What They Are Doing to Our Food: Harmful Ingredients We Consume Regularly


I do not usually post copies of research papers I have written, but being that I just enthusiastically finished this one for my biology class this semester, I wanted to share it with all of you. I have written several times about how companies prefer the Almighty Dollar to consumer health, so this one would be the icing on the cake for me (hold the high fructose corn syrup, please). I guarantee that after you read this, if you are not an ingredient reader already, you will become one. Included within the body are the original sources that I cited. If anyone would like a complete list of works cited for their own enjoyment or research, please contact me. 

I. Overview

Paying customers should have a right to expect that the food they are purchasing is healthy and clean. Maybe not healthy in regards to the nutrition facts such as fat, sodium, and cholesterol, but for the actual ingredients going into these foods, some of which are quite horrifying. Manufacturers, as they have always done, are coming up with new and innovative ways to cut costs on their end, increase shelf life, and make the food look more appealing, all at the expense of the customer’s health. The reason why there is such a push for “natural” and “organic” is because people are finally waking up, and becoming ingredient readers and questioning what some of these items are. That may be the saddest part of all of this, because the manufacturers are doing this right in front of our eyes, as they are bound by law to list all the ingredients on the back of food labels. However, what these individual ingredients do not say is what exactly they are and what side effects they may have following your consumption of them.

It could be said that the initial push to discover what food manufacturers are up to behind the closed doors of their factories began in the early 1900’s with Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, a story centered around the lives of immigrants, but went in-depth with deplorable descriptions of the Chicago meatpacking district. Preservatives, then as now, extended beyond the use of merely salt, and in some instances, kerosene was used to keep butchered meet from spoiling, and that was not even the worst of it (Sinclair, 1906). Since this book was published, government agencies have been formed to oversee the sanitary conditions of food factories, but this supervision does not seem to apply to the actual chemicals and ingredients now being pumped into our foods. How else then could the ingredients listed below be used, and openly so?

II. Propylene Glycol

If you think this ingredient sounds more like a type of fuel than something that should be in food, you really are not too far off. Propylene glycol is actually a derivative of ethylene, and can be found in brake fluid, antifreeze, and rubber cleaner (National Health Information Center, 2007). While it is scary in itself that this is used by health product manufacturers in skin and hair care products such as shampoo, conditioner, baby powder, and deodorant (which is ironic considering the usage of this product comes with explicit warnings to avoid contact with skin because it causes irritation and over time, kidney failure), this has also made its way into ice cream and soda (National Health Information Center, 2007; Tan, 2012). Because of its qualities as an antifreeze agent, ice cream companies see this as a no-brainer to use so that it “prevents ice crystals from developing” and “helps retain its shape once packed as well as maintain its creamy texture” (Tan, 2012). Does anyone else see a problem with using something commonly found in car radiators in ice cream as well?

This reminds me of a quote from a dark comedy called Dr. Strangelove, where a paranoid military commander is going on and on about how the “commies” are going to infiltrate America and put dangerous ingredients in our food, one of the famous lines being, “Ice cream, Mandrake! Children’s ice cream!” (Kubrick, 1964). While this was just a farcical comedy, the eventual realization is quite on point, only the poisoning is not coming from a foreign enemy, it is coming from within. But that’s okay—if you stay away from ice cream, you can still take solace in the fact that propylene glycol is used in sorbitol, an artificial sweetener in diet products as well as soda because it “maintains the suspension of fatty acids in the liquid” and acts as a “flavor carrier” (Tan, 2012). Aside from skin irritation and kidney damage, it can also cause abnormalities in your liver (National Health Information Center, 2007).

II. Aspartame

More popular now than ever before are so-called “diet” products, the most prominent one being soda. In order to achieve a nearly identically sweet taste, manufacturers needed to come up with a chemical, or artificial sweetener, which would allow customers who need to cut back on sugar a chance to enjoy soda. This sweetener, called aspartame, in use since the 1960’s, will not only let customers enjoy sodas, but a plethora of ailments along with it, including cancer (Geib, 2012). The dangers were apparently so severe that in 2005, a European research center called on the US FDA to reexamine the ingredient and declare it not safe for consumption in children (Geib, 2012). This was prompted by studies on animal subjects where ingestion of aspartame caused holes to be formed in their brains (Geib, 2012). In humans, it could cause cancer, migraine headaches, infertility, and seizures, as well as damage to an unborn fetus if consumed by a pregnant woman (Geib, 2012).

