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There Are CHEMICALS In My Food??? Talking About Food Additives

Hi There! My name is Natalie Nation and
you’re listening to Feed That Nation. (Upbeat Intro Music) Today I’m going to be talking about a
topic that I really DIDN’T talk about a few weeks ago when I did my episode
about processed foods. I very deliberately left out a particular topic
that I know can be pretty inflammatory. So today I’m going to be talking about
food additives. More specifically, I’m going to be talking about different
categories of food additives, talking about a few of the most common food
additives, what they are, what they do, and giving you some tips so that when you’re
deciding which food additives you do or maybe do not want to consume, you know
how to look through great research and make really well-informed decisions.
Before I get too far into this, I wanted to take a dive back into the food
production history in the US. Because in the eighteen and 1900s some pretty
dramatic changes occurred. A couple of these were the invention of the icebox
and later the refrigerator, we have the invention of pasteurization by Louis
Pasteur, and we also had just sort of this massive uptick in bulk produced
shelf-stable food products. And all of these contributed to the modern food
supply as we know it today. We as you know, our national and even global society
have one of the largest most stable food supplies in the history of humanity. And
that’s pretty insane. And food additives are definitely one of
the reasons for that. So there’s two main categories of food additives that I
wanted to talk about today. One of them is this category of food additives that
are added to foods to improve the taste the color or the overall appeal of the
product, so to make the product more pleasurable or desirable for consumers.
The other category is food additives that are added to a product to
help it stay shelf stable longer, so to kill bacteria, prevent bacteria from
growing, to keep the food from going bad or from spoiling. There’s also a
subcategory of food additives that sort of change physical properties of the
food for one of the two reasons I’ve already
listed, but it’s pretty cool how all that works so I wanted to get into it a
little bit more specifically. So our first category of food additives that
are added for taste appeal texture pleasure, to make the food more desirable.
And we think about this… there’s a lot of different examples that I could give. One
of the most obvious is when we eat a Cheeto we want the Cheeto to be that
really specific color of bright orange we want it to smell super cheesy and we
want the color to like fall off and stay on our fingers right? Or when we are
eating a blue raspberry Jolly Rancher we know logically that raspberries fall
between you know red and purple. We know that when you crush the raspberry it
doesn’t turn that electric blue color. And we know that when we eat a Jolly
Rancher, the main ingredients, if we took out all of these additional food
additives, would essentially be sugar and water and it wouldn’t really taste like
anything. So really the consumer market drives the
addition of these food additives into popularly consumed foods, you know, we
want our foods to be pleasurable and to be desirable, so companies make foods
that fit those desires. One of the most common food additives is something
called monosodium glutamate or MSG. now this food additive is found in different
types of gravy mixes or stuffing mixes, it’s used in a lot of Asian type cooking,
or you can buy it in a bottle for its own use as an ingredient in cooking. And
what MSG does is it adds a very savory salty umami flavor to foods. And I’ve
heard it described as sort of what makes food taste good in the first place. You
could add msg to pretty much anything and it would make food taste good or
taste better. And I’ve been always very intrigued by this idea and as a
vegetarian I’m always looking for foods that have that nice umami savory flavor
that aren’t meat, so I’ve actually been really interested in cooking with msg
and seeing what it could do for the foods I cook. And it’s sort of a hot
topic because there are a few people out there that are sensitive to MSG. They
might get flushed dizzy or have headaches when they consume foods with
msg in them. And this has sort of sparked
this belief that MSG is bad for you, which there’s not evidence to suggest, or
there’s not significant evidence I should say to suggest, that for the
generally healthy population msg is harmful. And I would just want to add
that stipulation here that yes there are going to be people who are sensitive to
a lot of the food additives that I’m going to talk about today, but in general
there’s not evidence to suggest that most of the food additives I’m going to
talk about are harmful to all people and not all people will have significant
reactions. Outside of MSG we also have this very broad category of food
