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What are we adding to our food?

Posted on February 22nd, 2011 by Alf | Print

Just a cursory glance at supermarket shelves and refrigerators cabinets will attest to the staggering variety of food available to consumers. While supermarkets do sell fresh food, like fruit and vegetables, most of the food sold in supermarkets is treated or processed in some way. Even the contents of a humble carton of milk, to all intents and purposes a “fresh” product, are not what has come out of a cow. FIrst, the milk has been heated briefly to high temperatures (pasteurized) or even higher temperatures for UHT milk and homogenized, to distribute the cream and fatty components throughout the milk. In some cases all or some of the fat may have been removed (skim milk and low fat milk respectively), or it has undergone treatment to remove the milk sugar lactose (lactose free milk), or it has been fortified in some way by adding nutrients such as extra calcium, vitamin D or even fish oils. These treatments are relatively minor (although this may be disputed by those opposed to pasteurization and homogenization), when compared to some other ways we treat our food. The conversion of a simple grain of rice into a well known breakfast cereal, or the extraction, deodorization and bleaching of oil extracted from seeds, a two very good examples but there are many more.

There is yet another treatment which involves the addition of certain chemical substances to the food. These substances are known as food additives and there are hundreds of them. Apart from sugar and salt which seem to be added to most processed foods, there are the colouring agents, emulsifiers, preservatives, thickeners, flavours, and artificial sweeteners to name just a few. A glance at the label on almost any item on a supermarket shelf or refrigerator will demonstrate the range of additives used in processed foods. They are everywhere – canned and frozen foods, delicatessen items, bread, breakfast cereals, drinks, dairy etc – they all contain one or more additive. To illustrate the point, I decided to look closer at the label on an “iced confection” that I recently bought for one of my grandsons. It contained the following:

    Emulsifiers (477, 322)
    Glucose syrup
    Vegetable gum (412)
    Mineral salts (500, 533)
    Flavours (no numbers given)
    Colours (102, 110)
    Antioxidant (307)

For those interested, the numbers translated to the following chemical additives

    477: Propane-1,2-diol esters of fatty acids (Propylene glycol mono- and di-esters of fatty acids)
    322: Lecithins

    Vegetable gum
    412: Guar gum

    Mineral salts
    500: Sodium carbonates (Sodium hydrogen carbonate)
    533: Sodium Sesquicarbonate

    102: Tartrazine (FD & C yellow 5, FCF)
    110: Sunset Yellow FCF (FD & C yellow 6)

    307: alpha-Tocopheral (Vitamin E, DL-alpha-tocopheral)

Given that the product also contains nearly 40 % carbohydrate of which the bulk appears to be added glucose and maltodextrin, and a 99 gram (3.5 ounce) serve contains 1330 kJoules or 320 calories, which is roughly 15-20 % of the recommended calorie intake of the average 3-5 year old child, I found it beyond belief that the label contained a statement that the manufacturer:

“….believes that proper nutrition and physical activity are important in maintaining good health”.

The use of additives in food is not just confined to supermarket food. On a flight not that long ago, I ordered a simple pastrami roll and was appalled to find it contained at least fifteen different additives. What were they? Well, they included four emulsifying agents, a stabilizer, two preservatives, two antioxidants, two mineral salts, two thickening agents, a flour treatment agent, and a food acid. Not that long after that, on yet another flight with the same airline, we were served a ricecracker mix. I knew there was something odd with this mix because it contained a mixture of colours. When you see the colour blue in any food, you are instantly on guard because this colour, unlike red, green and orange, is not normally associated with food. On examination of the list of ingredients, it was clear that the multi-coloured mix contained four different colouring agents – tartrazine (number 102), sunset yellow (number 110), carmoisine (number 122), and brilliant blue FCF (number 133).

While one of the original uses of additives such as salt, was to prevent spoilage during storage, more recently they have been used for a variety of purposes. It can perhaps be argued that there may be some benefits in using anti-microbial preservatives in food because of the risks of bacterial contamination (even here there is considerable dispute). However, their uses to colour, thicken, emulsify, enhance the flavour, prevent oxidation etc, are not so convincing. Proponents of processed foods may argue that the different additives are necessary to make the food easier to manufacture, to extend shelf life and make the food more attractive and appetising for consumers. However, these benefits have to be balanced against the disadvantages which often include increasing the amount of salt, fat, sugar and calories in our diet. Moreover, consumers are almost never informed of the source of many of the ingredients in the food (eg country of origin) or when the food was produced.

