Food additive-ese is a new language many Americans choose to ignore. Why? Unless you are a chemist, chances are you don’t understand much of what is on a typical food label. You just know it tastes good and it hasn’t killed you yet. Surely there are institutions watching out for our general health and well being and of course, food additives are added to packaged and processed foods in small amounts. However, those small amounts start to add up if you continually eat processed foods. In addition those additives may produce allergic reactions such as headaches, fatigue and bloating which is often blamed on something else.
The average American consumes about 150 pounds of food additives a year in the form of sugar, sweeteners, salt, flavors, colorings, and preservatives. Why do we consume so many food additives? Packaged food is easy. You unwrap it, throw it in the microwave and you have an instant dinner that is delicious. Also, packaged and processed foods can last for years. Have you ever heard that there are so many chemicals in a Twinkie that they will last for 25 years, even exposed on a roof? Okay, that is an urban myth but there is no doubt an entire un-pronounceable list on a Twinkie label. (Sorry Twinkie fans)
For example, let’s take everyone’s favorite yogurt – Yoplait Strawberry Yogurt. The ingredients are:
Cultured Pasteurized Grade A Low Fat Milk, Sugar, Strawberries, Modified Corn Starch, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Nonfat Milk, Kosher Gelatin, Citric Acid, Tricalcium Phosphate, Natural Flavor, Pectin, Colored with Carmine, Vitamin A Acetate, Vitamin D3.
The good news is that Yoplait announced last year that they will use not use cow’s milk treated with growth hormones. The not so good news is some of the ingredients in this tasty yogurt is not exactly contributing to your overall health and well being.
Sugar, sugar and more sugar!! I have highlighted the sugar in the ingredients list. Note that 108 of the 170 calories are from sugar! This makes the small container of yogurt 17% sugar and 63% of the calories in Yoplait Strawberry Yogurt are from sugar!
I think we are all still trying to figure out what constitutes “natural flavors.” The definition of “natural flavor” under the Code of Federal Regulations is: “the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.
What does that mean? A natural flavor is a man-made additive, and it makes processed food and fast food taste delicious. This natural flavor is created by “flavorists” and they are employed by the American flavor industry, which in 2001 had an annual revenue of approximately 1.4 billion dollars. In 2006, the global flavor and fragrance market was worth $18 billion.
There is not enough scientific evidence yet to determine if natural flavors are bad for you. However, they contain chemically processed ingredients and with that information, hopefully you may be more inclined to eat natural whole foods instead.
Kosher gelatin is made by boiling beef skin or fish bones. It is used a food thickener and stabilizer.
Carmine is an artificial coloring and it is made from the eggs of the cochineal beetle. It is used to give foods a red, pink or purple coloring. It can produce a severe allergic reaction in sensitive individuals including life-threatening anaphylactic reactions. The United States requires labeling only of natural colorings that cause allergic reactions, so beginning on January 5, 2011, carmine will have to be declared in ingredient lists.
Modified corn starch is used as a fat substitute or thickener. It gives us that nice smooth creamy taste that Yoplait has to offer. The downside is that in order to make modified corn starch it goes through a highly chemically heated process using regular cornstarch, propylene oxide (a petroleum product made from natural gas), chlorine and hydrochloric acid. Hold on, there is one more – phosphorus oxychloride which is a substance so reactive and volatile it is handled as a hazardous material.
Citric Acid is a flavoring agent and preservative. It occurs naturally in a variety of fruits and vegetables in minute amounts. It is not considered a health risk.
Pectin is used as a thickener. It is not considered a health risk.
Tricalcium phosphate, Vitamin A Acetate and Vitamin D3 are all vitamins that are used to fortify the yogurt.
Now, let’s compare Yoplait with Fage Greek Yogurt. The ingredients are:
Grade A Pasteurized Skimmed Milk, Live Active Yogurt Cultures (L. Bulgaricus, S. Thermophilus)
There are two ingredients and it doesn’t take a true chemist to identify those two ingredients: milk and live yogurt cultures. Greek yogurt may not be as sweet but that is why you top it with your favorite fruit such as berries, bananas or peaches.
Additionally, if you are trying to kick your sugar habit, this is a great breakfast choice, not to mention an excellent source of protein with a healthy dose of fruit.
Again, if your goal is to eat whole foods and improve your health it is essential to stick to foods that do not contain a large number of ingredients and that you can easily pronounce. To survive in the grocery store, remember that any more than 5 ingredients is risky. Also, the ingredients on food labels are given in order of quantity by weight. For example, if a label that reads, black beans, water, corn syrup and salt, note that black beans compose the largest amount of weight in that food product.
Now can you speak Food additive-ese?
Live well and love food!!
Melany Palacios, MNT
An A-Z Guide to Food Additives – Deanna M. Minich
Twinkie Deconstructed – Steve Ettlinger
A Consumer’s Dictionary of Food Additives – Ruth Winter