By Elson M. Haas, MD
Excerpted from Staying Healthy Shopper’s Guide: Feed Your Family Safely
Why Are Chemicals Added To Our Food?
Originally, foods were grown and eaten directly from a relatively unpolluted Earth. Wild foods were sought and gathered. Cleaner oceans, lakes and rivers fed us nutritious fish. Animals in the wild provided protein foods to hunters and their tribes. As the human population multiplied, the world expanded, farming progressed, trade specialties developed, and town markets shared a variety of goods among a diversity of people. Techniques for food preparation and preservation, such as pickling, salting, and smoking, were developed to deal with the new problems of storage, waste, and food-borne illnesses. With advanced technology, our modern food industry’s reliance on processing and additives continues to increase. Is this evolution, or are we sacrificing our health for the sake of technological “advances”?
For decades now, the food industry has continually created new chemicals to manipulate, preserve, and transform our food. With the use of chemicals, scientists are able to mimic natural flavors, color foods to make them look more “natural” or “fresh,” preserve foods for longer and longer periods of time, and create altered versions of breads, crackers, fruits, vegetables, meats, dairy products and many more commonly used foods. Now there are even “foods” that are made entirely from chemicals. Coffee creamers, sugar substitutes, and candies consist almost completely of artificial ingredients. Such manipulation of our food can have a profound effect on our body’s unique biochemical balance.
But there is a method to the food industry’s madness. They generally provide five main reasons for why chemicals must be added to our foods:
- To improve shelf life or storage time.
- To make food convenient and easy to prepare.
- To increase the nutritional value.
- To improve the flavor of foods.
- To enhance the attractiveness of food products and improve consumer acceptance.
Which Food Additives Should You Avoid?
Avoiding toxins in your diet is an important initial step toward enhancing your health and lowering your risk of disease. Since foods represent a source of these toxins, let’s look at the key additives that may undermine your health. Those with immediate effects may cause headaches or alter your energy level, or they may affect your mental concentration, behavior, or immune response. Those with long-term effects could increase your risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease and other degenerative conditions.
Begin by avoiding the most questionable additives, no longer consuming them on any regular basis. Make a decision to either cut down on or cut out altogether those food additives that may be hazard
ous to your health. Although it may seem difficult to change habits and find substitutes for foods you enjoy, remind yourself that you will be adding to your diet some wholesome new flavors and foods that you may come to like even more. Avoidance and discrimination are crucial proactive steps in most natural health care programs.
12 Key Additives to Avoid and Their Health Risks
- Hydrogenated Fats—cardiovascular disease, obesity
- Artificial Food Colors—allergies, asthma, hyperactivity; possible carcinogen
- Nitrites and Nitrates—these substances can develop into nitrosamines in body, which can be carcinogenic
- Sulfites (sulfur dioxide, metabisulfites, and others)—allergic and asthmatic reactions
- Sugar and Sweeteners—obesity, dental cavities, diabetes and hypoglycemia, increased triglycerides (blood fats) or candida (yeast)
- Artificial Sweeteners (Aspartame, Acesulfame K and Saccharin)—behavioral problems, hyperactivity, allergies, and possibly carcinogenic. The government cautions against the use of any artificial sweetener by children and pregnant women. Anyone with PKU (phenylketonuria—a problem of phenylalanine, an amino acid, metabolism) should not use aspartame (Nutrasweet).
- MSG (monosodium glutamate)—common allergic and behavioral reactions, including headaches, dizziness, chest pains, depression and mood swings; also a possible neurotoxin
- Preservatives (BHA, BHT, EDTA, etc.)—allergic reactions, hyperactivity, possibly cancer-causing; BHT may be toxic to the nervous system and the liver
- Artificial Flavors—allergic or behavioral reactions
- Refined Flour—low-nutrient calories, carbohydrate imbalances, altered insulin production
- Salt (excessive)—fluid retention and blood pressure increases
- Olestra (an artificial fat)—diarrhea and digestive disturbances
Food Waxes (protective coating of produce, as in cucumbers, peppers, and apples)—may trigger allergies, can contain pesticides, fungicide sprays or animal byproducts.
Plastic packaging—Carcinogenic (vinyl chloride); immune reactions, lung shock
Is It Necessary to Give Up All Processed Foods and Food Additives?
When you begin to realize the health risks associated with processed foods and food additives, it makes good sense to start eating less of them. But this doesn’t mean you need to take an alarmist approach. Here is a sensible rule to start with: If there are special treats that you just can’t imagine living without, have them only on occasion. But be aware of what those special treats contain. Think about the possible wholesome alternatives that might taste just as good and which don’t put your health at risk. Also, consider changing your consumer habits. Are there farmer’s markets in your area where you could shop frequently? Is there a natural foods market with organic produce nearby that you’ve never bothered to check out?
Changing your shopping and eating routines isn’t something you can easily do overnight. The first step is to sharpen your awareness about what you’re currently eating. Then you can take steps to make the changes you desire.
Dr. Elson M. Haas, MD is the Director of Preventive Medical Center, an integrated health care facility located in San Rafael, California. Books he has authored are The Detox Diet, Staying Healthy With Nutrition, and the new Staying Healthy Shopper’s Guide: Feed Your Family Safely.