additives that are pretty vaguely labeled on most packaging. So you might
see artificial flavour, artificial color, natural flavor, natural color, or you
might see some of the food dyes in particular like blue 6 or red 1
things like that. And what these do is essentially they help the food to look
and taste the way the consumer wants it to look and taste. We want our blue
raspberry Jolly Rancher to look and taste like blue raspberry, or we want our
cheeto to be very bright orange, we want our Dr Pepper to be that nice signature
brown color and to have all 23 of its unique flavors right? So that’s where a
lot of these artificial and natural flavors and colors come in. Now sort of
the issue that I see with this is because the labeling is sort of vague it
can be difficult to tell exactly what these artificial flavors and colors are
made of, and for people who have things like celiac disease, this can be a bit
dangerous because you don’t know if something that just is labeled
artificial flavor has gluten in it and you don’t know if it’s safe to eat. So I
would hope in the future that food packaging moves towards being more
transparent for this reason, but also I think we as a society and certainly we
as people my age being somewhere between that gen Z millennial age range we want
transparency from the companies that produce our food or really produce
anything for us. Just like with the MSG there are a few people who are sensitive
to specific flavors or colors, specifically there are people who have
allergies to certain food dyes, I know red dye is a very popular food allergy, but
this doesn’t mean that they’re harmful, it just means that very specific people
have specific reactions to them. Another category of food additives is sweeteners.
And we think of our pretty common sweeteners as our corn syrup, high
fructose corn syrup, sugar, invert sugar or things like that. We also have a
category of sweeteners called sugar alcohols so xylitol erythritol mannitol
and so forth. And we have our non-nutritive sweeteners so these are
sweeteners that add sweet taste to a food without adding calories. So you guys
might know these as Splenda, equal, sweet’n low, stevia, and then there are a
couple that are put into food products that aren’t necessarily put in packets
on your coffee cart. And we, particularly in American society, we
desire sweet foods and as we learned on my very first podcast that I ever did on
feed that nation with Nuala Bobowski, the food scientist, we’ve remembered that we
as humans have evolved to crave sweet because sweet means carbohydrates and
carbohydrates mean fuel. However this sort of extends into a lot of food
having sugar that kind of or sugar sweet flavor that we’re not expecting to. I
mean sugar can be added into things like pasta sauce which kind of baffles me so
I’m always a little bit careful to read labels just because I don’t think my
pasta sauce needs sugar in it to taste good or taste like pasta sauce, but
that’s a personal preference. When we’re thinking about all these different types
of sweeteners, there are different documented reactions that some people
have to some of them. There are a couple of people out there who are more
sensitive to high fructose corn syrup, I’ve seen a few different studies
linking it to issues with learning disabilities, but I haven’t done a whole
lot of research in that area. I also know that depending on the types
of taste receptors or taste genes that you express, you might taste equal or
other particular non-nutritive sweeteners as bitter or you might not be
able to taste them at all which i think is pretty cool. And we have some pretty
well-documented reactions to a couple of sugar alcohols particularly when they
are consumed in high amounts, so usually when you’re consuming a sugar-free
candy or product there’s a label telling you not to consume too much of
it at one time, because some of these sugar alcohols can cause uncomfortable
bloating or diarrhea or issues like that if you consume too much of it at one
time. And just to reiterate, all of these food additives are not added by
companies to trick you. They’re really added out of the consumer desire for
these products, and I guess a good current example I can get from popular
culture is General Mills and Trix cereal. So a couple of years ago General Mills
announced that they were going to get rid of artificial flavors and colors in
their Trix cereal, which is a fruity flavored brightly colored breakfast
cereal usually for kids. And so they created this all-natural Trix cereal
they used things like turmeric and beet as coloring they used natural flavors and
it did not sell very well at all. because people, as much as society has started to
say that they want no more artificial flavors and colors, people didn’t want
bland boring colored Trix. They wanted the brightly colored cereal that they
were used to you know, and they wanted it to taste like they were used to as well.
