Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


Ignorance does not make a food unhealthy

I was reading this article on margarine vs butter the other day and one line jumped out at me: “Cons: Margarine is a processed food with a long list of ingredients, some of which are unrecognizable.” While I tend to agree that foods should, as often as possible, be consumed close to their natural state and the fewer ingredients usually the better, I’m sick of the assumption that just because you don’t recognise an ingredient it must follow that it’s bad for you.

For example, alpha-tocopherol acetate is just vitamin E. Potassium sorbate is the potassium salt of sorbic acid and is a widely used food preservative. Riboflavin is vitamin B2 and is often added to breads and cereals. I could go on and on.

My point is not that margarine is superior to butter. Personally, my preference is for butter. I find that smaller quantities are needed to provide superior flavour and I don’t use it particularly often. My point is that ignorance is not a valid reason for condemning a food. If you’re not sure what all of the ingredients are, look them up.

*The above tongue-in-cheek flowchart from Summer Tomato is a permanent fixture on my fridge. Despite the fact that I am essentially arguing against it in this post I find it amusing.

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Is your food killing you?

Sound the alarms! The Food Industry is Waging War on Your Cells With These 10 Toxic Ingredients. Talk about sensationalist headlines. Allegedly these ten common food additives are smothering your cells which leads to “cell mutation and the perfect breeding ground for cancer”. Oh dear, sounds horrific. But how much truth is there in this article? Let’s look at this top ten list of deadly food additives…

1. Sodium Benzoate. This is a type of salt frequently used to preserve packaged foods. In a few mice studies it lead to lower growth rates and weights but there was no evidence of carcinogenicity 1. Is it safe in large amounts? More than likely not. Is it safe in the amounts in which it’s present in foods? Probably. Before deciding if a food preservative is safe Health Canada has to weigh the risks and benefits. Would more people die from consuming foods with microbial contamination than would die from consuming sodium benzoate? Probably. If you’re really concerned about the presence of sodium benzoate in your food then you should be eating fewer pre-packaged foods. Verdict: not ideal but not a carcinogen. Recommendation: prepare more meals at home using fresh ingredients.

2. Canola oil. This is not identical to rapeseed oil (although it comes from the same plant) and does not have the same health risks as rapeseed oil. In fact, canola oil actually has a pretty decent mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acid profile 2. If genetic modification is a concern for you (I know that it is to me) organic varieties are available at most grocery stores. Verdict: not a carcinogen and not necessarily bad for you – of course it’s a fat so it’s high in calories. Recommendation: choose healthy oils and fats based on your cooking needs.

3. Monosodium Glutamate. Can I just skip this one? Evidence is inconsistent. Some people have reported adverse, allergy-like, reactions to consuming MSG but studies continue to show that it is safe for consumption 3. The purpose of MSG is to enhance the flavour of food. To me, that seems completely unnecessary. Verdict: Not necessary to avoid MSG if you are not sensitive to it. Recommendation: As it is an unnecessary ingredient do what you will with this information.

4. Sodium Nitrates. Okay, this one really is bad for you. I’ve written about it before… Verdict: Carcinogen. Recommendation: Avoid consumption whenever possible.

5. Margarine. Most margarines these days no longer contain trans-fat. This means that they’re not nearly as bad as they used to be. Personally, I prefer butter over margarine any day. Try to buy butter from grass-fed cows for the healthiest choice. Verdict: If you’re consuming a hard margarine with trans-fat then it’s a deadly choice (although not carcinogenic, just more likely to increase your risk of heart disease 4). If you’re consuming a soft-tub margarine without trans-fat then it’s not so bad. Recommendation: Go with your preference (non-hydrogenated margarine or butter) but remember that a little goes a long way.

6. Anti-foaming Agents (e.g. Dimethylpolysiloxalane). To be honest, I didn’t know anything about this one until I started reading this article. It’s a type of silicone which, according to the World Health Organization, is safe for consumption 5. What’s it used for? To prevent foaming when cooking foods like chicken nuggets in oil. I can’t find anything that says it’s bad for you but it really doesn’t sound all that fabulous. Verdict: Allegedly safe for consumption. Recommendation: Don’t eat chicken nuggets anyway! If you want chicken nuggets try making your own, baked in the oven without added dimethylpolysiloxalane.

7. Anti-caking Agents. These are used to help prevent powdered substances from clumping together. This is another one that I don’t know all that much about. According to the FDA, sodium aluminosilicate (one of these anti-caking agents) was approved as there was no reason to believe it would be any less safe than similar compounds which had been tested in mice 6. Looking into all this stuff is making me realise all the weird things that actually go into our food and how sketchy the approval system for these additives actually is. Verdict: I can’t find anything to say it’s a carcinogen but… Recommendation: Be cognizant of what’s in your food. Ask questions. Be a skeptic. Make most of your meals at home using fresh ingredients.

8. Artificial Colourings. Another contentious one. They may be safe, they may not be 7. They are being reviewed for their effect on behaviour problems in children. Verdict: The jury’s still out. Recommendation: Limit your consumption, especially limit consumption by your children.

9. Emulsifiers. These are used to stabilize foods, particularly fluids so fat will remain in suspension in say milk rather than separating out. Some of these may be okay, some of them may not. I’m not sure that any of them are actually carcinogenic though and to be perfectly honest, this post has taken up far more time than I had anticipated and I can’t be bothered to look all of them up. I did find an interesting article on carrageenan that presents both sides of the story. Verdict: Probably not carcinogenic but not necessarily great for you either. Recommendation: Look into additives you’re seeing on your labels. If you’re not confident in their safety try to choose another product that does not contain them.

10.  Artificial Sweeteners. Oh good, I’ve written about this one before too. Verdict: So far so good but I’m not 100% confident in their safety. Recommendation: You need to decide what’s most important to you: calorie reduction or flavour or confidence in safety. If calorie reduction is your goal try to forego sweeteners altogether.