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FOOD 101: Food Fillers

white-bread-Aaron-Bobrow-Strain-230
Avoid puffy white bread, made with
potassium bromate. And read this book!
Photo courtesy Beacon Press.

 

The website Healthcare Management Degree sent us the 411 on food fillers, and we’re happy to pass it on. You can also view it in infographic form.

Their article, called “Food Isn’t Food Anymore: The Frightening World of Fillers,” explains the types of fillers found in prepared foods at grocery stores and restaurants. Fillers are also called additives. The goal of the fillers is to add a cheaper ingredient to a costlier one to help bulk up the weight of the food, thus lowering the overall cost.

Fillers are mostly found in processed meats, and can lower the cost of meats by 10%-30%. The ground beef you buy likely contains filler, they write.

While lowering the cost of food can sound like a great idea, here are the pros and cons of food fillers. This is not an exhaustive list, but highlights the most common fillers. And of course, not all brands use fillers: Read the nutrition label!

CARRAGEENAN

Carrageenan is a gel extracted from seaweed. It Is used as a thickening agent and emulsifier in dairy products such as chocolate milk, cottage cheese and ice cream. It is also injected into raw chicken and other meats to make them retain water, which makes the meat weigh more. You’re paying for water weight! (A similar trick is used to inject scallops with chemicals. Be sure that you are buying “dry” scallops, not “wet” scallops.)

 

ISSUE: Seaweed generally has no adverse health effects, but it can trick the consumer into paying more.

CELLULOSE

Cellulose is a natural component of many plants. Much of the cellulose used as a food additive is derived from wood pulp, which is used in the production of paper! This cellulose is used in the manufacture of cereal, shredded cheese, salad dressing and ice cream. Cellulose appears in many high-fiber snacks, and eating organic won’t help you avoid it.

Humans can’t digest cellulose, so adding it to food makes for a no-calorie, nonfat filler. Some may see that as a benefit.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Ingredients like microcrystalline cellulose (MCC), cellulose gel, cellulose gum or carboxymethyl cellulose.

 

OLESTRA

Olestra is a fat substitute synthesized by Procter and Gamble in 1968; its chemical name is sucrose polyester. The human body can’t digest its large molecules, so Olestra contributes no calories. It now used in Fat Free Pringles and Frito-Lay Light chips.

It can have a laxative effect. Products containing Olestra were originally required to warn customers of the risk of “loose stools.” Within 4 years of introduction, 15,000 people had called a hotline set up specifically to take adverse-reaction complaints; however, in 2003, the FDA removed the warning label requirement following lobbying by P&G.

ISSUE: In addition to digestive issues, Olestra appears to interfere with the body’s absorption of critical nutrients such as beta-carotene and lycopene.
 
POTASSIUM BROMATE

Potassium bromate is a chemical compound that helps bread to rise quickly and puff up during baking. Bread made with potassium bromate is fluffy, soft and unnaturally white. It is found in supermarket and fast food breads.

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Wood pulp in your ice cream? Could be! Photo by Lauri Patterson | IST.
 

If the bread is not baked long enough, or if too much potassium bromate is added before baking, the amount in the end product can be much higher than recommended. In 1982, Japanese researchers published the first study linking potassium bromate to thyroid and kidney cancer in mice.

ISSUE: Potassium bromate is illegal in China, the European Union, Canada, Brazil and many other countries. But it is legal in the U.S.

SOY

Soy derivatives can be found filling a variety of foods, from frozen yogurt to ground beef, and are estimated to be in almost 60% of the processed food sold in supermarkets. In ground meats, soy acts as a cheap filler, lowering both the price and overall quality of the protein,

Soy contains high levels of phytic acid, an anti-nutrient that actually eliminates important vitamins and minerals from the body.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Soy is often listed as “vegetable protein.”
 
THE FINAL WORD

1. A good rule of thumb: The more ingredients are in a product, the less natural it is likely to be.

2. Educate yourself on what you’re eating. Read those nutrition labels!

  




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