What's In Your Processed Foods?
If there’s something good you can say about processed foods, it’s this: They are popular because they’re convenient. Processed foods can be less expensive than whole foods and homemade variations. And they can typically be prepared, served and cleaned up quickly and easily.
Unfortunately, that’s where the pros stop and where the cons take over – and the cons are not good.
What qualifies as a processed food?
More on the bad stuff in a minute. First, let’s talk about what qualifies as a “processed food.” Food processing levels range from minimal, such as frozen fruit and canned vegetables, to ultra-processed, like frozen pizza and packaged soup.
Minimally processed foods are generally preserved vegetables and fruit. They may have added salt or other preservatives, but they’re not what nutritionists are complaining about when they talk about processed foods. In fact, some preservation methods for minimally processed fruits and veggies can enhance a food’s nutrition.
At the other end of the spectrum, highly processed foods barely resemble their ingredients and have lots of added preservatives and other ingredients that make them less nutritious. They’re more likely to contain ingredients that are unhealthy – and lots of them.
About 77 percent of food purchased at grocery stores are processed and about 62 percent is highly processed, according to Integrative Nutrition. But processed foods aren’t limited to supermarkets. You also can buy them at convenience stores and in vending machines; many restaurants also use processed foods when they create meals, from prepackaged sauces to breads and pastas.
Let’s look at a few of the most purchased processed foods -- breads, peanut butter and prepackaged lunch meats. Most people don’t have the time to make their own bread or peanut butter; many people don’t want to spend a lot of money for higher quality meats.
These foods often taste better than homemade versions, which may sound odd. There’s a simple explanation – additives. Many of the ingredients added by manufacturers are designed to make foods taste better. Unfortunately, it’s these additives that generally make processed foods unhealthy, and they can contribute to a wide range of health issues.
Here’s a breakdown of some commonly added ingredients.
Natural vs. Artificial Additives
Food manufactures add flavorings to food to enhance the taste and aroma of food, appealing to your senses. Flavoring can be broken down into two categories -- natural and artificial.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hasn’t defined natural flavorings; yet many people assume that natural flavoring are healthier than artificial. But the truth is, the only difference between them is their base. A natural flavoring can be rooted in a spice, fruit, fruit juice, vegetable, vegetable juice, edible yeast, herbs, bard, bud, roots, leaves, meat, poultry, seafood, eggs or dairy products. Artificial flavors are often petroleum-based.
Both types of flavorings are comparable nutritionally and chemically and are created in laboratories, commonly using chemicals like methyl cyclopentenolone, diacetyl, methyl methoxy pyrazine, citral, amyl acetate, castoreum and benzaldehyde to enrich flavor and scent. Ironically, some natural flavorings actually contain more chemicals than artificial ones.
Both types of flavorings are evaluated by an expert panel on the Flavor Extract Manufacturers Association. A report is submitted to the FDA. If it meets their safety requirements, it’s deemed “Generally Recognized as Safe,” added to a list of assessed substances and exempt from further testing.
While these substances are generally safe, they can:
- Trigger allergic reactions and food sensitivities
- Exacerbate asthma symptoms
- Cause abdominal pain and gastrointestinal symptoms
“If you’re experiencing any of these issues, begin a food diary,” says Bernard Kaminetsky, MD, medical director, MDVIP. “Do your best to pinpoint culprit foods. If the food is processed, check the ingredients. Pay attention to the additives, including flavorings. There may be an ingredient that doesn’t agree with you.”
Pigments, Dyes and Lakes
Not all additives are for flavor. Color additives are added to augment the appearance of foods, playing on your senses. Food color additives are generally:
- Dyes that dissolve in water. They’re available in several different forms (powders, granules, liquid). Dyes are used in beverages, dry mixes, baked goods, dairy products, jams, pie fillings, popsicles and pudding.
- Lakes, which don’t dissolve in water. They’re used in foods that have fat or oil or lack moisture to dissolve a dye. Examples include candy, chewing gums, cheese, cake and donut mixes, coated tablets.
Color additives can be synthetic, often prepared with petroleum, or natural – extracted from natural pigments such as turmeric, carotenoids, chlorophyll, anthocyanin, matcha, cyanobacteria, spirulina and metals. Many manufactures prefer synthetic colors over pigmented color because they’re more intense, easier to blend and inexpensive. Natural color additives are stable in ultraviolet light (synthetic colors are not), but they tend to be more expensive than synthetic and can change the flavor of food.
Synthetic color additives undergo FDA certification, while natural color additives are exempt. Safety of these additives is evaluated during the certification process. As a result, a handful of color additives have been banned. However, many additives continue being added to food despite possible links to allergic reactions, cancer and nerve and chromosomal damage because there’s not enough scientific evidence to warrant banning them.
