Have you ever felt concerned about the ingredients on food labels that you can’t pronounce? Or worried about the safety of feeding some of those additives to your children? Many of us worry over these food issues. In this article, we will address food additives and how they are regulated, along with a registered dietician’s perspective, to help you make your best choices at the grocery store and in your kitchen.
What are they? Substances added to food, including: food colors, sweeteners, agricultural chemicals, and even some nutrients that may have beneficial effects.
Why are they added? To prolong shelf and storage life, as well as to enhance color, flavor, and texture.
Why do we worry? Stories on the news about the ingredients in our foods: food colors cause hyperactivity, artificial sweeteners cause cancer, high fructose corn syrup causes obesity and diabetes, etc. It is important to be aware and know the source and the scientific research that makes or refutes the claims – not everything that is published is true.
What is being done? Food additives are governed by laws enforced by the USDA, the FDA, and the EPA. Each food additive must be cleared by the FDA after vigorous testing before it is allowed into the food supply. Compounds that end up in our food supply unintentionally through food processing or packaging (growth hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, herbicides, or bisphenol A (BPA)) must also gain approval from the FDA.
A dietician’s perspective: The FDA is continually working to make sure the foods sold and consumed in the US are safe for consumption, as in the case of trans fat. When studies began to conclude that consumption of trans fat raised the risk of heart disease, the FDA began a thorough investigation, which resulted in trans fat being added to the nutrition facts label as well as the required the removal of all trans fat from processed foods by 2016.
However, just because food additives are considered safe for consumption doesn’t mean we should be consuming endless amounts. Moderation is key! The majority of foods that are most nutritious for our bodies and our children’s bodies do not contain food additives.
What can you do? Being conscious of your choices at the grocery store will help you make the best choices when it comes to limiting additive consumption. Choose fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, beans, nuts, whole grains, lean meats, poultry, and fish which are nutrient-dense options packed with vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein, and/or healthy fats without food additives. For example, by choosing fresh pineapple instead of canned pineapple in syrup, or fresh, skinless chicken breast instead of frozen chicken nuggets you’ll be making a more nutritious choice and getting fewer additives. These don’t have to be more expensive choices – in fact, processed food is usually more expensive than their fresh/frozen counterpart.
While processed foods can seem more convenient, with a little planning ahead, you can often make better choices for your family and teach your kids to learn and even prefer the taste of fresh, whole, minimally processed foods. Talk to your kids about better food choices and read labels together at the grocery store, which will engage them and empower them to make better choices too.