What’s really in your food?

Published 7:09 am Thursday, October 18, 2012

The other night I stumbled upon foodfacts.com while browsing the world-wide web.

It was a boring night and I had nothing better to do so I decided to scare myself by plugging the names of food items in my pantry in this website’s database, and finding out what was REALLY in my food. Yeah, I know, I need a hobby.

According to their website, foodfacts.com offers searchable information about specific foods and their ingredients, with free information provided to consumers. The site provides detailed information on over 12,000 common and not so common food ingredients. Foods, ingredients, chemical substances and additives can be searched by a number of common and easy to find search parameters.

So, one by one, I put a sample of my pantry foods into the search engine, which would yield results with nutrition facts, including food allergens, preservatives (like MSG) and controversial ingredients. Each food is also given a grade rating (A, B, C, etc.).

For example, my Mueller’s whole grain pasta was given a “B+” with the only allergens being wheat and gluten. However, my Thomas’ Cinnamon Raisin Bagel Thins faired differently, nabbing a “C+” with preservatives like MSG (Barley Malted Flour) and controversial ingredients like caramel color and “natural flavorings.”

Carbonated water, caramel color, aspartame, phosphric acid, potassium benzoate, natural flavors, citric acid and caffeine—it’s enough to boggle my mind, but that is what is in the can of Diet Coke on my desk as I write.

It’s undoubtedly unavoidable that what is placed in our food is not what we always think. Over time, food manufacturers have become devious in how they list certain additives.

Case in point, caramel coloring doesn’t sound harmful, but the food industry follows a different recipe: They treat sugar with ammonia, which can produce some nasty carcinogens. A Center for Science in the Public Interest report asserted that the high levels of caramel color found in soft drinks account for roughly 15,000 cancers in the U.S. annually.

Another seemingly harmless ingredient often found in foods: partially hydrogenated oil, which is just trans fat in hiding. The Food and Drug Administration allows products to claim zero grams of trans fat as long as they have less than half a gram per serving. That means they can have 0.49 grams per serving and still be labeled a no-trans-fat food. Two grams is your daily intake for trans fats.

Parabens, which are synthetic preservatives, are used to inhibit mold and yeast in food. However, the preservatives may also disrupt the body’s hormonal balance. A study in Food Chemical Toxicology found that daily ingestion decreased sperm and testosterone production in rats, and parabens have been found present in breast cancer tissues.

While the FDA is supposed to be the agency governing what is allowed and what is not allowed in food, it always seems to be up to the consumers as to what is best for them to eat.

Amanda VanDerBroek is a Staff Writer for the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald. For comments and column suggestions email: amanda.vanderbroek@r-cnews.com or call (252) 332-7209.