Chances are you’ve heard of food additives – over the years there has been rather a lot of controversy around their purported risks and benefits. You most likely consume them everyday, but do you really appreciate what they are and how they could have an effect on your body?
As their title suggests, food additives are compounds that are added to food to maintain flavour, keep it fresh and enhance taste, texture and appearance.
In spite of negative connotations with the word, not all additives are undesirable. Some are natural compounds, whilst others are man-made. For example, some additives have been used for hundreds of years – preserving food by pickling with vinegar and salting meats.
However, as fewer and fewer people grow and prepare their own food at home, and with the ever increasing time constraints of modern-day life, there has been an increase in the number and type of processed foods, and therefore additives used in foods – both natural and synthetic.
The truth is that food produced on a commercial scale frequently has to be transported over long distances and stored for long periods of time before finally being consumed, which is where additives come into play.
However, there is a common misconception that processed foods automatically contain food additives. For example, long-life milk is processed, yet it doesn’t actually require added chemicals to prolong its shelf-life.
If you are uncertain whether or not a product contains an additive, you can of course check the label. However, it is important to note that particular listed ingredients may themselves contain food additives without those necessarily being specified. For example, a product may contain margarine, which in turn contains additives, but only “margarine” will be listed as an ingredient on the label.
Again, they tend to conjure up images of “food nasties”, but what exactly are E-numbers and are they as undesirable as we are led to believe?
After an additive has been tested and approved for use in foods, in Europe it is given a classification known as an “E-number” (a number with an “E” prefix, e.g. E100), for the purposes of regulation and to inform the public. In other words, it is simply a systematic way of identifying different food additives. Countries outside Europe use only the number, whether the additive is approved in Europe or not. The notable point to bear in mind is that even natural additives will be labelled with an “E” prefix.
With the growing demand for processed foods, there has similarly been a notable increase in the use of food additives (particularly since the second half of the 20th century) of varying levels of safety. This has led to the introduction of many statutes across the planet, regulating their use.
The long-term effects on the body of frequently ingesting a combination of different food additives are, unfortunately, currently unknown. This is largely due to the fact that most additives are tested on a one-by-one basis, rather than in combination with other additives. However, what is clear is that a lot people are sensitive to them and may suffer reactions as a result of their consumption. For example:
• skin irritations: e.g. itching, rashes or hives;
• digestive disorders: e.g. diarrhoea or stomach pains;
• respiratory problems: e.g. asthma, rhinitis and sinusitis;
• allergic reactions and anaphylactic shock; and
• behavioral changes: e.g. changes in mood, anxiety and hyperactivity (including inattention, impulsivity and over-activity).
In 2007, research financed by Britain’s Food Standards Agency and published online by the British medical journal “The Lancet”, presented evidence that a mix of additives commonly found in children’s foods increases the mean level of hyperactivity. In a 2008 issue of its publication, AAP Grand Rounds (the American Academy of Pediatrics) concluded that a low-additive diet is a valid intervention for children with ADHD.
Of course, as mentioned above, this doesn’t mean that all foods containing additives need automatically be treated with suspicion – many occur naturally in the foods we eat. All foods are made up of chemicals, many of which are not always “safer” than those found in food additives. For example, people with food allergies and intolerances are also often sensitive to chemicals found naturally in certain foods, such as dairy, nuts or shellfish.
The key, therefore, is to be able to recognise those that are unnatural or have a negative effect on you or your family members – admittedly, this is easier said than done!
Additives that are most likely to cause a reaction include:
• Flavour enhancers, such as monosodium glutamate (MSG E621): These are commonly found in, for example, crisps, instant noodles and microwave and takeaway foods.
• Aspartame: This is an artificial sweetener, which is made of phenylalanine, aspartic acid and methanol (a type of alcohol). When broken down in the body, methanol forms formaldehyde (a cancer causing substance), formic acid (found in the venom of ants and bees) and diketopiperazine (shown to cause brain tumours in animals). Aspartame is found in, amongst other things, diet drinks, yoghurts and sugar-free items (such as chewing gum).
• Sulfites: This group of additives, often found in dried fruit, desiccated coconut, cordial and wine, may trigger asthma attacks in sensitive individuals.
• Propionates: This type of additive can occur naturally in foods (e.g. certain types of cheese). They are also common in bread. The effects are dose-related and can range from migraines, bed-wetting, nasal congestion and racing heart to memory loss eczema and stomach ache.
• Antioxidants: Although we usually associate antioxidants with health-promoting properties, there are some that are added to foods as synthetic chemicals and may therefore have a adverse effect on the body. Examples include Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) and Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), which are added to many foods to prevent fat spoilage. They are commonly found in margarine, biscuits, crisps and muesli bars, for example. They may be linked to insomnia, tiredness, asthma and learning difficulties.
• Colours: The most common offenders in this category are tartrazine (E102) and annatto (E160b). Synthetic colourings have been linked to allergic reactions, learning and behavioural problems in children.
Preservatives, colours and flavours are the best known additives, but in fact there are many more categories, each tailored to a specific purpose:
Colour retention agents
Flour treatment agents
The truth is, there are presently over 3000 additives used in food across the globe, most of which are man-made. As a rule, if you don’t recognise an ingredient or can’t pronounce it, avoid it – at least until you have found out what it is and does!
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