Five frightening food additives and how you can avoid them

Posted by
October 31, 2013

Forget the haunted hayrides, spooky houses and midnight ghost tours. Want to go somewhere really scary for Halloween? You’ve been there many, many times and while it  may seem all bright and cheery, some genuinely frightening invaders can be found lurking in its corridors — blobs, bugs and brain-eating laboratory creations, all trying to lure you to take them home.

Any guesses as to what I’m talking about?

It’s your local supermarket. And if you think I’m exaggerating, read on:

The blob

The original “Blob,” which made its debut in a 1958 movie, came from outer space and terrorized a small Pennsylvania town by consuming many of its occupants as it grew and defied all efforts to destroy it before it was finally dropped in the Arctic to freeze.

Even though our “blob” is even more devious than the one in the movie (which was described as being “indestructible”), it’s also much easier to get rid of.  But watch out, as many labels will claim the manufacturer has already captured this insidious ingredient and removed it from their foods, when in fact it’s still there.

I’m talking about those creeping, artery-clogging trans fats.

Why is it so important to banish trans fats from your diet? Just consider how rare it is when doctors, scientists and health professionals all agree on something. But such is the case with this heart-stopping additive, whose elimination from our diet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates would save over 7,000 lives a year and prevent more than 20,000 heart attacks.

So why are trans fats out there?  Simple. They’re cheap and easy to use, and increase a product’s shelf life — but in so doing, also reduce the shelf life of many consumers.  But trans fats are also easily recognized — all you have to do is check the ingredient label for any oils described as “partially hydrogenated.” And that even goes for products that claim to be “trans-fat free,” since a labeling loophole allows 0.5 grams of trans fat in a food to be listed as zero.

It came from the corn

Somewhere in a laboratory in the late 1960s a scientist was tinkering with enzyme-catalyzed molecular transformations.  Although earlier attempts at such experiments in the 1950s had failed, by this time science had advanced to the point where a complex procedure was devised to take corn grain, separate the corn starch, and subject it to two such molecular-level transformations.

Success! High fructose corn syrup was born.

At this point, despite growing concerns about its presence,HFCS is lurking in more foods than could ever have been imagined over 40 years ago, and your only protection against this laboratory creation is to read ingredient labels and reject all foods containing it, since many researchers consider it the culprit in an  epidemic of obesity and diabetes. Its reputation caused the corn refiners to try to change the name of this worrisome concoction to the sweeter “corn sugar” — but the FDA wouldn’t allow it to be disguised in this fashion, so it’s still recognizable from its name on the ingredient label.

The ooze

Imagine huge bins of chicken skeletons. Most of the meat has been stripped from them, heads cut off, many with necks and some skin still attached.  The chicken remains are then placed in a giant  machine that crushes and separates bone from tissue and emits a “paste-like” red ooze.

If that sounds like the opening scene in a horror flick, it’s not, but rather the manufacturing process for the base ingredient in numerous processed foods such as chicken or turkey “franks,” pizzas, deli meats and canned pasta and meat items. Don’t look for “ooze” on the label though. It has a slightly friendlier name it goes by –  mechanically separated chicken or turkey.

Beetle juice (and other yucky things)

If creepy crawlers gross you out, then you might not want to hear what could very well be in some of your favorite processed foods.

A Food and Drug Administration rule that might ‘bug’ you allows the crushed bodies of small, scaly bugs called cochineal to be deliberately added to many red-hued foods and beverages, such as Dannon yogurt, to give them a pretty rosy color.

To avoid having beetles in your yogurt, or grapefruit juice, or candy, again be advised to check ingredient labels for cochineal or carmine.

Bugs and bug parts, rodent hair, rat poop and maggots are some of the other yucky “extras” that could be in your spices, jelly, canned tomato and mushroom products, to name a few. The FDA considers such unintended additives “unavoidable” and says it cost too much to process food without these “defects.” But don’t worry, there are limits to how many a product can contain. For example, only four rodent hairs are allowed in 100 grams of apple butter. Feel better now?

For the other gross ingredients it’s a bit trickier, as you have no way to really know if any of those permitted yucky things are in your food. What we can say is certainly not all foods or spices contain these unwanted extras, so it’s possible that higher quality brands conduct food processing in a more sanitary way. And stay away from canned mushrooms. That product is allowed to have up to 20 or more maggots of any size per 100 grams.

Brain eaters

Just as brain-eating monsters are a sci-fi favorite, brain-destroying additives are loved by scores of  food manufacturers.

Such invaders include the “flavor enhancer” monosodium glutamate (and other disguised forms of processed free glutamic acid), and the artificial sweetener aspartame, all known as “excitotoxins,” meaning they can literally excite brain cells to death.

Although aspartame can be found in numerous healthy-sounding foods, such as yogurt, juice drinks and snack bars, it has never been proven to be safe to consume. Over 40 years ago, studies connected it to brain tumors in rodents and grand mal seizures in rhesus monkeys. Despite that, it hit the marketplace with the FDA’s blessings and has been added to all types of food ever since.

Free glutamic acid is another instance where the FDA has been presented with enough evidence to limit, or at the very least label a harmful ingredient’s presence in processed foods, but has refused to act. While monosodium glutamate is a familiar name to consumers, and required to be listed on an ingredient label, there are many forms of “hidden” MSG appear bearing other names, such as autolyzed yeast and hydrolyzed protein, waiting to eat unsuspecting brain cells (especially in kids, whose defenses against such dietary demons aren’t quite developed).

Your only protection against these toxic monsters in processed food is to know what to look for and on the label and avoid, including words like “hydrolyzed” and “caseinate.”

So there they are — a rogues’ gallery of fearsome food ingredients that are about as scary as anything you’ll find at a Halloween party — and a whole lot more dangerous.