Food additives and diet therapies – the problem with food labels
We are all busy, so we want nourishing food that is yummy and fast, with less kitchen prep and less dishes to wash after the meal. We count on a modern food chain that is supervised by government safety regulations to pamper us with convenient and healthy food options as we rush through our days.
In response to consumer needs and demands, many food companies are introducing new health foods options and reformulating older products to appear more wholesome. But are we really getting healthier food products? Can we know what exactly we are eating by carefully reading the food labels?
This past week I had to examine this questions from several angles. It came up in discussions with the NIMBAL (link) team, as Dr. Suskind was working on assembling a list of SCD safe food products to help guide patients and medical professionals that are adopting this diet. It was clearly a challenge to ensure that products are completely free of undeclared ingredients, since food manufactures are exempt from listing certain additives. Moreover, even when a manufacture guarantees that a product is free of additives, companies are at liberty to change their product formulations at any given point.
As the week ended, my son came home from college for spring break, holding a huge bottle of “fresh mixed fruits juice “made by a leading beverage company. It turns out that my son, a veteran SCD dieter, is buying and drinking this ‘healthy juice’ on campus very often. “have you not heard of the labeling inadequacies of fruit juices?” I asked the teen. “Oh mom” he rolled his eyes “you don’t have to be paranoid, it’s only fruits” … So I am writing this piece to educate my own family, and to inform other families that try hard to eat healthfully.
We all count on the Food and Drugs Administration to regulate the safety of substances added to food and control how food is processed, packaged, and labeled. We assume that the FDA ensures the safety of all ingredients we eat. Unfortunately, this is not as straight forward as we like to assume. Many substances added to the food supply are deemed “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) following only a quick review by the Food and Drug Administration. Most of the safety testing of food additives is done by food manufacturers (or by people hired by manufacturers), not by the government and not by independent laboratories.
Furthermore: the FDA rarely reviews the safety of additives (including GRAS substances) once they enter the food supply, even when subsequent independent studies raise concerns that an additive might have harmful long term effects.
Why are some food additives not listed on the food package?
Food Additives are considered ‘functional ingredients’ used to integrate flavor, extend shelf life, or aid in emulsification. Any substance that is considered a ‘processing aid’ can be legally excluded from labels if it’s added for a technical effect during processing but isn’t present at “significant” levels in the food.
In other words: Processing aids are not required to be listed on food labels.
This labeling exemption dates back to 1973. According to the FDA:… to require label declaration of all incidental additives [including processing aids] which may be present in a finished food product in nonfunctional trace amounts would be impracticable…. Furthermore, to require lengthy listings of such substances might cause consumers to give undue attention to the essentially meaningless compilations resulting in deception and unfair competition from competing products whose manufacturers fail to do as thorough a job of imagining all possible substances which may be present in some trace amount.
Processing aids can be important and useful when used to enhance food safety by reducing potential contamination in food during processing (antimicrobials) or facilitating an easier removal of impurities. However, as consumers, we have no visibility into the manufacturing process, and no way to differentiate between additives that are useful for safety, those that are added just to cut costs to the manufacturer, and between benign additives and suspect additives.
The FDA allows small amounts of the processing aids to remain in the food after processing under the claim that these are safe and insignificant levels. A problem arises when consumers think they are eating clean healthy foods, and are not aware of some processing and ingredients that are present in their food.
Examples of processing aids approved by FDA that are commonly used in food production include chemicals like organic acids and chlorine washes for processing fruit and vegetable, dimethylamine epichlorohydrin copolymer which is a decoloring agent used in refinement of products like sugar. Also included are sodium stearoyl lactylate which is used as strengthening agent in dough of baked goods and ammonium hydroxide to control pH in meat and poultry, and additional chemicals used to reduce or kill foodborne pathogens. Also chlorine gas and ozone, which are used to control bacteria in chill water and chemical scalding agents which are used to remove feathers from poultry.
A special concern comes to light when we use products that we consider as ‘all natural’ while not being aware of their manufacturing practice:
Fresh cut-up fruits are dipped in commercially made solutions which contain citric acid along with other unnamed ingredients, and allow extending the shelf life of freshly cut produce to three weeks. Cut apples don’t turn brown thanks to a special wash. Fresh cut pears, melons, kiwis and berries are all dipped in special solutions. Carrots are treated to a special chemical wash so they don’t develop the white coat that makes them look old.
Washed and ready-to-eat salads “cleaned” by sloshing around in tap water treated with chlorine and fruit acids, to inhibit bacterial growth. The same tank of treated water is often used for 8 hours at a time.
Each of these solutions is classified as a ‘processing aid’, not an ingredient, so they are legally exempt from being declared on the label. Consumers don’t know that their “fresh” fruit salad is weeks old and their fresh bagged salad greens may still be coated with traces of commercial wash.
Tomato products such as tomato paste and pasta sauces, tend to incorporate “cost-effective” specialty starches that give the appearance of ‘shiny, smooth surface and high viscosity’ to tomato sauce to make it look thick and glossy, so that it appears fresh looking even after long storage. Additional common additives include “pulp extenders” made of modified starches and used to gives a ‘pulpy visual appeal’ to tomato sauce.
