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The Truth About 7 Common Food Additives

How safe are the ingredients in your food?

2. High fructose corn syrup continued...

Foods that have it

High fructose corn syrup is a common additive in many kinds of processed foods, not just sweets. Most non-diet soft drinks are sweetened with high fructose corn syrup.

Why it's controversial

Some experts have proposed that people metabolize high fructose corn syrup in a way that raises the risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes more than sugar made from sugar cane. Much of the controversy stems from the observation that obesity in the United States and consumption of high fructose corn syrup increased at the same time.

What the research shows

"It's just sugar," says Marion Nestle, PhD, a professor of nutrition and public health at New York University. "Biochemically, there's no difference."

The high fructose corn syrups commonly used to sweeten foods and drinks are 55-58% fructose and 42-45% glucose. Sucrose (cane sugar) is a double sugar made of fructose and  glucose. Digestion quickly breaks down cane sugar and high fructose corn syrup into fructose and glucose.

"There's a little bit more fructose in high fructose corn syrup, but not a lot," Nestle says. "It doesn't really make any difference. The body can't tell them apart."  The American Medical Association recently stated that there is scant evidence to support the idea that high fructose corn syrup is any worse than cane sugar and that consuming too much sugar of either kind is unhealthy.

How you find it on the label

High fructose corn syrup can be found in the list of ingredients on a food label.

3. Aspartame

What it is

Aspartame is an artificial sweetener known by various brand names, including Equal and NutraSweet.

Foods that have it

Aspartame is a commonly used additive for sweetening diet soft drinks.

Why it's controversial

Various health concerns have been raised about aspartame since it was introduced in 1981. Most recently, it has been suspected of causing cancer. There have been reports of aspartame causing seizures, headaches, mood disturbances, and reduced mental performance. A study published in 2005 suggested that aspartame could cause leukemia and lymphoma in rats. Another study, published in 1996, argued that an increase in the rate of brain tumors in the United States could be related to consumption of aspartame.

What the research shows

Dozens of studies in people and animals have tested for effects possibly related to aspartame. The majority of these studies show that things such as headaches, seizures, and mental and emotional problems didn't occur with aspartame more often than with placebo, even at doses many times higher than anyone would likely ever consume. Large epidemiological studies haven't found a link between aspartame and cancer. A study of about 500,000 people, sponsored by the National Cancer Institute, compared those who drank beverages containing aspartame with those who didn't. It found that people who drank increasing amounts of beverages containing aspartame did not have a greater risk for lymphomas, leukemias, or brain cancer. Another study looked at data from a large survey done by the National Institutes of Health. The survey included detailed information on 1,888 cases of leukemia or lymphomas and 315 cases of brain cancer. The researchers found no link between aspartame consumption and those cancers.

"For more than three decades, research has found aspartame to be safe, and today it is approved for use in more than 100 countries," says Robert E. Brackett, PhD, spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a lobbying organization in Washington, D.C. "In fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has confirmed the safety of aspartame 26 times over a period of 23 years, with the most recent confirmation in April 2007."

How to find it on the label

Look for aspartame in the list of ingredients.

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