Avoiding processed foods is key to sustain one’s health. I’m a big fan of a wholesome plant-based diet that consists of non-processed foods. Lots of nutritious raw food but also warming and nourishing cooked foods. This is not only because it tastes best, but to avoid all the chemicals that are added to our food. And with that I don’t even manage to avoid all of the chemicals that are added to our food. Unless I grow my own food, in my own garden, on my own soil full of nutrition, there will always be a chance I’m ingesting some sort of chemical, additive or preservative. Especially when we look at non-organic farming because yes, I can’t afford buying organic all the time. And living in Asia does limit the possibilities for organic food somewhat.
Many of us are by now aware of most chemicals in our food. We try to avoid GMO, HFCS, MSG, E numbers and such. The big nasty words. But what about the rest? There are more than 3,000 food chemicals purposely added to our food supply. Some more harmful than others. But as a general rule of thumb if it isn’t natural, I don’t believe nature intended for us to eat it.
Below I've complied an overview of the worst offenders for you.
Partially hydrogenated and modified oil
Generally labelled as soybean oil, vegetable oil shortening, modified coconut oil or palm oil to name a few. Most of these are processed to the extent that their chemical structure changes and they turn into trans fats. Trans fats raise bad cholesterol (LDL) and at the same time also lower good cholesterol (HDL). They increase and trigger inflammation in the body. This puts your health at risk, increasing chances for heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. Which foods contain trans fats? Cakes, pies, cookies, biscuits, margarine, crackers, microwave popcorn, doughnuts, candies.. you get the point. Most of these hydrogenated oils are made from soybeans which in itself can have further health risks involved. Most soy crops - especially in countries like the US where GMO is still allowed - are genetically engineered.
Modified Food Starch
This includes corn starch, agar, calcium carbonate, calcium sulfate, cellulose gum and most of the time if you read the ingredient “modified starch” is means it will have been treated with chemicals such as sulfuric acid, chlorine and others which aren’t necessarily safe for consumption. Due to the treatment with these chemicals, the risk for contamination increases and with that the chances that we actually ingest the chemicals. Lastly, modified starch is a highly processed carbohydrate which adds empty calories to your food. Especially for weight conscious people it is recommended to avoid modified starch for that very reason.
HFCS (High Fructose Corn Syrup)
Though chemically similar to table sugar (sucrose), this cheaper alternative is a highly processed form of glucose converted into fructose. Some studies have shown that HFCS inhibits Leptin which is the hormone responsible for controlling appetite. On top of that, HFCS being pure fructose, it needs to be processed by the liver. Fructose is primarily metabolised by your liver, because your liver is the only organ that has the transporter for it. If you consume high amounts of it, fructose can be taxing on the liver and essentially damage it. Similar to alcohol and other toxins. And just like alcohol, fructose is mostly metabolised directly into fat. It can’t be used as fuel for the body efficiently and it therefore gets stored in your fat cells, which leads to mitochondrial malfunction, obesity and obesity-related diseases.
They can appear in our food as Aspartame, Xylitol, Sucralose, Saccharin or Sorbitol to name a few of the more common ones. They all come with their own effects on our health. Aspartame is probably the worst of all evil and has been shown to have carcinogenic effects. It is to be avoided especially by pregnant women as aspartame can predispose the baby to metabolic syndrome disorders and obesity later in life. Common side effects of aspartame include headaches, migraines, mood disorders and dizziness. Artificial sweeteners can trigger and increase addiction to sugar tenfold as it has a much higher sweetness. Most of these sweeteners are known to cause abdominal bloating, cramps and even diarrhoea. Plus, as they are artificial the body isn’t able to break down the compounds and with that these sweeteners can have a huge effect on our metabolism and create residue in the body and the liver.
MSG goes by many names: monosodium glutamate, maltodextrin, sodium caseinate, autolyzed yeast, autolyzed vegetable protein, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, yeast extract, and even citric acid. Ultimately, more than 40 forms of this processed additive can be found in supermarket aisles. And the side effects are immense. There is an actual thing called MSG symptom complex - that says it all, right? Headaches, flushing, sweating, facial pressure, numbness, palpitations, nausea. MSG is also a chemoinducer of obesity, type II diabetes and metabolic syndrome. It’s often found in canned soup, diet beverages, an array of popular fast food, packaged sausages and frankfurters, beef stew, instant soups, salad dressing and some packaged vegetarian foods - and Chinese food.
