Healthy Habits Newsletter

Stay informed with a FREE regular collection of information, advice, research and interesting bits from the world of Chinese medicine and beyond.

Get our newsletter

The Danger of Food Additives

12 August 2013

The average person strolls down the supermarket isle casually placing their favourite items in the trolley. Most people select one brand over another based on things like colour, a nice label, a convenient style of packaging, price, expiry date, etc, but few spare a thought for what each of these processed products is actually made up of.

Woman in supermarket

There is almost a blind subconscious trust in the higher authorities that says “if it’s bad for me, surely it wouldn’t be legal, it wouldn’t be allowed in the product”.

In an age where food manufacturers are desperately tinkering with food to win the consumer’s attention, boost sales and reach targets – colours are adjusted, mouth feel is corrected, and cheap, fabricated foodstuffs are given every flavour you can imagine. You can rest assured, your health is nowhere near the forefront of the minds of most manufacturers as they “design” your food.

The purpose of this article is to show that food additives should not be blindly trusted, and that most food additives are there to gain the manufacturer, not you. This quickly becomes apparent when you make a habit of checking each label. Of many basic processed food items that appear in most people’s pantries, there will usually be one brand that is relatively unadulterated whilst the others are loaded with additives. This should cause us to question why the additives are used.

Take the following, common products for example:

Soy sauce

Here are the ingredients of 3 different brands of soy sauce sitting next to each other on the super market shelf:

Brand 1 – Water, soybeans, wheat, salt.

Brand 2 – Water, salt, soy base [hydrolysed soy and maize proteins, spices], colour (150c), sugar, food acid (330), antifoaming agent (900a).

Brand 3 – Water, salt, hydrolysed vegetable protein 5% (contains soy), wheat glucose syrup, malt vinegar (from barley), sugar (caramel 150c, from wheat), sherry.

That one brand is able to produce the product without additives tell us that additives are unecessary. Why do the other brands use additives? In this case, they don’t give the product extra shelf life. Perhaps the manufacturer can produce the product more cheaply using the processed and artificial ingredients. Maybe brand 2 and 3 taste better but I’m not willing to risk it – anyone for antifoaming agent?

Tinned tomatoes

Brand 1 – Diced tomatoes, tomato juice.

Brand 2 – Diced tomatoes, tomato juice, sugar, salt, and firming agent (509).

Rice cracker – plain

Brand 1 – Rice, vegetable oil, salt.

Brand 2 – Rice, vegetable oil (contains antioxidant 320), salt, sugar, maltodextrin (maize), flavour enhancers (627, 631).

Strawberry jam

Brand 1 – Strawberries, fruit pectin, grape juice concentrate and lemon juice.

Brand 2 – Water, strawberries, vegetable gums (401, 440, 418, 415), humectant (polydextrose), food acid (330), preservative (202), sweeteners (952, 950), colour (124).

Both are “no added sugar” products, but one uses grape juice concentrate as a sweetener and lemon juice as a preservative. The other product uses artificial sweeteners and a refined preservative.

These examples are just basic, common staples. Imagine the ingredients list for something like ice cream topping, honey-smoked-ham flavoured packet chips, creaming soda, sherbet wiz fizz cones, or grape flavoured bubble tape. Take a look next time you are at the supermarket. Some foods are 100% fabricated and artificial, zero nutrition provided.

Are food additives harmful?

It is true that not all additives are harmful. Food acid (300), a frequently used preservative in products such as cured meats, breakfast cereals, frozen fish and wine is simply vitamin C (ascorbic acid). Lecithin (322) is a non-toxic emulsifier that occurs naturally in egg yolks. We should still be wary of such highly refined additives (choose the product without them if possible), however some present a lower risk than others.

Unfortunately, we cannot just assume “if it’s legal and allowed on the supermarket shelf, it can’t be too harmful to my health”. Some of the food additives in the products listed above, are harmful, are legal, and are in regular use in everyday products.

For example:

Colour 150c (Ammonia caramel) – Soy sauce

Dark brown colour made from sucrose; the Hyperactive Children Support Group (HACSG) (Canada) recommends to avoid it as it can cause hyperactivity. Some caramels may damage genes, slow down growth, cause enlargement of the intestines and kidneys and may destroy vitamin B.

