Processed Foods #2

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In my last blog, I explained what makes a food “processed” and covered some of the positives and negatives surrounding their increased prevalence in our diet.

In this blog, I want to take a look at some of the specific ingredients in processed foods that are the subject of the most debate. Specifically I want to see if the research backs up many of the common claims of the media regarding adverse health effects from processed food consumption.

Below are some of the more commonly criticized chemicals found in processed foods and a brief review of what current research says on their potential for negative health effects.



Parabens are used in many foods and cosmetic products to prevent the growth of bacteria. Worries exist regarding whether parabens contribute to the development of breast cancer. Studies linking parabens to breast cancer in general have shown a slight correlation (due to estrogenicity), however, the amounts used in foods and cosmetic products are so small that it appears highly unlikely that they play any role in the development of breast cancer. Naturally occurring estradiol (a hormone) in the body is 10,000 to 100,000 times more estrogenic than the strongest of parabens.


BHA (Butylated Hydroxyanisole)

BHA helps to preserve fats, oils, and oil-containing foods. Some studies have shown BHA to be safe, while others have shown it to cause cancer in rats, mice, and hamsters. It should be noted that the cancer has occurred in the forestomach, an organ humans do not have. Also, doses used in these studies exceed common levels of human consumption. Most scientists seem to suggest that more research is needed, particularly with doses that match human consumption, before a clear conclusion can be made.


4-methylimidazol (4MEI)

4MEI, more commonly known as “caramel coloring”, is commonly found in sodas, coffee, and roasted or grilled meats. Concerns exist over possible cancer-causing effects in the liver and lungs. Studies in rats and mice found 4MEI to be dangerous only at extremely high doses, with no effects in smaller doses (and these “small” doses are still much higher than anything used in human consumption). To consume the amount of 4MEI found harmful in these studies, we would have to drink about 2,000 cans of soda per day!


Sodium Nitrate

Sodium nitrate (SN) is used as a preservative and to maintain color in many meats and fish. SN has been identified as a possible carcinogen. Additionally, studies have found a correlation between processed meat intake and higher incidence of various cancers. However, no studies have examined the direct effect in humans — only in rats. Additionally, when SN is consumed in the presence of vitamin E & C, the cancer-causing effects are negated. Many vegetables actually contain as much if not more SN than, say, a hot dog; however, since they usually are rich in vitamins, the possible harmful effect is minimized. The USDA requires the addition of vitamin C to meats containing SN to offset the possibility of negative health effects, much in the same manner that vegetables do.


Take Home Message

The word “preservative” or “chemical” typically is met with skepticism and fear over its use in food. However, most people couldn’t tell you the first thing about why they are “bad” or what specifically they should be avoiding. One has to wonder why the word “chemical” would automatically be held in such disdain when every single food — even fruits and vegetables — are composed of many chemical compounds (I urge you to read through this list of “ingredients” in eggs, bananas, and blueberries.).

Surely some chemicals are bad for you, but many others are harmless or even necessary for survival. Most of the research is extremely inconclusive on the potential harmful effects of even the most demonized chemicals in processed foods.

In the end, focusing more on an appropriate intake of total calories and macronutrients (fat, protein, and carbs) is the most scientifically validated way to eat healthy.

So, can processed foods fit in a healthy diet? For many people, yes, for some, maybe not. Hopefully, the above information will help you answer that question for yourself.

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