When it comes to what goes into our food, we often aren’t told the whole story. And gluten-free processed food is no exception. There are plenty of things the food industry would rather you not question… especially gluten free food additives in your favorite products.
In the US, food additives hold the title “Generally Recognized as Safe,” (GRAS) granted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), yet there are plenty of health concerns that remain unresolved. For instance, did you know that some ingredients previously recognized as safe by the FDA for human use and consumption are now banned and illegal?
From pesticides to added food colorings and flavorings, the FDA has flip-flopped on things that are now known to affect our health in a negative way. While we work hard to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, the reality remains that the FDA and major food companies do not always have your best health interests at heart.
That point underscores the dangers present in slick food marketing — even with gluten free food products. Blindly trusting companies can be a serious health hazard, especially when it concerns gluten free food additives.
One reason is that many of the allowable food additives in the U.S. are banned in other countries — and for good reason! Some incredibly common gluten free food additives are considered to be allergens (and labeled as such), carcinogenic (meaning they can potentially cause cancer), and contributing dramatically to our obesity and diabetes crisis (to which no one in the gluten-free community is immune).
Top 5 Worst Gluten Free Food Additives
Here are the top 5 gluten free food additives that might not be the best choices to consume on a regular basis:
1. Artificial Sweeteners
While artificial sweeteners have been around for quite some time, so has the controversy surrounding them. However it appears that the tide is finally turning as there has been a plethora of research demonstrating that regular consumption of artificial sweeteners aren’t good for you. In 1996, an important study was published showing a link between brain tumor development and the artificial sweetener aspartame as well as its mutagenic properties. An article in the New York Times by Melanie Warner in 2005 has been highly cited since it’s publication as it showcased that many medical researchers and dietitians are still skeptical and cautious about the safety of artificial sweeteners, such as Splenda, in our food supply.
More recently and no less problematic, artificial sweeteners have been linked to altering of human gut bacteria that can lead to weight gain and obesity. The article specifically states that the study found, “Artificial sweetener consumers showed “markers” for diabetes, such as raised blood sugar levels and glucose intolerance,” which can lead to weight gain and obesity.
Dr. Mark Hyman recently touched on this exact subject and stated in his recent article about the havoc they wreck on our bodies: “Stop confusing your body. If you have a desire for something sweet have a little sugar, but stay away from “fake” foods. Eating a whole-foods diet that has a low-glycemic load and is rich in phytonutrients and indulging in a few real sweet treats once in a while is a better alternative than tricking your body with artificial sweeteners – which leads to wide scale metabolic rebellion and obesity.”
Not to mention the fact that one study demonstrated a 33% increased risk of diabetes just from drinking one can of diet soda per week. One can each week… that’s all it took. So no, you’re not safe with diet soda.
What to look for on labels instead: Real Maple Syrup, Honey, Organic Cane Sugar, Organic Coconut Palm Sugar (sustainably sourced), Stevia. Keeping to a natural source of sweetener in moderation might be a better route than artificial.
2. BHT (Butylated Hydroxytoluene) and BHA (Butylated Hydroxyanisole)
BHT and BHA are used as preservatives added to” maintain freshness” in countless processed (gluten free) foods—and everyday products you wouldn’t dream of eating. Deodorants/antiperspirants, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and even embalming fluid! Yuck!
The FDA lists BHT and BHA as GRAS (generally recognized as safe), but the US Department of Health doesn’t agree. They’ve even gone so far to state that there is mounting evidence of both additives being potential human carcinogens and hormone disruptors, and even the National Toxicology Program agrees, particularly when it comes to BHA. Yet BHT and BHA are still allowed throughout our food system. Both of these additives have been banned in the UK, Japan, and several other countries in Europe.
BHT is an ingredient in General Mills Gluten-Free Chex Cereals and can be clearly seen on the label in bold type added “to maintain freshness”. When you hear the phrase, “part of this complete breakfast!” a nice bite of BHT is definitely not something that comes to mind as being good for you. The funny thing is, according to Wikipedia, some food industries have voluntarily eliminated BHT additive from their products, and since the 1970s, it has been steadily replaced with BHA. Unfortunately, BHA has also been shown to be potentially problematic. The State of California has become the first state to actively list BHA specifically as a human carcinogen.