The safety of artificial food dyes is highly controversial. Artificial food colouring is what creates the bright colours of candy, sports drinks and baked goods. They’re even used in certain brands of pickles, smoked salmon and salad dressing as well as medications. Artificial food colouring consumption has increased by 500% in the last 50 years - children are the biggest consumers. Just slightly scary.. Listen up, food dyes are made from petroleum! Petrol.. that is used to fuel cars and scooters. Several studies have found a small but significant association between artificial food dyes and hyperactivity in children. They can also cause behavioural changes including irritability, restlessness, depression and difficulty with sleeping.
Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA) and Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT)
These additives are widely used by the food industry as preservatives to prevent oils and fats from oxidising and with that from going rancid. They are used in cereals, potato chips, chewing gum, butter, meats, baked goods, snack foods and beer. They are also found in food packaging, cosmetics, rubber products, and petroleum products. Why would you eat something that is also made into rubber? BHA and BHT can negatively impact sleep and appetite and have been associated with liver and kidney damage, hair loss, behavioural problems, and cancer.
And here comes the outrageous part: Food manufacturers are now allowed to include the above as “Rosemary Extract” - part of the Clean-Label Revamp of ingredient lists. Doesn’t that sound yummy and healthy? Don’t get fooled, it’s just a different name for the same and has nothing to do with rosemary. Not in the slightest.
Potassium bromate is a oxidising agent that chemically ages flour much faster than air. It also bleaches dough and increases its elasticity which creates the bubbles as the bread rises. The end product is fluffy, soft and unnaturally white. Luckily this additive is banned in the European Union, Canada, Brazil and many other places, but don’t eat store bought bread in the US and Japan where it’s still allowed. It is carcinogenic which means it can cause cancer.
Sodium nitrate is a salt that is used to preserve foods and added to cured meat including bacon, jerky, ham, salami and hot dogs to help preserve them. If you’re a vegetarian and took a sigh of relief, I have bad news. Sodium nitrate can be found in plants due to nitrogen in the soil. Plants absorb sodium nitrate from the soil as it’s needed for plant growth. Vegetables with high levels of sodium nitrate include spinach, radishes, lettuce, celery, carrots, cabbage, and beets. High levels are concerning for our health and can cause problems such as cancer, heart disease and leukaemia. Other side effects include dizziness, headaches, nausea and vomiting.
Sodium Benzonate and Benzoic Acid
These are added to some fruit juices, carbonated drinks and pickles to stimulate the growth of microorganisms in acidic foods. They generally affect only people with allergies, but they also exacerbate symptoms of asthma and ADHD. A diet high in sodium can increase the risk for hypertension and with that heart disease. When sodium benzoate is used in beverages that also contain ascorbic acid (vitamin C) which is very common, these two substances can form a chemical that causes leukaemia and other cancers.
And lastly, a few more words on the chemicals that are widely used to grow food - vegetables and fruits. Pesticides are chemicals used to eliminate or control a variety of agricultural pests that can damage crops. The most common ones are insecticides (to kill insects), herbicides (to kill weeds), rodenticides (to kill rodents), and fungicides (to control fungi, mold, and mildew).
Pesticides have been linked to cancer, Alzheimer’s, ADHD and birth defects. They can also harm the nervous, reproductive and endocrine system. Pesticides tend to be stored in the colon and although one piece of fruit with pesticides won't kill you, it is the build-up that can be harmful for your health.
Pesticides don’t only harm us humans, but they also affect the environment massively. Biodiversity gets lost and key species such bees are eliminated as they die away, they pollut the water and contaminate the soil which create a vicious cycle as we grow food again on the same soil with the same water. Lastly, pest, insects, weeds etc can become resistant resulting in the need for increased application of pesticides.
Have you ever heard of the Dirty Dozen? It’s your little cheat sheet to know which foods to avoid if you buy non-organic produce. The Dirty Dozen are the fruits and vegetables that have the highest amount of pesticides.
In 2017 the list is as follows:
The full list can be found here: https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/list.php#.WYKYGNOGPsk
Despite the fact that all of the above sounds very scary, it is very possible to avoid these ingredients all together. Just think that you don’t want to eat what doesn’t exist in nature. None of the above “man-made” ingredients do. They might be derived from nature in some form or another, but due to the processing, the heating, the extracting, the torturing it isn't what it used to be in its natural form in the slightest.
And yes, perhaps not all food additives are “that” bad or “that” harmful, but I’m still a major advocate of an unprocessed diet. Think about why most of the additives are added to the food? Maybe because the “food” or product doesn’t taste nice otherwise! It would be bland. Tasteless. And nature never intended for us to eat things that don’t taste.
Recommended further reading: Swallow This by Joanna Blythman.
Thank you for listening. Thank you for being aware. Thank you x
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I enjoy studying, creating, exploring and most importantly eating nutritious food and balancing my life with yoga.