Most of the health problems associated with the American diet could be eliminated by cooking our own meals and avoiding processed foods, especially ultra-processed ones. Or so we are told! But cooking at home may not be as easy as it sounds, particularly for families who are poor, have limited access to supermarkets, or have some form of disability. The knock against ultra-processed foods is that they use industrial ingredients that are not available to home cooks. Is that really accurate? I took the worst of the worst Badditives out there to see if I could actually order them from amazon.com. Even I was surprised at what I learned. If you wish to order any of these products from amazon, click on their image.
Artificial colors have been around for a long time. I can remember the four-color packets my mother used to buy to color Easter eggs and icing on her home-made cakes. Based on the availability of the shades for sale on amazon it seems like food colors have come a long way since then. They have been linked to hyperactivity and cancer, but the evidence is not conclusive enough to have them banned. I remember my grad research at the University of Florida on extracting natural colors from blueberries and red cabbage using methanol and sulfur dioxide (1). What a nasty process! I don’t go out of my way to consume artificial colors, but I am not consciously avoiding them either. After dealing with natural colors, I feel much safer consuming the artificial ones than natural ones.
Aspartame is the artificial sweetener found in many soft drinks and other diet products. It is readily available on grocery store shelves or the little blue packets on restaurant tables. It is composed to two common amino acids found in virtually all proteins. The molecule has been charged with causing migraine headaches, a decrease in insulin sensitivity in diabetics, vision and hearing problems, mood disorders, chronic inflammation, difficulty losing weight, seizures, abdominal pain and cramping, and even blood cancers. Pretty scary! Many of these symptoms are also associated with getting older.
I consume anywhere from 2 to 5 diet drinks daily since I was diagnosed with prediabetes almost 35 years ago. The only symptom of those listed above that I have experienced personally is possible inflammation associated with digestive issues although I have not experienced abdominal pain or cramping. Now I am just one person and such evidence should be considered anecdotal just like many personal testimonials on the internet. I have known several friends who appear to be sensitive to aspartame, particularly with respect to headaches. I appear to be sensitive to gluten and lactose. It is easier to avoid aspartame than avoid gluten and lactose in food products.
BHT and BHA are industrial antioxidants that are widely used in ultra-processed foods. As if BHT and BHA are not frightening enough, they are abbreviations of butylatedhydroxytoluene and butylatedhydroxyanisole! These additives are accused of causing allergic reactions, kidney and liver problems and even cancer in mice and rats when consumed at high doses. Antioxidants in foods are not present at high doses. Antioxidants are added to food products to keep the fats (lipids) from oxidizing, which is important because oxidized fats are toxic and can lead to “inflammation, atherosclerosis, neurogenerative diseases and cancer.” Natural antioxidants such as Alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E) and Beta-carotene (pro-vitamin A) are thought to be antiaging agents. Ascorbic acid (vitamin C) makes tocopherol more effective by helping regenerate oxidized tocopherol molecules.
Why don’t we use tocopherols instead of BHT or BHA in foods? Tocopherols are incredibly effective antioxidants in our bodies but not very protective of oxidation in our food. Such molecules are near and dear to my heart as my PhD research focused on lipid oxidation in flounder muscle (2) and my later research at the University of Georgia looked at the role of lipid oxidation in the development of a storage disorder in fresh, refrigerated bell peppers (3). Of all of the ingredients profiled in this post, BHT and BHA are the most industrial ones of the group. I was surprised that I could even purchase them from Amazon! Sorry, an image was not available. Click here to order.
Carrageenan comes from seaweed. How much more natural can an ingredient get? Possible side effects and dangers of the ingredient include allergic reactions, bloating, glucose intolerance, inflammation, irritable bowel disease, and colon cancer. It is used as a thickener and preventing separation of gels and emulsions, such as plant-based milks. It is a godsend for people who are looking for substitutes for dairy products.
