Quinn on Nutrition: What’s in our Food?

Feb. 20, 2017

What’s with all those weird sounding ingredients on food labels? And why are they in our food? I had the opportunity to hear from experts on this topic in a recent webinar sponsored by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the world’s largest organization of nutrition professionals.

Food additives are substances which are added to food to positively affect its characteristics, explained Roger Clemens, DrPH, Adjunct Professor at the USC School of Pharmacy. Some protect our food from bacteria and mold. Others enhance quality or stability. Baking soda and B-vitamins are additives in bread, for example. And vitamin D is routinely added to milk.

But what about those "other" additives, such as preservatives that prevent bread from molding? Believe it or not, says Clemens, preservative substances make our food more safe, not less. 

Sorbic acid, for example, is an antimicrobial substance that protects food from dangerous bacteria. It was originally isolated from berries that produce this substance to fight off microbes in their natural environment. We might see this preservative on a food label as potassium sorbate, sodium sorbate or calcium sorbate. Even with its scary sounding name, food scientists say these additives are physiologically inert, meaning they do not affect the body any more than other organic ingredients.

Hard to pronounce words are not necessarily bad, say nutrition experts. Chemical names for ingredients are actually preferred, because they are more specific, according to an article in Food & Nutrition magazine by registered dietitian Kathleen Zelman. (She’s also the nutrition director of the online medical site, WebMD.)

For example, we may not get freaked out to see folic acid on an ingredient label, since that is a well-known B-vitamin (B-9). But what about "thiamin mononitrate"? It’s another B-vitamin (B-1).

Would we run away if we saw "methyl anthranilate" on an ingredient label? I hope not. It’s actually the chemical name for a compound that helps give flavor to fresh strawberries. 

Clemens went on to describe the strict safety requirements in place for food additives. And he reminded us to consider the threshold of risk that determines if something is harmful or not. In other words, the dose makes the poison.

Cabbage, for example, contains ingredients that — in high doses — would be considered carcinogenic (cancer-causing), explained Clemens. These substances are not a concern however, because they are present in such low doses. In fact, because of its numerous other beneficial substances, cabbage is actually considered a cancer fighting food. 

Nitrates — used to preserve processed meats like bacon — have been termed "probable carcinogens." But sunshine is also in this category; if you get too much, it could cause cancer.

Nitrate, by the way, is a natural ingredient in soil and plants, says Clemens. And it’s found in foods such as celery, lettuce, spinach, beets, meat, fish and dairy foods. In fact, products labeled "nitrate-free" are often preserved with celery juice, a nitrate-rich plant. What’s the take away? Not all our assumptions about food additives are based on science, say food and pharmacy experts. One hundred years ago, our number one killer was poisoning caused by toxins in our food, registered dietitian Amy Myrdal Miller told us. Today the United States has the safest food supply in the world. 




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