What’s that in my food?

October 2, 2016

inglabelParticipating in #OctoberUnprocessed this year gives me another opportunity to take a closer look at what’s really in the food I eat. Thousands of ingredients are added to foods for sale in the U.S. and can include chemicals that act as preservatives, change texture or appearance, or add flavor. These must be listed on ingredient labels unless they are present at “trace” levels and have no functional purpose in the food.

Later this month I’ll post on health effects associated with some of these ingredients. But today I want to talk about how to choose foods that are free of potentially toxic ingredients. One approach I’ve heard is to choose foods with no more than five ingredients listed on the label. Another is to avoid anything that you can’t pronounce or identify. The second approach is probably the safest bet, since many foods made from whole foods can contain more than five ingredients and still be healthy – like ten bean soup, for example. The only limit to this approach is that some botanicals (e.g. plants) have Latin names that even a chemist like me struggles with identifying.

It’s also a good idea to skip ingredients with generic names like “flavors”, which can consist of a mixture of human-made chemicals, or “natural”, which is no guarantee that the ingredient has not been altered from its natural state. Keep in mind, avoiding unrecognizable ingredients in your food does not protect you from exposure to other chemicals that leach from packaging or are formed as byproducts of processing.

Bottom line: Just as it is possible to avoid many pesticides in food by choosing organic products, you can avoid artificial ingredients by reading food labels and skipping anything other than those you recognize as a whole food, like apples, beans, or oregano.

Share your strategies for avoiding potentially toxic ingredients in the foods you love (of course there will be a post on chocolate later this month).