Chemical cuisine: What's in your food?

But USC toxicologist Dr. Roger Clemens says while they sound scary, we have little to fear from food additives.

"Those compounds provide product stability, nutrient fortification opportunity, provide a texture," said Dr. Clemens.

They're called GRAS -- "Generally Recognized As Safe." These are foods and chemicals that we've eaten for centuries.

And while they are tough to pronounce, they serve a purpose. Like preservatives.

BHT, sodium bisulfate, potassium benzoate, citric acid and TBHQ: They're all substances that keep mold and bacteria from growing.

"'Mono and diglycerides' are really quite good," said Dr. Clemens. "They give food the smooth texture when in this case is reconstituted with water for mashed potatoes.

Lecithin, carrageenan, agar and guar gum also blend and thicken food. They help mix salad dressing and make ice cream smooth. But, Dr. Clemens says, don't think your food is "packed" with chemicals.

"The United States government sets standards for colors and additives, they set an upper limit in which a food ingredient may be placed in a product or exposed to a different food process," said Dr. Clemens.

But some people with allergies and sensitivities have to police themselves. Consider the 80-percent lactose intolerant.

Milk and whey, both coming from dairy, are safe, yet these lactose-intolerant individuals need to watch for these ingredients.

And all of us need to watch for sodium and sugar we're eating in copious amounts. They are the two of the most common additives in our food supply.

Sucrose, dextrose, lactose, maltose, and high-fructose corn syrup: all aliases for sugar. While it has a place in our diet, check the ingredient list along with the sugar grams on the nutrition facts to see how much sweet stuff is in your food.

For instance, check the sugar grams on the nutrition facts. Four grams of sugar roughly equal one teaspoon. Look on your favorite food and divide the sugar grams by four to get the amount of teaspoons of sugar per serving.

And while you might prefer your food be barely processed, guess what? Clemens says those preservatives have a purpose.

"The idea is that many of the food additives that we have in the food supply today allow us to hold onto the foods, stabilize the food longer so we don't toss it out," said Dr. Clemens.

Potato chips without preservatives will get stale extremely fast. Bread will mold quickly, and other foods will taste flat due to fat oxidation.

Ironically, if whole, natural foods were required to wear a label, you might find it surprising the number of compounds they contain.

To prove the point, Clemens provided a breakdown of a tomato and a baked potato listed in the images in the frame above.


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