avoid foods containing additives that may be harmful to your health.
Remember another old adage, “Not everything that tastes good is good for you.”