By Deja Becknell, BSN
nutraMetrix Health & Nutrition Writer
The safety of ingredients in products has come into question over the years. In the second part of the junk science series, we discussed key differences between natural and synthetic supplements. Today, we’ll debunk common myths of “demonized” additives in the industry.
We all want to make the healthiest food choices for our family. At times it can be difficult to decipher ingredient labels, especially if they’re loaded with chemicals we can’t even pronounce.
Additives are sometimes seen as a dirty word, but they’ve been used throughout history. Unlike our ancestors, most of us don’t spend time harvesting our own food or spend hours each day cooking and canning anymore. This is why many consumers rely on the benefits that additives can provide. A food additive is any substance added to food and supplements to preserve flavor or enhance taste, appearance, and other qualities. The purpose of additives is to make products more easily digestible, while maintaining or improving its nutritional qualities and freshness.
These common food additives have been the center of controversy for years:
Have you ever noticed a white coating on your vitamins or supplements? If so, you probably didn’t think twice about it. It’s an additive made from magnesium stearate. Magnesium stearate is a fine white powder made up of two substances. A saturated fat called stearic acid, and the mineral magnesium. Stearic acid can be found in many of your favorite foods such as chicken, eggs, chocolate, salmon, cheese, and more.
Magnesium stearate is commonly added to processed foods, pharmaceuticals, and cosmetics. So why it would be used in supplements? Natural ingredients in products don’t always move through equipment smoothly. Magnesium stearate can be added as a flow agent. This can prevent ingredients from sticking to each other and the machine, ensuring consistency and quality control. Unlike nutraMetrix, some companies often use synthetic flow agents, such as di-calcium phosphate.
Stearates increase “bad” cholesterol
Claims that magnesium stearate is harmful have been circulating for over twenty years. Although it’s a saturated fat, stearic acid does not have a great effect on cholesterol levels. Given the small amounts used in supplements, are there concerns?
Stearates do not pose the same health risks compared to other forms of saturated fat. Why? Stearates are well absorbed and do not coat the G.I. tract. Many common foods have much higher levels of stearates. For example, beef fat contains 19% stearates and a 200-calorie serving of dark chocolate can contain up to 5 grams of stearates. Supplement manufacturers usually use less than 2% magnesium stearate, a small percentage of what is often already consumed in the daily diet.
Carrageenan comes from a red seaweed commonly known as Irish Moss. At first glance, you might wonder how this natural, plant-based ingredient could ever become so controversial. Before you go through your refrigerator dumping out anything with carrageenan on the label, let’s break down the facts.
Used widely in the food industry to stabilize foods and beverages, carrageenan is a soluble fiber that contains no calories, fat, cholesterol, or sodium. It can also be added to supplements to improve texture or thicken ingredients.
Carrageenan is linked to increased inflammation
Carrageenan has been frequently portrayed as more harmful than is supported by evidence. Bloggers and interest groups have discredited carrageenan over the years, feeding a rumor that the ingredient causes a wide range of dangerous health effects including inflammation.
The truth is, carrageenan is not absorbed through the intestinal walls during digestion and passes through intact. It’s a naturally occurring substance that takes little work to extract from seaweed (you could even do it yourself). Carrageenan can be used to make a substance called Poligeenan, which is similar but a completely different substance and process. Poligeenan is a possible carcinogen that is not permitted in food and supplement production. Prior to 1988, it was called “degraded carrageenan”, which fueled false claims about the link between the two. Toxicologists and food safety agencies have supported high quality, food-grade carrageenan over the years.
You may have never heard of it, or you could be sick of hearing about this popular ingredient. Widely used due to its relatively low cost and versatile nature, this liquid can be found in everything from artificial sweeteners, medications, ice cream, processed foods, and yes, antifreeze. Let’s talk about propylene glycol.
What is it?
Propylene glycol is a colorless and odorless liquid which may be derived from either petroleum, natural gas, or vegetable sources. It’s often used as an emulsifier in supplements, foods and personal care products to help ingredients blend in a formula and maintain their moisture, consistency, texture, and shelf life.
Propylene glycol is used in anti-freeze, so it must be toxic
Hearing that a chemical may be in antifreeze can come across as pretty alarming if you don’t have the facts, and this has raised some concerns among consumers. Propylene glycol lowers the temperature at which water freezes, helping to prevent antifreeze from becoming a solid at low temperatures. It’s an ingredient within antifreeze, but that doesn’t mean it’s harmful. Propylene glycol is sometimes confused with its dangerous cousin, ethylene glycol. Unlike ethylene glycol, which is highly toxic to humans, propylene glycol is safe when consumed in small amounts and there is no buildup in the body overtime. The Acceptable Dietary Intake is 25mg for every kilogram (kg) of body weight. This means, for a person weighing 150-lb (70 kg), they would need to consume several cups of propylene glycol to overdose.
Compared to other additives which can contain impurities, nutraMetrix uses a non-irritating and non-carcinogenic type that does not degrade into toxic chemicals.
Which additives should I avoid?
In the past 40 years, developments in food science and technology combined with consumer demand has led to an increase in the use of food additives. While this has given consumers access to a large variety of food at reasonable prices, all additives are not made equal. Here’s a few you should avoid when you can:
This additive is a lemon-yellow dye that is often used in candy, soft drinks, chips, popcorn, and cereals. In some studies, this dye has been associated with changes including irritability, restlessness, depression, and difficulty sleeping. Yellow #5 is also known to have potential to cause allergic reactions, in some cases.
High-Fructose Corn Syrup
Corn Syrup is a liquid sweetener and food thickener. It’s widely used in almost all processed foods including bread, soup, sauces, and more. While corn syrup poses no specific threat if used in moderation, it provides no nutritional value to the body and can increase the risk of excess weight gain.
Partially Hydrogenated Oil (Trans Fat)
Manufacturers often use this food additive to improve the shelf life of packaged foods such as baked goods, fast foods, snacks, and more. Partially hydrogenated oil is known as the manufactured form of trans fat. The more trans fat you consume, the greater your risk for heart and blood vessel complications. Trans fat is considered so unhealthy, it is now banned in the use of foods. However, companies can still label products 0 grams trans-fat even though it can contain up to 0.5 grams. Try using oils such as olive oil, grapeseed oil, soybean oil, or sunflower oil.
Additives have been used for many years to preserve, flavor, blend, thicken and color foods. Take a look at some foods in your kitchen pantry and there’s a good chance you’ll spot an additive. Food additives are strictly regulated and monitored. While certain ones have been linked to some scary effects, there are plenty that can be consumed in moderation as part of a healthy diet. Eating a well-balanced diet with little to no processed foods is your best bet to ensure overall health and wellness. Understanding what ingredients are in food and supplements and why they are present, has never been more important.
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