So that’s just an interesting example. I think it’s a little funny to think about
how you know this company tried to appeal to the masses only to find out
that the masses actually wanted the original they wanted something to taste
good. We as humans can say what we want about how we choose healthy food and
there are all kinds of influencers and I would call them stupid little gimmicks
like “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” or whatever but in reality we as
humans, we desire food that is pleasurable to us and these food
additives create that experience for us, which is why we keep purchasing foods
that have these additives. The other main category of food additives is food
additives that preserve food products. So they might do that in a couple of
different ways they might lower the pH of foods to kill the bacteria, they might
create an environment where bacteria does not want to grow, they might
stabilize something about the food product so it cannot separate, they might
keep it from spoiling, and this is again a very positive thing. I as a nutrition
public health professional definitely see the benefit and having
shelf-stable foods that can last for months at a time. You know if there is a
time of a natural disaster or even just this ability to grow a fruit in another
country, package it, can it, make it super shelf stable, ship it to a grocery store
elsewhere where it might sit for a few months, then it gets bought and put into
someone’s home and they keep it for a month before they eat it, and it’s still
excellent nutrition and it’s really excellent shelf-stable food. I see
definite benefits in that. One of the oldest and most common even today food
preservatives is salt, and we see salt added as not only just a flavor because
salt improves or brings out the flavors that already exist in foods, but it also
helps to absorb water so it’s a desiccant or it desiccates (I love that
word!) So in the pioneer days they actually used to preserve meat by just
shaking huge amounts of salt on it to draw out the moisture and where there is
not moisture there can’t be bacteria. Because bacteria love warm, moist
environments, so if you get rid of one of those aspects, the moist aspect, then the
bacteria can’t grow then it is safe and does not spoil. Another place where we
see pretty commonly added food additives is in canned fruit we see sometimes
something called ascorbic acid. And what ascorbic acid is, it’s basically vitamin
C which is really interesting because along with preserving the food it helps
to add a bit more nutrients to it. And what ascorbic acid does, particularly in
products like apple sauce, is because it’s an acid it adds tart flavor to the
food which we want, we want a nice tart apple sauce most of the time. But
because it is an acid it lowers the pH of the apple sauce low enough so that
bacteria do not have a welcoming environment to grow because bacteria,
along with liking moist environments, they like moist environments that are
not too acidic, so if you increase the acidity of a food product you decrease
the chance that bacteria will grow in it. There are also food additives for
preservation purposes, things like sodium nitrite and
sodium benzoate. And these additives are usually added to things like processed
meats or canned or pickled items. There is conflicting research to suggest that
there is the possibility that consuming large amounts of these particular
additives over a whole lifetime could increase the chances that you develop
cancer. HOWEVER, and I just want to say here that there’s lots of science and
that you should do your own research, my personal opinion on a lot of these
studies is that because they are studies that examine people’s patterns of
food consumption over time, it’s really difficult to tell whether it is these
particular additives that might contribute to risk for cancer, or if it’s
something else that the study has looked at, or even something to study hasn’t
considered. And I’m gonna talk a little bit about that later. But just know that
if you see a blog post or an Instagram post talking about how nitrites and
sodium benzoate are just the devil and they’re gonna kill you, it’s probably
hyperbole, definitely probably hyperbole. We have our category of food additives
for pleasure purposes and we have our food additives for preservation purposes.
There’s also sort of this middle subcategory of food additives that are
added specifically to change physical aspects of the food product to
contribute to one of these bigger categories. But they do some pretty cool
stuff so I wanted to make sure to touch on them in particular and a great food
product that I love to give as an example for this is ice cream. So ice
cream is a food that most people if not all people are very familiar with, they
have a very set expectation for how they want it to taste, how it should last, and
what it should feel like mouthfeel you know. And ice cream has to be kept frozen,
hence ice cream that’s kind of one of the biggest things about the food
product is that it must be kept frozen. And homemade ice cream if you’ve ever
made ice cream at home you know that it melts really quickly and it has a
different consistency than store-bought ice cream. and that’s because
store-bought ice cream often has to go from production to distribution to the
stores, where it sits in a freezer that’s open and closed multiple times a day,
then it’s taken out of its freezer in the store, put into a cart brought all
the way down through the store, which you know could take five minutes it could
take an hour, then it’s put into the back of a car which depending on where you
live it might be 100 degrees or it might be -20 degrees in that car, taken
home and then put into that home freezer where the door to that home freezer
might be opened and closed multiple times before the ice cream actually gets
consumed. So all that to say that it’s really important actually that we have
some food additives into the ice cream in order to help stabilize it and
texturize it. We don’t want our ice cream to melt between putting it into the cart
and taking it home and putting it in our freezer at home and we don’t want it to
sit in a freezer for months and melt and refreeze and get those weird ice
crystals and tastes all fuzzy in our mouths. You know, we want it to be you
know smooth creamy rich we want it to feel good in our mouths, we want it to
taste good, we don’t want it to melt. And so adding food additives and I just have
a couple that I’m thinking of so things like carrageenan, xanthan gum, or guar gum.
These are additives that are added specifically to stabilize and texturize
foods like ice cream to help create that ideal situation where a food keeps the
desirable texture even under unusual or extreme conditions. Other examples of
food additives to change physical properties might be the addition of
emulsifiers to certain foods. So an emulsifier is essentially an a chemical
that helps a compound that has both oil and water in it to homogenize. And I
know that sounds very sciencey, but you might see an emulsifier in something
like chocolate which likely has milk fat and skim milk in it. You might see
it in mayonnaise or you might see it in like a salad dressing, you might
see an emulsifier there. You also might see additives
in seasoning mixes or other powdery food products to keep them from caking, which
happens in damp environments so if you’ve ever had like a container of
baking soda and it’s sat out for too long, or it’s been the fridge for too
long and the fridge was really humid and then it just turns into this big like
block of baking soda, well an anti-caking agent might help to prevent
that, or might help to help the product stay powdery for longer, things like that.
So understanding these two big categories and the subcategory that I
just talked about, I wanted to think a little bit more about and tell you guys
a little bit more about how this process of adding food additives, using food
additives is regulated in the United States. So all food and food production
is overseen by the Food and Drug Administration, or the FDA. This is in the
US, I don’t know how it goes in other countries but we have the FDA. And the
FDA has a designation for foods and food substances or food additives that is
called “generally recognized as safe” or GRAS. And if a food or food substance
has received this GRAS label, essentially what it means is that there
is significant scientific evidence to suggest that for any particular food
additive, if it is used in the way that is intended to be used, in the amount
that is intended to be used in, it is relatively safe. This of course doesn’t
mean that it’s safe all the time for all people, or that there might not be
evidence one day to suggest that it is no longer safe.
But it does mean that as far as we know and as far as science has been proven,
that particular additive is relatively safe. And the FDA has a whole webpage and
several lists of all the products that it has with the GRAS designation. And
I’m gonna leave that link down in the show notes and the description if you
guys are more interested in reading about that specifically. Along with the
FDA we also have thousands of scholarly research articles that have done tests
on everything from human tests, animal tests, tests just theoretically, doing
research reviews, or literature reviews, talking about these food additives, their
role in food production, what they can do for the human body, if they’re harmful if
they’re not, examining long-term use effects. We have so much data available
to us. There’s also on the flip side of that, we have a lot of data in the form
of blog posts or news articles, Instagram, TikTok even is starting to get into
this, where a lot of secondary or even tertiary sources are talking about
these food additives talking about these food additives, going over whether or not
they’re safe, giving evidence which may or may not be science-based
evidence, may or may not be true. So you have a lot of options when it comes to
