In a survey asking VHS students how often they read food ingredient labels before buying any food item, 70% of students say that they frequently check food labels prior to purchase. However, a 2012 Nielsen survey found that nearly half of all Americans do not understand food labels, which raises this question: do you really know what you are eating?
By definition, aspartame is an artificial sugar substitute found in many foods like lollipops, sugar-free frozen treats, soft drinks (typically diet soda), gum, and “diet” foods. Aspartame is often used in place of real sugar due to the fact that it is 200 times sweeter and it contains fewer calories. Unlike sugar, aspartame consumption does not cause tooth decay or plaque buildup.
Over the past thirty years, studies questioning the effects of aspartame consumption have come about. If eaten in large amounts, aspartame can trigger migraines, dizziness, and digestive problems; however, many people claim that aspartame is carcinogenic (cancer-causing), which led to many experiments testing this theory. According to the FDA, aspartame is not a cancer-causing sweetener. Carcinogenic or not, aspartame does more harm to the body than good. If eaten in large amounts over time, aspartame may lead to birth defects, attention deficit disorders, and anxiety. Many studies show that aspartame may have an effect on a person’s blood sugar levels, which could lead to an increased appetite. It is inconclusive as to how common these side effects are: not enough detailed studies have proven that aspartame is 100% safe or dangerous.
Sometimes foods containing aspartame do not list the word “aspartame” on ingredient labels. If a consumer wants to avoid aspartame, he or she should make sure that their food does not contain the sweeteners Equal or NutraSweet.
Sodium nitrate is a nitric acid-derived salt. It is typically found in cured deli meat, bacon, and hot dogs; however, it is naturally found in leafy vegetables like spinach as well. Sodium nitrate is also found in plastics, fertilizers, and explosives, and it is flammable when it comes into contact with certain substances. If ingested on its own, sodium nitrates can cause dizziness and stomach pain, so why is sodium nitrate used in food?
The FDA recognizes sodium nitrate as generally safe when consumed in small amounts. When combined with stomach acids, sodium nitrate forms nitrosamines- chemical compounds with potentially carcinogenic properties. Nitrosamines are said to be mutagens, which means that they could alter genetic material. Due to the high salt content, sodium nitrate is said to lead to high blood pressure, clogged arteries, and Type 2 diabetes According to researchers at the University of Hawaii, sodium nitrates/nitrites could potentially increase the risk of developing pancreatic cancer by 67%; however, this is debatable.
Sodium nitrates can also be called Chile saltpeter or soda niter. If you want to avoid eating this preservative, look for deli meats labeled “nitrate-free” or try to eat cured meat less frequently.
Trans fats are made when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil. They are found in margarine, fast foods, donuts, and baked goods like crackers, cookies, and cakes. Trans fats are also used in deep-frying food and in cooking restaurant food. In other words, they are the worst type of fat you can eat! This type of fat is extremely harmful to your health: it has been proven to not only raise levels of bad cholesterol, but it lowers levels of good cholesterol. Trans fats can greatly increase a person’s risk of developing heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, obesity, and can raise triglyceride levels (common type of fat found in blood).
In recent years, trans fats are rarely found in foods sold at grocery stores. However, if a food item contains less than one gram of trans fat, the label can say that there are zero grams of trans fat. One gram may not seem like a lot, but it is actually 100% of the daily value of trans fats. If a food contains the ingredient “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil,” that is the same thing as a trans fat.
While much debate surrounds whether some food additives have negative effects, it is essential for people to better educate themselves on what is in their food. The next time you visit your local grocery store, make sure you know what you are buying!