Wednesday, September 05, 2007


Maybe you don’t know. Maybe you just don’t want to know. But when you pull up to the drive-thru to get your breakfast in a hurry, that is not just an egg on your biscuit. It’s actually eggs and:

“food starch-modified, soybean oil, natural flavors (botanical source), sodium acid pyrophosphate, carrageenan gum, flavor enhancer [salt, maltodextrin, natural flavor (plant source), spices, herb, turmeric (color)], monosodium phosphate, citric acid, soy lecithin. Prepared with Liquid Margarine: Liquid soybean oil, water, partially hydrogenated cottonseed and soybean oils, salt, hydrogenated cottonseed oil, soy lecithin, mono- and diglycerides, sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate (preservative), artificial flavor, citric acid, vitamin A palmitate, beta carotene (color).”

Mmmm. Yummy. What is all that stuff? Other than the recognizable egg and some very unhealthy hydrogenated oils, much of the other ingredients are food additives. Additives are chemical compounds that are used to enhance or preserve (enhance being a relative term) color, texture, flavor and shelf life of a manufactured food. Some additives are safe, at least as far as the FDA is concerned, in small quantities. However, there are many that I just don’t think belong in food despite what the FDA says.

In at least one case, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services agrees with me. BHA, BUTYLATED HYDROXYANISOLE, and BHT, or BUTYLATED HYDROXYTOLUENE, are both used to prevent oils from going rancid, oils such as those used in frying. BHA is considered to be “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.” Testing of BHT is unclear whether or not it may be a carcinogen as well, and residues of this chemical have been found in human fat stores. Despite the Department of Health and Human Services findings, the FDA continues to allow BHA to be used. You can find both of these substances in the sausage patties of a fast food breakfast sandwich.

TBHQ, or TERT-BUTYLHYDROQUINONE is used as an antioxidant for unsaturated vegetable oils and animal fats. It can be used in combination with BHA. It is added to a wide range of foods, with highest limit permitted for frozen fish. It is used to enhance storage life. For industrial use, TBHQ is used as a stabilizer and is added to varnishes, lacquers, resins, and oil field additives.

In high doses, TBHQ led to stomach tumors and damage to DNA for lab animals. Prolonged exposure to TBHQ may cause cancer. While this is for high doses and lab rats, I have trouble with the idea that something you can only handle with protective clothing, per the Material Safety Data Sheet, is going in my food. You can find TBHQ in a wide variety of fast food menu items, especially anything fried or cooked in oil.

YELLOW 6 is the third most common food coloring. Industry-sponsored tests showed that this dye caused tumors of the adrenal gland and kidney in the lab animals. The dye is often contaminated by carcinogens. The FDA reviewed this information and concluded that there is no risk to humans. You can find Yellow 6 in menu items like ice cream, chicken strip sauce, and desserts that include colored candy-coated chocolates.

I once found a peanut M&M under my desk that had been eaten by a mouse. The animal had selectively chewed through the orange outer shell to get to the nut inside, avoiding as much of the candy-coating as possible. If a starving rodent won’t eat it, I am thinking, why should I? I quit buying them even during the worst of chocolate cravings.

Other food colorings that are a risk include CITRUS RED 2, an additive that causes cancer that is still sprayed on some Florida oranges. No worries if you don’t eat the skin, since it’s not like people use orange zest or candied orange peel, do they? They do? Hmmm. Maybe they should have thought about that.

CARMINE, a commonly used red coloring, has also been shown to cause mild to severe anaphylactic shock in some individuals, but it not always clearly marked on labels. As a whole, artificial colorings have not been thoroughly tested.

PROPYL GALLATE has not been thoroughly tested. Initial studies suggest a linkage with cancer. It is used as a preservative in meats like sausage, vegetable oil, fried potatoes, chicken soup base and even chewing gum.

Here are a few more “ingredients” in your fast food, and other manufactured food products:

Sodium- and tetrasodium pyrophosphate, a “slightly toxic” food additive used as a thickening agent. You can find this in coffee creamer and other foods like marshmallows and some chicken nuggets. Define "slightly toxic?" Is it just slightly bad for you? Or just not even remotely good for you?

Polydimethylsiloxane is used as an “anti-foaming” agent in fried foods. It is thought to be relatively safe. It is also used in the manufacture of items like Silly Putty, silicone grease, breast implants. It can be used to treat head lice. Wow. I want to eat that.

Sodium hexametaphosphate is used as an additive to promote stability. It is also used in the manufacture of water softening agents and detergents.

Want to learn more about what’s in your food? I've included a link to one chain for each type of the usual suspects; burgers, pizza and uh, "Mexican." Or, just go to your favorite fast food chain site and look for the ingredient list.

When you view or download the ingredient list, just do a “find” (Control-F or Command-F) for the additive names. There are a lot of ingredients. Bon apetit!

Center for Science in the Public Interest report on Food Additives

Fast Food Menu #1
Fast Food Menu #2
Fast Food Menu #3


Corey~living and loving said...

ugh.....I knew there was a reason people should stick to whole foods.
Thanks for the info!

jen said...

sadly, i think i do not want to know. (um, so thanks) but the question is why do they make this stuff at all.

BethB said...

It's cheap, high profit margin, especially on the soda and it was an easy sell into the American diet preferences. A lot of people profit in the system, including and especially the industrial agriculture complex. The book Fast Food Nation is a great read to understand the why and how fast food became the standard here. It's well worth a look.

Rachel said...

You know, sticking to whole foods isn't just a matter of snobbishness anymore. I can't pronounce half the effing ingredients in prepackaged foods anymore, and I consider myself reasonably educated. Screw it. Jess doesn't yet know what she's not eating, and I'm gonna keep it that way. I quit.

The Expatriate Chef said...

Yeah, it's all pretty out of control. Except for our own choices. We just need to remember we have them.

Deborah Dowd said...

By the time you add all these things, there is not any food worth preserving!

Susy said...

That's why we decided to eat only homemade things and if necessary only purchase foods with fewer than 5-8 ingredients and they should be all natural things that we can pronounce (oh yeah, and no high fructose corn syrup).

So we buy raw milk, make our own butter from it, make pasta, sourdough bread, try to grow & preserve our own food (or buy at a local farmer's market), we buy only pastured free-range meat & eggs. And for all those people that say it's too expensive - we're spending $100 less a month on food now.