Do You Know What You Are Eating?

One of the things I absolutely love to do is spend hours at the grocery store investigating new food products, reading labels, and adding things to my “buy” and “don’t buy” lists. Something lands on my “don’t buy” list by having ingredients I avoid for various reasons.  Mostly, because I deem them an unnecessary risk.

I am always surprised by how many people I know that cannot identify more than 3 ingredients on a food label.  These days, reading labels can feel like the equivalent of attending a chemistry class!  For the most part these words are the additives, preservatives, and chemicals that you cannot identify, much less pronounce, that are used in everything from cookies to meat. 


Here are some of the food additives that I avoid and have been considered controversial:

Lechitin: oftentimes derived from soya beans and safflower oil, is an emulsifier or a lubricant used in food preparation.  It is used in a multitude of baked goods because it is inexpensive and helps in the homogenous mixing of ingredients, improves shelf life, and reduces the need to include fat and eggs in products.  It is not considered dangerous, but should be avoided by vegans and vegetarians when it is derived from egg and not soya beans or safflower oil.  Although I do not completely eradicate this ingredient from my diet, I do pay attention to what has it because oftentimes, there are many more unnatural ingredients that come with the use of this emulsifier.

Sodium Nitrate/Sodium Nitrite: this is preservative added to meats in order to stabilize their red color, particularly in cured meats like hot dogs and bacon.  Without it, they would look gray, which the food industry thinks would lower their sales.

These preservatives are dangerous because they have been identified as having cancer-causing properties.  Despite the studies supporting the dangers of these preservatives and the advice commonly given to pregnant women to avoid them, the USDA does not deem the risk high enough to stop the use of these preservatives. 

To avoid the consumption of these preservatives, you can purchase nitrate-free, hormone-free meats at a local butcher or high-end grocer and avoid the salty, cured meats at all costs. 

Aspartame: most commonly used in diet foods and soft drinks, aspartame is a chemical combination of two amino acids and methanol to make an artificial sweetener.  As of late, studies have been attributing weight gain, cancer, and neurological problems to aspartame.  Diet Rite is one brand of soda that has a similar taste as the mainstream diet sodas, but does not have aspartame.  I abide by “everything in moderation” when it comes to sugar replacements.  Keep in mind that I draw the irony between the idea that the sugar replacement aspartame can actually cause you to crave sugar.

Monosodium glutamate (MSG): is commonly used as a flavor enhancer, can be found in soups, salad dressing, restaurant foods, frozen entrees, and chips, is an amino acid.  Although this has been a commonly discussed ingredient the past 10 years, MSG is mostly dangerous because many people are sensitive to it, having symptoms like: headache, nausea, weakness, burning sensation in the back of neck and forearms, wheezing, changes in heart rate, and difficulty breathing.  If you have reactions to foods, the food may contain MSG and you should carefully read food labels and ask restaurants if they use the flavor enhancer.

Olestra (Olean): is that fat-replacing chemical that was super popular in chips back in the 90’s and could cause such serious issues after digestion that the items containing the chemical had to have a disclaimer on them stating the product may lead to “anal leakage.”  Who would voluntarily eat something that could cause you to lose control of your bowels?  This indigestible fat replacement is not necessary to include in your diet when you can reach for the bag of baked chips instead. 

Trans fats: can be hidden under the titles of partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, has been a controversial topic for the past four years.  Harvard School of Public Health researchers estimate that trans fat had been causing about 50,000 premature heart attack deaths annually, making partially hydrogenated oil one of the most harmful ingredients in the food supply.

Thanks to new laws passed in 2006, nutrition labels had to identify the amounts of trans fats in a serving.  Having to start identifying the use of trans fats in their foods, a lot of large companies began replacing the ingredient with alternatives. However, watch out for labels touting “0g trans fat” and “no trans fat” because they may have higher levels of saturated fat, which is not good for your health as well.

Potassium Bromate: This additive has long been used to increase the volume of bread and to produce bread with a fine crumb structure. Most bromate rapidly breaks down to form innocuous bromide, but bromate itself causes cancer in animals. The tiny amounts of bromate that may remain in bread pose a small risk to consumers.  This risk, however, deemed bromate dangerous enough to be banned virtually worldwide except in Japan and the United States.

Some states in the U.S. have state laws that require foods with this ingredient to have a cancer warning label. In 1999, the Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned the FDA to ban bromate. Although it was not banned nationwide, numerous millers and bakers have stopped using bromate.

Mannitol: Mannitol is a sugar alcohol that iscommonly used in low-calorie foods and chewing gum. Mannitol is not as sweet as sugar and is not absorbed well by the body, which means it provides only half as many calories per gram as table sugar. Although it is not dangerous, large amounts may have a laxative effect and even cause diarrhea.  The FDA requires foods to bear this mild warning: “Excess consumption may have a laxative effect.” I still cannot understand why people would consume something with those warning labels!

I hope that this provides some insight you may not have thought about when reaching up for a food item with a pretty label or yummy-looking picture on it, but encourages you to read labels and provides you with a bit more understanding of what may be in your food.

NutritionAshley Pettit