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The Truth About 7 Common Food Additives

How safe are the ingredients in your food?

6. Sodium nitrite

Sodium nitrite is an additive used for curing meat.

Foods that have it

Sodium nitrite is usually found in preserved meat products, like sausages and canned meats.

Why it's controversial

There is a theory that eating a lot of sodium nitrite might cause gastric cancer.

What the research shows

There is evidence that sodium nitrite could have been to blame for a lot of the gastric cancers that people had in the past. Until the early 1930s, gastric cancer caused the most deaths of all cancers in the United States. After that, more Americans began to use modern refrigeration and ate less cured meat. Also, producers started to use much less sodium nitrite in the curing process around that time. As these changes took place, deaths from gastric cancer also dropped dramatically.

This theory has been debated for decades, and it is still an open question.

How you find it on the label

Sodium nitrite will be listed as an ingredient on the labels of food products.

7. Trans fat

What it is

Trans fats are created when manufacturers add hydrogen to vegetable oil. Trans fats are food additives in the sense that they're mainly added to the food supply by manufacturing processes, although small amounts of trans fats are present naturally in animal fat.

Foods that have it

These "partially hydrogenated oils" are used most often for deep-frying food, and in baked goods. Margarine and vegetable shortening may also be made with partially hydrogenated oil.

Why it's controversial

Trans fats are believed to increase the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

What the research shows

Most scientists now agree that eating trans fats can be very harmful to health. Trans fats have been found to lower people's HDL (good) cholesterol and raise LDL (bad) cholesterol. The American Heart Association recommends getting less than 1% of your daily calories from trans fats.

How you find it on the label

Product labels are now required to list the amount of trans fat in a serving. Partially hydrogenated oil may also be listed as an ingredient.

But many fried foods and baked goods that are laden with trans fats are served in restaurants, and they don't come with nutrition labels. To avoid trans fats, it's best to limit your overall daily fat intake.

"Usually, when you increase the total amount of fat you consume, you increase the amount of trans fat as well," says Benjamin Caballero, MD, a professor at the Center for Human Nutrition at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. If you reduce your total fat intake from 13% of your daily calories (which he says is typical for Americans) to less than 10% (which is recommended), you probably won't exceed the limit on trans fat.

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