Eggs listed on food labels are not always what we expect. As a food ingredient eggs are commonly supplied to food manufacturers in powders, with added starches. Some ‘egg’ listed on ingredients lists are albumen-only special “high gel” products for whipping. Some ‘liquid eggs’ may be concentrated, dried, crystallized, frozen, or coagulated. Manufacturers can also buy eggs pre-formed to look like fresh hard-boiled eggs, which are mostly used by sandwich and salad packing companies. Manufacturers also use ‘egg mixes’, and the cheaper option is using “egg replacers” made from fractionated whey proteins (from milk). These are very economical and can support products with an extended shelf life.
Rosemary extract sounds like the fresh and wholesome herb. In fact, this is a “clean sounding name” for commercial antioxidants such as butylhydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylhydroxytoluene (BHT). Food manufacturers use them to slow down the rate at which foods go rancid, extending their shelf life. The antioxidant chemicals are isolated from the rosemary plant in an extraction procedure that “deodorizes” them, removing any rosemary taste and smell. Extraction is done by using either carbon dioxide or chemical solvents – hexane (derived from the fractional distillation of petroleum), ethanol and acetone.
Soluble fiber is a healthy-sounding term for modified starch, which is widely used to reduce the quantity of more nutritious ingredients in processed foods, and keep down manufacturers’ costs
Natural colorings sound harmless, but the only difference between these and artificial ones is that they start with pigments that occur in nature. Otherwise, they are made using the same high chemical industrial processes, including extraction using harsh solvents
The future of food additives
A financial analysis report by ‘Future Market Insights’ predicts that the global food additives market will expand at a CAGR of 5.9% during the next ten years. This predicted growth is counter intuitive to the growing demand for natural healthy food options. This means that consumers can expect an increasingly challenging task when trying to buy and eat real fresh clean foods. We are told to eat healthy and read food labels, but the food manufacturing industry is not playing an honest fair game, and the FDA is not effective in protecting our rights and our wellness. The food industry and the FDA ask us to believe that the amount of additives in food products is insignificant and harmless, but they have no good answers to concerns about accumulative effects of additives consumptions.
Thankfully, we can get some answers from a growing body of independent studies, but the answers are just raising more legitimate concerns. A current example has to do with food emulsifiers: commonly used additives such as polysorbate 80, lecithin, carrageen, polyglycerols, xanthan and other “gums,” all of which keep ingredients from separating and improve the texture and shelf-life of many foods in our supermarkets. Emulsifiers are approved for use by the FDA, and appear in many foods otherwise considered “healthy,” including foods labeled organic and non-GMO.
Despite being considered ‘safe’, several credible studies suggest that emulsifiers may be harming the human gut bacteria, and as such may be contributing to the rising incidence of obesity, metabolic syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases.
This post is not a call for panic, but rather a call for better practice and complete transparency. Most of the awful-sounding chemicals mentioned above may very well be harmless when consumed in reasonable amounts. To date, only a few additives and processing aids have been linked by research to concerning medical conditions. The problem is that we are denied our consumer right to know and decide for ourselves what is in our food, so we can make an informed decision about which products we may want to limit or avoid.
This is also not an attempt to vilify the food industry or the FDA. We need them both, and we are blessed to have these resources, but we must make some changes to the way these systems work. As tax payers, we should demand laws and regulations that insure food labels provide complete disclosure of all ingredients, additives and processing aids.
Those of us that maintain diet therapies like SCD, Nimbal, etc. are at the forefront of this mission. We know the frustration of trying to read food labels and guess whether a product fits within our dietary restrictions. Trying to understand the nuances of the ‘creative’ wording of ingredients lists is tedious. Knowing that certain additives can legally be omitted from the list makes us question the recommendation to read labels in the first place… because what good is a food label that omits certain ingredients? We are told to contact food manufactures and ask for official letters that guarantees their products are free of specific additives. However, this is not only time consuming and inefficient, it also has very limited assurance, considering the fact that food companies are at liberty to change processing and labels at any given point.
The only thing left is to assume that every commercially prepared food includes a small amount of substances that are not approved within our diet, and therefore try to ‘mitigate’ and balance the situation by making most of our meals at home from scratch, so the accumulated amounts of undesired additives will be relatively small. Our SCD teen lives in student dorms and leads busy life on the go, so he ends up carrying and consuming nonperishable, commercially made snacks. He feels that it is too heavy and cumbersome to carry homemade foods, so he carries snacks like nut bars and beef jerky. He tries to buy only the highest quality available of these items, and he makes sure that the vast majority of his meals are the frozen SCD meals we make at home and deliver to him. Hopefully, his generation will find new and healthy ways to improve the commercial food chain. We believe it is possible and worthy.
- Food Additives Market will Increase at a CAGR of 5.2% during 2016-2026
- Inside the food industry: the surprising truth about what you eat
- Processing Aids Used in Modern Food Production
- An enlightening and helpful List of food labeling regulations
- Processing Aids: What’s Not on the Label, and Why?
- The Food and Drug Administration regulations
- The FDA operates the CFSAN Office of Food Additive Safety
- Naked juice, an example case study in food labeling
- PepsiCo to no longer call Naked juices ‘natural’