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What’s in Processed Foods? The Products, the Controversy

written by: •edited by: Carly Stockwell•updated: 12/7/2014

Does monk fruit extract replace the sugar in your snack? Does that toaster pastry contain specialized yeast extracts to lower the salt content? How about algae-based flour in your pizza roll fat or corn fiber and synthetic fruit flavoring in your drink? What happened to the food in food?

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    Modern Food Science

    What’s in Processed Foods? Melanie Warner, author of the book, Pandora’s Lunchbox says, “Considering our vast and bewildering cornucopia of modern food choice, it’s easy to forget that most of the items lining the inner aisles of the supermarket and the substances offered on fast-food board menus simply didn’t exist a century ago."

    This nutritional shift in food has made many meals prefabbed, precooked, portable and chemical laden. This is a truly different menu to what was available at the turn of the twentieth century.

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    You Are What You Eat

    Americans eat double the amount of fats, 60% more sugar, 3 1/2 times more salt and much greater quantities of corn and soybean ingredients that they did in 1909.

    The human biological makeup of our bodies is ill-equipped to deal with the onslaught of new chemicals and the processing inherent in most prepared foods and snack foods today. No wonder people are getting fat.

    In addition, a recent survey published in Pediatrics reports that nearly eight percent of children under the age of 18, about six million of them, have a food allergy. Researchers involved in the project believe that 40 percent of those reactions are severe, and almost one-third of those children have sensitivities to more than one food.

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    Hidden in Plain Sight

    Photographs of food are doctored with some amazing things: motor oil makes pancakes glisten, shave cream replaces real whipped cream, glycerin-coating gives fish that glisten of being freshly cooked and glue in place of milk in cereal keeps it from getting soggy. Yes, it is an art and the food needs to look good for a long period under the lights.

    What is happening to processed food is not just designed to look processed. It is altered and fiddled with and eaten, and that is not good.

    Just what does the word “processed" mean? For most people, a processed food is one that could not be made using the same ingredients in a home kitchen. It has been manipulated and has chemicals for a variety of reasons. As mom used to say, just because it is edible does not mean it’s good for you.

    For example, there is a product called, xanthan gum that is used for synthetic fruit flavoring. It’s a slimy coating produced by fermentation of the bacteria Xanthomonas campestris with corn syrup. This bacteria causes disease—black rot—in plants. This is a polysaccharide—like a starch that can be made into white powder—and is an ingredient in products like Kraft French dressing, Weight Watchers food, Wonder Bread products, and more. Pass the fruit tart? Ugh.

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    Why a Starch?

    Made from corn, tapioca, and potatoes, starches add structure to sauces and moisture to meat. It is what gives faux yogurts and pudding thickness; and gives frozen food, “freeze-thaw stability."

    About that yogurt: since there is no standardization for Greek yogurt, (the FDA does not regulate this newer type of food), the thickness is due to “texturizing" products that are used by popular U.S. yogurt manufacturers’. True Greek yogurt takes a timely draining and the machinery for factories cost $10 million dollars, so in other words, this texturizer-additive is a quick and cheap way to make it cost less for consumers. That is what food developers say.

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    The Beliefs of the Food Companies

    Most food designers believe that:

    • Prepackaged food is critical in a hectic world
    • That they are going to create healthier processed food
    • They can keep raw material costs low
    • Being affordable, they can produce fake blueberries out of season
    • Foods have a longer shelf life
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    Food Fight

    In the early 1900s, Harvey Wiley found out that foods were pretty much a crapshoot about what was inside. He wanted to establish laws to ensure the importance of “pure food." Of course, he was met by opposition from food manufacturers and their lobbyists.

    You see, a great shift in population happened in 1900 when almost half the population left farms for the city. In order to feed the urban masses, food had to be preserved and production of it centralized. There were companies that used chemicals (some of them detrimental to health) as a way of cutting costs.

    To fight back, Wiley developed the Poison Squads—scientific analysis of food by test subjects—but it wasn’t until author Upton Sinclair’s book, The Jungle, an influential novel about meat stockyards in Chicago, that people started paying attention.

    The Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act finally became the nation’s first laws governing food.

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    Recognized as Safe

    Despite the FDA claiming that federal authorities carefully and accurately regulate all food additives, the number of chemicals and additives exploded after mid-century, the 1950s. A nonprofit group, Pew Charitable Trusts, did a first rate report according to author Warner in 2011. They arrived at about 5,000 additives in today’s foods (their website says 10,000 now). Alas, no government website lists all these substances.

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    Did You Know?

    Did you know that eating fat-free dressing on a salad can prevent you from absorbing many of the vegetables’ healthy (fat-soluble) phytochemicals? In other words, it is missing good fats that help you to absorb nutrients.

    Did you know that Harvey Wiley was the impetus for the Good Housekeeping Seal of approval?

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    What You Can Do

    • Start a petition. When 15 year-old Sarah Kavanagh in 2012 found that Pepsi used brominated vegetable oil (BVO) in Gatorade, she did her research and then started a campaign. Soon, 206,665 people signed her petition and Pepsi announced it would remove BVO.
    • Read labels. Take the time to study labels and research what is in what you eat.
    • Pass on your information. When you find an additive or strange chemical, tell your friends. Vote with your pocketbook, maybe they will too.
    • Follow the industry and keep reading. It is your body and your family’s health too so stay informed. Good living is an act of intelligence.

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