Guru Kate: Food additives: Are they bad for you?

The term “food additives” is so broad that if it were a tarp, it could protect all of Anchorage from the winter’s snowfall. It covers wood pulp cereal, orange juice concentrate packets, nitrates in lunch meat, chemical preservatives and anti-caking agents found in spices.

Just to be clear, not all of these spell bad news. Of course, the closer the food is to nature, the better it will be for you. However, some people get so carried away by this fact that they insist on eating the grapes off the vine that they growing on, or cuddling in the garden with their baby bok choy.

For those of us without a garden to roll around in, additives are inevitable in pre-packaged foods. And sometimes, that’s ok. Wood pulp is in fast-food cheese, bagels, ice cream and essentially everything processed. Why? To add texture and heft.

Wood pulp is essentially indigestible fiber from wood shavings. Which is totally natural and safe, provided the wood shavings weren’t put through chemical havoc. Heck, fiber can prevent two of America’s biggest killers: heart disease and cancer (specifically, colon). If anything, consumers should be upset because adding wood pulp decreases the overall ratio of real food to fake food, and therefore the shopper gets less bang for the their buck. But health wise, wood pulp is nothing to be freaked out by.

On the flipside, some additives spell straight-up bad news. Like sodium nitrite, added to deli meats to prevent botulism. Preventing botulism sounds pretty stellar, until you find out that sodium nitrite is a possible carcinogen, according to its Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS). In addition, it can cross the placental barrier.

The upside to nitrites is that, for the most part, they’re disclosed on meat packages in the ingredients label. This, too, goes for anti-caking agents. As a little survey experiment, I chose six packaged foods and spices from my kitchen that I suspected would contain anti-caking agents (spices and breadcrumbs, mostly).

I looked for a number of known anti-caking agents, including sodium bicarbonate, powdered cellulose, silicon dioxide, calcium silicate, calcium aluminosilicate, and tricalcium phosphate. There are at least twice as many anti-caking ingredients listed on various websites, so check those out if you’d like some more guidelines.

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To my chagrin, only the Johnny’s Garlic Spread & Seasoning had an anti-caking agent and it was clearly identified in the ingredients list. For the most part, anti-caking agents are safe as small ingredients in food.

Take a look around your kitchen for these ingredients. The public has spoken on what they will buy with food additives and food companies responded. Better disclosure on food additives and more brands bragging banning additives are great examples of how consumers drive food production and marketing. Keep speaking up about what you want changed in food and watch it become the future.