In addition to that, a component of aspartame, phenylalanine, has been linked to ADD and ADHD because of the way it attacks and kills brain cells (Hull, 2002). It is all over the news and in magazines at how high the increase is of children having behavioral and concentration disorders such as ADD and ADHD are. Can we now draw a parallel between that increase and an increase of aspartame and phenylalanine in our food and drinks? As a customer and human being, we almost have to weigh “the bad vs. the worse” when deciding whether or not we should have regular or diet soda. Do you want a sugary drink that will cause obesity, high blood sugar, and diabetes, or a diet product that will kill you even faster with dangerous chemicals? The safest bet to make would be to not drink either one, because even in “real” soda, sugar is slowly being phased out in favor of an even cheaper, more dangerous ingredient, high fructose corn syrup, which is discussed next.

III. High Fructose Corn Syrup

 As an obsessive ingredient reader on the back of food and drink labels, let’s just say I have become very familiar with high fructose corn syrup, the ingredient that has usurped sugar as the most used sweetener on the market. In fact, if you look at the back of a bottle of soda, chances are you will not even see sugar listed at all. The same could be said for most sweet products. High fructose corn syrup, however, is everywhere—you cannot avoid it. People might not give this any thought, because corn syrup on its own is not harmful, and is used in many baked goods, but HFCS is completely different. A derivative of corn starch, HFCS is a “refined clear liquid” used in products because it has a longer shelf life and is much cheaper to produce than natural sugar (Health Mad, 2007). This is yet another instance of sacrificing safety in the name of the almighty dollar. So why is this worse than sugar? Well, putting aside the fact that it was introduced in the 1980’s, right about the same time as obesity rates began to climb in America, it is digested much differently by the body than real sugar (Health Mad, 2007).

When we eat sugar, our pancreas produces insulin which in turn tells the brain that we have eaten, and we begin to feel full. HFCS does not cause the pancreas to do this, thus our brain takes a lot longer to feel full and we keep eating and eating this sweet killer until the sugary liquid turns into fat (Health Mad 2007). So, there is the link to obesity, and with weight gain comes an increase in blood pressure, hypertension, and diabetes. With these three things come an increase in heart disease and chances of having a stroke—it is a vicious cycle caused not only by consumption of this product, but of the unhealthy lifestyles and lack of physical activity many are plagued with in America. Think that is bad? How about the liver damage HFCS causes, allowing fat build-up and shutting down the liver’s chance to remove toxins from the body (Global Healing Center, 2013). Even worse than that, if it is even possible, are the high levels of mercury associated with HFCS. A study conducted in 2009 found the presence of mercury in more than half of the samples they tested, an alarmingly high number (National Center for Biotechnology Information, 2009). With mercury exposure comes increases of the chances of “irreversible” brain and nerve damage, even worse if ingested by children, which no doubt happens because of the dangerous sweet tooth we have (Global Healing Center, 2013). HFCS is not just found in soda, though. It actually figures quite prominently in condiments such as ketchup and relish, where it can be seen as the first or second ingredient on the list. Even more surprisingly is its use in breads, both white and wheat. Just stroll down the bread aisle and you will be shocked at the number of loaves containing HFCS, even ones marketed as “natural” or “organic”.

You know there must not be something right with this ingredient when certain breads actually market themselves as not containing any HFCS. These breads, like all other “healthier” alternatives are, of course, more expensive. The same can be said of the “retro” soda products that have hit the shelves in recent years, charging consumers more money because they are made with real sugar and not HFCS, the ingredient they should never have been using in the first place. Money trumps all in America—kill people will dangerous ingredients, and when they are fed up with that, charge them more money for the healthier option.

IV. Monosodium Glutamate

It is an unfortunate misconception that monosodium glutamate, affectionately known as MSG, is only associated with Chinese restaurants and their food, because this harmful ingredient can also be found in processed meats, and to my chagrin, Doritos, Cheetos, and certain kinds of potato chips. Though it can be created naturally, as an extract from seaweed, there are many harmful side effects of this flavor enhancer (Wiesenfelder, 2010). While salt can be dangerous in itself, if used to excess as an enhancer or preservative, it cannot hold a candle to MSG in regards to actual side effects, which include swelling and tingling (most often in the fingers), headaches, facial pressure, sweating, a burning sensation in the mouth, nausea, and chest pain (Johnson, 2008; Zeratsky, 2012). Even worse than that is the potential for permanent brain damage, as reported in 2011, when Underground Health Reporter named MSG the most dangerous food ingredient on the market, listed directly above our dear friends aspartame and high fructose corn syrup (Johnson, 2008). According to this research, MSG affects the hypothalamus of the brain, which is a “vulnerable” area that controls our metabolism, body temperature, thirst, and pituitary hormones, among other functions (Underground Health Reporter, 2011). Repeated consumption of MSG can cause “enough cell death [in this area that can] eventually kill off enough brain cells to do permanent damage” (Underground Health Reporter, 2011).