“Unfortunately, food colorants are added to many processed foods. My advice is to read labels and limit your intake of foods with a long list of dyes in them,” says Kaminetsky. “Sodas, candies and sugary cereals are just some examples.”
The average American consumes about 3,400 mg of salt each day, 1,100 mg more than the FDA recommends. While some of our salt consumption comes from salty snacks, more than 70 percent of it comes from processed, prepackaged or restaurant foods, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Since most Americans no longer cook food from scratch, they rely on ready-made foods, which makes it difficult for the average American to significantly reduce their salt intake.
Salt is used as a flavor enhancer and preservative. But too much salt raises your risk for high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, heart attack and stroke. Salt also redirects calcium from bones to the urinary tract for excretion, raising your chances for osteoporosis. And research suggests that too much salt might weaken the immune system.
“Lowering your salt intake is often more difficult than it seems,” Kaminetsky says. “The real culprit are ready-made, store-bought items such as sauces, gravies, breads and seasoned frozen foods.”
Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a flavor enhancer commonly used as ingredient in many processed and restaurant foods. It’s also a neurotransmitter – a chemical substance that’s able to transmit signals between nerve cells. This has led to extensive research on the effects MSG may have on the brain. However, as of now, studies have not found MSG to be dangerous for brain health. And the FDA recognizes MSG as being safe but requires it to be listed as an ingredient. Many people may have a reaction to MSG including:
- Face pressure or tightness
- Lack of feeling (numbness), tingling or burning in the face, neck and other areas
- Quick, fluttering heartbeats
- Chest pain
- Feeling sick (nausea)
“If you have a history of reacting to MSG, avoid food products and restaurants that use it,” says Kaminetsky. “Get into the habit of reading labels and asking restaurant staff about the ingredients used in dishes.”
Sweeteners in foods can be broken down into two categories – natural and added. Foods with natural sugar include fruits and some vegetables (fructose) and milk and other dairy products (lactose). Natural sugars are simple carbohydrates that have value. For example, they provide energy for your body and help stabilize your metabolism.
In most cases, if food contains sugar, it’s probably been added. Added sugars and syrups are processed and considered “empty calories.” That means they don’t have any nutritional value and contribute to:
- High triglycerides
- High blood pressure
- Chronic inflammation
- Type 2 diabetes
- Heart disease
- Weaken immune system
- Tooth decay
Obviously, added sugar sweetens foods. But there are a handful of other reasons manufacturers add sugar to food, according to The American Sugar Cane League. Sugar can:
- Provide flavor, texture and color to baked goods
- Serve as a preservative, particularly in fruit jams
- Help breads and other baked goods rise
- Bulk up baked goods and ice cream
- Balance acidity in vinegar- or tomato-based foods like tomato sauces
- Impart a satisfying “mouth-feel” in beverages
- Enhance flavor in condiments, sauces and dressings
The American Heart Association recommends that women limit their daily intake of added sugar to 100 calories, which is about six teaspoons or 24 grams. For perspective, one serving of fruit-flavored low-fat yogurt has around 25 grams of sugar. Men shouldn’t exceed 150 calories of added sugar per day; this is about nine teaspoons or 36 grams. A honey bran muffin has about 39 grams of sugar.
“It doesn’t take much to hit your daily recommended limit for sugar,” says Kaminetsky. “And if you’re eating processed foods, there’s a good chance you’re eating far more sugar than you realize.”
Fortunately, there are tactics you can take to help control your sugar intake. But this is often easier said than done — many foods are surprisingly high in sugar. Reading labels will help you keep track of your sugar grams, just keep in mind that manufacturers use a wide range of terms to describe sugar.
Another popular tactic is natural sugar alternatives. And if you’re using sugar substitutes or processed foods that use sugar substitutes, stay on top of the research. The health effects of sugar substitutes have been questioned years, but the FDA has classified them as “generally recognized as safe” or GRAS. However, Israeli scientists recently found that sugar alternatives can affect gut microbiomes, ultimately influencing blood sugar levels, according to a study published in Cell.
And if you’re watching your carb intake, you’re probably familiar with sugar alcohols (polyols). These are sugar alternatives derived from carbohydrates formed in specific fruits, vegetables and mushrooms. They also can be manufactured. They’re a popular choice as a sugar substitute because they have less calories than sugar. They’re commonly used in chewing gum, candies, granola bars, ice cream and beverages. They are deemed safe by the FDA but are known to cause some gastrointestinal distress, which is why it’s probably a good idea to check ingredients for sugar alcohols on foods labeled sugar free.
