”You should only eat food containing natural ingredients, free from chemicals.”
Have you heard people say these things before? Perhaps you stand by this yourself? I will in this post attempt to dissect this common standpoint trying to define what exactly makes food “natural”.
Imagine yourself being served some food. Then imagine you are being told the food you are about to eat contain ingredients with weird names such as anthocyanin, carob gum or E440. Would you eat it? Politely refuse? Throw it into your stupid host’s stupid face?
So what are these ingredients? Clearly, with names like that they are chemicals! But dangerous? Well, anthocyanin is what gives you the red color in for example strawberries, blueberries, red cabbage, grapes and by extension red wine. Carob gum is also known as locust bean flour, and is extracted from the fruits of the Carob tree (Ceratonia siliqua). And E440 translates to pectin which all plants contain in some quantity, but is particularly concentrated in apples and citrus peel. You probably use it while making jam, either from naturally occurring pectin in the fruit or by adding a special jam sugar containing extra pectin.
Chemicals do not contaminate the food; chemicals are food, and food consists of nothing but chemicals.
So is it safe to eat anything on the food label no matter if you can pronounce the ingredient or not? Not necessarily, but this is a highly complex question. Everything is toxic at some levels; even water can kill you if consumed in high enough quantities. If there is one ingredient you definitely should look out for it is sugar, and this is regarded by most as a natural ingredient. In reality it is one of the most processed and refined ingredients you eat on a daily basis, and the list of the negative effects it has on your body is almost endless. If sugar was invented today it would most likely be banned because of these effects as well as the fact of it being highly addictive. It has this unique status in our culture because of nothing else but tradition. And we use it too in the recipes on our blog. We truly are evil.
So how about the chemicals we add to our food, are they bad for us? Well, I am going to make it easier for myself and exclude chemicals such as sodium chloride (salt) and other culturally approved chemicals and focus on the infamous food additives list approved by the European Food Safety Authority. They are supposedly all tested and proved harmless for normal consumption. But are they though?
Yes, most of them are completely harmless. Pectin is one of them, and as described above it exists in all plants. If it was bad for us we would have died a long time ago. Another one is E100, curcumin. It is extracted from the turmeric and is what gives it its orange color. Also completely harmless. Then there are others more… debatable additives. One of my favorites to discuss is E250 – sodium nitrite. It is added to meat products for two reasons. The first is to make the meat keep its bright, pink color, but the other one is much more important. It inhibits the growth of the bacteria Clostridium Botulinum which produces the most lethal toxins known to man, the Botulinum toxin. It is estimated that only 50 grams of this toxin would be enough to kill everyone on the planet. The problem is though that sodium nitrite also is toxic. It is in fact so toxic that only 5,3 g is enough to kill a human of 75 kg. There are also a few studies which show a link between sodium nitrite and cancer. So is it a good idea using a poison to inhibit an even more lethal poison? Well, as I said it is debatable…
Personally I do not actively avoid all additives. There are a few specific ones I keep in mind and avoid if I can, but there is another nuance to this debate which I find even more disturbing than the relatively small health risks. Why is it that these additives are used in our food at all? The sad truth is that even though some are there to protect the food from spoilage many are also added to cheap out of higher quality ingredients. This means that many of the additive filled products you buy pale in comparison to the real deal; something you make from scratch using fresh ingredients. If constantly being subjected to these cheaper alternatives it is my personal belief that after a while your sense of taste will get corrupted. You will start to believe that this is the way food should taste, and if you ever get subjected to the authentic version it will taste strange and maybe even unpleasant. You will no longer be able to appreciate real food craftsmanship.
This is not however the only way to use these ingredients. The same additives can also create incredible food experiences which would not have been possible without them. This is sometimes referred to as molecular gastronomy, and I plan to write more about this in future posts.
So how to know what to avoid and what not to avoid? I admit it is a complex subject, but my personal advice would still have to be to inform yourself and not to fear all additives like a plague from hell. I suggest that you start by looking out for food coloring (the E100-E180 range), aromas (mostly unspecified at the end of the ingredients list), sodium glutamate (E621) and yeast extract since these are almost always added instead of higher quality ingredients. There are of course products where these are more or less required, so you have to be smart about it. Candy and soda will contain both food coloring and aromas, and that is perfectly fine. Ice cream on the other hand should not contain any food coloring, since that probably mean they excluded ingredients like egg yolk or strawberries. If it contains aromas they probably excluded the vanilla pod.
You can also read up on how the products that you buy can be made at home and question why the store bought alternatives have additives there in the first place. If unsure, give us a shout in the comments below or on our Facebook page and maybe we can figure it out together!