What is THAT Doing in My Food?

dihydrogen-monoxide-memeHave you ever heard the mantra “If you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it?” This saying may be popular among some fear-mongering food bloggers, but food scientists will tell you that they are missing the point. Some shoppers may say they want ingredient lists kept to a bare minimum because they don’t want “unnecessary chemicals” in their food. But often, these ingredients are there for a very important reason: to keep food safe.  Sometimes the desire to get rid of so-called “unnecessary chemicals” stems from not understanding why they are necessary in the first place.

So why should we allow ingredients in our food that we can’t pronounce? Well, maybe you’ve heard that you should avoid the chemical compound dihydrogen monoxide. It may sound scary with no context, but it’s actually water (H20). Obviously, water is not something we should be avoiding. Likewise, the chemical compound sodium chloride is simply table salt. While it’s important to avoid excess salt or sodium in the diet, ingredients such as sodium and other preservatives help keep food fresh, and prevent or delay spoilage which significantly reduces your risk of foodborne illness.

Each year, about 48 million people get sick from contaminated food. Foodborne illness is especially dangerous to specific at-risk populations such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. One of the most important things you can do to prevent foodborne illness is handle food safely, including washing your hands, keeping foods at the proper temperature, and avoiding cross-contamination.

Safe food handling aside, it’s critical that the food we buy is safe to begin with. That’s why certain processing techniques such as freezing, canning and curing exist, and why certain ingredients, despite having long chemical names, actually help make our food safer - not less safe. In addition, some ingredients also improve the taste, texture and/or appearance of foods.

canned-fruit-preservativesLet’s take a look at two other preservatives besides sodium: 

Ascorbic acid is one form of vitamin C and is naturally present in our bodies. The antioxidant activity of ascorbic acid is what helps maintain freshness in foods such as fresh and dried fruit, canned jellies, baked goods and snack foods.

Nitrates and nitrites help prevent the growth of harmful bacteria and are therefore added to processed meats like bacon and hot dogs. However, nitrates and nitrites are also found naturally in vegetables. In fact, we get the vast majority of the nitrates/nitrites in our diet from vegetables, not from processed meats.

But how do we know if these ingredients are safe? Because food ingredients in the U.S. must meet strict safety standards before being allowed in foods and beverages. They must be proven through scientific research to be safe and not to cause adverse health effects.

Every ingredient in our food serves a specific function, and I would argue that keeping food safe is a very important function. After all, what’s scarier than a food ingredient you can’t pronounce? Getting sick from foodborne illness, of course! 

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