Monday, 8 September 2014


“It would be nice if the Food and Drug Administration stopped issuing warnings about toxic substances and just gave me the names of one or two things still safe to eat.” - Robert Fuoss

Do you really know what you eat? I don’t mean not knowing what you are consuming generically, like “ice cream” or “apple pie”, what I mean is do you know what else you are eating when you are eating food, especially many of the processed foods available in your supermarket? It is estimated that the average Australian consumes over 5 kg of food additives per year. In other Western countries this amount may be even higher.

Food additives are chemicals added to foods to keep them fresh or to enhance their colour, flavour or texture. These chemicals are listed on the label, along with other ingredients, in a descending order by weight. Sometimes, the additive is spelt out in full; at other times, it is represented by a code number. Over the past 50 years the use of food additives has escalated to the point where very few of us know exactly what is in the food we eat. The rates of diseases such as cancer, obesity, diabetes, autism, depression, asthma and ADHD have also increased dramatically over this time and many researchers are linking these increases in disease incidence (at least in part) to some of the food additives that are widely used. How many of us know what these chemicals are, what they do, which ones are safe and which ones are known to be harmful?

Not all food additives are harmful and a few of them have been used in food for hundreds or even thousands of years. Currently, 400 or so additives are approved for use in Australia, most of them are safe, well-tested and pose no problem for most people. However, there are at least 60 food additives used in our foods, which are at best questionable in terms of safety, or in the worst case known to be harmful.

The different types of food additive and their uses include:
Anti-caking agents - stop ingredients from becoming lumpy.
Antioxidants - prevent foods from oxidising, or going rancid.
Artificial sweeteners - increase the sweetness.
Emulsifiers - stop fats from clotting together.
Food acids - maintain the right sourness level.
Colours - enhance or add colour.
Humectants - keep foods moist.
Flavours - add flavour.
Flavour enhancers - increase the power of a flavour.
Mineral salts - enhance texture, taste.
Preservatives - stop microbes from multiplying and spoiling the food.
Thickeners - enhance texture.
Stabilisers - maintains uniformity of food dispersion.
Flour treatment - improves baking quality.
Glazing agent - improves appearance and can protect food.
Propellants - help propel food from a container.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) is responsible for the approval of food additives that are allowable in Australian foods. All food additives used in Australia undergo a safety assessment, which includes rigorous laboratory testing and animal trials, before they are approved. Similarly, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) supervise and regulate the use of additives in products sold in the United States.

Toxicological tests on animals are routinely used to find out the amount of additive that is expected to be safe when consumed by humans. This is usually an amount 100 times less than the maximum daily dose at which ‘no observable effects’ are produced by an additive consumed over the test animal’s lifetime. If there is any doubt over the safety of an additive, approval is not given. If new scientific information becomes available suggesting that a food additive is no longer safe, the approval to use the food additive would be withdrawn.

There are some problems with the testing procedures that can cause reactions in a human population. Most food additives are tested in isolation rather than in combination with other additives. The long-term effects of consuming a combination of different additives are currently unknown. A small number of people in the population are sensitive or allergic to particular food additives and may have reactions like hives or diarrhoea. This doesn’t mean that all foods containing additives need to be automatically treated with suspicion. People with food allergies and intolerances are also often sensitive to chemicals found naturally in certain foods, such as nuts or shellfish.

It should also be remembered that there are other, worse things to fear in food than food additives. Food additives would come in at the end of the line, after food-borne microorganisms (like Salmonella), inappropriate hygiene and eating habits, environmental contaminants and naturally occurring toxins in food. Also, there is a common misconception that processed foods automatically contain food additives. Foods like long-life milk, canned foods and frozen foods are all processed, yet none of them need extra chemicals and many of them are completely free of additives.

Some common food additives that may cause problems for some people and their code numbers include:
Flavour enhancers - monosodium glutamate (MSG) 621.
Food colourings - tartrazine 102; yellow 2G107; sunset yellow FCF110; cochineal 120.
Preservatives - benzoates 210, 211, 212, 213; nitrates 249, 250, 251, 252; sulphites 220, 221, 222, 223, 224, 225 and 228.

If you think you may have a food additive sensitivity, it’s important to seek professional help, since all of the symptoms you may be experiencing can also be caused by other disorders. It is usually suggested to people suspecting they have an allergy to keep a food diary and note carefully any adverse reactions. In the case of a sensitivity being identified, the usual practice is to eliminate all suspect foods from the diet and then reintroduce them one by one, to see which additive (or additives) causes the reaction. This should only be done under medical supervision, since some of the reactions - such as asthma - can be serious.  Here is a link with the code numbers of common food additives.

So what is the answer? Should we worry about what we eat, should we try and avoid food additives? Are we at risk? In short, the answer is that most of the food additives are safe. Some can cause serious reactions in a minority component of the population. If you can avoid foods that contain many additives, do so. This would mean preparing a lot of your own food from fresh ingredients and avoiding many of the processed, pre-prepared meals. Eating a good healthful diet prepared from fresh ingredients can also protect from all sorts of other diet-related disease, such as cancer of the large bowel.

1 comment: