THAT'S in my food?! What to avoid and what's just fine.
Lots of buzz words get tossed around in the hunt for healthy and sustainable food consumption. It's easy to say that preservatives and unrecognizable ingredients with complicated names are “bad,” but what does that really mean? With ambiguous labeling and baffling lingo in our complicated food system, it can be difficult to know what you're really buying. At HowGood, we've put together a quick and easy guide to the most common additives, so next time you won’t be confused at the grocery store.
When it comes to additives, our guiding principle at HowGood is that they aren’t necessarily harmful by nature, but they are indicators of low-quality, environmentally-negligent, and unhealthy foods on the whole.
stabilizers: sustain food structure
If your yogurt has been sitting out for too long but still has that silky-smooth texture, stabilizers have probably been at work. Stabilizers are a class of ingredients used in food manufacturing that are added to products to help maintain their structure by gelling, firming, or thickening. Some stabilizers are quite simple, familiar ingredients, like seaweed and fruit peels, but others are highly modified in order to achieve very specific functions.
emulsifiers: help ingredients mix
As your 4th grade science teacher told you, oil and water don’t mix - that is, without emulsifiers. To prevent oil and water from separating in salad dressing, mayonnaise, and even ice cream, emulsifiers are added, ranging from simple proteins found in egg yolks and milk, to synthetic compounds derived from soy.
Preservatives: Make food shelf-stable
What are those preservatives that everyone likes to talk about really doing? Preservatives are substances that create a more acidic environment in your food to prevent it from spoiling. Good ol’ vitamin C is a pretty common preservative, but so is the highly-synthesized and impossible-to-pronounce ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA).
FOOD DYES: add color for appearance
Your juice doesn’t look that red on accident. A lot of the things we eat would not look as “appealing” if color weren’t added. Some food dyes are derived from naturally occurring ingredients, like beets, but others contain chemicals that have been shown to cause risks of cancer and hyperactivity in children.
ADDED FLAVORS: increase or improve flavor, or hide unwanted flavor
How can your popsicle taste like fruit when there is barely any fruit in it at all? Added flavors are used by food manufacturers to boost the flavor of a product when its primary ingredients lack flavor, or to conceal other undesirable flavors sometimes generated during industrial food processing. A natural added flavor is not innately better than an artificial one--any added flavor is a signal that the product was made with inferior ingredients.
ARE THESE INHERENTLY BAD? No, not all of them.
WHY DOES IT MATTER?
Additives, like stabilizers, emulsifiers, and preservatives, can be highly-processed, synthesized from industrial laboratories that suck massive quantities of energy in the process. If a food label says “added flavors,” you, the consumer, aren’t getting the transparency you deserve. You should know exactly what is going into the items that you are buying and, more importantly, eating.
THE BOTTOM LINE
It’s important to remember that not all additives are inherently bad by nature; many are made with natural ingredients. But if you are eating a lot of them, you are certainly eating a lot of processed foods. So when you are looking to eat healthily and consume responsibly, limiting foods with additives is the smarter way to go.
COMMON ADDITIVES TO LOOK FOR
1. Soy Lecithin (emulsifier in chocolate, nut milks, etc.)
2. Monosodium Glutamate (aka MSG, added flavor)
3. Sodium sulfite (preservative in wine and dried fruit)
4. Sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite (preservative in processed meats)
5. Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) (preservative in cereals, chewing gum, potato chips, vegetable oils, beer, butter, and other foods with fats)
6. Maltodextrin (modified food starch in potato chips, snacks, frozen meals, etc.)
7. Potassium bromate (additive in bread)
8. Red #3 and Red #40 (Food dye in beverages, fruit snacks, candy, baked goods, cereals)
9. Blue #1 and Blue #2 (Food dye in beverages, baked goods, candy)
10. Yellow #5 and Yellow #6 (Food dye in cereal, pudding, baked goods, beverages)
BEST OF THE BEST
Check out a few additive-free products HowGood is obsessing over right now: