A truly healthy diet consists of a variety of whole, unprocessed foods. That means eating real pieces of fruit rather than “fruit flavored” products and whole grains like oatmeal, quinoa and barley instead of “made with whole grains” goods. It means eating an actual snap pea instead of a snap pea that's been freeze dried, disintegrated into flakes, processed, and reconstituted into a snap pea-shaped chip-like snack product.
When food came from the farm or small, local grocers eating whole, unprocessed foods was easy. Now that so many of our foods are processed, packaged, and shipped by major conglomerates it has become harder to avoid food additives – substances, like preservatives and coloring, added to food to alter its appearance, enhance taste, or increase shelf life. While food additives contain little or no nutritional value, several of them can have harmful effects on human health.
While it's nearly impossible to avoid processed foods completely, it is a good idea to at least avoid these additives which conclusive studies have found to be harmful:
Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA) and Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT). BHA and BHT are antioxidant preservatives used to help keep oils and fats from going bad. They're most commonly found in cereals, chips, and vegetable oil products. Multiple studies have shown these substances to cause cancer in rats, mice, and hamsters. Some will argue that those cancers occurred in the forestomach, an organ that humans do not have, but the scientific standard holds that any chemical that causes cancer in at least one organ in three different species demonstrates a likely possibility of being carcinogenic in humans. That is why the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has classified BHA and BHT as "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen."
Food Dyes/Artificial Coloring. Food dyes are used in a variety of processed foods, from fruit snacks and candy to baked goods, cereal, and sausages. Although artificial coloring has been used for years, its use has increased fivefold in the past 50 years. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has reported that Blue No. 1, Blue No. 2, Yellow No. 6 and Red No. 4 have been found to contain cancer-causing properties. As if that wasn't enough, food dyes have been shown to cause hyperactivity and ADHD in children. Of most concern are Red No. 4, Yellow No. 5, and Yellow No. 6, which account for 90% of the food dyes found in food today. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has yet to make any determination as to whether certain foods with artificial coloring should be banned or made to include a warning label.
Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil. Hydrogenated vegetable oil is created when food manufacturers transform liquid vegetable oil into a semi-solid shortening by reacting it with hydrogen. This process creates trans fats, which have been proven to increase bad cholesterol, decrease good cholesterol, and make blood vessels less flexible, thus increasing blood pressure and promoting heart disease. The FDA has stated that gram-for-gram trans fat is more harmful than saturated fat. And a Harvard School of Public Health study estimated that trans fat caused about 50,000 premature heart attack deaths annually. Nutrition labels must, by law, list the amount of trans fat per serving, but labeling regulations allow for some deception. A food containing 0.49 grams per serving or less of trans fats can be labeled "0 grams trans fat.” Only the label "no trans fat" actually means no trans fats at all. Since both the American Heart Association and the Institute of Medicine have advised consumers to consume no more than 2 grams of trans fats a day, it is important to read labels carefully. One can quickly exceed that 2 gram limit by eating just a few “0 grams trans fat” foods.
Mono-Sodium Glutamate (MSG). MSG is a flavor enhancer and preservative used in a variety of packaged and canned foods, including soups, canned meats, salad dressing, chips, frozen entrees, and restaurant foods. It can be listed on labels as "natural flavoring" or "glutamic acid." One study dating back to the 1960s found that, when administered in large amounts, MSG destroyed nerve cells in the brains of baby mice. More recently, a report by the Arizona Center for Advanced Medicine states that MSG promotes the growth and spread of cancer cells within the body. The report also suggests a link between MSG and sudden cardiac death. Finally, a study reported in a 2008 issue of the Journal of Autoimmunity linked MSG with obesity and inflammation within the body, particularly the liver.
Olestra. Olestra is a calorie-free synthetic fat that cannot be absorbed as it passes through the digestive system. It is most commonly found in fat-free or reduced-fat chips. Olestra can cause digestive problems, such as diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and flatulence. It can also interfere with the body's ability to absorb fat-soluble carotenoids (which help reduce cancer and heart disease risk) from fruits and vegetables. Although the law allows products made with olestra to be labeled “fat free”, they actually contain substantial amounts of indigestible fat. Healthier alternatives are baked chips and snack foods, which are still crunchy and lower in fat and calories without any of the unpleasant side effects.
Potassium Bromate. Potassium Bromate is an additive used to help activate flour and increase the volume of bread. It has been banned in just about every industrialized country except the U.S. and Japan. It is rarely used in California where a cancer warning would be required on the label. The concern is that while most bromate quickly breaks down into harmless bromide, a tiny amount of bromate may remain in bread and bromate itself has been shown to promote kidney and thyroid cancer in animals. Due to this risk, many millers and bakers over the past decade have stopped using bromate.
Sodium Nitrite/Sodium Nitrate. Sodium nitrite and nitrate are preservatives that enhance the color and flavor of processed meats like bacon, ham, hot dogs, lunch meats, smoked fish, and corned beef. While no studies have definitively shown nitrites and nitrates to cause cancer, researchers have found that adding nitrite to a food as a preservative can promote the formation of cancer-causing chemicals in that food, particularly in fried bacon. Companies now add ascorbic acid or erythorbic acid to bacon to inhibit those chemicals and this measure has ameliorated the problem. While the risk of cancer is small, studies haven't proven conclusive and it is still advised that those more susceptible to the risk, such as children and pregnant women, avoid consuming cured meats processed with sodium nitrite/nitrate. And since nitrites and nitrates are primarily found in fatty, salty foods, most people would be best advised to keep consumption to a minimum.
This brings up a good point. Simply avoiding these food additives does not make for a well-balanced, nutritious diet. Avoiding processed foods is only one part of a healthy lifestyle. Consuming excessive amounts of sugar and salt can be more harmful than all these additives combined. Yes, it's best to avoid certain additives, but the best thing you can do for your health is follow the golden rule of healthy eating (and living) . . . Everything in moderation!