Welcome to a new series called Is My Food Safe? I’ll feature topics regarding pollutants, additives, GMO’s, artificial sugars, and much more so you can rest easy when choosing foods to nourish your body.
If you missed the last one on microplastics in seafood, you can check it out here!
First of all, I said this last time and it’s important to say it again!
THE TRUTH IS THAT OUR FOOD SUPPLY IS THE SAFEST IT HAS EVER BEEN.
Between the USDA and the DHHS (Department of Health and Human Services), which includes the FDA and the CDC, there are quality controls regarding processed foods as well as processes in place to deal with any food borne illness outbreaks.
Therefore, when it comes to this series of topics, I want to start by saying that I trust the process for food sold in the US, and that it is safe. Is there room for improvement? Of course, just like anything else! But I do not think that anyone is hiding anything, and actually I believe we have the safest food supply in the world, and we should be confident in that.
As we dive into these topics, I encourage you to think to yourself the following questions:
- How often do I eat this food?
- What portion size do I typically eat?
For most of us, this information will be interesting, but likely will not change our consumption behavior, because we tend to eat such a varied diet (a good thing!), and the amount we consume wouldn’t make a difference in our health outcomes even if there are some concerns about it.
Now – back to the topic at hand!
What Are Additives and Preservatives in Our Food?
Any substance added to food at any point of the production timeline that affects its characteristics or becomes a component in food is an additive or preservative.
Additives and preservatives are substances that improve safety and freshness, preserve nutrients, and create better taste, texture, and appearance.
A color additive is a dye or pigment added to prevent color loss from storage conditions, correct color variations, enhance color, and introduce color in colorless foods. They have to be certified or deemed exempt from certification by the FDA for brands to use them in food.
Direct vs. indirect additives
- Added to food for a specific purpose.
- Found on nutrition label
- Example: Xanthan gum used for thickening foods
- Are introduced to food in trace amounts from storage, packaging, or handling.
Direct additives are used for good reason, and makes it much easier on us as consumers! Having an attitude that you should never eat something that has additives or preservatives is not necessary. We can celebrate the food technology that we are able to take advantage of and be grateful for a food supply that keeps us safe!
How Are They Regulated?
Companies must petition for FDA approval to gain use of a new additive or an approved additive that’s being used in a new way. The FDA assesses the chemical makeup of additives, health effects, the amount being used, and ensures the safety of additives.
If approved, the FDA releases regulations on usage and label identification. The FDA is also required to consult with the USDA for additives proposed in meat products.
Are They Safe?
While relying on processed foods has been linked to increases chronic diseases like obesity, heart disease, and cancer, the FDA has almost 4000 ingredients on their Substances Added to Foods list that have been extensively tested for safety.
As added protection on animal products, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), with the USDA, helps the FDA extensively test safety. The FDA makes the blanket regulations on food but FSIS can make stricter regulations applying to animal products.
With all of the safety protocols surrounding food additives and preservatives, the FDA and USDA make it so food is safe and to quality standards.
Some Common Additives And Preservatives
- Phosphates: Used in meat to prevent moisture and flavor loss.
- Guar Gum: A carbohydrate used to bind and stabilize a food.
- Ascorbic Acid: A synthetic antioxidant used to regulate acidity and add vitamin C.
- Lecithin: A lipid that emulsifies a food item.
What Additives Or Preservatives Should I Minimize?
- Sodium Nitrates: Stabilize color, flavor meat, and stop bacteria growth. Nitrates turn into nitrosamines when heated or come in contact with stomach acid. They are associated with increased risk of pancreatic and colorectal cancer.
- Trans fats: Associated with increased risk of heart disease. Increases shelf life and consistency of products.
- Monosodium Glutamate or MSG: Used in Asian cuisine for flavor. Some people may be sensitive to MSG and should avoid it. But, studies show that those who were sensitive were eating large amounts of MSG. Reference the article at the bottom for more information on MSG.
- Sulfites: A type of preservative that is sometimes known to affect asthma. Using sulfites on fresh fruit and vegetables has been banned in the United States.
Tips For Avoiding Unwanted Additives
- Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, nuts, whole grains, and other foods that don’t have additives
- Choose frozen produce if you can’t do fresh
- Cook your meals yourself as much as possible
- Read the label
WHAT DOES JULIE DO?
For most of my food, I try to buy the simplest version possible, and flavor it myself at home (plain yogurt, plain triscuit crackers, plain cheerios, etc). When I buy a food with additives that I think I will eat frequently, I read the ingredient list. But if it’s a food I’m just having occasionally, I don’t even worry about it!
Hope that helps!
– Julie & Intern Elly
For More Reading Check Out These Articles!
- International Food Information Counsel(IFIC) and the FDA 2010: Overview of Food Ingredients, Additives, & Colors
- USDA article 2015: Additives in Meat and Poultry Products
- Michigan State University article 2019: Preservatives – Keeping Our Foods Safe & Fresh
- Center for Science in the Public Interest Information on Food Additives: https://www.cspinet.org/eating-healthy/chemical-cuisine
- Center for Science in the Public Interest Information on MSG: https://www.cspinet.org/article/msg-monosodium-glutamate