How to avoid additives

By Dr Sarah Lantz.

Some 5,000 additives find their way into our food (flavourings, colourings, artificial sweeteners, flavour enhancers, emulsifiers, thickeners, stabilisers, preservatives, propellants) which has expanded from around 100 in 1900 to around 500 in the 1960s to more than 4500 today.

Food additives are substances added to food to preserve flavour or improve its taste and appearance.

These are substances that are not normally consumed as a food in itself and are not normally an ingredient, but which is allowed to be there if it fulfils a technological function in the final food.

A food additive must do at least one of the following:

  • improve nutritional value
  • extend shelf-life
  • prevent spoilage during shipment
  • enhance appearance or palatability
  • assist in the preparation of the food or in the maintenance of its physical form.

What are food additives?

Food additives can be anything from anti-moulding agents, to antioxidants, bleaching agents (used to whiten flours and some cheeses), coating agents (glazing or polishing agents), defoaming agents (used to prevent excessive foaming in beverages), extenders (substances, such as starch, soybean meal, used to add bulk to a food product), fixatives (to maintain the colour of meat), flavour enhancers, fumigants (toxic gases used to kill pests in harvests), fungicides, stabilisers (prevent foods, such as cocoa, from settling out) sweeteners (non-nutritional, artificial), artificial flavours, and food colours.

There is also a growing body of evidence that behavioural changes can result from a wide variety of the chemicals used in artificial food flavours, colours and enhancers.

It must be remembered that artificial food colourings and flavourings have no nutritional value at all. They are used to make non-nutritious foods appealing to children, and are made by combining a large range of chemicals.

Many of the additives permitted in foods today have not undergone safety testing for decades.

Tests are rarely done to determine the effects of these substances on behaviour and learning abilities, or whether they cause intolerances or allergies.

Some additives are permitted in foods, despite their health compromising effects. Approximately 50 have been linked to cancer; 55 or so can trigger asthma; more than 30 are thought to cause hyperactivity and/or learning difficulties in children, and 80 may contribute to kidney or liver problems.

Preservatives

Preservatives have been associated with intolerances, particularly among people with asthma. Sulfites (including sodium bisulphite (222), sodium metabisulphite (223) and potassium bisulphite (228)) found in wine, beer and dried fruit, are known to trigger asthmatic episodes and cause migraines in people who are sensitive to them.

Also sodium nitrate (251) and sodium nitrite (250), which are used in processed meats, have been classified as ‘probably carcinogenic to humans’ by the International Agency for Research of Cancer (IARC).

Flavour enhancers

Flavour enhancer monosodium glutamate (MSG) (621) is often used in Asian cooking and has been associated with ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’ (a collection of symptoms including headache, numbness and tingling that some people experienced after eating foods containing MSG).

Food colourings 

Food colourings, such as tartrazine (102), allura red (129) and ponceau 4R (124), are often credited as the cause of hyperactivity in children.

In 2007, researchers from the University of Southampton in the UK studied food colourings and additives and their effect on children’s behaviour. They concluded there was a link between hyperactivity and food colourings (and one preservative) in children aged three and eight to nine years old.

There is also a growing body of evidence that behavioural changes can result from a wide variety of the chemicals used in artificial food flavours, colours and enhancers.

Research has found that behavioural changes, such as inattentiveness, increases with some artificial food colourings and preservatives, and improves when these are eliminated from children’s diets.

Sue Dengate points out the obvious: ‘Everyone knows that medicinal drugs can have undesirable side-effects, such as a stomach upset from aspirin. Few people realise that chemicals in foods can do the same. Some of the chemicals in foods are even the same chemicals we take as medication’.

Tips for avoiding additives

A lot of products claim to be free from artificial additives. The confusing thing is that even a ‘natural’ colouring can cause reactions.

  • Read the label. If you want to avoid synthetic or natural additives go for less numbers.
  • Look for approved organic logos. Organic standards don’t ban additives; however processors can’t use them unless there’s no natural alternative and they’re necessary for processing or preserving.
  • Use The Chemical Maze app. While it is general, it’s a fantastic guide.

Go to the Food Intolerance Network for more information about food additives.

References

Dengate, S. (1998) Fed up: Understanding how food affects your child and what you can do about it, Random House, Milson’s Point.

Dengate, S. cited in Di Santo, H. (2005) Lose Size & Energise, Di Santo, H Synergy Management Pty Ltd, Victoria.

Lang, T. & Millstone, E (eds) (2003) The Atlas of Food: who eats what, where and why, Earthscan, London.

McCann, D. Barrett, A. Cooper, A. Crumpler, D. et al (2007) Food Additives and hyperactive behaviour in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: a randomised, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial, The Lancet; 370 (9598), pp. 1524-1525; Op cit, Schab & Trinh (2004) Artificial food colours and hyperactivity.

McCann, D. Barrett, A. Cooper, A et al. Food additives and hyperactive behaviour in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: a randomised, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial, The Lancet, Volume 370, Issue 9598, 1560 – 1567.

Statham, B (2006) The Chemical Maze, Bookshelf Companion, Bill Statham, Victoria.

1 Reply to "How to avoid additives"

  • comment-avatar
    Marc August 22, 2015 (10:19 am)

    I always find that powdered Parmesan cheese ( full of additives & stored at room temp) makes me feel ill, while the solid block that you have to grate by hand ( and lives in the fridge) is fine. I think it’s all the preservatives they add to it?

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