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What are the problems with processed foods?

Some of the many additives included in processed foods are thought to have the ability to compromise the body's structure and function and are suggested to be related to the development of skin, pulmonary and psycho-behavioral conditions. Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) and butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) are currently being investigated for their potential to damage genetic material and therefore promote cancer. Sulfites have been found to aggravate asthma (hypertext) in certain children and adults. Artificial colorings have been noted to cause hypersensitivity reactions in sensitive persons promoting conditions such as ADHD (attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder), asthma and skin conditions such as urticaria and atopic dermatitis. Therefore, avoiding foods that contain these and other chemical additives may greatly contribute to health.

Artificial Sweeteners

One of the most commonly used sweeteners is the controversial compound aspartame. Aspartame gains its controversy because animal studies have shown that it can lead to accumulation of formaldehyde after consumption, and one of the breakdown products of aspartame in the intestine is the toxic compound methanol. However, low levels of aspartame have not shown direct symptoms in humans, so it is presumed safe in food products. There is a problem with this assumption, though, because so many processed products contain aspartame, and therefore people who consume mainly processed foods may be taking in relatively high levels of aspartame. Few real data have been collected to look at the level of aspartame the average person consumes and how this level may affect health, or the long-term effects in humans.

Coloring Agents

Most processed foods are colored with synthetic or additional coloring agents. Based on the idea that we "eat with our eyes", many food manufactures choose to enhance a color, even if the initial food is not as colorful. A variety of types of coloring agents are used, including many synthetic compounds. Besides the issues of ingesting compounds that are not natural, colorings are often used to improve the color of foods that have lost color during storage or from heat. The colored compounds in natural foods are some of the most important phytonutrients, however, and this loss of color can mean a loss of nutrient value, which may be masked by the addition of synthetic compounds.

Many of the artificial colorings featured on the GRAS list are derived from the manufacturing of coal tars, including FD&C Yellow#5 (tartrazine) and FD&C Blue#2 (indigo carmine). Some of these coloring additives have been found to promote hypersensitivity reactions in people, especially children. In sensitive persons, consumption of these artificial colorings has been linked to ADHD (attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder), asthma, and inflammatory skin conditions such as urticaria and atopic dermatitis.

Preservatives

A major concern with processed foods is the use of preservatives. The most commonly used preservatives are butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) and sulfites.

Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT)

BHT is controversial; in 1978, a government-sponsored review of safety data indicated that no direct toxicity was observed at the permitted levels in a food, however this report also determined that more studies were needed to assess safety. Since then, BHT has been shown to induce tumors in the stomach and liver in animals when used at high levels. Again, although this was allowed in foods at a low level per each food, it is one of the most common preservatives and is present in many processed foods. The amount consumed in the entire diet may be higher than the "permitted" level per food and remains a concern by many scientists.

BHT and butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) are being investigated for their ability to damage genetic material. In addition, research has shown that these compounds can rupture and damage red blood cells as well as stimulate symptoms of chemical sensitivity.

Sulfites

Sulfites are also a common preservative. Sulfites are prohibited to be used in foods that provide the nutrient vitamin B1 because it can destroy this vitamin. Furthermore, some people are sensitive to sulfites and respond with adverse reactions. Due to the reports of adverse reactions, the FDA banned the use of sulfites on fruits and vegetables in 1986, and is still reviewing whether it should be banned from other uses. Sulfites have been found to aggravate asthma in children and adults. Between five and ten percent of chronic asthmatics are thought to be sulfite sensitive.

Further information on sulfites can be obtained from http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/fdpreser.html.

Pesticides

Organic foods offer a healthier alternative to conventionally grown foods, as they are not grown with any of the synthetic chemical pesticides or fertilizers that are suggested to pose great threats to our health. The Environmental Protection Agency considers a number of herbicides and fungicides to be potentially carcinogenic and therefore able to cause genetic damage leading to the development of cancer, and most pesticides are known to cause some risk to humans.Examples of pesticides include organophosphates, organochlorines, thiocarbamates. and organoarsenic compounds.

In addition to their potential to cancer, pesticides are thought to pose special health threats to children so the benefits of organic foods may be of paramount importance in safeguarding their health. Both the Natural Resources Defenses Council and the Environmental Working Group have found that millions of American children are exposed to levels of pesticides in their food that exceed limits considered to be safe. Certain pesticides are known neurotoxins, able to cause harm to the developing brain and nervous system which is why they may be particularly harmful to children. In addition, some researchers feel that children and adolescents may be especially vulnerable to the cancer-causing effects of certain pesticides since the body is more sensitive to the impact of these chemicals during periods of high growth and development.

Trans-Fats

Trans-fatty acids are an example of what can happen to essential nutrients when a food is processed. Also called hydrogenated fats, these fatty acids are found in margarine, vegetable shortenings, crackers, cookies, snack foods and numerous other processed foods. Trans-fats are produced by a chemical process in which hydrogens are added to an unsaturated fatty acid. The food industry uses this process because it converts a liquid fat to a soft solid form, like margarine, and also because it increases the shelf-life for fats. In this process, however, the fatty acid molecule shifts structures to a structure that is not found in the body; that is, the fats in the body occur in what is called a "cis" 3-dimensional structure, and trans-fatty acids are the opposite of that, and are a "trans" structure. Chemically, they are different.

Your body notices this difference. Although you may be eating fat, and think that the fat you are eating will support your body's functioning, it instead is a different structure than the one that your body needs and your body has a different response to these fats. Trans-fats have been shown to increase LDL cholesterol (the one associated with increased risk of heart disease) and decrease HDL cholesterol, the "protective" cholesterol. So clear is the promotion of high LDL cholesterol levels by trans-fats, and the resultant association with increased risk for heart disease, that the FDA has been prompted to require these trans-fats be labeled separately on foods so consumers can see when they are present. Trans-fats have also been linked to certain cancers, including breast cancer, and labeling them will allow you to see how often they are used in processed foods and allow you to avoid these foods.

Practical Tip

All of these compounds, just to look and taste as close to natural as possible. Why not buy a natural, whole food and not all these synthetics? Get the real food with the real benefits!

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