Nutritionists usually advise their clients to follow this cardinal rule of healthy eating: Read food labels. If there are ingredients you do not recognize or cannot pronounce, avoid them.
But is this too simplistic an approach? All food additives are not created equal. Just because something has a chemical name, doesn't mean it's unhealthy.
Take for example common table salt or sodium chloride. Processed salt has a bad reputation for its effect on blood pressure. Because it is added freely to packaged foods and fast-food fare, most doctors recommend limiting your salt intake.
However, sodium chloride has been added to foods for thousands of years as a preservative. Unadulterated, unbleached salt is one of five essential electrolytes. Real, unprocessed salt also contains numerous trace minerals. Think of these trace minerals as "spark plugs" for your cells. Without trace minerals, your body does not effectively activate vitamins.
In more recent times, the additive monosodium glutamate (MSG) gained attention for its use in Chinese food and the undesirable symptoms it can produce like heart palpitations and headaches. The journal Science even published a report on MSG and its role in Chinese restaurant syndrome. To be fair, many contemporary Chinese restaurants no longer use MSG.
When are additives good?
Live full-time in Seattle, Saskatchewan or Syracuse? There is not enough sunlight in the winter in any of these cities to synthesize the active form of vitamin D (also known as cholecalciferol.) The same is true of any city north of the 37th parallel in the U.S., which runs longitudinally from Santa Cruz, Calif., through the Four Corners to Kentucky and Newport News, Va. People living in these areas could benefit from a vitamin D additive.
“Vitamin D helps transport calcium throughout the body, wards off depression, boosts brain health, and is a highly effective mood enhancer," said Erica Wasser, a weight loss and nutrition coach at Life Time Fitness in the Detroit area, who recommends keeping serum (blood) levels of vitamin D around 60.
Vitamin E, also known as alpha tocopherol, is another beneficial food additive. It is an antioxidant that protects red blood cells and may play a role in the body's immune function. However, there is one thing to watch for, Wasser adds: Vitamin E can turn rancid.
“If it’s a heavily processed food, the vitamin E additive could get tainted, undergoing molecular changes that could not only negate any health benefits, but also pose a health risk,” says Wasser.
What about additives in organic foods?
Another golden nutrition rule is to eat whole, natural or certified-organic food as much as possible, but even organic foods have additives.
The difference between organic foods and heavily processed foods is night and day, and the same is true of additives allowed in each. The 45 additives allowed in organic foods might sound shockingly high, but the number of additives allowed in non-organic food will make you downright depressed. (The list is alphabetical; there are dozens listed just under "A.")
Keep in mind that some additives in organic food are controversial. Take the thickener carrageenan for example. In some circles, carrageenan is vilified for promoting inflammation of the colon (and possibly leading to inflamatory bowel disease and colitis); other reports and studies say it is a safe antioxidant and does not promote inflammation.
We've given you only a few examples, but it's clear that when it comes to additives and their effects on your health, a simple answer won't do.
Are you concerned about additives in food? Let us know below….
Judd Handler is author of "Living Healthy: 10 Steps to Looking Younger, Losing Weight and Feeling Great" and can be reached at CoachJudd@gmail.com.
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