Decoding what you eat
Reading the ingredient lists on many processed foods may make you gulp even before you dig in. With all those polysyllabic words, you may wonder whether you’d be better off without a chemical-packed diet. You might think so, but take a closer look at the functionality of common ingredients. Additives can be as benign as the ascorbic acid (vitamin C) added to bread flour as a conditioner or as healthful as the vitamin D added to milk to prevent rickets, a bone abnormality in young children. Additives also can be classified as nutritional or functional. Nutritional additives, such as vitamins and minerals, are mixed into food products to either compensate for nutrients lost during processing or provide essential nutrients lacking in the diet. Functional additives do everything from keeping the creamy texture in your gravy to preventing mold on your bread. Among functional additives, texturizing agents are the most widely used, followed by emulsifiers, says Fran Katz, former editor of Food Technology magazine. Some additives, such as colorings, are cosmetic. There is a trend among manufacturers to use natural food colorings such as cranberries and cherries instead of artificial dyes. Allergic reactions to some of the yellow food dyes have motivated food companies to use carotene products, such as carrots, apricots, or collard greens instead.
Some additives function as more than window dressing. “Antioxidants prevent products from going rancid. Vitamin C, A and E derivatives are some of the common antioxidants,” Katz says. And they may have benefits beyond those of preserving products. “If [an antioxidant] keeps an oil from going rancid,” she says, “it may have some antioxidant value in the body as well.” Enrichment means reintroducing lost nutrients. When wheat is refined, the B vitamins riboflavin, niacin and thiamine are discarded. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows companies to reintroduce the same amounts lost, says Mark Kantor, nutrition scientist at the FDA. Fortification is the process of adding nutrients to prevent deficiency diseases that might occur in large numbers of people. Fortification is voluntary, and you do have a choice of whether to buy a fortified product. Iodized salt is an example of a fortified food. Before consumers had the option of buying iodized salt, goiter (enlarged thyroid) was a big problem in the United States. Vitamin D in milk is another example of fortification. “Before we had vitamin D (added to milk), parents gave their children cod liver oil to prevent rickets,” Kantor says. The drawback of fortification is that you could overdose on some nutrients, such as iron. Bread and cereal products are iron-fortified. If you eat a lot of cereal along with iron-rich liver every day, you could get toxic amounts of iron. Antioxidants keep oxygen from turning foods rancid or brown. Forms of vitamin A, E and C and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) are antioxidants. Bleaching agents whiten flour faster and remove some fats that would make a food go rancid. Bromine and chlorine are bleaching agents.
Colorings restore color lost in processing or add appealing color. Caramel, annatto and turmeric are natural colorings. Emulsifiers keep fat-based foods, such as mayonnaise, from separating. Egg yolks and mustard are emulsifiers. Preservatives slow or prevent the growth of mold and bacteria. Ascorbic acid (a form of vitamin C is a preservative. Texturizers improve the texture of foods such as cheese, ice cream and meat. Modified starch is a texturizer.
Bev Bennett, a veteran food writer and editor, is the author of "Dinner for Two: A Cookbook for Couples" and "30-Minute Meals for Dummies"
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