andrew schneider investigates

April 30, 2008

A guide to the safety of food additives

Filed under: Food - good, bad, weird,Food labeling,Food Safety,Risks to children — Andrew Schneider @ 13:00

Every week I get a couple of dozen e-mails or phone calls asking me which food additives are safe and which aren’t. When I suggest that the readers check out the Food and Drug Administration’s Web site or Goggle or Yahoo, what I all too often wind up with are frustrated and unhappy readers.

The problem is that for every article or posting offered on the internet that says something is unsafe and should be avoided, there is another that can be easily found that says the identical substance could be consumed in large quantities. Now I know this will amaze you, but over the years I have found that the positive reviews are sometimes written by doctors (MDs or PhDs) who work for the company making or selling the additive. Articles waving consumers off have often been written by scientists with competing financial interests.

Where can a consumer turn who wants the latest “unbiased” information on the safety of what’s added to our food?

One place is the Center for Science in the Public Interest. This public advocate for nutrition and food safety has been around for 30-plus years and is equally loved and disdained by all sides, so they’re probably doing something really well.

The organization has just released its latest revision on which food additives are safe and which aren’t. It’s called “Chemical Cuisine,” the Classic A-to-Z Guide

The guide may help you know what you should do if a waiter offered you some butylated hydroxytoluene with your food. You’d probably decline. Yet that chemical is one of scores of hard-to-pronounce additives that routinely show up in the fine print on packaged foods’ ingredients lists.

Is BHT safe? CSPI says food manufacturers use it to keep oils from going rancid, but animal studies differ on whether in promotes or prevents cancer.

“Just because an additive is artificial doesn’t necessarily mean it’s unsafe,” said CSPI executive director Michael Jacobson, who began researching food additives in 1971. “That said, the Food and Drug Administration hasn’t done nearly enough to police the preservatives, dyes, emulsifiers, stabilizers, thickeners, sweeteners and other chemicals many of us eat every day.”

Chemical Cuisine ranks additives as “safe,” “cut back,” “caution,” “certain people should avoid,” and “everyone should avoid.” Some additives that fall in the latter category include:

� Acesulfame potassium, Aspartame, Saccharin. Those artificial sweeteners are either unsafe or poorly tested. The only artificial sweetener to get a “safe” grade is sucralose (Splenda).

� Partially hydrogenated oil. This is one artificial food ingredient that CSPI has asked the FDA to get out of the food supply, since its trans fat component is a potent cause of heart disease and possibly other health problems. Yet Burger King and many other restaurants still deep fry with it; many manufacturers of frozen foods par fry with it; and some manufacturers, restaurant chains, and bakeries still use it in pie crusts, pastries, and other foods.

� Potassium bromate. This chemical strengthens dough, and most of it breaks down harmlessly. But bromate itself does cause cancer in animals, and isn’t worth the small risk it poses to humans. Many bakers have stopped using bromated flour.

Jacobson says that while it’s important to pay attention to the presence of many of these food additives, the presence of salt and sugar must also be weighed.

“Obesity, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure are such problems in this country in part because Americans are eating way much more sugar and salt than our bodies can handle,” said Jacobson. “They’re both perfectly ‘natural’ ingredients but everyone should cut back.”


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