It appears, though, that the FDA is somewhat aware that MSG might be a dangerous ingredient, because it holds the distinction of being on a very special and totally ambiguous list of foods titled “Generally Recognized as Safe” (Zelatsky, 2012). Generally recognized as safe? What does that even mean? It is safe only some of time? How is an ingredient like this even allowed to be on the market, in additional foods like canned meats, canned soups, salad dressings, and flavored crackers? There is a reason why Chinese restaurants have stopped using this, and have put labels on their menus stating such, because MSG became synonymous with danger, and they wanted to disassociate themselves from it. Food manufacturers have yet to follow this road, because people do not expect this ingredient in their foods. They simply slip it in the ingredients list and no one bats an eye. A reason for this might be that people only know it literally as “MSG” and might not know what it stands for, therefore when they see “monosodium glutamate” on a label, they think nothing of it. It is scary how people can be so easily deceived.

V. Final Thoughts

We live in a very scary world and a dangerous environment, most of which we have created for ourselves. It is very hard to live a truly healthy lifestyle, because organic food is so expensive, and dangerous chemicals and preservatives intrude in our food while toxins and pollutants are in our water supply. This man-made destruction of our health is almost apocalyptic in nature and is something we should definitely be concerned about. We cannot trust government agencies like the FDA to look out for us, because they actively seek to find out if certain ingredients are safe, yet we still have all those covered in this paper, and many more. How is this possible? It is all because of money. These ingredients are cheaper ways of accomplishing something, whether it is making ice cream hold its shape in its container and not have ice crystals, to making soda cheaper to produce by not using real sugar, or enhancing a food’s flavor with something other than salt.

Now, not to sound apocalyptic myself, just because these ingredients are dangerous does not mean that consuming them every once in a while (“everything in moderation”) will automatically kill you. There is nothing wrong with one diet soda today, and maybe some HFCS-laden Oreos tomorrow, and some MSG laced Doritos next week, but very rarely does it ever end with that. In America, we have all kinds of junk food out our disposal day and night. We have a deadly sweet tooth and a craving for salt. This means that the one soda a week becomes a soda a day, and the potato chips are no longer a special “cheat treat”, but an all-day snack.

Is there anything we can do to stop this? Probably not, because the ingredients are not isolated occurrences, but regular ones, in almost every product out there. The only way to make an impact would be to stop buying them, but that is a difficult order, because there would probably be nothing left to buy. Just spend some time looking at the ingredients on, let’s say, a bag of potato chips. All a company really needs on that list are potatoes, oil, and salt. Take some time then to research the other 20 ingredients accompanying them. You may be surprised and intrigued at what you find, and will no doubt give you new meaning to the phrase, “Killing with kindness”.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. R B Clark says:

    Wow! This is sobering stuff. We sort of know this is true but do not see the details. Thanks for sharing some of the details. We could all do better in this area and our health would benefit.

    This reminds me of another health related discussion I recently read. The article was written by a doctor and it talked about growing health care costs – Medicare, etc. It maintained that something like 75% (give or take) of health care cost was driven by people’s eating choices – choices that lead to Type 2 diabetes, obesity, plugged arteries, etc. When you have these problems you end up with heart disease, hip replacements, knee replacements and on and on. Basically, our choices are slowly killing us and running health care costs through the roof.

    Now, add these conversations together. If some of these artificial products are accelerating the breakdown in our health and our choices are killing us… This is scary.

  2. Greg,

    Great post, and it’s scary that this just scratches the surface. For example, carbonated beverages cause the stomach to expand, which creates more capacity for food intake and therefore more food is required to achieve fullness. Best thing to do is focus on eating non-processed foods and unsweetened, non-carbonated beverages. It worked for the human race for thousands of years! I did that last year and lost about 30 pounds in a month. The challenge is sticking to it, because the stuff that is bad for us tastes really good. I am convinced there is a conspiracy among the food and health care industries whereby substances that cause obesity and other problems are intentionally placed into food, and lobbyists keep Congress from enacting laws that would more strictly regulate food additives and labelling requirements. That in turn leads to soaring health care costs and development of precription drugs to combat the problem.

    1. I agree about the carbonated beverages. I think I have only had two sodas in the last four years. I stopped drinking it and never went back! Only time I had a soda was when I had an upset stomach and was told Coca Cola helps it feel better. But other than that, the only carbonated drink I’ll have is a seltzer every now and then– the natural kind with no sugar/sweetener of any kind. And sometimes an Italian mineral water called BLU. “Quitting” soda definitely helped me lose weight.

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