Living a busy lifestyle often means that people will opt for buying easy or already prepared foods as opposed to having a home-cooked meal. While things like fruits and vegetables are great for anyone on-the-go (and certainly nutritious), we often don’t think twice about the ingredients that are in some of the foods we eat – such as microwave dinners, fast food, canned foods, and other processed items such as bread, pasta, ice cream, chocolate, and even certain beverages such as soda, fruit juice, and alcohol.
Because so many of the processed foods that we eat are transported from other locations across Canada and the world, they rely on certain properties to help keep them fresh and give them a longer shelf-life, as well as different additives to help maintain their taste and appearance, and to prevent growth of mold, yeast and bacteria – all of which can cause food to spoil. These additives commonly include preservatives, emulsifiers, as well as artificial flavouring and colours. Without these additives and preservatives, processed foods simply wouldn’t be appealing. While there are some additives and preservatives that are considered safe, there are others that can be harmful to our health in many different ways.
One of the most common preservatives that you will find in many foods items is ascorbic acid. This is found naturally in fruits and vegetables, while it’s also commonly used in things like cereals and even beverages. Ascorbic acid is an FDA-approved preservative and antioxidant. It can protect the body from free radicals, as well as prevents foods from spoiling. Another common ingredient is aspartame, which is an artificial sweetener similar to sugar (though it actually tastes sweeter!) While it is also FDA-approved, it is somewhat controversial and has been blamed for a wide range of health problems from headaches to cancer – though this hasn’t been scientifically proven. Other preservatives such as sulfites, sodium benzoate, and nitrite are considered to be more on the questionable side in terms of their safety. Sulfites are responsible for preventing food from browning or becoming discoloured, but have been linked to asthma-related sensitivity as well as allergies. Sodium benzoate is what prevents food from acidification and fermentation, but some researchers have suggested that when mixed with vitamin C, it can create a carcinogen known as benzene. Nitrite is commonly found in meats and is responsible for giving certain meat products, such as hot dogs, their red appearance in colour, though they’ve also been linked to certain cancers.
As for additives, the one that you probably hear the most about is monosodium glutamate – also known as MSG. It’s commonly added to fast foods as well as foods at restaurants, and in things like canned soups, salt foods, and frozen foods. Artificial food colouring (dye) is also a other common additive. It’s used in things like juices, candies, and even condiments. However, certain colours such as red (40), blue (1), and yellow (6) have been linked to sever allergic reactions in some individuals. Similarly, it is also why people who get tattoos with red ink may also develop a skin reaction. High-fructose corn syrup, which is an additive made of the simple sugar known as fructose, is commonly found in candies, snack foods, breakfast cereals, soda and fruit juices. When consumed in large amounts, high-fructose corn syrup can be harmful to our health. It’s not only linked to weight gain, but also heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
It’s important to pay close attention to the foods you’re eating and read the ingredients listed on the nutrition labels. If you can’t pronounce a particular ingredient, or if the food labels are vague, it’s probably something you’ll want to avoid. For help on healthy eating, you can find more tips from Dr. Ghahary here or by following him on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Also, be sure to check out the Dietitians of Canada website at www.dietitians.ca for even more healthy eating tips, as well as information on where you can find a dietitian in your area.