Making healthier food choices is something that you should be thinking about every day. Since November 4 is National Eating Healthy Day, this seems like a good opportunity to revisit some advice to help you make smart decisions. Eating more fruits and vegetables, limiting added sugar, and focusing on “real food” instead of processed, prepackaged meals and snacks are always good ideas. One reason for this is to avoid food additives, some of which may be harmful.
If you have ever read the ingredients on a food package you no doubt realized that much of what we eat isn’t really food. Chemical additives are common in packaged foods as preservatives, coloring agents, flavor enhancers, and even vitamins and minerals. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since these chemicals allow food to last longer, look and taste more appealing, and provide essential nutrients. The assumption is that these additives have been tested and proven safe for us to consume. Unfortunately, that is not the case for many commonly used additives.
This may be surprising, but it isn’t new. In the late 1950s Congress required that new food additives must be proven safe before they could be used. That raised the question of what to do with additives that were already widely in use. Since people had been eating these additives with no apparent ill effects the decision was made to classify them as safe, and the “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) list was created.
Now additives may be approved as GRAS by an expert panel without rigorous testing and FDA approval. One study found that in every case these reviewers worked directly for or had financial ties to the companies that manufactured the additives. This raises serious questions about the process and whether or not the chemicals added to our foods really are safe.
So, are the additives in our food safe? There is no good answer to that question, mostly because the safety studies haven’t been done. However, it is rare that a food additive is removed from the market for health reasons. Most research showing that a food additive may be unhealthy is conducted in animals. These studies often test amounts that are far higher than people would reasonably consume, so they may not predict the health effects in humans. And some additives, such as iron added to cereal or vitamin D added to milk, for example, are widely thought to be beneficial.
To be sure, there are some chemicals in our food that we should avoid, but it isn’t fair to say that all food additives are bad. Even so, eating foods that are free from additives is probably a good idea. Even though each individual additives may not be hazardous, it is possible that exposure to small amounts of several of these chemicals could be dangerous.
Much of our exposure to food additives comes in the form of processed, prepackaged foods, including many restaurant meals. Getting back to basics and cooking using “real” food— fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats—is one way to avoid processed foods. Reading food labels can help, too. Look for ingredients that you recognize as food and avoid additives that clearly aren’t.
Avoiding all food additives is almost impossible. Even foods that don’t come in packages, such as fruits and vegetables, may contain coatings that prevent damage or preserve freshness. Even canned fruits and vegetables will likely have added salt or sugar, so even apparently healthy foods can contain additives. The best way to limit them is to select as many fresh foods as possible and make an effort to check labels for additives.
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