Most of the processed foods we eat are studded with mysterious additives. They extend shelf life. They create exciting flavors, colors and textures. But they don’t do great things for our health. Find out which ones to avoid, and why.
A few years ago, chef and food writer Steven Ettlinger bought his children a package of ice-cream bars. Out of habit, he read the list of ingredients — aloud. While doing so, his little girl interrupted him by asking, “What’s polysorbate 60, Daddy?” Because Ettlinger had no idea, he decided to find out.
During the course of his research, Ettlinger learned that what his daughter was eating — polysorbate 60 — is an emulsifier commonly used in a variety of processed foods, including baked goods and frozen desserts. Greasy and light brown in color, it’s made from a combination of hydrogenated corn syrup from the Midwest, Malaysian palm oil that’s been converted into stearic acid (also an ingredient in shampoos), and ethylene oxide, made from a component of natural gas — a substance used as an explosive during the Vietnam War.
Compelled, Ettlinger went on to discover that there are thousands of colorings, flavorings, artificial sweeteners, preservatives, leavening agents, antioxidants or other food additives in the processed foods we buy. And he wound up writing about a lot of them in a book called Twinkie, Deconstructed: My Journey to Discover How the Ingredients Found in Processed Foods Are Grown, Mined (Yes, Mined), and Manipulated into What America Eats (Plume, 2008).
“We know where the grapes for Bordeaux wine are grown, and I’ve seen countless pictures of winemakers standing in the middle of their fields,” Ettlinger says. “I wondered if you could do the same thing with something like polysorbate 60.”
In his book, Ettlinger focuses on the 39 ingredients found in a package of Twinkies, one of America’s most iconic foods. But his goal, he says, was not to pass judgment on the $23 billion industry that manufactures food additives. It was to feed his own curiosity.
He was fascinated by how these additives are made and what role they play in the manufacturing and marketing of processed foods. Why, he wanted to know, would something as simple as a Twinkie require 39 ingredients? Certainly you could make a Twinkie-like cake at home with just a handful of pantry staples.
Part of the reason for all the additives, he found out, has to do with quantity over quality. “The batter has to stand up to the demands of mass production,” Ettlinger says. “One of the reasons they add cellulose gum to Twinkie batter is to keep the bubbles from being crushed at the bottom of a 4,000 gallon mixing vessel. When you make a cake at home, the little bubbles are under a few inches of batter. When they’re under 4 feet of batter, it’s a problem.”
Built to Last
For as long as commercial food machinery has been humming, additives have been deemed necessary to keep processed food palatable, attractive and safe from spoilage. An invention born of necessity, they were designed to disguise the multitude of sins that make our modern food industry tick: the long stretch of time between harvest and consumption; the blandness of commodity ingredients; the rigors of harsh, high-volume factory production methods. All these things call for high-tech ingredients and interventions.
In 1911 Crisco was introduced as a low-cost, long-shelf-life alternative to butter and lard. It was the first commercial food containing trans fats. Other factory-made substances soon followed.
In the midcentury, the volume of food additives began escalating dramatically. In the United States, for example, the quantity of food dyes consumed per capita rose from 10 milligrams in 1955 to 60 milligrams in 2009.
It’s not always clear, particularly in the short term, what effect such additives have. The use of some natural additives — including tocopherols (vitamin E) and ascorbic acid (vitamin C) as antioxidant preservatives, and the spice turmeric as a coloring — is widely considered totally benign.
And for people who stick with fresh, unprocessed food, avoiding the less wholesome class of food additives is fairly easy. Unfortunately, most Americans don’t fall into that category.
One estimate suggests that processed food comprises 75 percent of our national diet and, as a result, the average American eats 8 to 10 pounds of additives each year.
Consume At Your Own Risk
So who gauges the safety of all these additives? That job falls to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which reviews the research regarding each new chemical before it’s introduced to the marketplace. The trouble is that the FDA is woefully underfunded and understaffed — and some experts believe it is not entirely objective in its evaluations.
That’s a lesson Ruth Winter, MS, learned the hard way. In 1979, after her daughter developed hives and their doctor suggested she might be allergic to the penicillin in commercial milk, Winter began doing a lot of research, which eventually became a book, A Consumer’s Dictionary of Food Additives (Three Rivers Press, 2009).
“Who knew there was penicillin in the milk?” Winter asks. “I thought there was an FDA employee looking over everyone’s shoulder, making sure our food is safe. But that’s simply not the case.”
Another problem: Much of the research the FDA reviews comes from the companies that produce the chemicals in question; clearly those companies have a vested interest in designing studies that look favorable. And, historically, there’s been a bit of a revolving door between the executive suites of big food and chemical companies and the FDA’s leadership circle.
For these reasons and more, critics say, the FDA is reluctant to challenge these companies, especially when newer independent research raises questions about substances the agency gave the all-clear on long ago.
“It seems to me that the FDA bends over backwards not to find problems with food additives,” says Michael Jacobson, PhD, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). “Once they approve a chemical, then they have a bureaucratic investment in defending its safety and their previous decision. In some cases, they even prevent other government agencies from conducting research.”
Jacobson claims, for example, that the National Toxicology Program — which does lab tests for government agencies — was considering testing one or more questionable artificial sweeteners for toxicity, but the FDA discouraged them from proceeding.
CSPI routinely petitions the FDA about food additives, especially when new independent research comes to the fore. Earlier this year, for example, an FDA panel responded to CSPI’s petition regarding artificial colorings, which two large studies funded by the British government showed to cause or exacerbate hyperactivity in children. CSPI wanted a ban on the colorings, or at least a warning label.
Some scientists had earlier agreed that children with already-existing ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) may have worsening symptoms from the colorings. While a hotly divided FDA panel ultimately declined to change anything, CSPI’s action made millions of people think about the colors in their children’s breakfast cereals and fruit snacks.
“These foods are unhealthy for so many reasons,” says David Schab, MD, MPH, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University. Schab testified before the FDA panel on food colorings, since he had conducted a meta-analysis of all the literature on these additives and found a significant increase in hyperactivity for children with ADHD. “We’re in the middle of this huge obesity epidemic that threatens both our health and the economy. It would be great if government agencies did something to make unhealthy foods less appealing,” he says.
“Of all the additives, artificial sweeteners are my top concern,” says David Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center and editor-in-chief of Childhood Obesity. “There is one harm that clearly is supported by science: They propagate a sweet tooth. They are intensely sweet, and the literature shows that they stimulate the same reward center as sugar. I think that tends to result in a preference for ever-sweeter foods, with attendant harms to health and weight.”
What’s the best way to avoid harmful food additives? Abstain from processed food completely. “If it’s not something the body evolved to eat, I err on the side of caution,” says functional nutritionist Julie Starkel, MS, MBA, RD.
For when you are in a pinch, though, and not sure of an ingredient, we have compiled the following list of the most critical additives to avoid, based on warnings from the CSPI and other experts.
Some have raised red flags during testing. Others have not been tested well enough to prove safety — especially given today’s more sensitive and precise methods of testing.
“People used to consider a substance safe if it didn’t kill a lab animal,” says nutritional biochemist Jeffrey Bland, PhD. “Now, we find that certain substances that used to be considered safe have an impact on cellular or metabolic function. Most of today’s food additives haven’t been adequately defined as safe, given these new methods.”