Understanding What’s in Your Food – Part 1

Reading a food label can sometimes feel like trying to read a foreign language. Unpronounceable words with a ton of syllables seem to have the opposite effect from telling you what you’re consuming. They’re more confusing than clarifying. Even when words are readable, they don’t necessarily become clearer.

Today’s blog is the first in a two-part series on understanding food ingredients that are common yet mystifying. Today we’ll take a look at artificial colors and sweeteners; visit the Healthy Human blog again to learn about preservatives, additives, and gums in Part 2. As we all know, what we put in our bodies has a hugely consequential effect on our day-to-day and bigger-picture lives, so understanding what those things are is vital.

Quick caveat first: We’re huge endorsers of healthy living and eating well, but we aren’t professional scientists or nutritionists. This blog is meant as an overview of ingredients that may introduce questions, but we encourage you to do further investigation at research-backed institutions, for a deeper dive.

Artificial colors.


Are artificial food colors safe? It’s a question that has generated a lot of conversation and just as much controversy. According to Dana Angelo White on FoodNetwork.com, “Many food colorings just haven’t been tested enough to determine the long-term dangers,” despite the fact that “consumption of food dyes has increased 500 percent in the past 50 years! As for the dyes that have been tested, studies have come back inconclusive — but some have shown links to certain types of cancers.” Studies have indicated a “small but significant association between artificial food dyes and hyperactivity in children,” notes Healthline.com, which also reports that “there is currently no conclusive evidence that artificial food dyes cause cancer”—with one exception. Healthline explains that when given the dye Red 3 (erythrosine), male rats had an increased risk of thyroid tumors.

Yet the European Parliament passed a law in 2010 requiring warning labels on products with six food dyes that were linked, in a 2007 Lancet study, with hyperactivity in children, and it banned food dyes for infants and young children. The FDA, on the other hand, found that no causality could be proven, reports Dr. Shilpa Ravella for Slate.com, although it did note that the dyes made children with ADHD and other behavioral problems have worse symptoms. “It is true that pulling conclusive, universal findings from scientific research is a difficult task,” Ravella writes. She later asks, “But when it comes to food coloring, why should we have to prove just exactly how and why the substance causes a negative effect on the people who consume it before we can ban it?Food coloring has no nutritional value. Why are we risking it?”

Artificial sweeteners.

Another controversial topic, artificial sweeteners have likewise been the subject of much discussion and much less conclusion. For one thing, there are tons of artificial sweeteners on the market. Keeping them straight, let alone knowing which does what, provides an added layer of befuddlement. Berkeley Wellness has a helpful list of them, with clarifying descriptions of acesulfame K, advantame, aspartame, monk fruit extract, neotame, saccharin, stevia extract, and sucralose. Of those, the ones that seem to pop up most commonly on nutrition labels are aspartame, saccharin, stevia extract, and sucralose. Too much sugar is bad for you; are sugar substitutes?

As with artificial food colors, the jury is still out: Explains the Mayo Clinic, “According to the National Cancer Institute and other health agencies, there’s no sound scientific evidence that any of the artificial sweeteners approved for use in the U.S. cause cancer or other serious health problems. And numerous research studies confirm that artificial sweeteners are generally safe in limited quantities, even for pregnant women.” The Mayo Clinic notes that “moderation is key” when it comes to sugar substitutes, also raising the important point that processed foods often contain them—and processed foods don’t tend to be as healthy as whole foods.

Berkeley Wellness takes a look at sugar substitutes and weight management in particular, and in doing so reiterates the nebulousness of these substances: “Some studies have found that consuming foods and beverages that contain sugar substitutes can indeed help with weight loss, but others suggest that they can contribute to weight gain. Still others have found no effect on body weight.”

In an article with plenty of healthy skepticism on the Harvard Health Blog, Holly Strawbridge outlines some of the concerns that have been introduced in relation to artificial sweeteners:

  • Artificial sweeteners may “change the way we taste food,” Strawbridge reports. Dr. David Ludwig of Boston Children’s Hospital is quoted as saying, “Overstimulation of sugar receptors from frequent use of these hyper-intense sweeteners may limit tolerance for more complex tastes.”
  • Another possibility: “Research suggests that they may prevent us from associating sweetness with caloric intake. As a result, we may crave more sweets, tend to choose sweet food over nutritious food, and gain weight.” Strawbridge cites a study from San Antonio in which participants who drank more than 21 diet drinks a week were twice as likely to become overweight or obese, compared to those who didn’t drink diet sodas.
  • Strawbridge also cites animal studies suggesting that artificial sweeteners may be addictive: “In studies of rats who were exposed to cocaine, then given a choice between intravenous cocaine or oral saccharine, most chose saccharin.”

As Strawbridge puts it, “Whether non-nutritive sweeteners are safe depends on your definition of safe,” later adding, “We really don’t know what effect large amounts of these chemicals will have over many years.”

With that much uncertainty, it’s all the more important to consult your doctor about your diet and specific needs. Although much remains TBD, one thing is certain: Your body requires personalized love and care. Never stop giving it that!