The next time you go to the grocery store for a frozen pizza, look on the package under ‘Ingredients’, and read what is there. Pizzas are simple, right? A crust made of flour, yeast, oil and a little water, and maybe a touch of salt, and the toppings, which include pepperoni, sausage, onions, green pepper, cheese, pizza sauce made from tomatoes and spices, garlic and other spices, mushrooms, olives, and if I am buying it…anchovies (if it doesn’t have them now, it will by the time I cook it…..). So we’re talking about maybe a dozen or so ingredients, right? Wait! There’s more…..an entire paragraph of things like soduim benzoate, monsodium glutamate, disodium glutamate, lecithin, soy isolates……What the heck is all this stuff? It sounds more like a chemistry class project, than something I’d want to eat. We’re talking about about a frozen pizza here, not an Egyptian mummy! Are food additives really necessary? And more importantly, are they completely safe?
Some additives are included for preservation, and that is understandable. Since humans learned to grow and raise food, and store it for future use, we’ve been using food preservation techniques, including drying and dehydrating, pickling, fermenting, salting and canning. Somewhere along the line, most likely in local outdoor farmers markets, someone found out that if you sprayed your vegetables with a certain chemical, it retards ripening, so they can stay on the shelf longer, and another chemical kept foods from losing their color. And there were chemicals that made meat appear bright red, as if freshly killed. Later on, when prepackaging was developed, it was found that certain chemicals kept powdered things like milk powder from caking up. and when the industrial age hit full-force, and canning and other methods became popular, chemicals were found that enhanced flavor, allowing them to use less of the expensive actual food, and more ‘fillers’. This made production cheaper, and increased their profit margins. And, of course, chemicals were added to kill bacteria, molds and fungi. As time went by, other chemicals were added to produce ‘desirable’ characteristics in the ‘food’, such as adding lecithin to bread to make it elastic and less crumbly, and food colorings than made the ‘food’ more attractive. A lot of the additives were (and still are) harmful.
A good example is Boric Acid. Many of you may recognize this as the worlds most efficient roach killer. It is the only thing I know of that will eliminate roaches from your home completely. The various species of roaches are renowned for their toughness and ability to survive almost anything, so if this chemical kills them, that should be a bell-ringer. Be that as it may, from the 1870s until 1920 in the U.S. Boric Acid was allowed to be used as a food preservative. After WW-I, it was ‘discovered to be toxic (duh…..this stuff kills roaches……) and was removed from the list of allowed food additives. During WW-II, the need for a cheap, readily available food preservative led to it being used again (evidently, the enemy wasn’t causing enough casualties on their own….), and it was finally banned for good (we hope….) in 1950. Another example of a known harmful substance that is still allowed is Aspartame. Numerous studies have been done that prove beyond any doubt that even at temperatures as low as the human body (avg 98.6°F), Aspartame releases carcinogens, yet it is still dumped into most Sugar-Free soft drinks and restaurants supply racks of it at each table to be used in coffee. This is despite the fact that much safer alternatives are available, such as Sucralose and Xylitol.
Many additives are naturally-occurring substances, such as lecithin, which comes from soybeans, and is perfectly safe, even if it is unnecessary. Using these types of additives allows them to still label the food as “All Natural”. The ‘All Natural’ term is the most abused phrase in the food industry, even more so than ‘Organic’. It means nothing. Just because something is ‘natural’ doesn’t mean it is safe for you to consume. Cyanide is ‘all-natural’ (it comes from peach seeds, cherry pits, apricot seeds, and apple seeds….). It is used as a rat-poison, and was once used in gas chambers to execute criminals. Rattlesnake venom is all-natural, but if you drink it, it will kill you. Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, tomato leaves, and petroleum are all ‘natural’ products, but they all have deleterious effects on humans, up to and including death. And don’t forget the Amanita mushroom and tetrododoxin (it comes from the Tiger Pufferfish, used to make Fugu), two of the most lethal substances on earth, and Botulin Toxin, anthrax, and dozens of other ‘natural substances’. They could put these in your food and still call it ‘All-Natural’.
As I said, the term “All-Natural” is meaningless. The problem is that, through marketing propaganda, most people interpret “All-Natural” to mean “unprocessed”, or “nothing added”, which couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Food additives fall into several categories:
- Acids – used to make flavors ‘sharper’, and as a preservative and anti-oxidant.
- Acidity Regulators – used to adjust the acidity and alkalinity of foods.
- Anti-Caking Agents – used to prevent powders from caking and clumping.
- Anti-Foaming Agents – used to prevent foaming, mostly in liquids.
- Anti-Oxidants – inhibits the effects of oxygen on food, and can actually be beneficial to health.
- Bulking Agents – also called ‘fillers’, used to increase the bulk of food without effecting the flavor.
- Food Colorings – used to make food appear more attractive and appealing. Many are known carcinogens.
- Flavorings – added to achieve a particular taste or smell.
- Flavor Enhancers – unnecessary additive used to enhance, or stretch the existing flavor. Many, such as MSG, are potentially harmful.
- Preservatives – added to prevent spoilage due to bacterial, molds and fungi.
Other additives such as thickeners, sweeteners and stabilizers are often added, as well.
While many of these additives are harmless, and have been used since antiquity, such as the flavor enhancer salt, others such as Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) have well known and documented health risks. Even if an additive is relatively harmless, it usually lowers the nutritional value of the food, and often adds ’empty’ calories that do nothing but create fat. Good examples of this are starchy ‘fillers’. Some of these additives actually interfere with bodily processes, such as the sweetener high-fructose corn syrup. This is not the same Corn Syrup you buy in the bottle to pour on pancakes. High-fructose corn syrup, along with MSG, interferes with the secretion of the hormone leptin, which tells the brain you have eaten enough. This makes you eat much more than you need, so you have to buy more. In addition, both MSG, and high fructose corn syrup cause the release of endorphins, hormones that create a pleasurable sensation, and make you want to continue whatever activity you are engaged in that is causing the release. It could be considered a mild form of addiction.
There is not enough space here to list all the potentially harmful food additives, but the internet is an invaluable resource if you want to know what is going into your body. You can get a label and look up each ingredient, and see what it does and why it is added. Then you can make informed decisions on what you consume, and decide for yourself ,“are food additives really necessary?” I must warn you, however, if you do this, you will not look at processed foods the same way anymore. There is a reason why I make almost all of our food from scratch, using the most basic forms I can obtain, up to and including growing and killing it myself, wherever possible. This includes flour and cornmeal (I grind it fresh as I use it, from raw wheat and corn), condiments like mayonnaise and catsup, and all of our bread and baked goods. I only buy staples and basics at the store, such as salt, corn starch, baking powder, baking soda, etc…. I even grow most of our spices.
Of course, this is not possible for everyone, but you can read the labels and educate yourself on one of the most basic requirement of your body….food. By making informed choices, you can send a message to the food producers that you demand safe, nutritious food, and can lobby your elected officials to legislate harmful practices out of existence. You have a right to safe food. And if you don’t vote….shame on you…….Get out and get involved. They’re your rights……use ’em, or lose ’em.