Antioxidant 320 (Butylated hydroxy-anisole) – Rice crackers

Petroleum derivative; not permitted in infant foods, can provoke allergic reactions in some people, may trigger hyperactivity and other intolerances; serious concerns over carcinogenicity and estrogenic effects, in large doses caused tumours in lab animals, banned in Japan in 1958, official committees of experts recommended that it be banned in the UK, however due to industry pressure it was not banned.

Flavour enhancer 627 (Disodium guanylate) – Rice crackers

Not permitted in foods for infants and young children. Persons with gout, hyperactivity, asthmatics and aspirin-sensitive people should avoid it.

Flavour enhancer 631 (Disodium inosinate) – Rice crackers

Not permitted in foods for infants and young children. Gout sufferers avoid. Frequently contains MSG.

Preservative 202 – (Potassium sorbate) – Strawberry jam

Possible skin irritant, and may cause rashes, asthma and hyperactivity.

Sweetener 950 (Acesulphane potassium) – Strawberry jam

Possible carcinogen in humans, caused cancer in test animals. Suggested that it is worse than Aspartame or Saccharin.

Sweetener 952 (Cyclamic acid) – Strawberry jam

Known to cause migraines and other reactions, can be carcinogenic, caused damage to rats testicles and mouse embryos in tests. Banned in the US and UK due its links with cancer.

Colour 124 (Ponceau 4R) – Strawberry jam

Artificial red dye. Synthetic coal tar and azo dye, carcinogen in animals, can produce bad reactions in asthmatics and people allergic to aspirin; 1 in 10,000 people are allergic to 124. Banned in Canada, Norway, USA (in 1976 for cancer causing agents). Restricted in Sweden.

Masking poor quality ingredients and production methods

Artificial colourings, flavourings and additives are often employed to mask poor quality or cheap ingredients. Not only are they full of potentially harmful ingredients, they are a potentially less nutritious product.

In the tinned tomato example, you can’t help but ask: If the tomatoes require a firming agent, were they unacceptably soft to begin with? Were they handled poorly? Were they the cheaper ones to buy at market (this brand was 18 cents per can cheaper)? If the manufacturer is using it to gain a slight “firmness” edge over their competitors, we can do without. Just tomato in my tomatoes, thanks.

In the strawberry jam example, considering one brand can achieve a nice fresh red colour without added colouring, why does colouring need to be used by the next brand? Are they using poor quality  strawberries that have lost their natural strawberry colour? If it is used to achieve a better strawberry colour than strawberries are capable of, we can do without.

The food-oil industry is a prime example of additives being used to correct the damage caused by intensive manufacturing methods. Oils can be produced and stored with the exclusion of high temperatures, light and oxygen, to prevent deterioration. Unfortunately this method is relatively costly and gives the manufacturer a lower yield of oil per tonne of seed. If the seed is exposed to higher temperatures in the grinding and extraction phase, it releases more oil. The oil is often exposed to even higher temperatures in the deodorising phase to remove the nasty odours created in earlier steps.

The instability of many oils created by degumming, refining, bleaching and deodorising is partly due to exposure to excessively high temperatures. It is also, in part, due to the refining-out of the oil’s natural preserving agents – vitamin E and natural antioxidants. But don’t worry, they are not lost. They are collected, concentrated and sold for a large profit (vitamin E is one of the more expensive vitamins). In their place, synthetic antioxidants are added. Commonly:

Antioxidant 320 (Butylated hydroxy-anisole) – Listed above in rice crackers.

Antioxidant 321 (Butylated hydroxy-toluene (BHT)) – Petroleum derived; see Butylated hydroxy-anisole (320). McDonald’s eliminated BHT from their US products in 1986.

Antioxidant 310 (Propyl gallate) – Derived from nutgalls; may cause gastric or skin irritation, gallates are not permitted in foods for infants and small children because of their known tendency to cause the blood disorder, methemoglobinemia.

Antioxidant 319 (tertiary-Butylhydroquinone) – Petroleum based; the Hyperactive Children Support Group (Canada) recommends to avoid it. May cause nausea, vomiting, delirium. A dose of 5g is considered fatal.

