Paying close attention to your diet is critical, because some popular foods may have hidden toxins that can harm our health

The food we eat is meant to nourish our bodies, but sadly, today, it is often the cause of our disease. This is because a great deal of modern foods are highly processed and stripped of their nutrients. Reading food labels carefully and being vigilant about the quality of the processed foods you buy has now become an extremely essential skill. "We tend to consume numerous chemical ridden foods in our diets without even realizing it. These chemicals may be added to our foods to enhance flavour, increase shelf life or both," says Dr Swati Bhardwaj, Vice Head, Center for Nutritional and Metabolic Research (C-NET) and Senior Research Officer (Nutrition), Diabetes Foundation of India.

There's no denying the fact that what we eat can have a profound impact on our health and productivity. Here are some common contaminants that you should be wary of:

Food Colouring--Raise the red flag against red

It's no secret that children love brightly coloured foods. That's why most baked goods (cupcakes, frosting) and fast foods (like pastas, cereals and some ready-to-mix sauces) come in eye-catching colours. But if you've ever wondered if the chemicals in food colouring can actually be harmful, you have good reason to worry, say experts. "Food coloring like blue #1 is responsible for causing cancer," warns Dr Bhardwaj. "Red #40 may lead to ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) in children (which affects their ability to concentrate and focus). Red #3 which is widely used in baking and lends artificial colour to cherries induces thyroid tumors in rats." If you're consuming any packaged, processed brightly colored item, do check the number and kind of colouring agent used and be aware of the risks.

"Be especially vigilant of red dyed foods," advises Dr Nupur Krishnan, clinical nutritionist who heads the Biologics Nutrition Clinic, Mumbai. "Often, the pink blush that one finds in candies, yoghurts and fruit juices isn't from strawberries (as people are led to believe) but from insects! In such cases, the words 'carmine' or cochineal extract may be listed on the label. While these are generally safe to consume, it can cause adverse reactions in some people."

If you're very health conscious, it's best to completely steer clear of foods with artificial colouring agents. Opt for nature's bounty--fruits and vegetables that are naturally coloured and perfectly wholesome.

Artificial Sweeteners--not so sweet after all!

Much of India is a diabetic and doesn't have a choice when it comes to consuming artificial sweeteners. But never consume a sweetener when you don't need it or if your goal is merely weight loss. "Sweeteners like aspartame are used as a sugar substitute in "diet" products, including sodas, drink mixes and low-calorie frozen desserts," says Dr Bhardwaj. "Aspartame is a neurotoxin (affects the brain) and carcinogen (has the potential to cause cancer). Animal studies have shown that it causes lymphomas, leukemia and breast cancer. Some people show an acute sensitivity, suffering headaches and dizziness shortly after consuming it. Further, foods containing this sweetener may induce you to eat more. Acesulfame-K, another sweetener found in baked goods, gums and gelatin (used in jellies) is not very healthy either. Animal studies have established that it causes cancer in mice. It also affects the functioning of the thyroid gland in animals like rabbits and dogs."

MSG Symptom Complex

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a popular preservative and flavour enhancer, often the star ingredient in many a restaurant-style Chinese meal. While most people are aware of the harmful effects of this ingredient (and are wary of consuming too much Chinese food), we often overlook the fact that MSG has a strong presence in other packaged foods as well. "MSG is also found in most packaged foods, from potato chips to soups and canned meats," says Dr Nupur Krishnan. "But it's not always listed as MSG. It can be disguised as 'natural flavoring' or 'glutamic acid'. MSG has been used for decades, but it should be banned because it can cause many adverse reactions. Headaches, flushing, sweating, fluttering heartbeats, chest pain, nausea and weakness are all common reactions often known as the MSG symptom complex. Researchers have established that MSG is often linked with rising obesity rates and inflammation within the body, particularly the liver."

Preservatives in your pickles--a sour situation

You may be wary of the excessive salt in pickled foods and the ill-effects that it can have on your health. But few people know that commercially manufactured and canned pickles are loaded with a chemical called Sodium Nitrate/Sodium Nitrite (E 250). "This chemical is used as a preservative, coloring and flavoring item in processed meats as well," says Dr Bhardwaj. "It is highly toxic and stimulates the formation of cancer-causing nitrosamines."

Bromated flour makes bad bread

Some bakeries tend to add the chemical potassium bromate to their breads. "This makes the bread stronger, more elastic and promotes a greater rising of dough, making it better suited to commercial production" says Dr Nupur Krishnan. "If the residue of the chemical is left behind in the baked bread, it could be harmful in the long term. In some countries, bromated flour has been banned, because potassium bromate is a known carcinogen, but in the US and in India, it is still legal." How can you identify bromated bread, especially if those who sell it in bakeries don't know what goes into the bread during the manufacturing process? "The chemical bleaches the flour, creating a creamy white colour that most people associate with good bread," says Dr Krishnan. Switch to brown bread and ensure that you purchase a loaf that is freshly baked.

The author can be contacted at kamala.metroplus@gmail.com