With your busy lifestyle and constant demands on your time, it may seem easy to pull into your local fast food restaurant for a quick meal on-the-go. However, fast foods are rich in fat and sodium that can lead to health problems. The University of Maryland Medical Center warns that they also contain high amounts of chemicals that add flavor, color and texture and help to keep them fresh longer. The chemicals are added when these foods are processed, packaged and prepared. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration warns that although food additives are considered safe in minimal amounts, eating too much fast food and other foods that contain these chemicals can lead to harmful effects.
You may have noticed that fries from fast food chains are typically crisp and have a characteristic taste and texture. This is because they are usually fried in trans fats, which are also used in commercially prepared doughnuts, cookies, chicken nuggets, pizza and other foods. Trans fat is also called partially hydrogenated oil because it is produced by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil, which gives it a longer shelf-life, according to MayoClinic.com. Fast food restaurants use trans fats because they keep foods fresh longer and give them a less greasy feel. However, the American Heart Association warns that trans fats can lead to diabetes, obesity, high cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.
Fast foods keep their fresh taste, smell and color longer because they contain added chemicals, such as nitrite salts, that help to preserve them. Nitrite salts are used in processed meat, bacon, corned beef, smoked fish, ham and sausages. Although this chemical and other preservatives help to prevent bacterial contamination such as botulism, they can also cause harmful effects. Research published in the "International Journal of Cancer" reports that people who eat processed meats and other foods with these preservative are more likely to develop stomach cancers. The American Cancer Society warns that eating food preservatives can also increase your risk of cancers in the digestive tract.
Fast foods are typically super-sized with your choice of a large sugary soft drink. These beverages as well as many fruit juices, jellies, donuts, canned fruits and other foods contain an artificial sweetener called saccharin. The Center for Science in the Public Interest reviewed animal studies that showed that consuming saccharin may increase the risk of cancers of the bladder, ovaries, uterus, blood vessels and skin. Although this study was carried out on animals, saccharin may have similar harmful effects on people.
Most fast food restaurants and movie theaters have a familiar aroma of butter. This is usually due to a buttered-flavored chemical called diacetyl, which is also found in microwave popcorn, margarine, snack foods, baked goods and candies, giving them an appetizing smell and buttery taste. However, The American Chemical Society reports that diacetyl may be associated with harmful effects on the lungs and changes in the brain that can increase your risk for Alzheimer's disease.
The brightly colored pies, candies, ice cream, sundae syrup, soft drinks, cheeses, sandwich meats and sausages sold at many fast food outlets contain chemical food dyes and coloring agents. These chemicals give them long-lasting color that makes these foods appear more appealing and appetizing. A review of studies published in the "International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health" reports that many of these chemicals are byproducts of coal tar and other chemicals that can increase the risk of certain cancers.
- American Heart Association: Trans Fats
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Food Additives
- International Journal of Cancer: Processed Meat Consumption, Dietary Nitrosamines and Stomach Cancer Risk
- American Cancer Society: Food Additives, Safety and Organic Foods
- American Chemical Society: Artificial Butter Flavoring Ingredient Linked to Key Alzheimer’s Disease Process
- International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health: Toxicology of Food Dyes
- Center for Science in the Public Interest: Chemical Cuisine
- MayoClinic.com: Trans Fat is Double Trouble For Your Heart Health
Nadia Haris is a registered radiation therapist who has been writing about nutrition for more than six years. She is completing her Master of Science in nutrition with a focus on the dietary needs of oncology patients.