“Yum, sodium nitrate!” Ever hear someone say that before sinking their teeth into a juicy hot dog or some crispy bacon?
Probably not. Most of us aren’t aware of the chemicals in our cuisine. Yet additive-laced processed foods have become more American than apple pie.
A recent study estimates that highly processed foods make up nearly 60% of the American diet.
Processed food, hidden dangers
Food that is processed has been altered, in some way, from its natural state. It’s often more convenient and less expensive.
“Processed foods have often have been treated with additives – substances that add color, enhance flavor or increase shelf life, for example,” says dietitian Kate Patton. “Additives are not necessarily bad. Most foods require them to prevent spoilage and maintain their nutritional value.”
In fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved thousands of food additives.
Consuming small amounts of additives may be safe, but the health risks add up if you rely heavily on processed foods. A diet rich in processed foods is linked to chronic diseases such as obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease and cancer.
Additives to think twice about
- Sodium nitrites. These additives help stabilize, color and flavor meat, and prevent harmful bacterial growth. But when meat is heated at high temperatures or combined with stomach acid, sodium nitrite produces nitrosamines. Nitrosamines are linked to an increased risk of pancreatic and colorectal cancer.
- Sulfites. Sulfites are a preservative many people are sensitive to that can severely aggravate asthma. Their use on fresh fruits and vegetables is banned in the United States, but sulfites are present in other foods. (Avoid products listing sulfur dioxide, potassium bisulfite, sodium bisulfite or sodium sulfite on the label.)
- Trans fats. The FDA has banned trans fats in food because they increase the risk of heart disease. Manufacturers use these partially hydrogenated oils to improve the shelf life and consistency of cookies, crackers and other packaged foods.
- Monosodium glutamate (MSG). This enhances flavor and texture in Asian foods, in soups and in other processed foods. People sensitive to MSG can experience nausea, breathing problems and other reactions. MSG adds extra sodium that can also elevate blood pressure. (MSG occurs in some foods naturally; any added by a manufacturer is labeled monosodium glutamate).
- FD&C yellow no. 5 and no. 6. These artificial coloring agents, used in candy and cereal, can cause severe allergic reactions in those with asthma. Some research also suggests a link with hyperactivity in children, but this has not been proven.
How to avoid unhealthy additives
To be safe, it’s wise to choose foods that are in their natural state and color. The best way to eat healthy is to:
- Look to the farm. Fill up on fresh foods and minimize processed foods. Shop at your local farmer’s market or sign up for CSA (community-supported agriculture) deliveries of fresh produce.
- Do frozen if you can’t do fresh. If fresh foods aren’t available or accessible where you live, choose frozen fruits and vegetables without any additives.
- Be your own chef. Cook your own meals so you know what you’re eating. Avoid prepackaged, precooked meals.
- Read the label. Check the list of ingredients before adding food to your grocery cart. Don’t buy products with known additives, and beware of any ingredients you can’t pronounce.
“Follow these tips to enjoy food that is not only more nutritious but also fresher and more naturally flavorful,” Patton says.