High salt consumption has been linked to high blood pressure, and high sugar to dental caries, obesity, and diabetes (1,2,3). There are also concerns over the effects of some of the other additives on our health and wellbeing. For example, the common preservative sulphite (numbers 220-223) has been reported to trigger attacks in some asthmatics (4), the artificial sweeteners aspartame (number 951) and sucralose (number 951) may cause migraine in some susceptible individuals, and there are reports that nitrate (numbers 251, 252), another preservative commonly found in processed meats, may increase the risk of thyroid cancer and can interfere with the binding of oxygen to the red blood cell pigment and oxygen carrier, hemoglobin (5, 6, 7, 8). There is also the other concern that while most of the studies on the effects of additives have involved individual additives, little is really known about the effects when they are eaten together in often complex mixtures, as in the examples discussed above. It is important to stress that food is not an inert material but its many components can break down over time, and some of these components can, depending on how the food is treated, react in the body in surprising and unexpected ways. The generation of acrylamide (9), a potentially carcinogenic substance that is produced in amounts that vary according to how a food is processed, is a good example of this. Even though most of the additives are non-toxic, it is really very difficult to predict what sorts of chemicals would be generated from the interaction of individual additives with the myriad food components during processing, and whether they may be harmful.

It is worth noting that some people may be more susceptible to chemicals in food than others. Thus susceptibility can be influenced by pre-existing conditions such as diabetes or liver of kidney disease. Genetic diseases (eg celiac disease, phenylketonuria, allergies etc), genetic differences and even age, are also important. While it may be difficult to completely eliminate all processed food from our diets, nevertheless, for reasons outlined above, consumers would be well advised to look carefully at labels to see what has been added before buying, remembering that there is no substitute for fresh, unprocessed food.

Promoting Good Health has concerns about the potential effects of pesticide residues, as well as chemicals added to our food, and others that are generated by the processing of food, on our health and wellbeing. If you want to know more, our book, “The Silent Threat”, contains information on these topics and is available through the website.

Meanwhile, stay happy and healthy!


(1) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (2011); “Vital signs: Prevalence, treatment, and control of hypertension — United States, 1999–2002 and 2005–2008.MMWR Morb. Mortal. Wkly Rep.; 60 (4), 103-108.
Abstract available online at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21293325
Full report available online at: http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6004a4.htm
(2) Lee, J. G.; and Messer, L. B. (2010) “Intake of sweet drinks and sweet treats versus reported and observed caries experience.Eur. Arch. Paediatr. Dent.; 11 (1), 5-17.
Abstract available online at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20129028
(3) Hu, F. B. and Malik, V. S. (2010) “Sugar-sweetened beverages and risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes: Epidemiologic evidence.Physiol. Behav. 100 (1), 47-54, 2010. E-publication; February 6, 2010.
Abstract available online at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20138901
(4) Vally, H,; Misso, N. L. and Madan, V. (2009) “Clinical effects of sulphite additives.Clin. Exp. Allergy. 39 (11), 1643-1651. E-publication; September 22, 2009.
Abstract available online at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19775253
Comment in:
Clin. Exp. Allergy. 40 (4), 688, 2010; Author reply 689-690, 2010.
Clin. Exp. Allergy. 40(4), 688-689, 2010.
(5) Jacob, S. E. and Stechschulte, S. (2008) “Formaldehyde, aspartame, and migraines: a possible connection.Dermatitis; 19 (3), E10-11.
Abstract available online at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18627677
Comment in:
Dermatitis; 20 (3), 176-177, 2009; Author reply 177-179, 2009.
(6) Bigal, M. E. and Krymchantowski, A. V. (2006) “Migraine triggered by sucralose–a case report.Headache, 46 (3), 515-517.
Abstract available online at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16618274
Comment in:
Headache; 47 (3), 447, 2007.
Headache; 48 (1), 164-165, 2008.
(7) Kilfoy, B. A.; Zhang, Y.; Park, Y.; Holford, T. R.; Schatzkin, A.; Hollenbeck, A. and Ward, M. H. (2010). “Dietary nitrate and nitrite and the risk of thyroid cancer in the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study.Int. J Cancer. E-publication ahead of print; September 7, 2010.
Abstract available online at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20824705
Comment in:
Clin Exp Allergy.; 40 (4), 688-689, 2010.
Clin Exp Allergy.; 40 (4), 688, 2010; Author reply 689-690, 2010.
(8) Hord, N. G.; Tang, Y. and Bryan, N. S. (2009) “Food sources of nitrates and nitrites: the physiologic context for potential health benefits.Am. J Clin. Nutr. 90 (1), 1-10. E-publication; May 13, 2009.
Abstract available online at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19439460
Full article available online at: http://www.ajcn.org/content/90/1/1.full.pdf
Comment in:
Am. J Clin. Nutr.; 90 (1), 11-12, 2009.
(9) van Boekel, M.; Fogliano, V.; Pellegrini, N.; Stanton, C.; Scholz, G.; Lalljie, S.; Somoza, V.; Knorr, D.; Jasti, P. R. and Eisenbrand, G. (2010). “A review on the beneficial aspects of food processing.Mol Nutr Food Res. Sept; 54 (9), 1215-1247. Abstract available online at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20725924
(Additive numbers and names from: Taubert, P. M. (2000) “Your Health and Food Additives“, CompSafe Consultancy, Murray Bridge, Australia.)