Understanding food additives

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From food coloring to food preservatives, Americans eat roughly six to nine pounds of chemical additives a year.  How much do you know about what you're eating or packing in your child's lunch?

We all know that healthiest choices for ourselves and our families are the most "clean" foods, such as fruits and vegetables.

But, chips and soups are staples in the American diet, as well. And while baked chips are seemingly better for you, unwanted fat has been removed from the snack, which can hinder your body's ability to absorb essential vitamins, possibly causing cramps and gas.

So there's a lot to know about food additives, the list of which grows every year, with nearly 3000 substances recognized by the Food and Drug Administration. Food additives change the color of our breakfast and add to the shelf life of our foods.

But, according to researchers, this long list of additives comes with a price. Some of the top added ingredients to watch for are sodium nitrate and nitrites, which you'll find in pre-packaged meats.  

Alec Smith, a registered dietician, recommends we avoid is nitrates or nitrites. "It is usually at the end of the list," he said. "It can be carcinogenic."  As an alternative, "You can actually find deli meats that are the same price, pound-for-pound."

Other additives to watch include caramel coloring, found in soy sauce and chocolate-flavored products.

The verdict is still out on artificial sweeteners. Dieticians say real sugar is better. But then you see an additive like ascorbic acid, which sounds scary, but is really just vitamin C.

"One of the most important things to look for is the ingredient list," said Smith. If you see a long list, "That should be a red flag,' he said. "And, then there are some you should ignore altogether. Number one, there is transfat. Transfat will be shown on the label. It's mandatory. Or it will be listed as hydrogenated oil."

The FDA has a long list of additives on their website.

But you're best to discuss your diet with your dietician or doctor.