Understanding What’s in Your Food – Part II

What’s in your food? Although most foods are required by federal law to have nutrition labeling, the answer to that question might still be unclear. Some ingredients listed on those labels may raise more questions than answers. In Part 2 of our series “Understanding What’s in Your Food,” we’re looking in particular at several food additives: high-fructose corn syrup, sodium nitrites, BHA, BHT, and trisodium phosphate. What are they, and are they okay to consume? Read on to get some clarity, and be sure to check out Part 1 in the series, on artificial sweeteners and dyes.

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 certain ingredients, but we encourage you to do further investigation at research-backed institutions, for a deeper dive.

Food Additives

Below are some of the additives that appear in foods. Pay attention to these when they show up, and bear in mind that whole foods, rather than processed foods (in which additives tend to be found), are recommended by plenty of health experts.

High-fructose corn syrup.


High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is used as a sweetener in various sodas, desserts, and processed foods. Made from processed corn starch, HFCS is cheaper to produce than table sugar, so it’s a common ingredient—although in recent years, it’s also become a commonly criticized one. As Berkeley Wellness puts it, “High-fructose corn syrup has been blamed for everything from obesity and dementia to heart attacks and strokes.” Articles online have headlines announcing how bad HFCS is for you, with one going so far as to say that it will kill you. (“When used in moderation, it is a major cause of heart disease, obesity, cancer, dementia, liver failure, tooth decay and more.”)

The problem isn’t just HFCS, however. As Berkeley Wellness notes, “Several studies have clearly shown that HFCS and sucrose have indistinguishable metabolic effects and the same health consequences. That is, neither type of sugar is good for you.” Nutritionist Katherine Zeratsky explains on the Mayo Clinic website, “Too much added sugar of all kinds — not just high-fructose corn syrup — can contribute unwanted calories that are linked to health problems, such as weight gain, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and high triglyceride levels. All of these boost your risk of heart disease.” So while HFCS isn’t great, it’s just part of a bigger problem: too much sugar consumption.

Sodium nitrite.


Sodium nitrate is used as a preservative in cured meats, such as canned meats and sausages. A theory described by WebMD links sodium nitrite and gastric cancer, because US gastric cancer rates dropped significantly when less sodium nitrite began to be used in the curing process, and when people began eating less cured meat because of access to refrigeration. Though that theory is an “open question,” according to WebMD, there are other concerns about excessive sodium nitrite intake, which SFGate sayshas been linked to diseases such as non-Hodgkin lymphoma, leukemia and esophageal, pancreatic, bladder and thyroid cancer, according to Healthy Child, Healthy World.”

In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization, classified processed meat as a carcinogen. The experts behind the classification found that “eating 50 grams of processed meat every day increased the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.” An illuminating article in The Guardian called “Yes, Bacon Really Is Killing Us” explains that nitrates and nitrites give meats like bacon and salami their pinkness, and “it is the use of these chemicals that is widely believed to be the reason why ‘processed meat’ is much more carcinogenic than unprocessed meat. [Journalist Guillaume] Coudray argues that we should speak not of ‘processed meat’ but ‘nitro-meat’.”

BHA and BHT.


BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) are used as preservatives in many foods, ranging from cereal to vegetable oil. Both additives are classified by the FDA as GRAS, that is, “generally recognized as safe,” and while an independent committee supported the safety of BHA and BHT, Berkeley Wellness reports, “other health organizations have raised concerns.” Berkeley Wellness describes mixed findings, leading to few definitive conclusions: “Some lab and animal studies have found that BHA and BHT—at high levels as well as at lower levels found in foods—may have anti-cancer properties, possibly through the scavenging of damaging free radicals or by stimulating production of enzymes that detoxify carcinogens. Other research suggests that low doses of BHA are toxic to cells, while high doses are protective—or the reverse, that low doses are okay, but high doses are harmful.”

Trisodium phosphate.


More information about trisodium phosphate should become available later this year, when the European Food Safety Authority is anticipated to release findings of their investigation into them. In the meantime, what we know about this food additive—which can be found in cheeses, baked goods, sodas, and more—is that it’s approved by the FDA and the European Union, and that it is not a paint thinner, despite some confusion on that front. As Healthline puts it, “Although certain types of sodium phosphate are used in cleaning and paint products, it’s important to know that these are not the same as food-grade sodium phosphate.”

Berkeley Wellness explains that fast food is high in phosphates, which are used by the food industry “as leavening and anti-caking agents, stabilizers, flavor enhancers, emulsifiers, and moisture binders.” Although Berkeley Wellness notes that more research is needed, “Many experts urge caution,” including the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Environmental Working Group. Concerns about phosphates include that they absorb well, which can lead to high blood levels; high blood levels “have been linked in some (though not all) studies to a spectrum of health problems, notably cardiovascular events—not just in people with kidney disease, who have long been advised to limit their phosphorus intake, including phosphate additives, but also in healthy people.”

For more ingredient demystifying, check out this great article in Berkeley Wellness on ingredients such as cellulose, L-cysteine, and gelatin.