A new study suggests health-food enthusiasts got it all wrong: Artificial flavorings in everything from barbecue potato chips to toothpaste may actually be good for you.
The reason: All sorts of artificial flavors contain salicylates, a chemical cousin of aspirin. And aspirin is known to reduce the risk of heart attacks by preventing blood clots.
The new study found that people take in the equivalent of one baby aspirin a day from the artificial flavorings put in processed foods.
The researchers say that Americans’ taste for artificial flavorings may help explain why fewer people are dying from heart attacks.
“We are presenting what we consider to be a plausible hypothesis, but it needs a lot more exploration,” said Lillian M. Ingster of the National Center for Health Statistics in Hyattsville, Md.
Deaths from heart attacks rose steadily through this century until about 30 years ago, when they began to fall. Experts have searched for reasons to explain this and have come up with several, including less smoking, lower consumption of saturated fats, better medicines and more exercise.
The problem, though, is that heart disease began to drop before most of the healthier living habits came into vogue.
“The decline in heart disease started rather abruptly in the mid-‘60s. Within about three or four years it spread across the country. It’s hard to imagine that something like cholesterol lowering or blood pressure treatment could explain it,” said Ingster’s colleague Dr. Manning Feinleib.
Salicylates in food “may be the missing link in explaining why this decline occurred when it did as widely as it did.”
Feinleib and Ingster presented their case for this new explanation Thursday at a conference sponsored by the American Heart Association.
The researchers said they are not telling people to change their eating habits. Certainly, eating more junk food would be an unhealthy way to take in more salicylates (variously pronounced suh-LIS-uh-LATE or SAL-uh-SIL-ate).
But eating the artificial flavorings in an ordinary American diet “is the equivalent of taking a baby aspirin or more a day. It’s not a trivial amount,” Feinleib said.
One baby aspirin contains 80 milligrams, frequently recommended as a daily dose to ward off heart attacks, particularly in older people.
Artificial flavorings are found in baked goods, soda, candy, chewing gum, ketchup, ice cream, pudding and much more. Mouthwash and toothpaste have them.
Among the flavors that are often concocted with salicylates are strawberry, grape, butter, vanilla, cinnamon, mint, caramel and walnut.
A normal diet has always included close chemical relatives of aspirin found in many natural sources, including oranges, raspberries, tomatoes, honey, tea and spices, such as curry, oregano, rosemary and turmeric.
The researchers found that the use of salicylates for artificial flavorings rose modestly since the 1920s until about 1960, when they went up abruptly. The average amount consumed from artificial flavors alone rose from 90 milligrams per day in 1960 to 125 milligrams in 1970.
The researchers said that beyond 1970, figures on salicylate consumption are sketchy. Manufacturers do not have to list them on food labels, and much industry information is protected by trade secrecy laws.
The researchers did not calculate the increase from natural sources, but this also undoubtedly went up because of the better year-round availability of fresh fruits.
In 1950, 226 of every 100,000 Americans died of heart attacks annually. By 1992, that had dropped to 104.
Dr. Aaron R. Folsom of the University of Minnesota, head of the meeting’s program committee, called the salicylate theory new and intriguing.
“We were struck by the possibility that these chemicals may be contributing to declining coronary heart disease,” he said.