Are Our Growing Health Problems Related to the Preservatives, Artificial Color, Flavorings and Other Additives in Food

Ask a Scientist - April 2014

J. Connoy of Plant City, FLasks "For years I’ve thought that our growing health problems have something to do with the preservatives, artificial color, flavorings and lord knows what else that we put in food. Is there any real support for this? As much as possible I cook old school style, from scratch." and is answered by Dr. Ricardo Salvador, director of the UCS Food and Environment Program.  

This is a very appropriate question because four of the 10 leading causes of death for Americans are related to diet. This includes the No.1 killer, heart disease, as well as colon cancer, stroke, and diabetes.

There are more than 3,000 additives registered in the Food and Drug Administration database, and it isn’t possible to make a sweeping statement about their impact on health. Many additives, including salt, vinegar, and a number of spices, have been used to preserve food since pre-industrial times and do not pose a health risk. On the other hand, some additives, such as trans fats, sodium nitrite, and a small number of dyes, have been implicated in human disease.  

There are two scientific ways to answer your question. First, scientists can expose lab animals to a suspected substance in doses equivalent to those expected to accumulate over the course of a human lifetime. Second, epidemiologists can survey the human population in retrospective studies to try to detect a connection between a disease and a suspected cause. It gets complicated.

The simplest way to cut through this complexity is what you describe: Eat real food as much as possible. By “real,” I mean fresh, unprocessed food. And this is not merely the opinion of “foodies,” but exactly what top nutrition authorities advocate. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) “MyPlate” guidelines, for example, embody these scientifically derived recommendations. Half of your daily dietary intake should consist of fruits and vegetables, with the remainder consisting of sparing quantities of lean meat and whole grains. However, as our report The $11 Trillion Reward documents, Americans currently over-consume red meat and starches, and under-consume fruits by 60 percent and vegetables by 36 percent. Because each additional serving of fruits and vegetables is documented to reduce the incidence of stroke by 5 percent and heart disease by 4 percent, these under-consumption rates translate to an annual cost of 127,000 premature deaths and $17 billion in preventable health costs. 

What is important to note is that this dietary imbalance is not simply the result of personal choice, but a matter of public policy. As this illustration below produced by Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) shows, taxpayer support for agriculture overwhelmingly underwrites the overproduction of meat, grain, and junk food ingredients, with less than a half of 1 percent supporting healthful fruit and vegetable production.

These federal supports have yielded a counterintuitive outcome: The least processed and most healthful food is the most expensive while the most harmful food is more abundant and the least expensive, a result that the market would not have produced on its own. Our analyses “Plant the Plate” and “The Healthy Farmland Diet” demonstrate that if our agricultural system actually produced what the USDA recommends we eat, the environmental footprint of the more healthful food system would be smaller, and would yield other benefits in addition to health, including 189,000 new jobs in local and regional food production and $9.5 billion annually in net economic development.

Government investments today clearly support a food system that benefits only a small minority of unhealthy, processed food producers and marketers — and it’s making us sick. On tax day, remind your elected officials to make responsible public investments that promote good health for all Americans. In this case, that would result in more fresh, nourishing, and affordable real food.

As the senior scientist and director of the Food & Environment Program at UCS, Ricardo Salvador works with citizens, scientists, economists, and politicians to transition our current food system into one that grows healthy foods while employing sustainable practices. Before coming to UCS, Dr. Salvador served as a program officer for Food, Health, and Wellbeing with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Dr. Salvador earned his undergraduate degree in agricultural science from New Mexico State University. He holds an M.S. and Ph.D. in crop production and physiology from Iowa State University.

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