The 411 on Food Additives

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Most of us have the best intentions when feeding our children…the food industry, on the other hand, may not. In today’s world it is hard to feed our family with food that is only in its purest forms. We tend to go for foods that fit into our busy schedules. Most of these foods unfortunately contain additives and preservatives that can be devastating to our health. A food additive is anything added to food to make it look better, enhance flavor, or last longer. To make packaged foods “shelf stable”, chemicals, refined sugars, grains, and preservatives are added to them. The process that makes them last on the shelf includes adding salt (MSG) to preserve it, sugar (high fructose corn syrup) to make it taste good, and food dyes to make it look tasty.

These additives have some pretty serious consequences such as hyperactivity in children, hindered immune systems and gastrointestinal issues.  With the convenience of packaged foods we lose the beneficial nutrients in whole foods.

Don’t worry, we all try our best and some days we have to grab that microwavable dinner! We can make changes in our diets, no matter how small in the beginning.  Below is a list of food additives that may affect your child’s behavior, sleep, weight, and overall health. By the end of this article you will be able to recognize them on a food label and navigate to an alternative that works for you and your family.

 

SUGAR:

Sugar has a similar reaction in your kid’s body to the one you feel when you enter into flight or fight mode. The feeling you have when you are really stressed out is comparable to how your child’s body can feel on sugar. Sugar makes highly processed food actually taste good, which is why it can be found in almost everything that you buy on the shelves of your grocery store.

In a study done by the CDC it was found that sugar contributed to 47% of the calories in infant mixed grains and fruit, 66% of calories in dried fruit snacks, and more than 35% of calories in dairy-based desserts. 

The bad bacteria in your digestive tract (the good bacteria is what you know as probiotics) feed off of sugar. Feeding bad bacteria can lead to a myriad of digestive related problems.  Unfortunately, the bad bacteria are what lead to many of our common illnesses. We need the good bacteria to fight off illness, and we need to starve the bad bacteria of its’ food source – sugar.  Sugar has been linked to obesity, which can lead to many other diseases, including juvenile diabetes

Reading the Food Label: Sugar comes in so many forms.  It isn’t just the white stuff in the paper bag at the store anymore. Anything ending in -ose on a food label is sugar. These are things like maltose, dextrose and galactose.  Check out this article by Sugar Science to learn more about how and where you are consuming sugar.

Okay, so if everything has sugar why even look at the label? Fat and protein balance out sugar in our systems by helping our bodies not be completely hijacked by sugar. If there are more grams of sugar than protein, think twice before buying it. The added sugar will send your child into a blood sugar spiral that you don’t want to be around for!  Look for products that have natural forms of sugar from fruit, honey, or maple syrup. These forms of sugar take longer to be processed in the bloodstream.

Think of a tablespoon of white sugar – now imagine putting that whole tablespoon on your tongue and letting it dissolve.  Three Oreos have more than a tablespoon of sugar in them! The next time you go for those cookies, remember to check the label. (Tip: 12.5 grams of sugar = 1 tablespoon)

Worst culprits: juice, milk, packaged snacks, gummy snacks, spaghetti sauce, yogurt, bread, and ketchup.

What to buy instead: Fresh fruit and veggies, foods in their most whole state. See this article for the mother load on whole food based snacks.

 

HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP: 

If you are thinking high fructose corn syrup is sugar, you are right. It is made from corn, which is the single most genetically modified substance on the planet. American Academy of Environmental Medicine conducted a study on GMO fed animals and they experienced infertility, immune dysfunction, gastrointestinal damage, and organ damage. Many people consume these substances every single day so you can imagine the effects it has on our own bodies. High fructose corn syrup contains GMOs, high levels of sugar, and it is extremely processed.

 Reading the Food Label: The label will say: corn syrup, maize syrup, glucose syrup, fructose syrup, dahlia syrup, tapioca syrup, fruit fructose, and crystalline fructose.

Worst Culprits:  peanut butter, fast food, soda, cereal, sauces, and jelly.

Try this instead: Try this ketchup, jelly (jelly is still very high in sugar, be sure to put with a protein like almond butter), sparkling water,  and peanut butter instead.

 

FORTIFIED FOODS:

When food is refined and preparing to be packaged for a longer shelf life, it has to be broken down. Broken down means that on a chemical level, bonded nutrients are separated to remove necessary chemicals. In doing so, the nutrients we need are significantly damaged or even removed completely.

To make up for this process, nutrients are added back in. You have probably seen this on the front of packages with the word “fortified”. One common product is Morton salt.  It is fortified with iodine; because all of the iodine has been removed during processing, it is reintroduced afterwards.

Basically, fortified nutrients are not as easily absorbed into the body compared to natural occurring nutrients. For example, a fortified form of iron – nonheme – is only absorbed at a rate of 4 percent. To get all the iron you need from, let’s say, rice cereal, you would have to eat a lot of cereal. This means you are eating a lot more sugar and carbs, too!

Reading the Food Label: Common fortified ingredients are iron, zinc, DHA, and Omega 3. All of which are essential to your baby’s development.  If they are not getting an adequate amount it can affect their brain and cognitive development. On the food label it will list the item that was fortified directly.

Worst culprits: milk, salt, and rice cereals.