So, when you eat these additives, slather them on your underarms, and powder them onto your face daily, some unwanted consequences could arise. Of course, it’s up to the individual to decide whether or not to limit consumption of these controversial additives based on the latest research findings.
What to look for instead: Look for natural gluten-free cereals and products that are free of preservatives, such as KIND’s gluten-free Healthy Grains or our easy Cinnamon Apple Crockpot Porridge. If you want to go a step further, ditch the cereals all together and go for a protein and nutrient-rich breakfast like a frittata or something that resembles dinner.
3. Artificial Food Colorings
Potentially linked to behavioral issues, hyperactivity, allergies, and even increased risk of cancer, artificial food colorings should be on your chopping block –particularly Yellow #5, Red#40, and the oh-so-prevalent “Caramel Color” (which is usually produced with ammonia).
Interestingly, there were food colorings in the past that were recognized as safe by the FDA which are now illegal and listed as harmful to human health such as Red #2, which was banned in the 1970s after it was found to cause tumor growth. Now the U.S. rampantly uses Red #40 instead, which the European Food Safety Authority recently suggested should be limited or avoided in children’s diets, and may cause hyperactivity. Since July 2010, the European Union made the decision partly based on this study that many artificial food colorings must be labeled.
For example, let’s look at a package of Skittles, which is considerately labeled gluten-free and contain nine different artificial food colorings! What’s surprising is that Skittles (as shown below) sold in the UK actually labels artificial food colorings under the potentially harmful allergen warning even though they are the same basic food colorings used in the US (which are not labeled)!
Not surprisingly, artificial food colorings have zero nutritional value. The only thing they add to already highly processed packaged foods that line the innards of the grocery store is a deceiving unnatural brightness that masks what these foods really look like — unappetizing. If artificial food colorings are needed in order to make a processed food appetizing and appealing, it probably shouldn’t be eaten in the first place. A humble peach, on the other hand, has all the vibrant yellow-orange hue that nature bestowed it and is naturally appetizing. The real colors of fruits and vegetables actually contain loads of beneficial vitamins, free-radical fighting antioxidants, and of course, delicious flavors. Can artificial colors really stand up to all that?
Even most popular brands of pickles in the U.S. use controversial yellow food colorings like Yellow #5 instead of real and naturally yellow turmeric spice.
What to look for instead: Look for ingredients that are natural food colorings such as real fruits, vegetables, and natural juices. If you’re having trouble switching from something like Skittles, try a natural or organic candy such as Yummy Earth’s allergy-free gummy bears or lollipops. They’re made with only natural fruit juices for their hues.
4. BVO –Brominated Vegetable Oil
Used in soft drinks and flavored sports drinks to create an appetizing color and appearance, BVO or brominated vegetable oil is literally oil that has added bromine (it’s fused to the fat). Bromine is widely recognized as being extremely toxic to humans in general and is even used as a flame retardant element! Banned in the European Union, it has been linked to symptoms of bromine toxicity, which was the driving force behind a 15 year old’s petition to have it removed from Gatorade. Overexposure to bromine is a serious concern, and with many Americans consuming far more soda and sugary beverages using BVO you can bet it’s not a far-fetched medical concern.
BVO has recently been removed from PepsiCo’s Gatorade products (although it still has tons of artificial neon-esque colors). Now Coca-Cola, the producer of Powerade, has plans to remove BVO from all of its beverages by the end of 2014 (though shelves in the store could contain older BVO containing products for quite some time). However it’s best to think about this problem on a larger scale. Coca-Cola’s statement regarding the removal of BVO is nothing short of calling out the problems with the U.S. food regulatory bodies. Coca-Cola’s statement noted in this article (source: http://www.people.com/article/teen-gatorade-powerade-ingredient-petition) stated that removing BVO now “allows us to become consistent with the ingredients we use throughout the world.” Wow.
