In the world of food today, most of our grocery stores are filled with processed foods and many of us have become quite accustomed to seeing long ingredient lists and various chemical names making up our food. To some people this is no big deal and they don’t think twice to pick up any random package, not connecting the dots between their actions and the consequences, often leaving their weight and health to chance.
For others however, who choose to create their health and lives using a more conscious approach, reading the ingredient lists of any processed, pre-packaged food is at the least, a start.
Now once we read the ingredients, what then? Well, that all depends on how much we know about what we are looking for to consume, and what we are looking for to avoid. While many chemical or harmful ingredients have now become popular enough for the majority of us to know and avoid, (i.e. artificial flavor, artificial color, MSG, high fructose corn syrup, aspartame, etc.), many more still have consumers puzzled as to whether we should be eating them, or not.
Below are five common ingredients that can be easily found in many foods from the highly processed ones, to ones that are promoted as “natural” or “health” food options. They may sound good, they may even be promoted as being safe, but unless we look deeper at the full story, we may be consuming something that is taking away from our state of optimal health.
1. Natural Flavor
This is perhaps one of the most deceptive and commonly found ingredients in food today, especially in natural, health foods that most people feel very comfortable with. When it comes to natural flavor, what we have to understand is that it really could be anything, as long as it came from some “natural” substance, at some point. In the grand scheme of things, this means little as today’s heavy processing methods render numerous natural substances, unnatural and often very unhealthy.
So when most people think of natural flavor, they may picture a fresh lemon being squeezed into the food, to add some lemon flavor. This however is far from what natural flavor means. According to the US document’s Title 21, Section 101, part 22 of the Code of Federal Regulations:
“The term natural flavor or natural flavoring means the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.“
Industry insider Allison Jorgens explains more about natural flavors and the loopholes involved of how this term hides various other ingredients, including colors and preservatives in this video interview, where she helps consumers decipher food labels and ingredient names.
So is it the worst thing out there? Not at all. But we need to be aware that in one way or another it is a processed food ingredient, and in today’s processed food world, every bit counts. On top of that, natural flavors can hide GMO ingredients and various other ingredient combinations that are far from healthy. Where it can be of further concern is for those adhering to a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle, as the natural flavor can be derived from animal products. The good news on that front is that more and more natural, health food companies are now being clear on their packaging if a product is animal-product free or GMO free.
Further reading: What’s Really In Natural Flavors? - from NaturalNews.com
Maltodextrin may sound okay to many of us who have some basic understanding of ingredients, because it contains the words “malto” from maltose (a simple sugar) and “dextrin” from dextrose, (also a simple sugar). This may give us the impression that it is just a harmless, natural sugar. However, we need to raise a red flag on this ingredient for two main reasons, one of them dealing with the very fact that it IS a sugar.
First, with maltodextrin being a sugar, it is *yet another* sugar source in a usually multiple sugar product in the processed food in question, and in a high sugar lifestyle for most in the population. The sugar combo breaks down easily in the body into glucose, quickly entering the blood stream, and having a high glycemic index. Foods high in processed simple sugars, or ingredients that act like sugar are one of the main risk factors for weight gain, metabolic syndrome and diabetes type two.
Secondly, this ingredient is derived from starch, with that being corn mainly in the US. With the majority of the corn in the US today being genetically modified, you can pretty much guarantee that by eating processed foods containing maltodextrin you are consuming a GMO ingredient. GMO foods have been linked to infertility, immune suppression, organ damage, and more.
And to top it off, it is yet another processed food ingredient that gives our body an isolated compound to deal with, as opposed to whole, natural food. Maltodextrin is commonly found in numerous processed foods and drinks, avoiding these and eating a diet based on natural, wholesome food, ensures the best results for your health and wellness.
Further Reading: What is Maltodextrin? – from WhatIsMaltodextrin.com
3. Yeast Extract
For anyone who imagines the basics of freshly baked bread, the ingredient called yeast would not seem to be of any concern. Equally so if you love nutritional yeast, you may correlate it with all yeast, thinking of this ingredient as harmless. However what hides within the ingredient called yeast extract, has nothing to do with an optimally healthy compound. What we have to first understand is that within the category called “yeast”, there are many variations. Some are active, others inactive. Some cause health problems like Candida, while others provide health and nutritional benefits. The differences are huge, and if we are not conscious consumers, we could be ingesting substances that are causing us harm and taking away from our well-being.
In essence, yeast extract is a broad term given to processed yeast products. The variations are wide, but the biggest problem with this ingredient is that it often hides free glutamate or glutamic acid, the basis of monosodium glutamate. MSG is an excitotoxin, a chemical that has been associated with reproductive disorders, migraine headaches, permanent damage to the endocrine system leading to obesity and other serious disorders. Most people who are sensitive to the effects of MSG know instantly if they have ingested it by most commonly getting a headache or severe digestive disturbance. But for many more the effects can go unnoticed as the internal damage takes place, or does not become obvious until a few years down the road from cumulative and repeated exposure.
Proponents of yeast extract, such as the European Association for Specialty Yeast Products, try to dismiss yeast extract as a 100% natural ingredient which offers no harm from the “small” amounts of glutamate that it contains. This is clever, but far from the whole story. Yeast extract is commonly found in many processed foods, including vegetarian and health foods. It is used as a flavor enhancer and can be easily avoided when we remove the majority of processed food from our diets.
