Hello and thanks for joining us. We’ll be kicking off the chat in just a few minutes, but if you have a question, you can go ahead and get it in queue.
And as a reminder: WebMD is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Never delay or disregard seeking professional medical advice from your doctor or other qualified health provider because of something you have read on WebMD.
WebMD does not endorse any specific product, service or treatment. If you think you have a medical emergency, call your doctor or dial 911 immediately.
Hi! Looking forward to chatting with you guys.
We have a great panel of experts here to join the discussion. Tom Neltner is chemicals policy director at the Environmental Defense Fund. He previously worked at the Pew Charitable Trusts, where he was a researcher on a 3-year project about food additives.
Can't wait to talk about food!
Melanie Warner is the author of Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Foods Took Over the American Diet and a former New York Times reporter. She spent several years doing research for her book, and was able to get a rare glimpse inside some food manufacturing plants to see how they work.
To start off, it might be helpful to explain what a food additive is, and how they get in our food. Tom, can you’ve done extensive research on this process. Can you walk us through it?
A food additive is any chemical added to food, used to make food, or added to food packaging that may get into food. A 1958 law required FDA to approve all food additives before use, but it had an exemption for “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) substances designed for common items like pepper, oil and vinegar. Companies have stretched the exemption into a loophole that has largely swallowed the law so now most new additives go through it. An estimated 1,000 of the 10,000 additives have gone through this loophole and have not been reviewed by FDA for safety.
Brenda, one of your stories talked about a trend toward “clean labels,” – can you talk about what clean labels are and how this trend affects consumers.
We looked at a really hot trend in the food industry of “clean labeling” that’s where food manufacturers swap scary sounding chemicals for more natural-sounding ingredients. One example is the chemical sodium nitrite, which is used to preserve processed meats like bacon and salami. If you go to the refrigerated section of the grocery store, you might notice some packages of bacon or hot dogs that say ‘natural,’ ‘uncured’ and ‘no nitrates or nitrites added.’ But then if you look on the label you’ll probably see the ingredient celery extract. Celery is loaded with nitrates. It’s not being added for celery flavor. It’s essentially the same preservative, but with a more natural sounding name. When scientists have tested the levels of nitrates and nitrites found in these “natural” meats have just as much or even more than the regular bacon or hot dogs.
Why should you care? Well, for one thing, these “natural” and “uncured” meats usually cost more, so you’re paying for clean labeling. Processed meats have also been linked to health problems like colon cancer and heart disease. If you’re familiar with those studies, you may think that you’re reducing your risk for those problems by choosing more natural sounding products, but that’s probably not the case, either.
Another “natural” preservative is rosemary extract, which a clean label substitute for other preservatives like butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT). If you see rosemary extract on a food label, you may think it is being added for flavor, but it’s not. It’s a highly refined ingredient that you probably wouldn’t recognize if you saw it. It’s being added for its active compound, carnosic acid. In this case, the switch probably does make the food better for you. Carnosic acid may help protect the eyes and brain, while there are concerns that BHA and BHT may cause cancer.
Thanks Brenda, let's get to some questions from our readers.
Good question! FDA and food manufacturers are required to consider the cumulative effect when they evaluate a chemical for safety. But we don’t see this happening because it is difficult and most chemicals we last reviewed for safety decades ago.
Thanks C Maree for the question. There is a list of several dozen additives that are allowed to be added into organic food. These are regularly reviewed by the USDA and most of them are totally harmless. The question of why they need to be added at all is a good one. The answer is simple: You can’t make processed food that will sit on a shelf for months and remain both fresh and safe without using additives. To avoid additives in organic buy whole foods and cook at home!
Carolyn, as a nutritionist, what are your biggest concerns about processed foods?
I’ve decided to avoid giving nutrition advice that includes the phrase “avoid processed foods”. Baking bread, making yogurt, canning tomatoes and turning cucumbers into pickles all require a process. So, you can see that throwing out the term ‘processed’ foods to refer to foods that are perceived to be ‘unhealthy’ doesn’t always apply. I prefer advice to avoid packaged foods with excessive amounts of sodium, sugar or fat. But, if these foods- such as a potato chip, a cookie or vegetable oil - are enjoyed in small portions or as an ‘accessory’ – such as salad dressing on a salad-then they can be part of an overall healthy diet.
