As mentioned last week the ingredients label of most processed foods reveals a Frankenstein-like ‘chemistry experiment’. Whilst emulsifiers are my least favourite ‘ingredient’ aka chemical ‘food-like substance’ there are plenty of strong contenders for this dubious position. Most are deficient in nutritional value and the ones that do add very little with their risks outweighing any marginal benefits. Collectively, all are designed to knowingly attain more sales out of the consumer. This is either by encouraging addiction, in the case of sugar; sweeteners; and MSG, or by making processed foods palatable, in terms of texture or taste.
Another common theme is that all the ingredients listed below harm our health. With our environmental chemical exposure being what it is, it makes no sense to eat more toxins. Additionally, adding healthy ingredients to processed food, for example the vitamins and minerals in ‘Diet Coke Plus,’ does not make it a health drink!
The following list is not exhaustive but highlights the more common ‘culprits’ in processed food.
- MSG (also known as E-numbers E620 to E625) and other flavours-MSG is known to kill brain cells https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2802046/. In an attempt to fool us, food companies use about 60 different names for MSG on food labels (e.g. ‘vegetable protein’, and even ‘natural flavouring’). MSG also makes us feel hungry and proof of this is it being used to fatten up lab rats!
- Soy protein-usually from unfermented soy, contains phytates which can inhibit mineral absorption and also contain unhealthy fats and other compounds. If you are deficient in iodine then soy may adversely affect your thyroid gland Tran, L., Hammuda, M., Wood, C., & Xiao, C. W. (2013). Soy extracts suppressed iodine uptake and stimulated the production of autoimmunogen in rat thyrocytes. Experimental Biology And Medicine (Maywood, N.J.), 238(6), 623–630. https://doi.org/10.1177/1535370213489488. Traditional forms of soy, i.e. fermented soy (e.g. miso and tofu) are fine in moderation as fermentation makes it easier to digest and adds extra nutrients and probiotics.
- Vegetable oils-omega-6 oils (e.g. sunflower and canola oils) are highly inflammatory contributing numerous health problems such as heart disease, asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, diabetes, obesity, arthritis, autoimmune diseases, cancer, and mental illness https://www.bmj.com/content/347/bmj.f6749.full. They usually also contain high levels of glyphosate (the main ingredient in ‘Round-up’) which is linked to cancer among other problems.
- Trans fats-these are prolific in processed foods and are one of the causes of diabetes, obesity, heart disease, dementia and cancer https://www.bmj.com/content/347/bmj.f6749.full. They have recently been re-labelled by the food companies as ‘hydrogenated fats’ to dupe consumers.
- Food colourings– These have been linked to cancer, hypersensitivity reactions, and hyperactivity https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3441937/ and https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23026007. Another example of food industry tactics is illustrated by the fact that a well-known food company’s ‘muesli’ bar in America contains colourings derived from coal tar but the same muesli bar from the same company in Europe contains natural vegetable derived food colouring. The reason for this difference is because consumer pressure in Europe demanded it!
- Refined sugar-like MSG, it has around 60 different names (e.g. high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and maltose). Fructose is exceedingly prolific in processed foods as it is a cheap ingredient. However, aside from being more addictive than cocaine, it increases your appetite and also your risk of diabetes, increased gut permeability, obesity, fatty liver, and inflammation https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19064538.
- Artificial sweeteners (e.g. aspartame and sucralose)-increase hunger, especially for carbohydrates, and also increase your risk of diabetes. They are also more addictive than cocaine https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1931610/.
- Nitrates and nitrites-these are used to preserve, colour, and flavour processed meats (e.g. salami and bacon) but are listed by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a probable cancer causing agent http://jhealthscope.com/en/articles/14164.html.
- Microbial transglutaminase-this lesser known food additive, which is used to improve the texture of food, unfortunately also causes bacteria to manufacture gluten, which can cause inflammation in a significant number of people, and not just those with coeliac disease https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26084478.
The solution is to only eat real, whole, unprocessed, and ideally organic foods. The easiest way to do this if to eat foods that are as close to nature as possible.
Conventional medicine is still, for the most part, stuck in the dark ages of obsessing about the amount of fat in peoples diet. However, the type of fat and processed foods in general are more important in my opinion.
In order to stimulate a wave of change encouraging people to Just Eat Real food (JERF as ‘I Quit Sugar’s Sarah Wilson put it) I propose the simple initial step of changing the terminology of processed food. As health practitioners this simple act helps educate our patients. Let us all call them what they really are-‘food like substances’ or FLS for short. Then take the time, not to ask how much fat and sugar patients eat, but instead ask patients how many FLSs they eat.
Dr Tracy Chandler BSc (Hons) MBChB FRNZCGP FNZSCM, PGDipSEM, Cert Dermoscopy, Cert Homeopathy, MACNEM member, gained her degree in England and worked as a GP in Timaru before doing postgraduate training in sports, skin and integrative medicine.
She specialised in integrative (wellness) medicine in line with her increasing interest in the impact of nutrition and environment on health and wellbeing.