Processed Foods Are Filled with Additives and Other Chemicals

Virtually all processed foods contain chemical additives as Akash’s grandfather proclaims. Processed foods are criticized for containing food additives, but most books and websites that condemn additives don’t define or describe additives. One definition of the term from a medical perspective is “any of a large variety of substances added to foods to prevent spoilage, improve appearance, enhance flavor or texture, or increase nutritional value.” These statements mention direct food additives but ignore indirect ones. Direct additives must be listed on the label in the ingredient statement, but indirect additives do not. Indirect additives end up in the product either incidentally or as processing aids. Incidental additives include cleaning materials used to sanitize processing equipment, pesticide residues, and packaging materials that migrate from the package into the food. Processing aids include bleaching agents such as chlorine, antimicrobials used to prevent growth of microbes that can cause food poisoning, and the enzymes used to make un-ripened cheese.

All direct food additives must have a clear function and must be efficacious (i.e., an additive must be able to achieve that function with the amount present in the product). Indirect food additives don’t have a direct function in the food and are present at very low levels. Thus indirect additives do not appear on the label. All direct and indirect additives must pass safety tests as judged by FDA guidelines or must be Generally Regarded as Safe (GRAS) . The GRAS list was drawn up in 1957 in anticipation of the passage of the Food Additives Amendment to the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1936. Scientific studies are reviewed by the FDA, and items can be added or removed from GRAS status. Scary additives on the GRAS list include ammonium hydroxide, butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) . calcium citrate, hydrogen peroxide, monosodium glutamate (MSG), potassium glycerophosphate, and sodium benzoate. All spices in processed foods are also food additives. Some of the other common additives on the GRAS list include acetic acid (vinegar), caffeine, linoleic acid (an omega-6 fatty acid found in oils and fats), pectin (added to commercial and homemade jams and jellies), riboflavin (a B vitamin), and sodium chloride (sea, kosher, and table salt).

The rule for declaring food additives on the label is that the company can list the common name instead of the chemical name (such as Vitamin C instead of ascorbic acid and caffeine instead of trimethylpurine dione). If a specific chemical does not have a common name, the manufacturers stuck with putting the chemical name on the label. Because the chemical name scares many people off, Big Food has found a way to get around these pesky rules—clean labels. A clean label is one that has only common ingredients and no chemical-sounding names. Thus, the food scientists working for Big Food must come up with a clean ingredient that either contains the chemical in question or a chemical that performs that same function. For example, soy sauce can be used instead of MSG. Soy sauce, either in the formulated or fermented versions, contains essentially the same chemical to give foods its distinctive umami taste. Chemicals that occur naturally in an ingredient don’t need to appear on the label.

Kimchi is a popular fermented food in Korea and is becoming popular in America as fermented foods are considered to be healthy and nutritious. The steps in making kimchi include trimming of fresh Chinese cabbage, cutting it vertically, salting (usually with rock salt), washing, draining, mixing and adding the ingredient mix between each layer of cabbage leaves, and fermenting for about one week. The ingredient mix contains fermented fish paste and a number of other components such as chopped salt brine, chopped cucumber or radish, ginger, crushed or ground chili peppers, garlic, onion, and various other spices. Whether it is made at home and stored in a traditional clay pot or made in a manufacturing plant and packaged in a can, jar, or plastic pouch, the steps are similar. Processed kimchi is made in much bigger quantities with larger equipment. Kimchi is an example of one of many foreign dishes we welcome to our dinner plates. At the same time, we regard label ingredients with equally exotic names as suspicious and probably harmful.

Some other things not generally understood are that most whole foods also contain additives and that all foods are chemical in nature. Baker’s chocolate, for example, contains over 600 chemical compounds before any additives have been mixed into a chocolate product. Any food in a package has been through primary processing and has been cleaned or handled on equipment that has been cleaned has picked up indirect additives. Any plant material contains either pesticide residues or microscopic insect parts and probably both. Natural pesticides that are approved for use are chemicals, and many of these compounds are as dangerous as and more persistent than synthetic ones. Finally, if all the chemicals are taken out of a food, we are not left with air but with a vacuum as nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, and other trace gases are in the air. We should not forget that the most common chemical in our food is H2O. In addition to the chemicals present, many authors don’t consider processed foods to be real, natural, or healthy.

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