Beverly, FDA approved HFCS with 43 to 55% fructose as GRAS. The industry approved use of higher levels of fructose – up to 90% - as GRAS despite FDA’s concerns. So how did FDA approve HFCS in 1996? What we found on additives is that FDA’s science has not caught up on things like chemicals that may contribute to obesity or alter appetites. They are revising their toxicology guidance (called the Redbook) but that looks like it will take years.
Hi Debby, The USDA has to approve the use of the word organic on food products. It's a legal term, and producers have to be inspected to earn the seal. We're not aware of anyone trademarking the word to confuse people.
Ahmed, I favor the perimeter of the grocery aisle where you can find fresher foods. Even an informed consumer can’t know for sure so it comes down to which grocers and brands have demonstrated enough leadership on the issue to be trusted. With 36% of consumers saying chemicals in food is their top food safety concern, companies are beginning to respond. But, so far, none has demanded FDA review of all ingredients in their brand.
Carolyn, can you talk for a minute about sweeteners. Are some better than others?
So much chat and concern about sugar! As a dietitian who cares so much about good food and good nutrition, yes we should be limiting sugar. From a calorie perspective sugar is sugar. Whether you are sweetening your food with table sugar, honey, agave nectar, maple syrup or consuming a food or beverage sweetened with high fructose corn syrup you can count 4 calories per gram for each of these ‘sugars’. The goal in good nutrition is to limit all sweeteners, regardless of source to 10% of total calories per day.
So if a tiny drizzle of honey, which tends to have a more intense sweet taste on the tongue, is as or perhaps more satisfying than a tablespoon of table sugar on oatmeal…then honey is the better choice. Low calorie sweeteners are an option, too.
If you crave the sweet taste of a cola or bottled ice tea; enjoying diet versions made with low calorie sweeteners is a better choice.
In fact, in a study from University of Colorado Anschutz Health and Wellness Center those who drank diet beverages lost more weight and reported feeling significantly less hungry than those who drank water alone. This reinforces if you’re trying to shed pounds, you can enjoy diet beverages.
I agree that foods with artificial sweeteners can be enjoyed in small amounts. But they and most of the products that contain them are, for the most part, are not real or nutritious foods. So it’s important not to consume them thinking they are healthier.
On artificial colors, FDA thinks they are generally safe but has questions over the high levels that may be in food kids eat.
Sharon, the GRAS loophole in the 1958 law lets them do it. They can have a company employee or consultants evaluate the additive’s safety using their “professional judgment” not actual scientific tests. As WebMD’s Dirty Secrets of Clean Labels showed, company can use non-chemical names for these additives.
If I have to choose a non-nutritive sweetener, stevia would be my choice. All of the others have had safety concerns raised.
Ramona, FDA recently said that MSG is safe, so it is allowed. I think food companies should make sure it is clear on the ingredient list so consumers can choose.
A lot of people feel that way! Many big food companies are seeing their profits fall because people are shying away from processed foods.
Chelsea, Many additives are there for a good reason! To keep the really bad things out of food such as bacteria that make us sickDon’t be afraid of scientific sounding names. Ascorbic acid - better known as vitamin C - helps preserve the freshness and safety of many packaged foods. If you’re trying to find foods higher in fiber or a particular vitamin or are cutting back on the amount of sodium or sugar in your diet, the Nutrition Facts label on packaged foods is still the best tool for seeing what’s inside. For instance, compare brands to find canned beans and soups that are lower in sodium. The other part of the label to read lists the ingredients. Fewer ingredients doesn’t always mean better. Don’t you want a vegetable soup with a lot of different vegetables? Label reading note: ingredients are listed in order of prevalence on packaged foods.
Sammom, USDA’s Organics Standards Board is asks whether they are make without pesticides not necessarily whether they are safe. That is FDA’s job.