Not on the label

There are a number of ways in which a manufacturer can hide ingredients from the trusting consumer, and foods may contain additives that are not declared on the label. This can occur when an ingredient of a food is a processed ingredient made up of many components. When this is the case, it is not a legal requirement that the manufacturer identify those components.

For example, beware of terms in the ingredients list like “blueberry flavour”. This just implies a list of ingredients, that combined, will taste like blueberries. Thanks to advances in modern science, blueberries are not required. Similarly, “natural flavour” will taste like natural (?), but doesn’t have to involve anything natural.

Here is a list of ingredients in the “strawberry flavour” component of a popular fast food restaurant’s strawberry milkshake. Note, there is not a single strawberry in sight.

Amyl acetate, amyl butyrate, amyl valerate, anethol, anisyl formate, benzyl acetate, benzyl isobutyrate, butyric acid, cinnamyl isobutyrate, cinnamyl valerate, cognac essential oil, diacetyl, dipropyl ketone, ethyl acetate, ethyl amyl ketone, ethyl butyrate, ethyl cinnamate, ethyl heptanoate, ethyl heptylate, ethyl lactate, ethyl methylphenylglycidate, ethyl nitrate, ethyl propionate, ethyl valerate, heliotropin, hydroxyphenyl-2-butanone (10 percent solution in alcohol), a-ionone, isobutyl anthranilate, isobutyl butyrate, lemon essential oil, maltol, 4-methylacetophenone, methyl anthranilate, methyl benzoate, methyl cinnamate, methyl heptine carbonate, methyl naphthyl ketone, methyl salicylate, mint essential oil, neroli essential oil, nerolin, neryl isobutyrate, orris butter, phenethyl alcohol, rose, rum ether, g-undecalactone, vanillin, and solvent.

Likewise, maple flavoured syrup doesn’t contain a single drop of real maple syrup and bacon flavoured chips don’t contain a scrap of bacon, etc, etc.

Here is a list of permitted ingredients in chewing gum base in the US. Manufacturers are not required to disclose their ingredients because the list is so long and the wrapping so small.

Natural masticatory substances of vegetable origin chicle, chiquibul, crown gum, gutta hang kang, massaranduba balata, massaranduba chocolate, nispero, rosidinha, Venezuelan chicle, jelutong, leche caspi (sorva), pendare, perillo, leche de vaca, Niger gutta, tuno, chilte, natural rubber (smoked sheet and latex solids), synthetic masticatory substances butadiene-styrene rubber, isobutylene-isoprene copolymer (butyl rubber), paraffin, (synthetic) petroleum wax, polyethylene, polyvinyl acetate. Plasticizing materials (softeners) glycerol ester of dimerized rosin, glycerol ester of partially hydrogenated gum or wood rosin, glycerol ester of polymerized rosin, glycerol ester of gum rosin, glycerol ester of tall oil rosin, glycerol ester of wood rosin, lanolin, methyl ester of rosin, partially hydrogenated, pentaerythritol ester of partially hydrogenated gum or wood resin, pentaerythritol ester of gum or wood rosin, rice bran wax, stearic acid, sodium and potassium stearates, synthetic and natural terpene resins, carrageena, carrageenan with polysorbate 80, salts of carrageenan, furcelleran, salts of furcelleran, gellan gum, xanthan gum.

What to do

If you are physically able to, don’t be afraid to make it yourself. Sauces, marinades, stocks, jams, pickles, chutneys, curries, mayonnaise, muesli, infused vinegars and oils, salad dressings, dips, pesto, etc. can all be made at home from pure ingredients. All of these products have been made for centuries without the need for harmful additives and can all be preserved using time tested methods such as heat or vacuum sealing, drying, freezing and preserving in vinegar or salt. Sure, it does take time, but it tastes so much better and is much better for you.

If you are going to purchase some processed foods, always check the label. Compare brands to try to gauge which ingredients are really necessary.

If you are not familiar with a particular ingredient, avoid the product until you can do some research. All the information you could need is freely available on the internet. Just do a Google search for the individual additive or look it up in a food additive guide such as:

If you can’t find a brand of a product you want that isn’t full of additives – don’t eat it!

Your health is your responsibility. Food manufacturers play on peoples’ trust and lack of understanding to make a profit. By taking an interest and being informed, it is easy to reduce such unnecessary toxic burden.