Written by ELA LINDSAY Photos by MICHAEL COONS
Many of us choose our foods based on the sexy images printed on the packaging as well as the phrases claiming that the contents may “lower cholesterol,” “provide all the calcium we need” or “improve heart health.”
Maybe a glance at the ingredients label will give the shopper more information about what they’re about to consume . . . and maybe not.
Generally, we trust that government regulations are in place to protect us from harm. But if your diet includes processed foods and beverages, even those labeled “natural,” you’re still consuming ingredients that, at the very least may surprise you, like arsenic, bleach, carnauba wax and coal tar.
Thousands of food additives approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have been designated as “generally recognized as safe”—or GRAS. But some of those additives that have passed as “generally safe” are unsettling.
Consider what’s included in the term “natural products and flavorings”—those that have been extracted from plant or animal matter.
Castoreum, for example, is derived from secretions in beavers’ castor sacs. Natural? Technically, yes. But is it something most of us would consider edible? Yet castoreum is found in many products with added flavoring, such as candy, fruit-flavored drinks, gelatin, ice cream and yogurt.
The yuck factor elevates a notch when consumers learn that some red food dyes are made from bugs. According to WebMD.com, the red cochineal bug is used to add a “pink blush to candies, ice creams, yogurts, fruit juices, cheese and even butter.” Although the bug is considered a natural food coloring—listed on labels as cochineal extract or carmine—and it appears safe, it has been known to cause reactions in some people.
Even staples like meat, bread and dairy products contain additives that make buying and eating nutritious food as tricky as maneuvering through a minefield. Trying to decipher what’s in sports drinks, sodas and snacks may make the discerning consumer ask what these strange ingredients are doing in our food.
“The reason (additives) are put in processed food is to preserve color and for flavor enhancement,” says Dr. Sharon Norling, a Westlake Village physician who is nationally board-certified in integrative medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, and medical acupuncture.
Additives are used for other reasons as well: as preservatives, emulsifiers, stabilizers, thickeners, binders, fat replacers, texturizers and replacements for vitamins and minerals lost in processing.
Who would have guessed that cooking sprays and canned whipped cream contain nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas—the same gas that helps make engines run faster and patients relax at the dentist’s office. The gas is used as a propellant and in whipped cream to make the cream light and fluffy.
Norling says there’s a price to pay for consuming these things.
“People are becoming so toxic from the foods we’re eating that it’s causing or exacerbating all chronic illnesses,” she says.
In her new book, “Your Doctor Is Wrong: Survival Guide for Dismissed, Misdiagnosed or Mistreated,” she writes: “The Environmental Protection Agency reported that 100 percent of human fat samples contain man-made chemicals.”
That statistic could be a red flag for anyone concerned about their health.
“Processed things can be made to look like food and actually not be food at all,” says registered dietician Gay Riley, founder of www.NetNutritionist.com.
Many GRAS additives and chemicals don’t have to be listed on labels because they are, by virtue of their designation, considered safe to consume.
Additives started appearing in our food supply just after World War II, when manufacturers began altering natural foods using processed, modified and sugar-laden ingredients to make them more attractive and tasty, and to give them a longer shelf life.
Genetically modified organisms—GMOs—are a hotbed of controversy. The documentary “Fed Up,” released in 2014, explores the issue of obesity in America. According to the film, in 1999 half of the U.S. soybean crop and 33 percent of the corn crop were genetically engineered.
High-fructose corn syrup, a common sweetener, may play a role in inflammation, obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
Sugar can be addictive, but replacing it with artificial sweeteners can be even more harmful.
Although the FDA’s job is to ensure the safety of the ingredients used in processed foods, its GRAS list contains dozens of items that many consumers, as well as professionals in the health field, find questionable.
“Common sense should tell us chemicals that come from petroleum products, coal tar, arsenic, bleach, synthetic hormones and bromine should be avoided and are harmful,” says Riley.
But UCLA integrative oncology specialist Carolyn Katzin says there is another side to the story, a purpose for having additives in our food supply.
“Look at the more positive aspects . . . such as preventing fungus (and creating) low-water activity in foods, which prevents harmful microbes. Today we’re able to feed many (more people) because of food science and additives. Something like two-thirds of crops are lost due to spoilage, rats, etc., so there are trade-offs for the additives that make items more shelf-stable.”
Local markets, such as Whole Foods Market in Thousand Oaks, Woodland Hills and Oxnard, offer a wealth of information and healthy options. According to Whole Foods spokesperson Hilary Maler, “Whole Foods Market’s quality standards for food prohibit artificial flavors, colors, sweeteners, preservatives or hydrogenated fats.” Other health-oriented markets in the area are Erewhon Organic Grocer and Cafe in Calabasas, and Lassens Natural Foods & Vitamins in Simi Valley, Thousand Oaks and Ventura.
The British native says that America is actually more transparent about its food supply than England, where ingredients are listed by numbers as opposed to names, so shoppers have to either know the ingredients’ numbers or look them up.
But since some of the food colorings and other additives used in the U.S. are not permitted in the European Union, consumers in Europe don’t need to be on the watch for many of the additives found on U.S. store shelves, Katzin says, adding that the French are particularly stringent.
Why the FDA allows more additives in food than the EU does is up for debate. But Angana Shah, clinical dietitian at Keck Medical Center of USC, says, “These additives have not been banned in the U.S. as the FDA deems their use not to be unsafe.” She adds that this also applies to what is fed and injected into livestock and poultry for human consumption, such as artificial hormones rBGH and rBST.
“These are synthetic hormones injected into cows to improve the quantity of milk. Arsenic additives are commonly added to poultry feed for the FDA-approved purposes of inducing faster weight gain on less feed and creating the perceived appearance of a healthy color in meat from chickens, turkeys and hogs,” she says.
Stephanie Winnard, Pierce College adjunct assistant professor of psychology and a vegan cooking instructor certified in plant-based nutrition, brings up another food processing protocol: “It’s standard practice to bathe chicken carcasses in chlorine and to wash beef products in ammonia to attempt to kill harmful pathogens such as E. coli.”
There’s no doubt that the issue of processed food and its additives is confusing and controversial. But the burden of eating healthfully ultimately lies on the shoulders of the consumers, who may feel overwhelmed by the urgency to become knowledgeable about a highly technical subject that even the experts can’t agree on.
How can the concerned consumer make truly healthy choices without having to first earn a Ph.D. in chemistry or medicine?
“If you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it,” says Westlake Village certified life and health coach Bonnie Jarvis.
Propylene glycol, for instance, a form of antifreeze used to maintain moisture in foods, has come under fire. Although it is toxic in high amounts, it’s still been given GRAS status.
There is good news on the horizon. The tide on food additives might finally be turning. Panda Kroll, a civil litigator and adjunct faculty member in biotechnology law and regulation at Cal State Channel Islands’ Martin V. Smith School of Business and Economics, says, “An exploding number of class action lawsuits have been filed on behalf of consumer groups against food manufacturers, claiming that foods containing additives that are labeled as ‘natural’ are misleading and deceptive.”
While those lawsuits slog their way through the courts, most experts agree that reading and deciphering food labels is crucial, and it’s best to choose food that is unprocessed, organic or farm-fresh.
Shah’s recommendation: “Avoid highly processed and pre-prepared foods, which, for the most part, contain additives. Consumption of nutrition-dense and natural foods should be a priority.”
Jarvis recommends sticking with nature’s packaging. “Stay away from processed foods and eat ones in their natural form because fresh foods like broccoli and peaches are already packaged in a way that provides the right micronutrients to nourish the body.”