Let’s break this down for a second. The EU and Japan both sell Coca-Cola products, but have banned the use of BVO for use in foods and beverages. But when it comes to Coca-Cola or Pepsi customers in the U.S., these companies (until recently, after a consumer led petition) couldn’t care less that numerous other countries have flagged the ingredient as a health hazard and they go right ahead pulling a fast one on consumers in the U.S. That’s reason enough for a lot of people to think twice about filling up on processed foods in general.
What to look for instead: Go for naturally colored and naturally flavored 100% juice beverages, which are not likely to contain BVO. Also a quick search on Google can help you keep track of which products contain BVO. If it’s hard to kick the soda habit, one alternative is Zevia, a more natural soda that is sweetened with Stevia and doesn’t contain BVO.
5. Added Gums
While some experts and studies state that most added gums are harmless because a lot of them are indigestible and just pass through the body, there are numerous sources that state the opposite. After delving into research, we do know that Xanthan Gum is one gross additive that can have side affects and it might be best to avoid it most of the time. But the jury still seems to be out regarding other widely used gums such as Locust Bean Gum, Guar Gum, and others.
According to Chris Kresser, individuals may react differently to different gums and they might not be suitable for everyone to consume regularly, even though they might be harmless for people without digestive problems. Gums can also be a source of hidden food sensitivity for some people and might mimic the feeling of being “glutened”. Overall, it’s best to listen to your body when it comes to these gummy additives.
Another Potentially Problematic Additive: Carrageenan
There are mixed findings regarding the safety of carrageenan, which is often added to non-dairy replacement products such as almond milk, coconut milk, or non-dairy cheeses. Some studies suggest that it may create intestinal permeability, or leaky gut, which can cause a slew of problems such as food sensitivities and allergies, while other studies point to carrageenan derived from a certain red algae as possibly having health benefits due to properties of the algae itself.
Most surprisingly though, it’s been flagged as a highly inflammatory and even destructive substance to the digestive system in this article from Prevention.com. An excerpt from the article reads, “Carrageenan predictably causes inflammation, which can lead to ulcerations and bleeding,’ explains veteran carrageenan researcher Joanne Tobacman, MD, associate professor of clinical medicine at the University of Illinois School of Medicine at Chicago.” The best thing to remember is to listen to your own body when it comes to carrageenan consumption.
The Bottom Line–
While the jury may still be out on some highly processed gluten free food additives and artificial ingredients, it’s best to stick to a real whole foods lifestyle where you not only know what goes into what you’re eating, but where it comes from too. Simply put, whether living with food sensitivities or not, real food will always be the best choice. Ultimately though, it’s up to each person whether or not to limit or simply avoid these food additives.
I avoid anything that is exclusively made by man. Nature offers so many wonderful and nutritious fruits, vegetables, nuts, meats, etc. on her own that are naturally easier to digest. I would rather spend the extra time to make my own – or go foraging – any day!
agree about the “gums” but almost all gluten free recipes ask for this ingredient. I just spent an hour searching for a healthy bread recipe.. all if they were healthy had the gums, and most were not healthy.
how can I find a healthy bread I can make that does not require using gums and even no eggs if possible.?i know some use psyillium husks but again very few, and not healthy, using white gluten free flours. Can you help?
much appreciated these helpful articles,
Hi Teresa, I’m the WORST person to ask about making GF bread as I don’t eat it. However I’d suggest looking up paleo recipes. I believe that Elana Amsterdam’s site has some good options that don’t contain the offending ingredients. Hope that is helpful to you!
Great article! My son and I have over 30 allergies and intolerances making it really hard to be creative in the kitchen. I’m glad to be a certifed health coach and have found that reading label is a life saver! Also the more we educate ourselves the better we will be able to help our bodies heal, right? We never buy anything gluten-free at the stores mostly because we know all the bad ingredients in it (lots of gluten-free junk food out there) and also because we are allergic to gums and yeast as well. Thank you for pointing these things out, most people think as long it says gluten free it’s healthy and it’s not. We try to avoid anything unhealthy in our diet and rather make everything from scratch at home.