The take-away message from what follows is this: no matter what the big, bold, glitzy print says on the front of the product, read the ingredients fine print on the back. You might not want to put that thing in your shopping cart!
Many of the packaged foods we shop for at ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ markets are assumed to be just that…natural, organic foods that are great dietary choices and have absolutely no downside. That is not always the case. It might be gluten-free, but have other ingredients that you don’t want to ingest. Learn how to shop smart.
Here are some common additives you might want to steer clear of: Carrageenan an indigestible polysaccharide extracted from red algae, used as a thickener or stabilizer in both health foods and commercially processed foods. This has been used for ages in food preparation for its gelling properties, but the refined, isolated carrageenan found in modern processed foods has raised concerns. In some animal studies, this additive has produced intestinal damage, cell loss, increased intestinal permeability, ulcers. The interesting thing is that the maladies are species-dependent, meaning different animal encountered different problems. Studies on humans, while limited, have increased the expression of two pro-inflammatory factors. It is not a known carcinogen, but is a huge cautionary product due to inflammation in the gut. It is common in almond milk and coconut milk and can be found in certain ice creams.
Xanthan Gum is also used as a stabilizer, thickener, or emulsifier and is popular in gluten-free baked goods for the elasticity it gives dough. It is also a largely indigestible polysaccharide made by placing a bacteria in a growth medium that has sugars and other nutrients (often corn, soy, dairy or wheat) and then taking the result of bacteria fermentation and turning it into a purified, dried powder. Animal studies don’t show much harm and human studies with large doses show xanthan gum capable of causing some digestive distress in those susceptible by increasing stool bulk, water content and sugar content. Infants should not be fed this due to research finding development of a type of colitis in infants. It is common is gluten-free baked goods and some brands of ice cream.
Soy lecithin is a mix of phospholipids and oil. Phospholipids are a component of the cell membran in all plants and animals, but lecithin usually comes from sunflower kernels, rapeseed (canola), milk, soy, and egg yolks. While there is lots of talk about the ‘nasty’ chemicals in soy lecithin, a healthy detox system can probably handle anything in the soy lecithin in food. The problems lie in allergies to soy proteins and this level varies in different manufacturers. Most of the soy grown in the States is genetically modified as is most rapeseed (canola), but there is little DNA in soy lecithin so this is not a big worry. Soy is the greatest food source of phytoestrogens. Again, it’s how high the dose is that makes it problematic. If you notice you react to products with this ingredient, don’t eat it. Same would hold true for people with a severe soy allergy or chemical sensitivity. Soy lecithin is in everything from prepared salad dressings to tea bags. It is almost always in chocolate, even organic brands, and often in supplements.
Guar gum comes from a real food: the guar bean or Indian cluster bean, which looks a lot like a green bean. This additive has undergone extensive scrutiny in animals and humans. As a soluble fiber, it has been show to reduce body weight and lower blood glucose. Because there was no harm shown in animals, human studies are looking at using this as a tool for reducing blood glucose and cholesterol levels. What has resulted from human studies is a GI side effect of excessive gas and abdominal discomfort. As a rule, this gum ( and locust bean gum, gum arabic, tara gum and gellan gum, the last two have little info about them) may be problematic for those with existing digestive issues because they are mostly indigestible, but unlikely to cause any real damage. Guar gum is often found with xanthan gum or is used as a substitute for it in baked goods.
Thanks for articles by Chris Kresser, Health for the 21st Century, for his in-depth look at these food additives and his data on animal and human studies.
Things to always avoid: canola oil, soy, xylitol.