Food additives have been used for centuries to improve and preserve the taste, texture, nutrition and appearance of food. Food additives and preservatives are used in today’s food supply to prevent foodborne illness, enable the transportation of food to areas that otherwise wouldn’t be possible, and for the efficient manufacture of products to consistently meet the established quality standards from batch to batch.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration evaluates the safety of food additives and determines how they may be used in the food supply. If an additive is approved, the FDA issues regulations that may include the types of foods in which it can be used, the maximum amounts to be used and how it should be identified on food labels.
The FDA maintains a database of nearly 4,000 ingredients, entitled “Substances Added to Food.” Here’s a peek at a few categories and ingredients commonly used in the food supply and what they do.
pH Control Agents
Ingredients that either maintain or control the acidity or alkalinity of foods are known as pH control agents. Citric acid, acetic acid and sodium citrate are widely used agents and often are found in gelatins, jams, ice cream and candies. Lactic acid is an acidity regulator used in cheese-making, and adipic acid can be found in bottled fruit-flavored drinks.
Anti-caking agents are added to powdered or granulated ingredients — such as powdered milks, egg mixes, sugar products, flours and baking mixes — to prevent lumping, caking or sticking. There are many agents to choose from, including calcium phosphates, silicon dioxide, silicates (calcium, aluminum and tricalcium) and stearic acid.
Emulsifiers are added to oil and water-based mixtures so they stay blended over the course of the food product’s shelf life. Examples of emulsions in everyday foods include vinaigrette dressings, milk and mayonnaise. Lecithin from egg yolk and soybean are commonly used emulsifiers in the food supply. Others include diacetyl tartaric acid ester of monoglycerides (DATEM) and sodium stearyl lactylate. These often are used in commercial bread doughs, artificial whipped creams and dried, liquid or frozen egg whites.
Humectants keep foods moist. Common examples include glycerin, honey, sugar polyols (glycerol, sorbitol, xylitol, maltitol) and propylene glycol, and often are found in candy, baked goods and salad dressings. It’s important to note that polyols also are used in foods as a low-calorie sweetening option, particularly for sugar-free chewing gums, candies and other low-calorie foods.
Stabilizers, Thickeners and Gelling Agents
These are widely used across many food product categories to increase viscosity and improve stability by preventing emulsions from separating, ice crystals from forming and ingredients from settling. The starch-based category of thickeners includes arrowroot, corn, potato and tapioca. Vegetable gums include guar, locust bean and xanthan gum. Common protein-based thickeners include collagen, egg whites and gelatin. Alginic acid, alginates (sodium, potassium, calcium), agar-agar and carrageenan are polysaccharides derived from algae and seaweeds, while pectin is a polysaccharide originating from apple and citrus fruits.
Leavening agents are incorporated into doughs and batters to increase the volume, shape and texture of baked goods. Common leavening agents include baking powder, beer, buttermilk, yeast, whey protein concentrate and yogurt. Used in a wide variety of sweet and savory products, these leavening agents can be found in cakes, cookies, breads, biscuits, scones, muffins and soda bread.
Processed food has a bad reputation as a diet saboteur. It’s blamed for obesity rates, high blood pressure and the rise of Type 2 diabetes. But processed food is more than boxed macaroni and cheese, potato chips and drive-thru hamburgers. It may be a surprise to learn that whole-wheat bread, homemade soup or a chopped apple also are processed foods.
While some processed foods should be consumed less often, many actually have a place in a balanced diet. Here’s how to sort the nutritious from the not-so-nutritious.
What Is Processed Food?
“Processed food” includes food that has been cooked, canned, frozen, packaged or changed in nutritional composition with fortifying, preserving or preparing in different ways. Any time we cook, bake or prepare food, we’re processing food.
Processed food falls on a spectrum from minimally to heavily processed:
- Minimally processed foods — such as bagged spinach, cut vegetables and roasted nuts — often are simply pre-prepped for convenience.
- Foods processed at their peak to lock in nutritional quality and freshness include canned tomatoes, frozen fruit and vegetables, and canned tuna.
- Foods with ingredients added for flavor and texture (sweeteners, spices, oils, colors and preservatives) include jarred pasta sauce, salad dressing, yogurt and cake mixes.
- Ready-to-eat foods — such as crackers, granola and deli meat — are more heavily processed.
- The most heavily processed foods often are pre-made meals including frozen pizza and microwaveable dinners.
The Positives of Processed
Processed food can help you eat more nutrient-dense foods. Milk and juices sometimes are fortified with calcium and vitamin D, and breakfast cereals may have added fiber. Canned fruit (packed in water or its own juice) is a good option when fresh fruit is not available. Some minimally processed food such as pre-cut vegetables and pre-washed, bagged spinach are quality convenience foods for busy people.
If you want to minimize your intake of processed food, aim to do more food prep and cooking at home. Base meals on whole foods including vegetables, beans and whole grains.
Look for Hidden Sugar and Sodium
Eating processed food in moderation is fine, but many of these foods may contain high amounts of added sugar and sodium.
