What's in my food?
A good example of "hidden" ingredients are food additives. Almost everyone has heard of them, but how many of us actually take the time to find out what they are, which ones appear in our food and how they might affect our health?
Well, the answer to that is actually more and more of us - particularly as the health benefits of natural living (and, more specifically, an organic diet) become better understood.
As a result, health-conscious individuals who are seeking to minimise their daily exposure to toxins and pollutants take the trouble to educate themselves about the different types of food additives out there (including their supposed risks and benefits). Over the years, there has been quite a bit of controversy about these chemicals - below are some of the "need to know" basics.
As the name implies, food additives are substances that manufacturers add to foods for any number of reasons (usually to increase profits). For example, to preserve flavour, keep the food fresher for longer and to enhance taste, texture and appearance.
However, not all food additives are bad, despite the negative connotations with the phrase. Some are actually natural compounds - for example, vinegar used for pickling and salt used to preserve meat. These additives have been used for centuries and are natural methods. Similarly, there is a common misconception that processed foods automatically contain food additives, but this is not always the case. For example, long-life milk is processed, yet it doesnâ€™t actually require added chemicals to prolong its shelf life.
Unfortunately, the vast majority now used are synthetic or man-made and have, to a large extent, come about as a result of the increasing time constraints of modern living and the changing palates of modern consumers. For instance, the average person is looking for a snack that is either highly salted or sweetened. Similarly, in this age of competitive advertising and saturated food markets, the brighter, highly coloured food items are normally the ones that get picked. Food needs to be fun to eat, nice to look at and tasty.
The nature of the modern diet and lifestyle has resulted in fewer and fewer home-grown and natural whole foods, and an increase in the number and type of processed / refined foods. In turn, this has led to an increase in the number of additives used in foods - both natural and synthetic. It is therefore important to inform yourself about them, to help ensure the health and vitality of you and your family.
If you are unsure whether or not a product contains additives, check the label. If there are ingredients that sound like a chemistry experiment, they are probably best avoided! It is also important to note that some listed ingredients may contain food additives themselves, without those necessarily being specified. For example, a product may contain margarine, which in turn contains additives, but only â€œmargarineâ€ will be listed as an ingredient on the label.
It is good practice to familiarise yourself with some of the more common food additive names, ready to identify them when out and about shopping. Below we will take a look at some of the most notorious additives - E-numbers.
E-numbers - friend or foe?
E-numbers get a lot of media attention but, once again, the reality is a little different to what is often portrayed. The phrase itself conjures up images of â€œfood nastiesâ€, but are they really as bad as we are led to believe? Well firstly, let's look at what they are.
After an additive has been tested and approved for use in foods in Europe, it is given a classification known as an â€œE-numberâ€ (a number with an â€œEâ€ prefix, e.g. E100), for the purposes of regulation and to inform consumers. In other words, it is simply a systematic way of identifying different food additives. Countries outside Europe use only the number (no 'E'), whether the additive is approved in Europe or not.
The important (and perhaps surprising) point to bear in mind, is that even natural additives will be labelled with an â€œEâ€ prefix - so don't automatically discount a food which otherwise looks healthy. Knowledge is power, so know your E-numbers!
Are food additives safe?
This is a controversial question and one that has not been answered satisfactorily as yet. However, common sense dictates that filling our bodies with synthetic chemicals cannot be as healthy as eating a diet rich in natural whole foods and may even be detrimental to health, for instance by adding to our toxic load.
But since the second half of the 20th century, there has been a significant increase in the use of food additives of varying levels of safety and for the reasons described above. This has necessarily led to the introduction of a wide range of laws worldwide, regulating their use.
The long-term effects on the body of regularly consuming a combination of different food additives are, unfortunately, currently unknown - hence the need for regulation. This is largely due to the fact that most additives are tested in isolation, rather than in combination with other additives. However, what is clear is that some people are sensitive to them and suffer reactions as a result of their consumption. These reactions include:
- skin irritations (itching, rashes, hives etc)
- digestive disorders (including diarrhoea and abdominal pains)
- respiratory problems (like asthma, rhinitis and sinusitis)
- allergic reactions and anaphylactic shock
- behavioural changes (such as mood changes, anxiety and hyperactivity).
Research undertaken in 2007 by Britainâ€™s Food Standards Agency and later published by the British medical journal â€œThe Lancetâ€, provided evidence that a mix of additives commonly found in childrenâ€™s foods serves to increase the mean level of hyperactivity. Similarly, in 2008, AAP Grand Rounds (the American Academy of Pediatrics) published a study that concluded that a low-additive diet is a valid intervention for children with ADHD.
Bearing all this in mind, it is important to remember that all foods are made up of chemicals, many of which are not always â€œsaferâ€ 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. However, it is always a good rule of thumb to opt for natural ingredients over synthetic ones and to adopt an organic lifestyle wherever possible.
Additives to watch out for!
Some of the additives most likely to cause reactions include:
- Flavour enhancers: A well-known example is monosodium glutamate (MSG E621). They are commonly found in 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, formic acid (found in the venom of ants and bees) and diketopiperazine - all quite nasty substances! Aspartame is found in diet drinks, yoghurts and sugar-free items (like chewing gum).
- Sulphites: This group of additives is often found in dried fruit, desiccated coconut, cordial and wine. They have been known to 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 may range from migraines, bed-wetting, nasal congestion and racing heart to memory loss, eczema and stomach ache.
- Antioxidants: Don't get confused with the naturally-occurring antioxidants found in whole foods like fruit and vegetables and which are widely used to support good health and immunity. Antioxidants in the context of food additives refer to those that are synthetic chemicals which are added to food, and may therefore have a harmful effect on the body. Examples include Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) and Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), which are added to prevent fat spoilage. They are commonly found in margarine, biscuits, crisps and muesli bars. They have been linked to health conditions such as insomnia, tiredness, asthma and even learning difficulties.
- Colours: The most common offenders in this category of additives are tartrazine (E102) and annatto (E160b). Synthetic colourings have been linked to allergic reactions, as well as learning and behavioural problems in children.
Categories of additives
Preservatives, colourings and flavourings are some of the best known additives. However, there are actually a number of other categories, each of which is tailored to a specific purpose. These include:
- acidity regulators
- anti-caking agents
- antifoaming agents
- bulking agents
- colour retention agents
- flavour enhancers
- flour treatment agents
- glazing agents
- tracer gas
- and thickeners
In fact, there are currently over 3000 additives used in food across the world, most of which are synthetic!