Every once in a while, health news surfaces about newly-discovered damaging properties of a food that we regularly consume. Chemicals in food have been implicated in everything from allergies to cancer. And just as often, we hear of new findings to the contrary.
Take, for instance, the latest health news about coffee beans, which has reignited anxiety among avid coffee drinkers. Acrylamide, a known carcinogen, is a chemical by-product that forms when processing the coveted bean. At one point, the state of California required that coffee manufacturers place warning labels on coffee as well as other products potentially laced with some level of toxicity, notifying the public of the possibility of exposure to poisons like acrylamide. But recently, newly-released science data supposedly prove that acrylamide exposure is safe in low concentrations, which has caused food enforcers to become more lax in warning the public.
So what are we to believe? The contradictory sensationalism is all so dizzying. But no matter what you choose to believe concerning your favorite foods, it’s best to stay well informed about what you may be exposing your body to. The following is a (very) short-list of other noteworthy chemicals in food that more than likely lurk along supermarket shelves and in kitchen pantries across the country.
Monosodium glutamate is, arguably, one of the most infamous ingredients on the planet. More popularly referred to as MSG, monosodium glutamate earned a bad rep in America as far back as the late 1960s, when Chinese restaurant patrons began complaining about experiencing strange headaches after eating Chinese food. The food industry uses MSG salt additive as a flavor enhancer. It is the salt from glutamic acid—a pervasive amino acid that occurs naturally in cheese, tomatoes, and certain other foods.
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, MSG is safe to eat in restrictive quantities. Food regulators deem MSG safe for human consumption with no adverse health effects when consumed in recommended restrictive doses. People have reported headaches, cognitive issues, and weight problems as a result of MSG consumption; meanwhile, national food regulators have declared such claims as false. However, a few independent research groups have reported that MSG had significant effects on memory and learning capabilities in animal subjects, especially when combined with aspartame, another dubious chemical food additive compound.
First introduced by the food industry as NutraSweet, aspartame is widely used as an artificial sweetener in nearly 6,000 food and beverage products sold worldwide. The sweetener is found in processed foods, including diet beverages, sodas, cereals, breath mints, chewing gum, frozen desserts, yogurt, hot cocoa instant drinks, laxatives, gelatin desserts, and wine coolers. It also comes in the form of a granulated sweetener and is used in certain pharmaceuticals in low quantities. Aspartame is considered close to 200 times sweeter than sucrose, or table sugar. Generally, aspartame and its associated products have been marketed as safe sugar alternatives for avoiding obesity in both children and adults.
Consumers have reported headaches as a result of aspartame consumption, yet governing food authorities do not support any claims of neurotoxic effects associated with aspartame when consumed in accordance with recommended doses. These same food authorities concede that there are no weight-loss benefits of aspartame.
Unsurprisingly, however, there exist scientific data that have shown aspartame to be a highly hazardous compound. During metabolism in the body, the synthetic sweetener is broken down into three parts: 50% phenylalanine, 40% aspartic acid, and 10% methanol. The phenylalanine amino acid hinders the transport of vital amino acids to the brain, which contributes to decreased levels of serotonin and dopamine. In high concentrations, aspartic acid is a toxin that induces hyperactivity symptoms by way of overactive neurons, which are nervous system cells. Methanol is a liquid chemical that suppresses central nervous system activity, causes vision complications, and encourages coma.
Sodium benzoate is typically used as a food preservative for acidic foods. Labels for sodas, fruit juices, jellies, salad dressings, pickles, and many condiments include this food additive. Certain cosmetics and pharmaceutical products contain this preservative as well. Sodium benzoate is also used as an ingredient in fireworks. The compound occurs naturally in foods, like berries, milk, cheese, and shrimp. Food manufacturers manipulate the more unstable benzoic acid, an antifungal and antibacterial preservative, through a controlled oxidation process.
In the United States, sodium benzoate is generally regarded as safe (GRAS) in controlled doses by the Food and Drug Administration. Sodium benzoate, or other benzoate salts, becomes particularly harmful to the human body once it combines with ascorbic acid (vitamin C) to form benzene, a carcinogen. The rate of benzene formation increases when the compounds are exposed to light and heat, or the product sustains a prolonged shelf life. According to prevailing scientific data, acute exposure to sodium benzoate did not influence glucose or insulin levels in otherwise healthy individuals. However, in animal models, four metabolites—substances necessary for metabolism—changed significantly when exposed to benzoate.
Potassium sorbate is a white salt used to inhibit molds in cheese, apple cider, sodas, and baked goods. The compound is considered a wine stabilizer, since it discourages the proliferation of yeast after the fermentation process. Potassium sorbate is also used to halt microbial activity in certain cosmetics and other toiletries. Sorbate exists naturally in berries, but its potassium sorbate derivative is synthetic.
Potassium sorbate is considered safe at levels recommended by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. However, beyond supposedly safe levels, the synthetic compound is considered a skin, respiratory, and eye irritant. Lab studies have revealed that potassium sorbate, at all concentration levels, encouraged DNA strand fractures.
Aside from these decidedly shocking examples, there are countless other chemicals in food that you should know about. Sure the names can be confusing and the data hard to decipher, but a quick internet search is all it takes to get a snapshot of what chemicals you may be pouring into your body on a daily basis.
If research isn’t your thing, consuming processed foods and beverages in moderation (or not at all!) is a great rule of thumb. Be mindful of combining certain processed foods that may contain chemicals that react to form harmful compounds. Adhere to expiration dates on food packages, and follow storage recommendations whenever possible.
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