Food facts with a grain of salt

Posted: May 10, 2014

Eating has been complicated by acronym ingredients such as GMO, BHT and MSG; understanding these and other hard-to-pronounce additives is key to making healthy choices 

Making healthy choices may seem to be an intuitive process with two opposites at odds – i.e., cake or broccoli – but which is better, the food with fewer calories, or lower fat content? What about the food that is seemingly adequate in both categories, but whose many ingredients are impossible to pronounce? What do GMOs, BHT and MSG really stand for?

Exposés such as Supersize Me (2004) and Fast Food Nation (2001) seek to answer these sorts of questions, but are not the first of their kind, by any means. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and other similar “muckraker” novels rallied consumers, resulting in the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act. In the 1960s, Ralph Nader caused an uproar in the arena of consumer protection, lobbying for seat belts in cars and stricter food labeling standards.

Part of the reason that these questions have been so difficult to answer, is because our understanding of the effects of food additives has changed so dramatically. For instance, in 1912, Paul Sabatier and Victor Grignard, won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their groundbreaking discovery of trans fat and high-fructose corn syrup.

“We have an abundance of corn, so what do we do with it?” asked life sciences teacher Nancy Cripe, “In a lab, we have figured out a way to take that very nutritious kernel of starch and turn it into a sweetener,” making foods more accessible and affordable, while using resources more readily available than sugar.

“One of the biggest concerns is obesity that leads to Type II diabetes,” she continued, “that leads to very much shortened lives, blindness, heart disease, amputation of limbs, all sorts of consequences because we love our sugar.”

Recent backlash in the medical community regarding the role of high-fructose corn syrup in the world obesity epidemic has led many companies to eliminate the artificial sweetener from their products.

“As a company, we do not allow trans fats,” said Taher Executive Chef Jonathan Barnes.  Taher’s website boasts that it was “the first food service management company in the nation to commit to a total elimination of trans fats from our menus.” Barnes also added that Taher is committed to a “Farm-to-School” policy, citing a recent partnership with St. Paul-based Saint Agnes Baking Co.

After bringing me a breadstick and cookie to taste test, Barnes said, “if a student says to me, ‘Hey, I really like rye bread,’ I say ‘Okay, we’ll order some!'” Frequent shipments from local sources like Saint Agnes allow the school to use fewer preservatives.

Food must be consumed quickly after – and therefore, within close proximity to – production to retain nutritional value. Preservatives bypass these requirements so food can be shipped across the nation safely, without increased risk of lethal food poisoning, like Botulism or Toxoplasma, found in contaminated canned goods and meats, respectively. Extended shelf life lowers the degree of urgency to ship foods quickly, and thus, the cost for consumers, so more people can afford to enrich the variety of their diets. Preservatives allow Minnesotans to afford exotic fruits, which don’t grow locally.

Genetically modified (GM) crops -yielding foods with GMOs, or genetically modified organisms- also enhance world diets. These GM crops have a higher tolerance to drought, disease and pesticides than traditional plants. In 1970, Norman Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize for the invention of genetically engineered wheat, as its higher yields require less deforestation than traditional wheat and its lower cost per bushel has prevented millions from starving. GM crops have been widely adopted by farmers with the approval of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the EU and the American Medical Association.

Genetic engineering isn’t actually new to food. In 1836, Jean Francois Poujot found a mutant strain growing in his banana plantation, which yielded sweeter fruits than the other normal plants. Through selective breeding, he kept the mutant strain going, the strain we now know and love as the yellow banana!

However, not all additives are created equal; while some are used to make food more accessible, others simply make it more attractive. Consider how the oils separate in a jar of peanut butter or tub of natural yogurt if left to settle? Emulsifiers prevent separation by chemically binding the oils that would otherwise separate, called immiscible liquids. Eggs are a natural type of emulsifier, used in baking to hold ingredients together. Manufacturers add synthetic emulsifiers like lecithin or monoglycerides to enhance the texture of ice creams, condiments, bread, soft drinks, cakes, low-fat spreads and a wealth of other products.

Another cosmetic additive is food coloring. Consumers see food before they buy it, which means that food has to look appealing in order to sell. “Natural” food coloring just means that the color was extracted from a natural source, such as fruits, seeds or even insect scales. Coloring made from bug shells sounds scary, but that’s not the real problem with natural colors: suspending natural particles evenly in water is difficult, so manufacturers have to add more unhealthy salt or oils. Ironically, this isn’t the case with artificial colors, which are usually water-soluble, though “artificial” sounds less healthy than “natural” coloring.

“All of these processed foods,” said Cripe, “the Cheez Whiz in a can, all of our cookies and crackers, and it’s not that all of those are bad. They’re convenient, they have greater shelf life, they use a lot of products that we have an abundance of, like corn. But if your diet is so skewed toward processed foods, your body is not very well equipped [to process them].”

While the long-term effects of “biological novelties” -materials your body doesn’t recognize- are still suspect for investigation, moderation can help hedge against the potential negative effects of additives. Meanwhile, preservatives and GMOs prevent starvation in some parts of the world, and enrich diets throughout. Additives that improve the presentation of food (namely sweeteners, emulsifiers and colors) share the biological risks, but none of the social benefits. Food additives are not all bad, but some are worse than others.

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