Chemicals and Additives in Foods

chemicals and additives in foods

Some substances added to the food supply are deemed “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) without so much as a quick review by the Food and Drug Administration (US). – Centre for Science in the Public Interest.

There are several thousand chemicals and additives in foods today, the majority are safe and some are natural. The ones which are approved and listed as safe differ from country to country. There are many banned by the UK which are still widely used in the US, and some used in the UK which are banned in a few European countries.

In the UK additives are tested and monitored by The Food Standards Agency (FSA) and, at present, must be on the EU approved list. The FSA states, “EU legislation states that most additives used in foods must be labelled clearly in the list of ingredients, either by name or by an E number. If an additive has an E number, it means it has passed EU safety tests”. In the US this is done by the Food and Drug Administration Agency (FDA).

The FSA lists food additives as the following:-

  • antioxidants – used in food prepared with fats or oils to protect them against deterioration caused by rancidity.
  • colours – used to make food look more attractive or to replace colours which have been lost during processing
  • emulsifiers, stabilizers, gelling agents and thickeners – used to help mix ingredients together that would usually separate, eg oils and water
  • flavour enhancers – used to bring out the flavour of food without adding a flavour of their own
  • preservatives – used to keep food safe for longer
  • sweeteners – used to replace sugar in certain foods, eg energy reduced products

There are many additives which have been passed as safe by these agencies that have become highly controversial due to some nutritionists and medical professionals speaking out against them. Some experts are concerned tests are not thorough enough and that some safety standards are out of date.

Below I have listed a few to look out for, but for a more detailed list click on the link at the end of the article.

E102 (Tartrazine), E104 (Quinoline-yellow), E110 (Sunset yellow FCF), E122 (Carmoisine), E124 (Ponceau 4R), E129 (Allura Red)

Food colourings used in a number of foods, including soft drinks, sweets, cakes and ice cream. The NHS (National Health Service in the UK) website says that these six food colours are most closely lined to hyperactivity and ADHD in children. A scientific study in 2007 linked certain artificial colourings and the preservative Sodium Benzoate (E211) – see below – to increased hyperactivity in some children.

E211 – Sodium Benzoate

Preservative used in fruit juice, carbonated soft drinks and pickles. The Food Standards Agency says studies have linked the additive to hyperactive behaviour in children. The Centre for Science in the Public Interest, a non-profit consumer watchdog (CSPI) claims it may cause hives, asthma or other allergic reactions in some people (see above).

E150a – Plain Caramel, E150b – Caustic Sulphite Caramel, E150c – Ammonia Caramel, E150d -Sulphite Ammonia Caramel

Colouring used in Colas, baked goods, pre-cooked meats, soy and Worcestershire sauces, chocolate-flavoured products and beer. The CSPI says that caramel colouring, when produced with ammonia, contains contaminants, 2-methylimidazole and 4-methylimidazole and that studies carried out in 2007 by the US National Toxicology Program, found that those two contaminants caused cancer in male and female mice and possibly in female rats.

Then in 2011, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a division of the the World Health Organization, concluded that 2- and 4- methylimidazole are “possibly carcinogenic to humans”. The CSPI advises avoiding or drinking less colas and other ammonia-caramel-coloured beverages.

The food and chemical industries have said for decades that all food additives are well tested and safe. And most additives are safe. However, the history of food additives is riddled with additives that, after many years of use, were found to pose health risks. The moral of the story is that when someone says that all food additives are well tested and safe you should take their assurances with a grain of salt

Centre for Science in the Public Interest

E250 – Sodium Nitrite, E251 – Sodium Nitrate

Preservative, colouring and flavouring used in bacon, ham, frankfurters, luncheon meats, smoked fish, corned beef. The CSPI recommends avoiding this additive as there is evidence linking it to cancer. It also says to be sceptical of labels on some “natural” hot dogs and other cured meats that brag about “no added nitrite.” While they may not contain added sodium nitrite, they somethimes are made with celery powder or celery juice, which are naturally high in nitrite.

E310 – Propyl Gallate

Antioxidant preservative used in vegetable oil, meat products, potato sticks, chicken soup base, chewing gum. The CSPI claims that the results of studies published by the US government may be indicative of an”endocrine disruptor”, as well as a carcinogen. It recommends avoiding this additive, stating it needs further research.

E320 – Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA)

An antioxidant that prevents oils going rancid and used in some cereals, crisps and chewing gum. The CSPI says that some studies indicate it is safe, but other research shows a link to cancer in rats, mice and hamsters and should be avoided. They say the the US Department of Health and Human Services considers BHA to be “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.” Nevertheless, the Food and Drug Administration still permits BHA to be used in food.

E407 – Carrageenan

Sue Quinn comments in The Telegraph in 2015 that this thickener and stabilizer is used in a variety of processed foods, as well as in shampoo, cosmetic creams and pet food. She adds, “It has been linked to ulcers and gastrointestinal cancer and experts say its safety needs further investigation.”

E950 – Acesulfame K, E951 – Aspartame, E954 – Saccharin, E952 – Cyclamic Acid, E955 – Sucralose, A961 – Neotame, Alitame

Sally Fallon (Nourishing Traditions) says that “aspartame (or Nutra-sweet) is a neurotoxic substance that has been associated with numerous health problems including dizziness, visual impairment, severe muscle aches, numbing of extremities, pancreatitis, high blood pressure, retinal hemorrhaging, seizures and depression. It is suspected of causing birth defects and chemical disruptions in the brain. Researchers at Utah State University found that even at low levels aspartame induces adverse changes in the pituitary glands of mice. The pituitary gland is the master gland upon which the proper function of all biochemical processes depend. When aspartame is digested it breaks down into the amino acids phenylalinine and aspartic acid, plus methanol. Methanol, or wood alcohol, is a known poison . . . . the safety lever of methanol has never been determined.”

The CSPI say it is best to avoid Aspartame, Adesulfame K, Saccharin and Sucralose.

A study in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine in 2019 found that consumption of two or more glasses of artificially sweetened soft drinks a day increased deaths from circulatory diseases. And a 2008 study by scientists at Purdue University showed that artificial sweeteners alone could result in higher blood pressure, weight gain, and increased risk of diabetes, stroke and heart disease in rats.

E621 – Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)

Flavour enhancer used in many foods including soups, salad dressings, chips, frozen entrees, restaurant foods. This additive has had some controversy. Some people have complained of adverse reactions to it including headache, nausea, weakness, burning sensation in the back of the neck and forearms, wheezing, changes in heart rate, and difficulty breathing.

The CSPI states, “the use of MSG allows companies to reduce the amount of real ingredients in their foods – people who believe they are sensitive to MSG should be aware that other ingredients, such as natural flavouring, Torula yeast, and hydrolyzed vegetable protein, also contain glutamate.” Sally Fallon (Nourishing Traditions) describes it as a neurotoxic substance and that “animal studies have linked MSG with brain lesions, retinal degeneration and obesity.”

Additional reading:

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