It’s easy to read an ingredient panel and have a heart attack. After all, what are all those chemicals doing to your body? But before you tie yourself in a knot of anxiety over cancer, keep in mind that our biggest public health problem is actually obesity, which is closing in on smoking as the number one cause of preventable death. So maybe the real question we should be asking about food additives is this: Are they making us eat more?
Here are some that could be doing just that:
Ever heard of “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” — the term for the headache, sweating, facial tightness and fluttering heartbeat that characterizes an overdose of monosodium glutamate? It’s a myth. As is the internet legend that eating MSG floods your brain with “excitoxins” and causes Alzheimers or Parkinson’s Disease.
But here’s what is true: MSG stimulates the "umami” taste receptor on your tongue, which sends nerve impulses to various parts of your brain. One of those parts is the orbitofrontal cortex, which is associated with decision making and gratification. MSG also stimulates the insula, a brain region that plays an important role in addictive behavior. How does that affect the taste of what you’re eating? It amps up the flavor.
So now ask yourself this: Americans consume 42 million pounds of MSG per year — sprinkling on everything from crackers to breaded chicken nuggets and potato chips. Are we fooling ourselves by making processed carbs taste like protein? And does chemically stimulating all those brain receptors have something to do with the obesity epidemic?
2. Artificial flavors
How is it possible that a candy could taste so convincingly like strawberries? Why is it that a can of soda without so much as a drop of orange juice could nevertheless taste like “orange”? The answer is flavorings — the complex, elusive chemicals that lend foods their distinctive tastes. The scientist who discovered them called them “trigger substances” because of their ability to jolt an organism into eating. Animal scientists refer to them as “feeding stimulants.”
In the 1950s, flavor scientists got to be very good analyzing the flavor chemicals in real foods like oranges, strawberries, roast chicken and carrots, and soon began producing them synthetically in factories.
Without flavorings, soft drinks would just taste like sugar water, candies would be sugar lozenges, and potato chips would taste like what they actually are: potatoes. We sprinkle millions of pounds of “feeding stimulants” on food every year. Without all that flavoring, how much junk food would people actually eat?
3. Natural flavors
So thank goodness for “natural” flavors, right? Because if something is natural, it must be good for you. Not so fast. The only difference between natural and artificial flavors, it turns out, is how they’re made. Chemically speaking, they’re virtually identical.
So the next time you see “natural flavors” inside something you’re putting in your mouth, don’t imagine a forest, a meadow, or a basket of freshly picked fruit. Imagine an industrial vat filled with refined chemicals expertly formulated to evoke maximum deliciousness. Then ask yourself, should I be eating this?