Here's a strange little game to play. Ask your friends and family what food ingredients they worry about. No doubt they'll recite a list of things that have generated a fair amount of media coverage in recent years. They'll say they worry about high-fructose corn syrup. They'll say they're afraid of genetically modified organisms (GMO) crops. They'll tell you they avoid monosodium glutamate, partially hydrogenated oils and anything with too much fat, sugar, salt or food coloring. Some of them will tell you they avoid gluten. Others will say they avoid meat and dairy.
None of that will surprise you.
But some of those folks will also mention ingredients that will surprise you. They'll talk about things that you assume are good for people. Or at least better than the alternatives. And unless you're a food scientist, they'll talk about things you've never even heard of.
Here are some of the long-used, under-the-radar ingredients that are becoming controversial among a growing group of consumers.
For an entire generation of health activists (think hippies, commune dwellers and natural-food-store owners in the 60s and 70s), soy was a synonym for health. Soy-based foods were the "natural" alternative to corporate-produced dairy and meat products. Soy was everywhere in the early natural-foods movement, and everyone seemed to think that was great.
But success brings suspicion, and today soy is often cited as a danger in the food supply by a certain segment of consumers.
Some folks worry in particular about soy-based infant formulas, even though research suggests there is no reason for concern. But that particular concern is a subset of a larger concern that soy consumption plays havoc with estrogen levels in humans, increasing the risk of breast cancer in women and altering the body chemistry of men.
Many of us have never heard of it, but nearly all of us have been consuming it for nearly all of our lives. The seaweed extract is one of the more common stabilizers in food production, particularly in yogurt and ice-cream manufacturing. It's also common in toothpastes and cosmetics.
The stuff has been widely used for 70 years. But there are concerns emerging about the effect carrageenan has on gastrointestinal health. Activists led by a group called the Cornucopia Institute has called for the FDA to ban the ingredient. The food industry says that's nonsense.
This food dye is also widely used in yogurts, and has been for quite some time. But until recently not many people knew that the stuff was made from crushed insects.
Yep. That strawberry color in the strawberry yogurt you just fed to your child is, essentially, bug blood.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest has called on Dannon to stop using carmine. The company responded by saying that people who wanted to avoid carmine were free to buy other yogurts—which is about the same as saying "you don't want to eat insect pulp? Well then we don't need you."
4. BHA and BHT
These two chemicals are used to extend the shelf-life of products, largely by preventing oil from going rancid. But the ingredients are banned in a number of countries and have been linked to cancer.
The food industry says the cancer claims are misleading.
There are alternatives out there, and they may be gaining traction. Vitamin E is used to extend the shelf life of many "natural products" And rosemary shows promise as well.
Back in the day consumers accepted the idea that diet soda helped dieters. That's hardly true today.
Food activists are increasingly citing sugar alternatives as contributors to the obesity epidemic in America.
Coca-Cola is fighting back, launching an ad campaign aimed at convincing consumers that aspartame is safe. The company, however, appears to be hedging its bets. Coke is also investing in a stevia-based sweetener.
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