Food Additives: Interpreting the Ingredients List

Written by: Kelsey Schaffstall Young MS, RDN, LDN

What is ultra-processed food?

Nearly all food is processed to some degree, however the more processing a food has undergone, the more likely it is to include additives that could have negative health effects.

Minimally processed foods include fresh meat, milk, whole grains, legumes, nuts, fruits, and vegetables. In minimally processed food, the nutritional properties of the original food is not altered, and the food remains recognizable to its original form.5 Some methods of processing used to produce minimally processed foods include cleaning, removal of inedible fractions, portioning, refrigeration, freezing, pasteurization, fermenting, pre-cooking, drying, skimming, bottling, and packaging.5

Ultra-processed foods are often sold as products that are ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat. These foods are derived from substances extracted from whole foods such as oils, fats, starches, and sugars which have no real resemblance to the original ingredients.5 Additives are often required to improve the texture and shelf stability of ultra-processed food products such as packaged snacks, cookies, sauces, and dressings.

What is the prevalence of food additives?

The use of additives in food processing is regulated by the FDA and, under the 1958 Food Additive Amendment, more than 10,000 chemicals are allowed to be added to food in the United States, either directly or indirectly.6

Several surveys (conducted in Europe, the US, Canada, New Zealand, and Brazil) have suggested that ultra-processed food products contribute between 25-50% of total daily calorie intake. The consumption of ultra-processed foods is increasing among US adults as well, from 53.5% of calories in 2001-2002 to 57% of calories in 2017-2018.4

What are the health effects of processed food consumption?

A large prospective study showed a 10% increase in ultra-processed foods in the diet was associated with a significant increase of ~10% in risks of overall and breast cancer and 10-15% in the risk of heart disease and diabetes.2,3

Research is emerging regarding one category of food additives. Emulsifiers, such as carboxymethylcellulose (CMC), soy lecithin, mono- and diglycerides, and polysorbates, are used to improve the texture and shelf life of food products such as nut milks, ice cream, sauces, and dressings, have been shown to negatively impact gut health.1

In a small randomized controlled trial, 16 healthy volunteers ate the same emulsifier-free diet in an inpatient setting, but the intervention group received 15g carboxymethylcellulose (CMC) daily for 10 days.1 Subjects fed CMC displayed greater changes in microbiota composition than controls, reduced microbial richness, and the reduction of beneficial metabolites including short chain fatty acids and essential amino acids. 1 Two subjects also displayed bacterial encroachment into the inner mucus layer of the gut, which is a common feature of IBS. 1

Strategies to limit additives

In this day and age, it would be nearly impossible to avoid food additives completely, but there are a few simple ways that you can minimize food additive intake. First, when comparing products, a shorter ingredient list usually indicates less additives. Choose products with whole food ingredients as often as possible and opt for convenient forms of minimally processed ingredients to promote home cooking (plain frozen fruit and vegetables, precut fruit and vegetables, frozen meats, etc.). Practice meal prep strategies to simplify home cooking, and start making your own sauces, dressings, doughs, and batters from scratch. Finally, enjoy fast food and restaurant meals in moderation. Consider making an appointment with a Registered Dietitian who can assist you in making sustainable dietary changes that fit your lifestyle.

 

References

  1. Chassaing, Benoit, et al. “Randomized controlled-feeding study of dietary emulsifier carboxymethylcellulose reveals detrimental impacts on the gut microbiota and metabolome.” Gastroenterology 162.3 (2022): 743-756.
  2. Chazelas, Eloi, et al. “Nitrites and nitrates from food additives and natural sources and cancer risk: results from the NutriNet-Santé cohort.” International Journal of Epidemiology (2022).
  3. Fiolet, Thibault, et al. “Consumption of ultra-processed foods and cancer risk: results from NutriNet-Santé prospective cohort.” bmj 360 (2018).
  4. Juul, Filippa, et al. “Ultra-processed food consumption among US adults from 2001 to 2018.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 115.1 (2022): 211-221.
  5. Monteiro, Carlos A. “Nutrition and health. The issue is not food, nor nutrients, so much as processing.” Public health nutrition 12.5 (2009): 729-731.
  6. Trasande, Leonardo, et al. “Food additives and child health.” Pediatrics 142.2 (2018).

Nutrition and Health Effects of Cannabis: A Review of the Evidence

Written by Kelsey Schaffstall Young MS, RDN, LDN

More than 100 different cannabinoids have been identified, the most well studied being tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), which have both been shown to have therapeutic and medicinal properties.1 The health effects of cannabis are directly related to our body’s innate ability to bind cannabinoids. Interestingly, the human body naturally produces cannabinoids and therefore is equipped with an entire network of cannabinoids receptors, also known as the endocannabinoid system. 1

What does the research say?

According to a review conducted by the American Heart Association conducted in 2020, there is strong scientific evidence to support the use of cannabis for a variety of medical conditions. First, cannabis has been shown to improve pain caused by neuropathy and fibromyalgia. 1 Cannabis is also effective at increasing appetite and promoting weight gain in people suffering from cancer or HIV related weight loss. 1 In addition to benefitting appetite, cannabis has also been shown to prevent chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. 1 Other conditions such as Multiple Sclerosis and Epilepsy have also been studied, for which cannabis has been shown to improve pain and spasticity and seizures, respectively. 1 Moderate evidence also exists to suggest that cannabis could be effective in treating opiate withdrawal and dystonia. 1 Despite this, research on cannabis has been limited due to decades of cannabis being classified as a controlled substance. However, advancements have been made in the area of medical marijuana with three prescription cannabinoids (Marinol, Cesamet, and Epidiolex) now being authorized for use in the US. 1

Are there any risks associated with cannabis use?

Despite the potential therapeutic benefits, cannabis use does not come without risks. Chronic long-term use of cannabis can reduce the availability of CB1 receptors, impacting the systemic response when used long term. 1 For example, use in moderation can improve nausea and vomiting while chronic daily use can result in uncontrolled vomiting known as hyperemesis syndrome. 1 Use in adolescents younger than 16-18 years of age has also shown increased risk of psychosis and schizophrenia as well as poorer attention. 1 CBD can also inhibit some enzymes in the CYP450 family and alter the metabolism of certain drugs, either decreasing or increasing their concentration in the bloodstream. 1

Lifestyle Considerations

If you are trying to decide whether or not to use cannabis to support your health, there are a number of things to consider. First, in terms of dosing, a responsible approach would be to begin with the lowest possible dose and increase slowly until you feel the desired benefits. Also, be sure to choose high quality products and seek out reputable companies that provide consumers with a certificate of analysis detailing the cannabinoid content as well as the presence of any heavy metals or pesticides. Proof of third-party testing is also important as it can ensure the purity and potency of the final product.

Most importantly, pay attention to whether cannabis is promoting or inhibiting health behaviors. For example, is it enhancing appetite to the point that you are overeating or making poor nutrition choices? Is the quality of your sleep improving or declining? These are important questions to ask yourself when making any behavior change, and a Registered Dietitian can help you to examine the impact of cannabis on your nutrition and health behaviors. Finally, be sure to consult your doctor to ensure that cannabis use will not interfere with any of your current medications.

It is an exciting time to explore the wide array of THC and CBD products on the market, and hopefully as legalization efforts continue to evolve so will the scientific research on the use of cannabis to promote health.

  1. Page, Robert L., et al. “Medical marijuana, recreational cannabis, and cardiovascular health: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association.” Circulation 142.10 (2020): e131-e152.