by Shelina Kurwa
A car pulls into the gas station parking lot. Kids pile out and race into the store, grabbing a super size-bag of Cheetos to snack on in the car. At the same time, in a nearby town, a girl sits at the kitchen table doing her homework. She munches a few strips of beef jerky while she struggles with a particularly complicated-looking math problem.
Sound familiar? Millions of Americans eat junk food every day, without so much as a second thought. Did you ever stop to wonder what was inside your afternoon snack? How about the girl's beef jerky? Isn't that perfectly safe? Think again—beef jerky is high in nitrates, a chemical that can cause cancer if you have too much of it. But even if you read the list of ingredients, you’d most likely know no more than you did before you started. After all, what are “thiamine mononitrate” and “soy lecithin”? What about “annatto extract”? It’s a language of its own! Some ingredients might be familiar words (like caffeine), but do you know how they affect you? Here are a few facts about what’s in your food and what it does to you.
Ever wondered about that sign in many Chinese restaurants—the one that reads “No MSG”? It stands for monosodium glutamate, one of many chemicals that companies add to food to enhance its natural flavor. In normal amounts, glutamate sends signals to the part of your brain that recognizes different food flavors. However, too much of it can cause migraines, irritation, and forgetfulness, and MSG has been linked to Alzheimer's disease and Huntington's Chorea. Some people, especially people with severe asthma, are more susceptible to the effects of high levels of MSG. A lot of snack foods (including that super-size bag of Cheetos) contain MSG, and we don’t even realize it!
Uh-oh! Your science project is due tomorrow, and you totally forgot! Seems you’ll be bonding with a bottle of Red Bull to help you stay awake. Unfortunately, this and other energy drinks that give you a boost are probably the same thing boosting you from your seat to run to the bathroom in the middle of class. Those drinks are full of caffeine. Caffeine is a diuretic, which means it makes you pee a lot and dehydrates your body. It can also cause headaches, agitation, insomnia, and stomach cramps. Sorry to say, but your parents are right: caffeine can hurt you when you drink too much of it. And most “energy” drinks have 80 milligrams of caffeine—as much as an espresso coffee and twice the amount in a can of Coca-Cola.
Suddenly, your favorite foods and drinks don’t seem as appetizing. But I’m not saying that every food is dangerous. These chemicals will only harm you if you eat large quantities of them over time. So make sure to eat a variety of food, have well-balanced meals, and try not to be a junk food junkie. After all, you are what you eat.
Add It Up
Need help understanding food labels? Go to www.cspinet.org for easy-to-read explanations of many food additives.
And learn to eat healthier snacks at www.smart-mouth.org.
© 2003 New Moon® Publishing , New Moon®: The Magazine for Girls and Their Dreams, Duluth MN.
Content last reviewed May 15, 2008
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