Worried about those numbers on your food labels? Dietitian Liz Munn has the lowdown.
Additives are controversial. Many people who are sensitive to particular chemicals in food would like to see them removed; others don’t even notice they’re there! If you’re a keen reader of labels and wonder whether you should be worried about food additives, here’s the lowdown on why they’re used and what the real risks are.
Colours make food and drinks bright and appealing – so they’re often found in foods for kids. Colours aren’t strictly necessary and some are controversial (see Colours and hyperactivity, below). They’re often found in foods such as soft drinks, cakes and lollies, so cutting back makes health sense.
Preservatives are important additives that keep food safe by stopping bacteria and other micro-organisms from growing. But some preservatives are of concern: Nitrates (251) and nitrites (250) preserve meats such as bacon and ham, and give them their distinctive colour and taste. However, they may also increase the risk of cancer by forming cancer-causing nitrosamines. So limiting processed meats (which are also usually packed with salt and fat) also makes health sense.
Sodium benzoate (211) is another chemical preservative that causes some concern; when it’s mixed with vitamin C in some fruity drinks, it can form benzene, a carcinogen. The amounts formed are small – and much less than we get from general benzene pollution – but the beverage industry is working to reduce levels as much as possible.
Sulphur dioxide is another preservative that can cause serious health issues; many asthmatics react adversely to the additive (number 220), so reading food labels is essential.
Antioxidants stop or slow oxygen from attacking foods, which can turn foods rancid. One antioxidant that has come in for its share of criticism is BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole, 320) – which some health authorities consider to be a possible human carcinogen. It can be found in some snack foods, instant mashed potatoes, salad dressings, chewing gums and edible fats and oils, but can be replaced by other antioxidants, so if you want to avoid it, check the labels.
These bring out the flavour in foods and MSG (monosodium glutamate, 621) is the most famous. For those who are sensitive to this additive, large amounts may cause symptoms such as headaches and numbness.
Many people are surprised to find flavour enhancers in foods that claim ‘no added flavours’. But ‘no added flavours’ doesn’t mean ‘no flavour enhancers’, so check the ingredients.
There has been controversy over artificial sweetener saccharine (954) – it was linked with cancer in animals – but it has since been removed from the US National Toxicology Program’s list of possible carcinogens. Overall, being overweight is a much greater risk to your health, so if sweeteners help reduce your kilojoule intake, they’re a reasonable option.
There are several other types of additives: emulsifiers, stabilisers, gelling agents and thickeners used in foods to improve or change the texture; raising agents that cause foods to rise; glazing agents to make foods shiny; and acidity regulators that make foods more or less acidic.
For those with food sensitivities or allergies, additives can make life miserable unless you know how to avoid the culprits. (Consult a dietitian if you think this could be you.) But for most, the best attitude to additives, as with all things in life, is moderation.
Colours and hyperactivity
Many people claim additives can be responsible for hyperactivity – and recent UK research made headlines worldwide when it found a mixture of colours and sodium benzoate (211) increased hyperactivity in children. The research looked at allura red AC (129), carmoisine (122), ponceau 4R (124), quinoline yellow (104), sunset yellow FCF (110) and tartrazine (102). If you’re concerned, check the labels – particularly in confectionary, flavoured milks, cordial, soft drinks, cakes and biscuits. Consult a dietitian if your child has behavioural problems that could be linked to food.