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I came across a small gem of a book recently. The Pantry Principle, by Mira Dessy contains everything you ever wanted to know about food additives, flavorings, fake sugars, colors, stabilizers, preservatives, emulsifiers and other "non-food" ingredients – but were afraid to ask. In this book she highlights not only the additives you're familiar with, but others that may not be on your radar. Yet.
So packaged food eaters beware: here's a hint of just a scant few of the items that lurk beneath the label in your packaged food products. And for those who are trying to get your friends and family off of packaged foods and on to a whole foods lifestyle, here's some more ammunition!
Since we're all familiar with the big offenders such as MSG, I thought I'd pick out a few about which you might know less. Take the case of the chemical used to create the yummy, buttery taste of microwaved popcorn. The chemical of concern is known as diecetyl and it's been linked to lung disease in the factory workers that process it. Microwave popcorn lung, or more specifically "bronchiolitis obliterans" syndrome is not just limited to factory workers, however.
Diacetyl is so toxic that the U.S. Dept. of Labor issued a warning notice about its use in 2012, the same year a study published in Chemical Research in Toxicology suggested that diacetyl can cause an accumulation of amyloid-B protein, which has been positively linked with Alzheimer's disease (More, et. al, 2012). Books like Dessy's are helping to raise awareness of this health menace, and legal judgments are now pending that may finally reduce to the use of this toxin. In the meantime, please read the labels of your microwave popcorn – or better yet, make your own (using non-GMO corn, please).
This leads me to another additive, which still seems to be enjoying immense popularity in both the cosmetics and the food industry.
Propylene glycol is an emulsifier, used to help foods from separating (think oil and water). Many emulsifiers possess anti-caking or anti-foaming properties and are used in whipped goods, while others control the rate of crystallization in foods such as peanut butter. Propylene glycol has a nefarious past as a compound used in antifreeze, and animal studies from decades ago suggest that it can cause depression of the central nervous system (Miller, et al, 1981). It can also be a cause of allergy and asthma in children and create a variety of skin problems. Unfortunately, its name may not always appear on the label since it is covered under an FDA ruling known as "incidental food labeling", a sleight of hand that allows manufacturer to skip any mention of it on the label. If you buy commercial products like ice cream, national brand yogurts, cakes and other sweets, beer, salad dressing and baking mixes, you can be pretty sure you'll be ingesting some propylene glycol along with your meal.
The poisons in the package - BHA, BHT, BPA
BHA (Butylated Hydroxyanisole) is a petroleum-based preservative used to retard rancidity in foods with oils or shortening. Despite the fact that a 2011 Report on Carcinogens from the National Toxicology program found BHA to be "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen," the ever-vigilant FDA continues to regard it as GRAS (generally regarded as safe). Often appearing below the list of ingredients on the nutrition label, it commonly shows up as a disarmingly benign statement such as "BHA added to package for freshness."
A relative of BHA, BHT (Butylated Hydroxytoluene) is also found in breakfast cereals as well as in chewing gum base and dry potato products. BHT appears to affect the brain, altering neurotransmitter function. Shamefully, this connection was brought to light 40 years ago in a study that looked at developmental changes to the offspring of mice fed BHT. Those changes included negative impacts on sleeping habits, learning, and increased aggression (Stokes and Scudder, 1974).
BPA (Bisphenol A) is an endocrine-disrupting, estrogen-mimicking substance that has also been dubbed obesogenic, meaning it can contribute to obesity. Women are not the only one who suffer from its endocrine-disrupting action, though. A 2011 study of male factory workers suggests a correlation between exposure to BPA and erectile dysfunction (Zhao et al., 2011) while an experimental study in rats showed a reduction in serum testosterone following BPA exposure. While its use in baby bottles and sippy cups has finally been prohibited by the FDA, its use in can linings, jar lids and thermal papers remains unfettered.
BPA-free plastics may not be the healthy alternative hoped for as other bisphenol-based products appear to have similar endocrine disrupting effects. Tetra paks, on the other hand, are made with paper and low-density polyethylene (LDPE), a non-toxic plastic which appears to have no health impact.
What's an eater to do?
First, last, and foremost, the best plan of action is to avoid packaged foods altogether. Aside from the additives in the food and the poisons in the packaging, we know that packaged foods are devitalized, depleted versions of the real thing. However, if you are still making the transition, here a few ideas for starters from the fabulous Ms. Dessy:
- Become an avid label reader. Look for natural additives such as acacia gum, ascorbic acid, agar agar or pectin, rather than those with names you can't pronounce
- Repackage foods found in plastic coatings or coated containers once you bring them home
- Eat foods rich in folate to help protect against BPA exposure
While this article provides just a peek at the insight Dessy's book has given us, the book itself is a must have for anyone who is serious about improving their health and well-being or that of their families. Please do yourself a favor – buy this book!
The Pantry Principle is available for purchase on Amazon.com. Dessy's website: www.grainsandmore.com (non-affiliate link)