Society’s Feeding Disorder: Food Additives and Our Health

Elise Miller, MEd

How has food, something essential to human evolution, become so disconnected from health and nutrition? You would think in the 10,000 years since humans started domesticating food supplies we would have pretty much figured out how to feed ourselves well—and by “well” I do not mean having supermarket shelves stocked with 50 kinds of sugary cereals and three varieties of pesticide-laden apples.

There are of course many aspects of the agricultural industry and our current food system that can make one queasy about buying almost any food, except from the farmer next door (and unfortunately, most people do not have a farmer next door). I think of these as society’s feeding disorder—including farm subsidies, antibiotics in meats, pesticide use, toxins in food packaging, and myriad external costs of transporting food thousands of miles from where it was grown. The regulation of food additives, however, is what I will focus on here.

Concerns about adulteration of food were recorded at least as far back as the 1700s. Bill Bryson notes in his book, Home: A Short History of Private Life: “A tea drinker, according to various authorities, might take in anything from sawdust to powdered sheep’s dung….Arsenite of copper was used to make vegetables greener or to make jellies glisten. Lead chromate gave bakery products a golden glow and brought radiance to mustard…” and so forth. To help eradicate these practices the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was established in 1930, and an FDA program explicitly designed to oversee chemical ingredients in foods was started in 1958. In a report released just late last month by the Pew Health Group, however, food manufacturers still have significant authority over what goes into foods. In fact, thousands of ingredients are not evaluated by or even known to the FDA—some of which may have significant impact on health (see Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety).

What we have learned about a number of additives and artificial ingredients to date is that many are associated with problematic health outcomes. To name a few:

  • Hydrogenated fats—cardiovascular disease, obesity
  • Artificial food colors—allergies, asthma, hyperactivity; possible carcinogen
  • Sulfites (sulfur dioxide, metabisulfites, and others)—allergic and asthmatic reactions
  • Sugar and sweeteners—obesity, dental cavities, diabetes and hypoglycemia, increased triglycerides (blood fats) or candida (yeast)
  • Artificial sweeteners (Aspartame, Acesulfame K and Saccharin)—behavioral problems, hyperactivity, allergies; possible carcinogen
  • Preservatives (BHA, BHT, EDTA, etc.)—allergic reactions, hyperactivity; potentially toxic to the nervous system and liver
  • Artificial flavors—allergic or behavioral reactions

(excerpted from: Food Additives and Human Health)

For our next CHE partnership call on November 17th—notably just a week before Thanksgiving—we will have three experts to discuss the science, health implications and policy related to food additives. Please join us in taking a look at this particular set of issues as part of CHE’s broader work developing a complexity model that articulates the many interacting factors influencing our health.


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