Additives… Food and Cosmetics
So you eat more whole grains, avoid sugar and eat more fresh vegetables and fruit? Your diet may be nutritious, but are you aware of what other things you may be putting into your body besides nutrients? Take a moment to look at the ingredients on any of the packaged foods you may have in your refrigerator, cupboard or even on the back of the skim milk carton. Do you even know how to pronounce some of those lengthy words, let alone know what they are? They are food additives… some are safe, some are not and some are still up in the air, but many are unavoidable. Ruth Winter, author of “A Consumer’s Dictionary of Food Additives” educates the consumer on what chemicals or natural additives they’re ingesting and what all of those strange names really mean.
The safety of food additives has to meet Congress’s Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) list, the keyword being “generally”. The GRAS list uses five levels to classify safety. Many critics argue that safety tests are not done over a long enough period of time to assess the real risk of cancer. Consider that it can take up to 20 years for cancer to appear in humans and up to two years in rats, but 70-90% of laboratory rats, due to living conditions, do not even live to fulfill their total lifespan. Even though many additives are safe for consumption, some people, especially children, can have severe food additive allergies that might not be easily diagnosed. Some common symptoms of food allergies can include itchy skin or mouth, hives, asthma and in rare cases, anaphylaxis.
Your mission: Open up your cupboard and read the ingredient labels on your packaged foods that you consider “healthy” for your family. Consider Kellogg’s Nutrigrain Bars®, which are a popular snack food. Besides containing infamous high fructose corn syrup, which is now thought to increase appetite as well as being linked to the diabetes epidemic, one of the ingredients listed is propylene glycol, common in baked goods, beverages and beauty products. It is used as an emulsifier in ice cream and as a wetting agent in foundation and lipsticks. Propylene glycol is recognized as safe according to GRAS, but in large oral doses has been found to cause central nervous system depression in lab mice. Another common ingredient used in baked goods as a yeast food and dough conditioner, ammonium sulfate, can be found in Kellogg’s® snack bars. This colorless powder is also used for the fire-proofing in car upholstery and to increase the duration of painkillers. There is no toxicity known in small doses, but large doses in lab rats have proven to be deadly.
Another commonly-used yeast food, calcium sulfate, is also used in Plaster of Paris, an abrasive agent in toothpaste and as a moisture-absorber in cement and pesticides. Ingesting large amounts of pure calcium sulfate may lead to intestinal blockages and has also been found to be deadly to lab rats.
What about rice cakes as a standard dieter’s snack food? Quaker Cheddar Cheese Rice Snacks® contain monosodium glutamate, more commonly known as MSG. MSG, used to increase flavor intensity, is on the FDA’s list for further research. Symptoms of sensitivity can include a rubber-band sensation-type headache as well as chest pain, mood disorders or numbness. Brain damage was reported in young laboratory animals, including monkeys. Reproductive complications, such as infertility was also noted in laboratory mice.
Food colorings, common in packaged processed foods, especially fruit snacks, are a considerable object of concern with regards to food allergies and overall toxicity. Red No. 40, or Allura Red AC, which replaced Red No. 4 after being shown to cause cancer, is of concern to scientists due to its safety testing only being performed by the manufacturer. According to Winter, the National Cancer Institute has shown that Red No. 40 is carcinogenic in animals. The coloring Blue No. 1, also known as Brilliant Blue, has been shown to cause allergic reactions and led to cancer in rats. Ever wonder what “Blue No. 1 Lake” means? The term “lake” refers to the use of alumina hydrate to prevent the release of dye on to the hands or clothing when in contact with moisture.
One “natural” food coloring that is known to cause mild to severe allergic reactions in children and adults is cochineal extract, sometimes called carmine. Cochineal extract is derived from the female cochineal bug to add red, pink, orange or purple color to products. The extract does not have to be labeled on a product due to being an animal by-product and therefore is considered to be natural. It sometimes may be referred to as “artificial flavoring” or “artificial coloring”. Cochineal extract is considered to be safe for consumption, but should be included when trying to identify food allergies because it has been linked to hives and anaphylactic shock.
Sensitivity to additives is not only attributable to ingestion, but skin allergies can be caused by the numerous additives in beauty products. Aveeno® body lotion, like many over-the-counter moisturizers, contains petrolatum (mineral oil). Derived from petroleum, this odorless jelly-like substance traps moisture and creates a protective barrier, but can cause allergic reactions in people with sensitive skin. Petrolatum is also used as a wax seal for fruits, vegetables and a glaze for baked goods. In addition to petrolatum, Aveeno® lotion’s ingredients includes benzyl alcohol, an alcohol derived from plants, but can be irritating to the skin or mucous membranes in large amounts. Isopropyl alcohol is used in many lotions and cosmetics, as well as antifreeze. Isopropanol, another name for isopropyl alcohol is the ingredient in antifreeze that when ingested can lead to headache, nausea, coma and may be fatal. Yet according to the GRAS, there are no known adverse skin reactions to the substance!
Adding chemicals to food is not exclusive to modern society. Historically, food additives have been used for thousands of years ago when man discovered that salt would preserve meat after the hunt. Later the vitamin C found in limes, as well as salt, continued to be useful for food preservation on a long ship voyage. Using additives to preserve and protect food saves us from many food-borne illnesses, not to mention time, but remember to be aware of possible allergic reactions, especially in children. Fresh, unprocessed food is always ideal, but when you must settle for the packaged variety it is up to you to educate yourself on what types of additives you are ingesting on a regular basis so that you, the consumer, may be able to make an informed choice.
Erina Fischer is a contributing writer for Healthy Beginning’s Magazine