Most processed foods have preservatives, compounds that slows bacterial growth on food, preventing spoilage and contamination, and prolonging shelf life. They’re what helps your loaf of store-bought bread safely last a week, as opposed to just several days.
Salt and sugar are examples of natural preservatives. But there’s a very long list of synthetic preservatives, some of which are toxic. Here are seven preservatives with potential risk for health issues that you may want to watch out for when buying processed foods.
Sodium Benzoate is the sodium salt of benzoate that’s naturally found in cinnamon, cranberries and apples. But it also used as a preservative and anti-fungal in pharmaceutical products and processed foods such as sauerkraut, jellies and jams, and sauces. Some preliminary studies suggest sodium benzoate might contribute the development of:
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
- Oxidative Stress
Sodium Nitrite is a type of white salt used for preserving meats including deli meats, canned meats, bacon, sausages and cured meats. It’s naturally found in some vegetables and commonly used as fertilizer, which means it can contaminate tap water, particularly well water. Ingesting sodium nitrite raises your risk for heart disease and diabetes
Sodium Sulfites occur in wine and are added to dried fruits to retain freshness. However, sulfite sensitivities exist and can exacerbate asthma and cause breathing difficulties, headaches and rashes
Sulfur Dioxide is a preservative and antioxidant used to prolong the shelf life of various foods. The FDA banned it’s use on raw vegetables and fruits, as it can be toxic. But even when used in beer, soft drinks, juices, wine, vinegar, potato products, shrimp, pickled foods and dried fruit, it can exacerbate asthma and cause:
- Breathing problems
- Low blood pressure
- Tingling sensations
- Anaphylactic shock
Ingesting sulfur dioxide is not recommended for children or anyone with lung disease, heart disease or prone to conjunctivitis.
Propylparaben is a naturally occurring substance in many plants and insects. But it’s also created synthetically and added to cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, bread products (including tortillas) and food dyes. It also can be found in beverages, dairy products, meat and vegetables due to cross contamination. It’s generally recognized as safe (GRAS), but preliminary studies suggest propylparaben may affect:
- Sperm count
- Your endocrine system
Experts recommend checking labels for its use. It may appear on a label as propyl paraben or an alternate name like 4-Hydroxybenzoesäurepropylester; propyl paraben; propyl p-hydroxybenzoate; propyl parahydroxybenzoate; nipasol; or E216.
Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) are closely related synthetic antioxidants added to cosmetics and food products like cereals, chewing gum, potato chips, shortening, jello, gum, lard, enriched rice and vegetable oils. BHA and BHT help stabilize color and flavor of foods and stave off rancidity. But its consumption has ties to potential neurological changes.
Thickeners are used to improve the viscosity of a recipe, without changing the flavor. If you cook, your go-to thickeners are probably cornstarch, all-purpose flour, tapioca, arrowroot, rice flour and/or potato starch, whereas manufacturers are likely to use proteins (eggs, collagen, gelatin) and fats (butter, oil, lard), which are deemed safe. Sometimes, they use polysaccharides, a type of complex carbohydrate, most of which are questionable for your health. Here’s a common list.
- Pectin – a plant fiber that can interfere with the body’s ability to absorb beta-carotene, the precursor to vitamin A.
- Guar gum - a vegetable gum that can cause gastrointestinal bloating and discomfort. Researchers have found that it aids in the overgrowth of E.Coli in animal studies.
- Gellan gum – a vegetable gum that basic research studies found to disrupt the lining of digestive tracts in animals.
- Carob/locust bean gum – a vegetable gum that can cause gastrointestinal bloating.
- Lecithin gum – a vegetable gum that can cause gastrointestinal distress.
- Soy lecithin - a soy additive that can help lower cholesterol and raises choline – an essential nutrient -- so it has benefits. However, soy allergies are common and since it’s a phytoestrogen, some oncologists advise breast cancer patients to avoid it. And a good portion of our soy supply is genetically modified (GMO), a concern for many people.
- Carrageenan – a type of seaweed that after processing can cause gastrointestinal distress. Preliminary studies found carrageenan induced tumors and ulcers in animals.
- Xanthum gum – a vegetable gum that can cause gastrointestinal distress and increase frequency of bacterial infections and intestinal inflammation in infants.
“There are many more food additives than the ones listed, here. This is why I encourage people to limit processed foods. Whole foods and cooking from scratch allow you to choose healthier ingredients and skip additives,” says Kaminetsky. “But of course, that’s not always feasible. If you are eating processed foods, learn to read labels. Get acquainted with different ingredients and understand their effects on your health. You might find yourself overhauling your diet. If so, just make sure you discuss the dietary changes with your doctor.”
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