How to Identify and Avoid Additives and Emulsifiers with Dawn Sherling, MD


Photo by Tim Toomey on Unsplash

Episode Summary

Why exactly should we avoid food additives, and how do they affect our health? In this episode, I am fortunate to be joined by Dawn Sherling, MD, to break down the differences between processed and ultra-processed foods, identify common additives to avoid, and discuss consequences of absorbing these substances through our diets.

Dawn’s latest book, “Eat Everything: How to Ditch Additives and Emulsifiers, Heal Your Body, and Reclaim the Joy of Food,” delves into recent scientific findings surrounding the consumption of ultra-processed foods. As she explains, we eat almost 60% ultra-processed foods in the United States; in comparison, a country like Italy eats closer to 20%. Given the prevalence of additive-filled foods in American society, it is important to know potential harms and what to avoid.

To build a framework for our understanding of processed and ultra-processed foods, Dawn refers to the NOVA food classification system. As an example, Dawn explains that milk is a NOVA Category 2 culinary ingredient, or a “whole ingredient.” It can be combined with other whole ingredients, like salt and cultures, to produce cheese. The cheese falls into NOVA Category 3, which is a “processed food.” The final classification group is NOVA Category 4. “The NOVA Category 4 are the ultra-processed foods, and those are things that are full of the additives and emulsifiers… to make [a product] thicker or to make it last longer.”

New research suggests that even though our bodies do not necessarily digest additives and emulsifiers, they are likely absorbed by the microbiome and contribute to diet-related diseases, inflammation, and mortality risk.

“Nature abhors a vacuum. If we’re not using an additive for energy, for calories, for something, our microbiome probably will.”

Listen to the full episode for Dawn’s top five additives to avoid, tips on shopping for less processed food, and guide to spot ultra-processed foods when eating out. Here are the details of our conversation: [00:01:24] Dawn’s journey into researching additives and emulsifiers

[00:05:47] Differences between Italian and American food

[00:07:09] The NOVA food classification system

[00:09:41] Types of additives and how they are used by the microbiome

[00:12:05] The aggregate effect of consuming ultra-processed foods

[00:15:10] What is an emulsifier?

[00:18:07] Wider effects of ultra-processed foods

[00:21:36] Grocery shopping to avoid additives

[00:25:09] Dawn’s top five additives to avoid

[00:29:16] Artificial sweeteners and the Diet Coke studies

[00:31:09] Recognizing food when eating out

[00:33:35] Finding the joy in eating

Episode Notes

Dr. Dawn Harris Sherling is a board-certified internal medicine physician who is also board-certified in obesity medicine. She began studying journalism before switching to pre-med studies at the University of Florida where she graduated with honors and as a phi beta kappa. She earned her M.D. with honors from the Yale University School of Medicine and then completed her residency at Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital where she went on to serve as an attending physician and Instructor in Medicine at Harvard University. She moved back to her native Florida in 2008, and currently sees patients at a clinic for underserved populations and is an associate program director for the internal medicine residency at the Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine at Florida Atlantic University. She is most recently the author of Eat Everything: How to Ditch Additives and Emulsifiers, Heal Your Body, and Reclaim the Joy of Food. Inspired to write this book after an additive-free trip to Italy seemingly cured her IBS, Dawn did a deep dive into the published literature on our microbiomes and how emulsifiers and other substances may be feeding the wrong bacteria in the wrong places, contributing to alarming rates of diet-related diseases. 


Visit Dawn’s website here

Order Dawn’s latest book, Eat Everything: How to Ditch Additives and Emulsifiers, Heal Your Body, and Reclaim the Joy of Food

Connect with Dawn on Twitter/XInstagram, and Threads

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