Preservatives, which are regulated and approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), serve an important purpose: They extend shelf life, making foods last longer, kill “bad” bacteria, and prevent mold and deterioration. Some are added to boost flavor, nutritional value, texture, and color.
Many of these are considered safe by the FDA. Yet, some preservatives still may be harmful to your health. Here are some preservatives to watch out for and why.
Aspartame. A low-calorie sweetener 200 times more concentrated than sugar, aspartame has been linked with everything from blurred vision and eye pain to headaches and migraines, mood side effects (it’s an ingredient in Abilify oral gel tablets), inflammation and joint pain, seizures, and hearing problems. However, the FDA has evaluated hundreds of studies and has not found a single one to be conclusive. It considers aspartame—common in diet soda and found under the brand names Equal, NutraSweet, and Sugar Twin—safe in small doses for the general population. People diagnosed with the rare disease phenylketonuria can’t have phenylalanine, an ingredient in aspartame.
Butylhydroxytoluene (BHT). While not considered a carcinogen, some studies have shown BHT—which prolongs shelf life primarily in breakfast cereals—to cause cancer in animals at higher doses than people would normally consume. Also, a 2017 study conducted on human stem cells found that chronic exposure to BHT interferes with signals sent from the digestive system to the brain that let people know when they are full after eating, causing them to continue eating and possibly gain weight.
High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Most reports state that HFCS is not any worse (or any better) than any other type of sugar. However, two separate studies on mice showed enhanced tumor growth when the mice were fed sugar water with HFCS. And a 2018 study in Cell Metabolism found that colorectal cancer thrives on fructose found in the liver.
Monosodium glutamate (MSG). MSG is a natural sodium salt in many foods, including tomatoes, yeast, soy extracts, and cheeses. It is replicated in a manufacturing environment by fermenting starch, sugar beets, sugar cane, or molasses. While the FDA considers MSG generally safe, a wide study analysis reported in the Experimental and Clinical Sciences Journal in 2018 found that even low doses can be toxic for some people. The study linked MSG with asthma, reproductive issues, insulin resistance, reduced glucose intolerance, obesity, liver damage, bloating, and Chinese Restaurant Syndrome (weakness, numbness, palpitations,
Nitrates/nitrites. Byproducts of nitrogen oxidation, nitrates and nitrites can be found in small amounts in fresh, whole foods such as green, leafy vegetables, and are not harmful when consumed. Problems arise, however, when nitrite is added as a preservative to foods with amino acids, such as processed meats, and then exposed to extremely high heat, such as on a stove or grill. The combination creates nitrosamine, a known carcinogen. Nitrites also can turn into nitrosamine in a very acidic stomach, which is linked to stomach and bowel cancer.
Palm oil. Made from the fruit of the oil palm tree, palm oil extends products’ shelf lives. Palm oil and palm kernel oil are used in a variety of products because they can be easily transformed to fit any manufactured product. However, palm oil is 51 percent saturated fat, and the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that saturated fats be limited to no more than 10 percent of your total daily calories. So watch for palm oil in ingredients lists and for saturated fat in Nutrition Facts labels. Palm oil farming also is causing deforestation, and experts are calling for more sustainable palm oil production worldwide.
Trans fats. Trans fats are formed when hydrogen is added to liquid vegetable oils in manufacturing, creating partially hydrogenated oils. These fats remain solid at room temperature and are the worst type of fat for heart health, as they raise your LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and lower your HDL (“good”) cholesterol. Outlawed by the FDA in 2018, trans fats still may appear in processed foods in small amounts. Also, the U.S. is only one of six countries to outlaw trans fats, according to the World Health Organization, so your risk of consuming them when you travel is high. Look for trans fats listed under “Fats” on Nutrition Facts labels or as “partially hydrogenated oil” in ingredients lists.
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