doing your own research about whether or not you want to consume foods with
particular food additives in them. And if you know me or if you’ve been watching
me for a while, you know that I’m not just going to give you a list of food
additives to avoid, food additives that are fine. I’m not really a list person. I
really like talking about food on a spectrum rather than put again into
these binary categories, these “yes/no” “always/never” “clean/toxic” categories,
that’s just not really me. So what I do want to do is talk about how you can
best look at your literature and make informed decisions for yourself. And one
of the biggest, biggest ways that you can do that is by thinking about your Google
search bias and working to combat that. Google search bias, one of the biggest
ways you can do that obviously is by using reputable websites for
your searching, you know searching on websites like PubMed, or the
Cochrane Database so looking at places that have peer-reviewed scientific
articles. Government websites are also a pretty good tool for this, the FDA
website is a great resource. But when you’re going into just like a basic
search engine like Google, it can be really easy to get information that is
very biased, simply by inputting specific keywords. For example if you’re wondering
about if a certain additive is safe or not and you type in the keywords
“additive” (whatever auditive it is) and then “dangerous” you’re
likely going to get specific articles talking about why that additive is
dangerous. Same goes if you type in “specific additive” and “causes cancer”
you’re pretty much only going to get articles about how that additive causes
cancer. So what I like to do to kind of combat this search engine bias if I’m
curious about something wanting to learn more but wanting to read about it myself
rather than only being presented with one type of data I will do things like
search “food additive food production” or “food additive health benefits” or “food
additive health impacts” and what this does is it gets you more… I don’t want to
say unbiased, because all data is biased in some way, but it gets you information
that’s more about teaching you the why and the ho,w rather than just spitting an
opinion at you. So I’ve had a lot of luck just changing my keywords to find the
information that I want. More importantly if you’re looking at a study or if
you’re reading a news article about a study, make sure you know whether or not
the study was done on humans. Because a lot of studies are actually done on
animals and then the data is extrapolated by news sources to talk
about humans, as though the study was actually done on humans, even though it
was done on like rats or something. And just know that an association or
correlation [in data] is NOT cause and effect. Which is kind of hard to grasp, I know
but just take everything you’re reading with a grain of salt, always. It can be
really difficult with all of the research and all of the buzz words and
the inflammatory information out there, particularly if you’re reading people’s
personal blogs or on their instagrams and they’re talking about certain things.
It can be really difficult to know whether it’s true or not or whether you
should follow it or not. So I would encourage you to make decisions about
your health and your food consumption based on what you know about YOUR body
and the way it likes to eat food, or the way it reacts to food. But also base your
choices on good scientific evidence, good evidence-based research and your own
common sense. Because you’re smart and I know you have common sense. I also want
to say that often probably more often than not, good evidence based research
and common sense are probably NOT going to be found on social media. And I’m not excluding myself from that whatsoever.
Definitely if you’re reading anything on social media about your health, take it
with a grain of salt, fact check it, do your own research about
it. I also wanted to say that if you are in a position in your life where you are
able to make your food choices based on things like whether or not they have
additives or whether or not they’re organic, then you are in a place of
privilege. Because as a society, particularly in America we have set up
our food supply so that the most expensive foods, so fresh fruits and
vegetables or freshly ground or butchered meat, are far far more
expensive than things like canned fruits and vegetables or TV dinners or
processed deli meats. And when we’re thinking about this bigger issue of food
distribution and food insecurity, it…it gets really difficult, because there are
a lot of people out there who must make their food choices based on whether or
not they can afford specific items or not. So and I mean, I don’t mean this to
hate on anybody at all, because if you are in a place where you can make food
decisions based on whether or not you want to consume a lot of additives,
that’s awesome and I really encourage you to make decisions that you feel are
right for you and your body. But while you’re doing that, make sure you remember
that you are in a place of privilege. So that just about wraps up this episode
of Feed That Nation! I hope you enjoyed this conversation and discussion, I would
love to hear what you think about food additives or whether or not you prefer
to consume foods with or without food additives. Please leave me a comment
below, leave me a review or a five star rating, definitely subscribe on whatever
platform you’re listening on, and go follow me on Instagram. I am @feedthatnation. Until next time my name is Natalie Nation and you’ve been listening
to Feed That Nation. Have a great day and I’ll talk to you soon! (Upbeat Outro Music)

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