You and I are consuming things we really don’t want to eat. We do it every day. Hidden within the ingredient lists of food we consider healthy and nutritious are literally hundreds of additives that may not be so safe.
Last week this column disclosed, according to United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates, the average American now consumes around 160 pounds of sugar and other sweeteners per year. This would include sucrose (table sugar), honey molasses, dextrose, fructose, lactose, syrups made from corn, rice, barley malt, maple or sugar beets and other sweeteners that are added to our foods before we buy them.
Sweeteners aren’t the only additives that are commonplace among food manufacturers. Sodium is added in huge amounts. Sodium is a chemical that is necessary for our bodies to function. However, medical sources generally recommend that we limit our intake to between 1,500 and 2,000 milligrams per day. Excess sodium contributes to many serious health problems, including elevated blood pressure. Sodium is naturally occurring in some foods, and we add sodium to our meal when we use table salt. Think you are controlling your sodium adequately by not picking up the saltshaker? Think again. According to the Mayo Clinic, as much of 77 percent of the sodium we consume has already been added to our food as part of the preparation and preserving process. This includes all foods that are canned, frozen or prepackaged.
For example, a plain bagel, something that doesn’t even taste salty, can have 500-700 milligrams of sodium.
Sodium is a part of many food additives, including monosodium glutamate (MSG), baking soda, baking powder, disodium phosphate, sodium alginate, sodium nitrate and others. Why would food companies add so much sodium? These additives help the food seem more flavorful, act as a preservative or aid in other ways to produce products that are attractive to the consumer, have a longer shelf life or allow the use of cheaper ingredients.
Just a glimpse of the nutrition information at a popular fast food restaurant will illustrate the sodium content: 10 chicken nuggets have 1,000 milligrams. The little packages of sauce can have from 150-500 milligrams per package. We haven’t even got to the fries or drink yet. Many people will exceed the recommended amount of sodium in one meal, either fast food or at a sit-down restaurant. Each chicken wing has approximately 300-500 milligrams of sodium. Five wings put you over the limit of healthy eating … for the whole day.
If we ate these foods only occasionally, it would have less effect. However, demographic studies suggest that Americans are steadily increasing our dependence on processed foods and eating out as a convenience. This habit is making us fat and unhealthy.
We obviously cannot (and probably should not) count on government agencies to help us reduce the amount of possibly harmful food additives we consume. It is up to us individually to create our own plan of limiting the consumption of unhealthy food additives.
A first step is to become aware that food processors are allowed to add numerous potentially harmful additives to our food. Although viewed by some experts to be harmless in extremely small quantities, in accumulated amounts the negative effects on our health are undisputed. The position of the USDA and Food and Drug Administration appears to be that we consumers are bright enough to know better than to eat this stuff day-in and day-out. Casual observations of our consumer habits would discredit that theory.
A follow-up step is to think of alternative food sources that are better choices. Fresh vegetables and fruits start with no additives, and if eaten fresh or prepared by the consumer the additives are completely under your control. Even meat products prepared by the consumer (without pre-seasoning) are more likely to be better choices that eating the same cut of meat at any restaurant.
A third step is to begin taking a serious look at the food labels. Although not all additives are clearly defined, sodium content is labeled.
Next week, a few simple ways to protect your heart.
Dr. Mark Kestner