What to buy instead: Eggs, whole dairy, grass fed/organic meats, and fruits and veggies.  All of these foods provide a much more absorbable form of nutrients for your kid. Make rice cereal by pureeing fresh oatmeal or cooked brown rice.

 

FOOD DYES:

 The FDA has outlawed many food dyes, as the research was strong enough to have the FDA pull some of them off the market completely. There are still a handful of them hanging around in our food, most of which other countries have banned.

Why are they bad? The most studied effect on children is hyperactivity. Some of these studies link the dye back to reactions being caused in the brain.  This article gives more information on how food dyes affect kid’s behavior.  Dyes have also been linked to cancer and ADHD. This article has more information on specific symptoms caused by specific dyes. These are serious concerns that other countries have already recognized. Bright colored food can be fun for your kids, but make sure the color is coming from a natural source.

Reading the Food Label: The label will typically say the color, then followed by a number
(Blue 2, Red 40). They will also hide it under the general label of  “artificial colors”.  

Worst culprits: candy, hot dogs, sprinkles, icing, and basically anything that is colored. Think jelly, filling in granola bars, mac and cheese, etc.

What to buy instead: Fresh fruit and veggies, foods in their most whole state. See this article on whole food based snacks. Here is some dye free sprinkles, icing, candy line, and candied covered chocolates. Please go back to the article on sugar here before you over do it on any of these items.

 

NITRATES AND PROCESSED MEATS:

This has been getting a lot of news coverage lately so you most likely have heard of it.  Nitrates are a chemically engineered form of salt that is used when curing meats. Its’ most common use is as fertilizer in agriculture. You can imagine why you wouldn’t want to eat it. Once our children are exposed to such chemicals it is hard to rid the body of them. Completely cutting them out of our diets are the only way detoxify the body.

An article published by the Environmental Working Group sheds light on infants and children’s inability to handle the exposure to nitrates.

“limiting infant exposure to nitrate would be a sensible public health measure. It could be accomplished by minimizing exposure to both foods and water that are high in nitrate…” (NAS 1995 p. 49)

The World Health Organization released a study in 2015 that links nitrates and processed meats to the cause of cancer at the same level of risk as smoking. See NPR’s summary of the study here.

Reading the Food Label: It will more than likely appear as sodium nitrate.

Worst Culprits: bacon, hot dogs, and lunchmeat.

What to buy instead: Applegate is a great line of organic, nitrate free processed meat. Applegate has everything from lunchmeat to bacon to chicken nuggets, and it is available in most grocery stores.  If your meat counter carries in house made deli meats they are probably nitrate free. Try cooking an organic sausage instead of a hot dog. Buy bacon from a farmer at a farmer’s market, or ask the grocery store if they carry nitrate free bacon.

 

MSG: 

MSG is used in our foods to enhance flavor. In most cases food is being over processed, and for us to enjoy eating it they have to add salt. Some of us are guilty of accidentally over cooking dinner, to fix this we throw some salt on it. 

The concern with MSG is that it can cause damage to the brain, particularly in the areas unprotected by the blood-brain barrier. This is called neurotoxicity which is the damage caused to the brain (in this case) or peripheral nervous system by exposure to natural or man-made toxic substances. MSG and its effect on neurotoxicity are heavily researched when it comes to rats. The effect MSG has on rats’ brains is well documented and down right scary. However, there are some scientists holding on to the fact that this doesn’t translate to humans.

One thing that scientists don’t disagree on is that MSG leads to obesity.  With childhood obesity on the rise and MSG around every corner, the connection is simple. Obesity leads to diabetes, heart disease, sleeping problems, difficulty breathing, and high blood pressure.

Reading the Food Label: Just think anything having to do with salt, or anything you can’t pronounce. Chances are it is MSG.

Accent, goya sazon, vetsin, marmite, brine, disodium phosphate, garlic salt, onion salt, sodium alginate, sodium benzoate, glutamic acid, yeast extract, sodium caseinate, sodium hydroxide, sodium nitrate, sodium pectinate, sodium propionate, sodium sulfite, baking powder, baking soda, and soy sauce.  There are more than a enough names for MSG!

Worst Culprits: soup, juice, potato chips, ranch dressing, frozen dinners, infant formula and soy sauce.

What to Buy Instead: Here is a ranch dressing alternative, give these chips a try instead, try this frozen food and can soup line that is available in most grocery stores, and look at this option for soy sauce.

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About the Author


Kara Livingston

Kara is a certified nutrition practitioner with a passion for moms and their littles. With two of her own Kara is on a mission to make sure children are getting all the nutrients they need during this critical time of development.  A whole foods, nutrient dense diet doesn’t have to be difficult. She believes that cooking for a family can be simple, and she is determined to show you how.

Kara has a two year old and a nine month old which fill her blog with all kinds of fun recipes. The focus is on getting those picky eaters the vitamins and fats they need to grow big and strong. Making shopping, cooking, and eating all something her toddler can participate in has been the trick to guiding him to a healthy relationship with food.

Kara was trained by the Nutrition Therapy Association, after the culmination of her own health journey. She was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease seven years ago and has been able to reverse its effects through diet alone. Her goal is that all children have the foundation they need to avoid this.

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