Posts Tagged ‘additives’

Science Makes Sense-Chemistry and Social Justice-Week40: Fats, salt and sugar: are we eating too much?

June 28, 2016

Two famous Michaels, Michael Pollan and Michael Moss lament the fact that we are cooking less and relying on fast foods.  In their books, ” Omnivore’s Dilemma”,  “Cooked”( Michael Pollan) and “Salt, Sugar, Fat”( Michael Moss), they outline how food is delivered and how home cooking is being sidelined in many houses.(Refs.1,2,3)

I was fortunate to grow up in a home where my parents cooked most of the time.  Even when I started living away in my own home, I did cook almost every day and going out was relegated to once a month or every two months.  These days, I prefer a simple meal at home.  However, most working people eat at odd times and sometimes order in, since they come home tired to plan and prepare a meal.  This has led to more consumption of oily foods, laced with extra salt and desserts/breakfast foods loaded with fat and sugar.  It is also true that the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables at reasonable prices is not as easy in poorer neighborhoods where fast food restaurants are seen more often.  Today we shall look at the prevalence of fast and convenience foods, who tends to buy them and what measures are being taken in certain neighborhoods to encourage healthy eating. We shall look at the additives added in convenience and fast food as well and revisit the saturated, unsaturated as well as trans fats discussion.

First we will look at the term’processed food’.    Processed food is different from home-cooked food in the sense that additives are added to preserve shelf life.  The simplest processed food we see in the supermarket is canned soup.  What does it contain?   A lot of salt is added to preserve it and other additives are also added.  In the inner linings of food cans you find BPA, (Ref.4) which is chemically a bis phenol derivative where two phenol rings are connected via three carbon chains. (Ref.5)  BPA has been known to leach into the soup itself and cause obesity as well as breast and prostate cancers; it has even caused behavioral problems in young girls.  Salt as we know it is sodium chloride, NaCl, and high amounts of sodium ions is known to be responsible for heart attacks and  has lead to strokes (Ref.4)

Besides the additives indicated above let us look at food flavorings and colors, preservatives, chemicals added to change the texture of processed foods.  Among artificial flavoring, butyl alcohol,C4H9OH is one chemical that is added to mimic flavors of naturally occurring foods like butter, fruits.  There are serious health problems caused by too much consumption of this food flavoring.  Artificial sweeteners like aspartame, splenda are used by people with diabetes.  We know that regular sugar causes obesity and heart problems, but the artificial sweeteners consumed continuously causes headaches, seizures and even hallucinations. Benzoic acid(C6H5COOH)  is used  as a preservative in certain pickles, jams and fruit juices and this can cause asthma attacks, hyperactivity in children and neurological disorders.   Artificial colors like Blue 1,2 and some yellows and reds are known to cause certain kinds of cancers.  Vegetable oils that are brominated, ie contain Br, (bromine) a halogen,causes tremors and headaches.  (The Br is added as an emulsifier to prevent the oil from separating out). Carageenan, a  familiar thickener found in ice-creams, jellies has been found to form ulcers and cancers in animal studies.  High fructose corn syrup or HFCS  a fructose polysaccharide from corn, has been known to cause obesity and elevated cholesterol.  We already know the dangers of saturated fats ( less or no double bonds in the fatty acids that produce the oils/fats by esterification) but trans fats are even worse.  This is produced by forcing hydrogen gas over vegetable fats at high pressure and causing -COOH in trans positions hence the name’trans-fats‘.  Many fast food, especially fried foods contain trans-fats and the greater consumption has let to obesity among children and heart diseases.  Nitrates,nitrites of sodium(Na2NO3,Na2NO2) are used extensively in processed meat and is known to be a carcinogen.  And finally, sulfur dioxide, SO2, is added to dried fruits and is responsible for migraine headaches and asthma attacks.(Ref.6)

This list is not exhaustive, there are many more additives, fillers, flavors and colors used in processed foods that are not healthy at all.  But one would imagine that the above chemicals are enough for most of us to start cooking/ eating at home making simple, healthy meals while we know what is going inside our bodies.

But the switch is not easy and between the unhealthy but appetizing messages from the advertising industry, the convenience of ordering take-out and the higher prices of good healthy foods makes it very challenging for consumers to eat a balanced, nutritious meal everyday. (look at Activities and Nuggets)

Activities for Middle School Teachers:

Teachers can encourage students to map out their neighborhoods and actually find out what kind of food stores are available close by.  Then  each student can bring a can of food from home and find out what are the ingredients in them.    What chemicals are there in the additives? Why are they added to the food?  Is it made close by or comes from a far off place?  The teacher can then link geography with that particular can of food and ask students to see why that can of food  had to come from so far away.   The teacher can  introduce words like “locavore”  and”CAFO”and explain the meaning.  What alternatives would make sense? How did their grandparents obtain their daily food?  They could interview each other and find out how often they eat at fast food places, whether their family or friends have a vegetable garden in the summer and where they buy their groceries.  Does culture, where they come from influence what they eat?  Are students willing to try foods from different countries?  What limits them ?  Does having more money make people eat better food?   Does food advertising affect their daily food habits? Why or why not?

Students can also do research on where the food is grown, how it is grown and the difference between organic and regular food, GMO and non-GMO food, and humane or inhumane ways of raising chickens,animals for food consumption and who can afford which kind of food.

Nuggets of Information:

Most artificial flavorings have been banned in the European Union.(Ref.6)

“Food First ” is a book written by Fraces Moore Lappe where she encourages people to understand the politics of food and why growing your own food is the best way to control what one can eat.(Ref.7)  It is also necessary not to be a passive consumer but understand that supermarkets encourage us to consume high fat, high sugar products by simple things like arrangement of cereals / cans/ processed foods in an aisle.(Ref.8)

Morgan Spurlock in the movie”Supersize Me” makes us think twice about eating at fast food places too often.  He actually did an experiment on himself by eating fast food day and night for a month at McDonald’s and noticed how adversely it affected his own health!(Ref.9)

CAFO, or concentrated animal feeding operations or factory farms, keep animals in small confined spaces to feed and take care of them before butchering them for meat.  There have been enough studies done to show that the process is inhumane and unhealthy.(Ref.10)


1. Pollan, Michael, Omnivore’s Dilemma (Penguin Press,2006)

2.Pollan, Michael, Cooked (Penguin Press,2013)

3.Moss, Michael, Salt, Sugar, Fat (Random House,2013)




7.Lappe, Frances Moore,Food First (Souvenir Press Ltd.,1980)


9. Supersize Me! the movie with Morgan Spurlock

10.Foer,Jonathan Safran ,Eating Animals (Little Brown and Co.,2009)