I'm an inveterate label reader, especially when it comes to food. So I was excited to find that the cover story of Nutrition Action Health Letter's May issue is all about those polysyllabic additives that average consumers like me sometimes wonder about. In addition to demystifying them, the list also tells you which additives are considered safe, which ones people should cut back on, which are largely untested, and which should simply be avoided.
Just because an ingredient is difficult to pronounce doesn't mean it's necessarily bad for you. For example, sodium carboxymethylcellulose gets the green light. It's a thickening and stabilizing agent used in beer, candy, diet foods, ice cream, icing, and pie filling. Also on the safe list are mono- and diglycerides, which soften bread and keep the oil in peanut butter from separating.
Here are a few notables from the "avoid" list. Sodium nitrate (or sodium nitrite) is a coloring, flavoring, and preservative used in smoked fish, corned beef, and pork in all its various forms. It keeps the meat looking pink instead of gray. Unfortunately, the article states, its use can also result in cancer-causing chemicals called nitrosamines getting into food, especially bacon, and "several studies have linked consumption of cured meat and nitrite by children, pregnant women, and adults with various types of cancer." Although the nitrosamine problem has been greatly reduced because companies now also add ascorbic acid or erythorbic acid, which inhibits its formation, sodium nitrate/nitrite is "still worth avoiding."
The story points out that while the meat industry justifies its use of sodium nitrate/nitrite because it prevents the growth of bacteria that cause botulism, "freezing and refrigeration could also do that, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture has developed a safe method using lactic-acid-producing bacteria."
Another interesting additive: potassium bromate, which is used in bread to increase volume and improve crumb structure. Bromate, which causes cancer in animals, mostly breaks down to nonpoisonous bromide in the process of breadmaking, but small amounts do remain. The additive "has been banned virtually worldwide except in Japan and the United States."
Finally, I was surprised to find stevia, an herbal sweetener that my local worker-owned food co-op sells in bulk, on the "avoid" list. But as the article points out, just because something is natural doesn't mean it's good for you. Although "small amounts are probably safe," studies on rats found that high dosages of stevia caused "reduced sperm production and an increase in cell proliferation in their testicles, which could cause infertility or other problems." Stevia has been rejected as a food additive in the U.S., Canada, and Europe.