Further Reading: Yeast Extract Is Hidden Source of MSG – from NaturalNews.com
4. Calcium Propionate
Most of us have by now become conditioned to think or believe that the word “calcium” equals good. However that is not at all how the chemistry of matter works. Calcium as a lone chemical element is actually very reactive and does not occur on its own in nature, but rather bound to other chemical elements. And this is the critical piece that we must be aware of, as what it is bound to completely changes the chemical properties of the compound, making some calcium based compounds safe and healthy, while others are toxic or unhealthy.
So when it comes to calcium propionate, it is the calcium salt of propanoic acid, composed of the elements calcium, carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. Again on their own, these elements may sound harmless, but in the world of chemistry chemical characteristics change drastically depending on the combinations of elements during chemical reactions. Calcium propinate is a known fungicide, or anti-fungal. According to the Pesticide Action Network, calcium propionate is considered slightly toxic, where as its parent propionic acid is considered highly toxic. In studies done on rats, propionic acid has been shown to cause brain changes, like hyperactivity, neuroinflammation and autism-like symptoms. A 2002 study carried out by Darwin and published in the Journal of Paediatric Child Health found “irritability, restlessness, inattention and sleep disturbance in some children” related to calcium propionate. According to the Food Intolerance Network, reactions to calcium propionate can include any of the following:
Migraine and headaches; gastro-intestinal symptoms including stomach aches, irritable bowel, diarrhoea, urinary urgency, bedwetting; eczema and other itchy skin rashes; nasal congestion (stuffy or runny nose); depression, unexplained tiredness, impairment of memory and concentration, speech delay; tachycardia (fast heart beat); growing pains, loud voice (no volume control); irritability, restlessness, inattention, difficulty settling to sleep, night waking and night terrors.
This ingredient is most commonly found in breads, bread-like products such a pitas and many baked goods, where it is used as a preservative for preventing mold growth. It is also given to animals, like cows to prevent various fungal problems.
So should you avoid it? That all depends on your personal definition of health and personal health goals. If your intention is optimal health, then a diet of wholesome, natural foods is key where you do not have to deal with processed foods containing additives like this one. Sure, one or two slices of bread may not be a big deal and you will most likely feel fine, however as with other chemical ingredients, the effects are dose related and cumulative in nature over repeated use, and in reactions with other additives.
Further Reading: The Side Effects of Calcium Propionate – from Livestrong.com
Perhaps this last example does not quite sound that good to you, but if you have ever heard or learned anything about carrageenan it was probably in a very innocent way tied to being a natural algae derivative. I remember teaching this very notion to my grade 11 biology classes about 6 years ago, unknowingly passing along the same information to the kids. Unfortunately our society has a great way of passing around half-truths, that infiltrate the medical professions, educational institutions and more. When it comes to carrageenan, yes, it is at its roots an algae derivative, however, it is a classic example of the fact that just because it is natural (or came from natural sources), does not mean it is always good or safe for us.
Due to the heavy processing of this product, using strong alkali chemicals (strong bases), the wholesomeness of the algae is stripped down in order to extract the “gel-like” substance of the algae. It is then further processed into different carrageenan compounds depending on the specific needs of the product.
When it comes to the problems with carrageenan, there are many and well documented ones. Various studies have shown that carrageenan can cause, or is linked to stomach and/or intestinal lining inflammation, ulcers, IBS, Crohn’s disease, immune system problems, and cancer. Many people who have an immediate sensitivity to carrageenan end up with various digestive disturbances upon ingesting food that contains it. According to the Cornucopia Institute, research clearly links the food ingredient carrageenan to gastrointestinal inflammation and colon cancer. According to the World Health Organization, it is inadvisable to use carrageenan in infant formula, and according to Dr. Andrew Weil, it is advisable to avoid carrageenan altogether for everyone.
As always, the producers and proponents of carrageenan try to dismiss any negative effects tied to it in various clever ways, however, if one’s body is not the immediate judge, the numerous independent research and common accounts in the population should give enough reason to avoid this ingredient.
Carrageenan is a thickening/stabilizing agent and commonly found in numerous foods like alternative milk (soy, rice, almond, etc.), spreads, sauces, jellies, yogurts, desserts, ice cream, pet food and more. It is unfortunately very common in many vegan, vegetarian and other foods marketed as “natural, health foods”, so reading all food labels should always be a must.
Further Reading: Stomach Aches Caused By Carrageenan – from NotMilk.com
What all of the above, and many other examples in our food demonstrate is that we really have to be very conscious and discerning consumers today. There is a lot to learn to be well informed about what we are really putting into our bodies. Of course most people neither have the time, nor perhaps the motivation to do so. This is where I love the easy solution that is always available to us all. That being, reduce, remove or avoid entirely processed foods. This is not only a very realistic way to live, but easier than most think and each day more people are adopting the Healthytarian lifestyle. More and more people are getting it whether the easy or hard way, and no longer making excuses about it being “too tough”, or “too costly” to eat in a wholesome and natural way. We realize that our health and the health of future generations is at stake. We are understanding loud and clear that investing in prevention today, saves the financial, emotional, physical and psychological costs associated with the treatments of tomorrow.
Yes, it is unfortunate that we have made a chemical laboratory out of the products we consider food today, but the best news is that we always have a choice to go back to the basics, and eat as nature intended – whole, natural, organic food.