Preserving our health

It’s spring, and the colors around us are beautiful, bright, and pleasing. That’s great outdoors, but how about when the color is in our salads, sandwiches, desserts or drinks? What we see and don’t see on our plates or in our cups may make our food more appealing and last longer, but is it good for us or adding any nutritional value?

Understanding and limiting the wide variety of preservatives and additives used in our food is another side to the healthy-eating equation. Food additives are substances that become part of a food product when they are added during the processing or making of that food. “Direct” food additives — which may be man-made or natural — are often added during processing to provide nutrients, help process or prepare the food, keep the product fresh, or make it more appealing. This includes emulsifiers that prevent liquid products from separating, stabilizers and thickeners that provide an even texture, and anti-caking agents that allow substances to flow freely.

Additionally, many foods and drinks are fortified and enriched to provide vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. Examples of commonly fortified foods are flour, cereal, margarine, and milk. This helps to make up for vitamins or minerals that may be low or lacking in a person’s diet.

These aren’t bad or dangerous — but they are substitutes that accommodate us for not regularly eating a healthy assortment of fruits, grains, and vegetables.

Certain preservatives help preserve the flavor in baked goods by preventing the fats and oils from going bad. They also prevent fruits and vegetables from turning brown when they are exposed to air. Finally, they provide color and enhance the taste of food.

Most concerns about food additives have to do with man-made ingredients that are added to foods. Some of these are:

  • Antibiotics given to food-producing animals, such as chickens and cows
  • Antioxidants in oily or fatty foods
  • Artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame, saccharine, and sodium cyclamate
  • Benzoic acid in fruit juices
  • Lecithin, gelatins, corn starch, waxes, gums, and propylene glycol in food stabilizers and emulsifiers
  • Many different dyes and coloring substances
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • Nitrates and nitrites in hot dogs and other processed meat products
  • Sulfites in beer, wine, and packaged vegetables

Congress defines safe as “reasonable certainty that no harm will result from use” of an additive. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) provides a list of food additives — many have not been tested, but most scientists consider them to be safe. These substances are put on the “generally recognized as safe (GRAS)” list. This list contains about 700 items. Examples of items on this list are guar gum, sugar, salt and vinegar.

For a comprehensive FDA glossary of food additives, ingredients and labels, go here: http://www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/FoodAdditivesIngredients/ucm091048.htm

In the supermarket, your best ally is the Nutrition Facts Label on product packages, which lists, for example, how much sodium is in each serving. Sodium is a commonly used preservative and taste enhancer, but too much is unhealthy and contributes to increased blood pressure, heart disease and congestive heart failure.

As a guideline, to include a “sodium-free or salt-free” claim on the label, a product cannot exceed 5 milligrams of sodium per serving.  A product with a “low sodium” claim must not exceed 140 mg per serving.  A “no salt added or unsalted” claim on the label does not mean the food is “sodium free.”  Compare food labels and choose the product with the lowest amount of sodium. Also, look for the American Heart Association’s Heart-Check mark to find foods that can be part of a heart-healthy diet. This red and white icon on the package means the food meets specific nutrition requirements for certification. You can learn more about the Heart-Check Food Certification Program and find foods that are currently certified by visiting heartcheckmark.org.

Unless we grow and prepare everything we eat, we can’t avoid additives and preservatives in our diet. But by limiting intake through conscious shopping, and by eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and fiber, we can improve our nutritional health and preserve our lives instead of just our food!

# # #

Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!