Added sugars are any sugar that is not naturally occurring in the food and has been added manually.Added sugars aren’t just hidden in processed sweets. They’re added to bread to give it an appealing browned hue, and there often is a surprising amount added to jarred pasta sauces and cereal. Added sugars often are used in low-fat foods to improve taste and consistency. The grams of carbohydrate on the Nutrition Facts label also includes naturally occurring sugars which may be a significant amount in foods such as yogurt and fruit. Instead, review a product’s ingredient list and look for added sugars among the first two or three ingredients including sugar, maltose, brown sugar, corn syrup, cane sugar, honey and fruit juice concentrate.
Processed foods are major contributors of sodium in our diets because salt is commonly added to preserve foods and extend shelf life. Most canned vegetables, soups and sauces have added salt. Choose foods labeled no salt added, low-sodium or reduced-sodium to decrease the amount of salt you’re consuming from processed foods.
Choosing healthful meal and snack options can help you avoid heart disease and its complications. Be sure to eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables and fewer processed foods.
Eating foods low in saturated fats, trans fat, and cholesterol and high in fiber can help prevent high cholesterol. Limiting salt (sodium) in your diet also can lower your blood pressure. Limiting sugar in your diet can lower you blood sugar level to prevent or help control diabetes.
For more information on healthy diet and nutrition, see CDC’s Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity Program website.
Being overweight or obese increases your risk for heart disease. To determine if your weight is in a healthy range, doctors often calculate your body mass index (BMI). If you know your weight and height, you can calculate your BMI at CDC’s Assessing Your Weight website. Doctors sometimes also use waist and hip measurements to calculate excess body fat. They may use special equipment to calculate excess body fat and hydration status.
Physical activity can help you maintain a healthy weight and lower your blood pressure, cholesterol, and sugar levels. For adults, the Surgeon General recommends 2 hours and 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, like brisk walking or bicycling, every week. Children and adolescents should get 1 hour of physical activity every day.
For more information, see CDC’s Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity Web site.
Cigarette smoking greatly increases your risk for heart disease. If you don’t smoke, don’t start. If you do smoke, quitting will lower your risk for heart disease. Your doctor can suggest ways to help you quit.
For more information about tobacco use and quitting, see CDC’s Smoking & Tobacco Use Web site.
Avoid drinking too much alcohol, which can raise your blood pressure. Men should have no more than 2 drinks per day, and women only 1. For more information, visit CDC’s Alcohol and Public Health Web site.
Eat heart-healthy foods
What you eat has a direct impact on your cholesterol level.
· Choose healthier fats. Saturated fat and trans fat raise your total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol. The most common sources of saturated fat in the diet are red meat, processed meats and dairy products that are not fat-free. Monounsaturated fat — found in olive and canola oils — is a healthier option. Avocados, almonds, pecans and walnuts are other sources of healthy fat.
· Avoid trans fats. Trans fats, which are often found in margarines and commercially baked cookies, crackers and snack cakes, are particularly bad for your cholesterol levels. Not only do trans fats increase your total LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, but they also lower your HDL (“good”) cholesterol. Foods listing “partially hydrogenated oils” in the ingredients contain trans fats.
· Limit your dietary cholesterol. The most concentrated sources of cholesterol include organ meats, egg yolks and whole milk products. Use lean cuts of meat and skim milk instead. Limit the intake of eggs to no more than 7 a week.
· Select whole grains. Various nutrients found in whole grains promote heart health. Choose whole-grain breads, whole-wheat pasta, whole-wheat flour and brown rice. Oatmeal and oat bran are other good choices.
· Stock up on fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables are rich in dietary fiber, which can help lower cholesterol. Snack on seasonal fruits. Experiment with vegetable-based casseroles, soups and stir-fries.
· Eat heart-healthy fish. Some types of fish — such as cod, tuna and halibut — have less total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol than do meat and poultry. Salmon, mackerel and herring are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which help promote heart health.
· Drink alcohol only in moderation. Moderate use of alcohol may increase your levels of HDL cholesterol — but the benefits aren’t strong enough to recommend alcohol for anyone who doesn’t drink already. If you choose to drink, do so in moderation. This means no more than one drink a day for women and one to two drinks a day for men.
Keeping hearts beating gets our hearts pumping. That’s why we fund lifesaving science. Science that helps figure out new ways to lower your blood pressure and keep your heart healthy so you can live your best life. Take a look at these facts — they’re all for you.
Walk it Out.
Walking at least 20 minutes a day can reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke. So choose the stairs, not the elevator. Park farther away from the store. Find little ways to step up your steps game.
Java Lovers Rejoice.
A little pick-me-up may bring down your risk of stroke. Just one cup of coffee a week can make a difference.
Squash High Cholesterol.
Adding a serving of acorn squash has nearly 10% of your daily value of fiber, which can reduce cholesterol.
Don’t Hold It.
Did you know the stress of having a full bladder may increase your blood pressure? Don’t let holding it in hold you back from heart health.
Go Ahead Hit Snooze.
Why count calories when you can count sheep? 7-8 hours of sleep can help you maintain a healthy weight.
Hug It Out For Your Health.
Hugs bring people closer, but they can also bring down blood pressure levels in some women. Here’s the perfect reason to give a special lady in your life a hug.
(Like you really needed an excuse.)