Food additives come in two breeds: natural and synthetic. When these additives are approved by the Food and Drug Administration, this means that the agency is satisfied that the additive is generally safe and effective in limited amounts, and that its use is only warranted to serve a specific purpose (like preventing mold or separation). For some shoppers, this approval is enough to quell curiosity. But just because it’s safe enough for the same government arm that regulates the cancer-causing additives in cigarettes, should that mean that these ingredients are inherently good for you?
Not all additives are created equal.
On its face, a natural additive must be directly derived from plant or animal material, while artificial ones are synthesized in labs using chemicals and reactive processes.
In a world with more than 10,000 food additives, preservatives and colorings, rational consumers hold all the buying power, especially in the food industry. It is well known that genetically modified or engineered foods face the most backlash from informed buyers. As such, the FDA currently requires wording on labels to alert consumers about some instances of GMOs in manufactured products. You might be thinking that this distinction makes the decision to avoid such items easy, right?
Wrong! Current FDA regulations only specify that such a warning be issued when it results in an unexpected added allergen, or changes the nutritional content of a food—not when unwholesome engineered ingredients might have been used in the manufacturing. As such, there is essentially no way to ensure that most man-made additives have not come into contact with these questionable ingredients in some way. By the very nature of a product’s being processed in a lab with both food and non-food based chemicals, it’s virtually impossible to track the production of an unnatural ingredient and the myriad of other chemical components needed to elicit the same reaction.
By contrast, the concentration of seaweed-based, natural stabilizers like carrageenan in processed food is usually between 0.01% and 1% of the total product on the shelf—a percentage much lower than that required of the cocktail of chemicals often used to meet the same standards by man-made stabilizers.
Why should you care?
In the most basic terms: Food-grade carrageenan has not been shown to cause cancer in animal models—which can not be said for engineered additives. As a general rule, gums like gellan can be especially problematic for those with digestive issues, simply because their chemical components are mostly indigestible. In fact, during one study where subjects were given various levels of gums in the same class as gellan per day for three months, some participants were forced to drop out due to excessive gas and abdominal discomfort.
On top of that, by the very nature of the processes involved to make these reactions occur in food chemically, the body absorbs the extras in the form of excess stool bulk, water content and sugar content.
Synthetic additives can wreak havoc in mysterious ways, causing stress that can be avoided entirely by making the switch to all-natural foods.