It seems as if every time we go shopping at the grocery store or buy a snack at a coffee shop, the ingredients list on our food labels grows longer and longer. While these readily available foods may offer convenience and simplicity to our busy schedules, those ingredients are anything but simple.
When it comes to eating healthy, the rule of thumb is to avoid ingredients that you can’t pronounce. However, the reality is that some of those ingredients—like gellan gum—might be easy to pronounce but not to digest. Many man-made food additives out there add textures, flavors, coloring and prolonged shelf life to drinks and snacks. And while these foods may look appealing to both your stomach and your wallet, their true hidden costs to your health and the environment are much higher.
We all know that natural foods are best, but what you may not know is that some chemically altered additives have been linked to weight gain and hyperactivity, as well as heart disease and cancer. Let’s look at partially hydrogenated vegetable oil—a manufactured fat that is derived from hydrogen being forced into vegetable fats under high pressure—creates trans fats, which as you may already know, clog arteries and contribute to heart disease and reduced blood flow. You can find this culprit in some margarines, frozen foods, cakes, fast food and nondairy creamers.
Then there’s Yellow #5 and Yellow #6, which are fairly common food colorings used in bread mixes, cereals, chips, condiments and beverages within the U.S. Studies have shown that both of these colors are linked to hyperactive disorders such as ADHD in children, which is why it has been banned in some European countries. Yellow #5 is also known to cause allergic reactions for certain people.
And we can’t forget butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) and butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA). If attempting to pronounce those words wasn’t scary enough for you, then you should know that these petroleum-derived antioxidants used to preserve fats and oils have been shown to cause cancer in rats, mice and hamsters. Even though the Department of Health and Human Services officially recognizes BHA’s reasonable potential to be a human carcinogen, you can still eat it in your granola bars, butter, cereals and beer.
Many products out there may look healthy at first glance, but they can contain unhealthy artificial—or as the food industry likes to call it—synthetic additives, such as xanthan gum or gellan gum. In general, gums are associated with digestive issues because they’re mostly indigestible. We do know that gellan gum comes from the excrement of bacteria found in pond scum or is made in a lab. In addition, its purification process involves acetone, a chemical used in nail polish remover.
Besides the health uncertainty, some man-made ingredients also have detrimental effects on the environment. One such commonly known additive is high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), a cheaply made sugar that has been linked to obesity. As the name suggests, HFCS is derived from corn, which is grown as a monoculture. This means that the corn crops are grown on land that is solely used for corn and not rotated with other crops. While such farming maximizes yield, it depletes the soil of nutrients, causes soil erosion and requires increased use of pesticides and fertilizers. And more often than not, this harvested corn is genetically modified (GMO) corn, which has negative effects on the surrounding biodiversity. This sugary food additive is clearly not as sweet as it tastes.
Purchasing foods that contain these synthetic additives just isn’t worth the health problems or the environmental concerns that go into their manufacturing. And we owe it to ourselves, our families and the environment to read the ingredient labels and understand what exactly it is that we’re eating.