What’s hiding in your food? It is a question that has boggled the mind for generations. What was once simply a glance at an easy-to-read list of ingredients has become complex thanks to the addition of food additives. Food additives, despite their widespread use, are detrimental to the health of most people when consumed in the long term. Despite the growing body of research showing that food additives cause more harm than good in many situations, many countries continue to allow them to be used in the food supply. This includes things like artificial sweeteners, preservatives, flavor enhancers, and artificial colors and dyes. Let’s take a look into some of these categories and how they might be affecting your health and the health of your loved ones.
Food additives are used to improve the taste, texture, color, smell, nutritional value, and shelf life of foods. These all sound like great benefits, right? Wrong! Many of these additives are detrimental to the microbiota that lives within our digestive system. These microbes are responsible for several essential functions including maintaining the integrity and health of the lining of the GI tract, maintaining a healthy immune system, synthesizing hormones, regulating blood sugar, and even protecting against heart disease — our #1 killer in both men and women in the United States.
Artificial sweeteners, also known to some as non-nutritive sweeteners, are one of the most common food additives. They are present in foods marketed for weight loss or as being sugar-free options for those with conditions such as diabetes. They are hundreds of times sweeter than sugar when compared gram for gram. They were once thought to be a healthier option as they were providing all of the taste without the calories or blood sugar spike. This, we now know, is not true. They have actually been shown to impair glucose tolerance when used consistently over time.
One animal model showed that an 11-week exposure to either saccharin (Sweet N Low), sucralose (Splenda), or aspartame (Equal), was associated with impaired glucose control following this trial. This change in glucose control is a detrimental side effect, especially in those who are looking to use these products as a way to control their blood sugars. Similarly, researchers demonstrated that 8 weeks of exposure to artificial sweeteners equating to 2-3 diet sodas per day disturbed the gut microbiota and resulted in impaired insulin tolerance in rats. What does this mean for us as humans? Drinking diet drinks or sodas regularly may impair the gut microbiome to the point that insulin is not optimally tolerated resulting in issues with blood sugar, weight gain, inflammation, and even conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.
What is a better option for artificial sweeteners? Using natural sweeteners such as honey, maple syrup, and date sugar in moderation have more benefits nutritionally as well as at the biochemical level in the body. These are derived from naturally occurring whole foods and are much easier for the body to process. Stevia is derived from the Stevia plant, but often contains other sugar alcohols, starches, and natural flavors. A recently published study also demonstrated that Stevia, although derived from a natural source, may still disrupt health-promoting intestinal flora. Aim to eat sugars in their whole and natural forms where they are packed with fiber and other vitamins and minerals, such as fruits and vegetables.
Flavor enhancers are used to magnify the flavor of foods and ingredients to make them stronger and more appealing to the consumer. Monosodium glutamate, also known as MSG, is a common flavor enhancer and is used largely in packaged and processed foods such as broths and flavoring mixes, boullions, and especially in Asian-inspired cooking and dishes. The presence of MSG in the standard American diet (SAD) along with the added fats in processed and packaged foods has shown to be a detriment to the health of those consuming these types of food products.
MSG increases the savory taste effect of fats in the foods leading to an increased craving and biological want for these foods. Long-term consumption of foods containing MSG can alter a person’s sensitivity to a hormone called leptin. Leptin is the hormone that tells the brain “I’m full”. If sensitivity to this hormone is lost, overeating is bound to happen, and following that weight gain and lifestyle diseases that come along with it. Through its mechanism of action within the body, MSG also increases inflammation, impairs glucose tolerance, increases insulin secretion, and can lead to issues with the liver, kidneys, central nervous system, cardiovascular system, liver, and more. It’s best to steer clear of this additive by limiting processed and packaged foods as much as possible. Choose only packed and processed foods when needed and look for a shortlist of ingredients, all of which you can pronounce/ identify!
Another major category of food additives is artificial colors (AFCs). Artificial colors are prevalent in almost all processed foods in the United States. They are found in cereals, soups, slices of bread, pickles, coffee creamers — everywhere! There is even one specific dye, Citrus Red #2, that is used specifically to color the skins of oranges. That’s right — they’re even in your fruits! They are heavily used in packaged foods marketed to children as the colors are more appealing to children as well as the parents. Are these artificial colors really that dangerous or are we ok to keep buying the kid’s favorite fruit loops cereal?
Research has shown that artificial colors and dyes have detrimental effects on both children and adults. They have been shown to alter the gut microbiome and are correlated with issues such as IBS, ADD, ADHD, and more. The link between artificial food colors and gastrointestinal and neurological side effects goes back to the late 1970s and early 1980s. Some common reactions to food colors and dyes can be both allergic (immediate and deadly in nature), and non-allergic hypersensitivity (delayed reaction, non-life-threatening). The link between gut health and the effects of AFCs is somewhat of a ‘chicken or egg’ situation meaning that it is unclear still if the dyes are causing issues with the health of the GI or if weakened integrity of the gut lining allows dyes through and into the bloodstream where they cause immune reactions resulting in negative signs and symptoms.
One study reported that children who were administered antibiotics early in infancy were significantly more likely to have ADHD-type symptoms than those children in the control group. As we know, antibiotics are great at killing off any bad or unwanted bacteria in the gut. Unfortunately, they also kill off the beneficial bacteria that produce things like neurotransmitters and short-chain fatty acids, absorb vitamins and minerals, and even synthesize some vitamins.
This is why it is so important to eat a whole foods diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, beans, legumes, and lean meats. This way of eating allows for the microbiome to flourish. Good bacteria feed off of prebiotic fiber found in plant foods. If we take care of these good bacteria, they take care of us! They regulate our hormones including serotonin, melatonin, and insulin. They also play a major role in our immune system — keeping us strong and healthy. And lastly, they aid in weight management and reducing the risks associated with being overweight such as diabetes and heart disease.
Making the switch to a whole foods diet can be daunting, but it will lead you to a longer, healthier, and happier life! If you are looking to make some changes but don’t know where to start, we are here to help! Contact us to get started on your path to wellness today! Together we can find what’s hiding in your food!
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