High fructose corn syrup is another one of those industrial ingredients I did not expect to be readily available to home cooks, but there it is on amazon.com. Some of the purported consequences of consuming HFCS are diabetes, high blood pressure, liver damage, obesity, and weight gain. The suggested alternative is raw honey. Unfortunately, honey has a very similar level of fructose as the modified corn syrup and raw types of the natural sweetener are dangerous for babies to consume. Mayo Clinic attributes the dangers of HFCS to its status as a sugar and consider it to be no more dangerous than any other widely consumed sugar, including honey. HFCS is easier to dissolve in our morning cup of coffee and can be purchased in this convenient plastic container!
MSG or monosodium glutamate is perhaps the most widely condemned food additive on the planet. Although simply the sodium salt of one of the most common amino acids found in almost all protein, it has been described as a “silent killer lurking in your kitchen cabinets.” Does it really lead to depression, fatigue, eye damage, headaches and obesity? I am proud to announce that it doesn’t lurk in my kitchen cabinet. It sits prominently on the island in my kitchen in the form of Accent. It is a flavor enhancer that can make an ordinary home-prepared meal into an extra-special one at a lower level of sodium than using table salt. I have been enjoying MSG-enhanced tuna sandwiches since I was a kid!
Transglutaminase is the badditive I least likely expected to find on amazon, but it was there too. Of all the additives I tracked down with the help of on Dr. Google for this post, I had the most difficulty finding scare stories and potential dangers associated with transglutaminase. It is a natural enzyme found in plants and animals, even humans. The enzyme is used to bind proteins such as meats together to make them look solid rather than fragmented. A prime example would be frozen crab meat pieces bound together.
The most valid criticism of the ingredient is that it could confuse customers into thinking that they are buying more expensive cuts of meats instead of a fusion of smaller, less valuable cuts. I did find an article delving further into my google search that accused transglutaminase of causing autoimmune, neurological, ocular (vision), and cardiovascular disorders. It should be noted that all enzymes are proteins and that proteins are broken down in the digestive system to their component amino acids.
Bottom line. The idea that Big Food is using ingredients that are unavailable to home cooks can easily be disproven by a search on amazon.com. Many of these purported dangers from consuming these additives are either made up or taken out of context. In some cases the effects are shown in studies challenging animals with massive amounts of the ingredient when very small amounts are found in the foods we consume. Or the scare stories emanate from over-reaction to results from a single study. An example of such an overreach is evident in the recent story on the dangers of coffee creamer. Five additives from these creamers are condemned by charges similar to those described above. Seven alternatives including raw vanilla extract, raw coconut milk, maple extract and collagen are suggested. None of the scrutiny of dangers posed by each of these home additives or the caffeine in the coffee itself are mentioned.
A careful review of the studies on caffeine (4) suggests that the dangers of excess consumption of caffeine would be greater than ingestion of any of industrial ingredients mentioned in this post. I willingly consume products with most of these additives and much higher levels of caffeine. The only molecule of those described above that concerns me is caffeine. I monitor my caffeine intake carefully to ensure that I am not consuming too much of it. Whether it is from home-meal kits or off-the-shelf products or ingredients, it is incredibly difficult for a wage-earning American who cooks all meals from scratch to avoid these industrial ingredients. I don’t buy into the scares. I try to eat responsibly and enjoy my meals which are a mix of whole and processed foods.
Next week: Nutrition Made Clear from The Great Courses
(1) Shewfelt, R.L. 1977. Evaluation of anthocyanin powdered extracts as red colorants for dry beverage mixes. M.S. Thesis. University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida.
(2) Shewfelt, R.L. and H.O. Hultin, 1983. Inhibition of enzymic and non-enzymic of lipid peroxidation of flounder muscle sarcoplasmic reticulum by pretreatment with phospholipase A2. Bochimica et Biophysica Acta 753:432-438.
(3) Purvis, A.C., R.L. Shewfelt and J.W. Gegogeine, 1995. Superoxide production by mitochondria isolated from green bell pepper fruit. Physiolgia Plantarum 94:743-749.
(4) Doepker, C., K. Franke, E. Myers, J.J. Goldberger, H.R. Lieberman, C. O’Brien, J. Peck, M. Tenenbein, C. Weaver, and D. Wikoff, 2018. Key findings and implications of a recent systematic review of potential adverse effects of caffeine consumption in healthy adults, pregnant women, adolescents, and children. Nutrients 10:1536-1558.