Buzzfeed posted an article on June 19 about ingredients in common U.S. foods that are banned in other countries — things that cause cancer, thyroid disease and deplete your body of vitamins. The article was picked up by Deseret News, U.K.’s Daily Mail and several other news agencies. While the information is truly scary, I was not totally surprised by it.
My mom visits family in Germany occasionally, and I always ask her to bring back some Haribo Gummy Bears. Yes, we have those here in the U.S., but I’ve always thought the German ones were softer and tasted better. As I got older and learned more about reading and interpreting food labels, I discovered that it wasn’t just my imagination. These gummies are from the same company, but the ingredients are totally different. The German version contains glucose syrup and fruit and vegetable extracts for the colors and flavors. The American version contains corn syrup, artificial flavors and artificial colors including the dreaded Red Dye #40.
Why does this matter? Artificial colors are derived from petroleum products. That’s the same stuff we get gasoline, kerosene, jet fuel and diesel from. The Food and Drug Administration says artificial colors are totally safe, but they’ve been banned in many European countries because of their links to nerve and brain problems, including ADHD and other behavioral problems in children. And if you think it’s easy to avoid artificial colors, think again. They’re everywhere: bread, cereal, candy, soft drinks, mac and cheese, even vitamin pills.
Speaking of soft drinks, artificial colors are not the only reason why you should be wary of your favorite beverage. Soft drinks like Mountain Dew, Fresca and Squirt, and sports drinks like Gatorade and Powerade, contain brominated vegetable oil.
Why does this matter? Bromine is a flame retardant chemical used in, among other things, carpet manufacturing. Doesn’t sound very healthy, does it? More than 100 countries agree, banning the chemical because it has been linked to skin, nerve, memory and organ problems. It also appears to build up in the body over time. Once again, the FDA says it’s safe enough and it’s been used in drink manufacturing for years; however, according to the Mayo Clinic, the FDA is reconsidering its stance on it and some manufacturers are considering discontinuing it.
Bromine isn’t just for people who like too much sugar in their artificially colored beverages. It’s also found in potassium bromate or brominated flour, which is used in a variety of baked goods.
Those baked goods also contain azodicarbonamide, which is used to bleach foamed plastic products, such as yoga mats. It’s banned in Australia, the U.K. and most European countries because it has been linked to asthma. According to The Examiner, you can get up to 15 years in prison if you use azodicarbonamide as a food ingredient in Singapore.
But here in the good old US of A, the FDA says it’s totally safe to use, so it’s found in bread products, frozen dinners and boxed pasta. We’re not talking about just a few brands, either. I found azodicarbonamide listed in the ingredients for Sara Lee, Orowheat and Nature’s Pride breads. When browsing boxed pastas, GoodGuide warned me that it was found in Annie’s Homegrown Organic products. I’m not kidding.
The moral of this story is, even if you think you’re eating something healthy, you should read the label.
But who has time to memorize all these ingredients and which ones are bad for you? There’s too darned many of them out there. I can’t even pronounce azodicarbonamide, so how am I supposed to know what it is without looking it up?
Fear not. Karen’s basic rules for eating healthier are here to save the day.
1. When it comes to packaged or processed foods, the more ingredients it contains, the worse it is for you. Whenever possible (i.e. whenever I can afford to shop for healthier food), I try to avoid anything that has more than 10 ingredients listed on the label.
2. If a listed ingredient is long and unpronounceable, it’s probably not good for you.
3. Learn something — a little bit at a time. If you’re interested in leading a healthier lifestyle or if you worry about the health of yourself or your family, you should take an active interest in nutrition. There is a lot to learn and it can be daunting, but that’s why you shouldn’t worry about learning everything at once. Pick one of your favorite foods — good or bad — and read up on it. I picked strawberries one day, and it made me want to eat strawberries more often. Did you know they can whiten your teeth?
Karen Ingram is a senior in English. Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.