Dan Davis, Nutritional Therapist, | 12 March 2014
Food additives are a nutritional minefield. They have different roles in the food product they are used in. So you can already guess they are used in food that has been processed or a ready meal type product. Lets face it, an apple hasn't got a label full of ingredients!
The additives that you'll most commonly find on the food labels are usually grouped by the job they do in the product, and the following is a list of the likely ones you'll see grouped by their role in the food.
In the nutrition industry the role of antioxidants is heavily laid on as a superfood group. They are compounds found in many fruits and vegetables that research has to found to have many different health benefits from flu busting immunity boosters to cancer fighting properties. Examples of antioxidant compounds include vitamins A, C & E and some minerals like zinc and selenium. In the food processing industry, they are used to preserve food life by preventing fats going rancid or changing colour when they react with oxygen.
Used to thicken foods such as sauces. They can also act as gelling agents to stop food separating.
No explanation needed I'd imagine, but additives such as monosodium glutamate (MSG) are used in many take away food products to enhance natural flavours. More about MSG later.
Used to extend the shelf life of a product. Sometimes foods that aren't supposed to, stay fresh looking for days or weeks on end in reality.
These can be many times sweeter than natural sugars or be just a bulking sweetener with the similar taste as sugar. Used mostly when natural sugar is removed as advertised as a 'healthy' product.
Food additives can also add colour to food mostly to make it more appealing to look at. Not all numbers are bad but I want to highlight some of the ones that are thought to be harmful, especially to children. Some of these have even been banned in some parts of the western world, but sadly not in others!!
E951: Aspartame. Frequently found in diet soft drinks, sugar free gum, diet hot chocolate drinks, coffee or tea sweeteners, some breakfast cereals and many no, low or reduced sugar processed foods. As you can probably tell, this comes under the sweeteners section above, and has a cloud of controversy attached to it. Although there is lot of conflicting evidence on both sides there have been concerns over its links to incidence of cancer, brain tumours, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, anxiety, chronic fatigue syndrome, alzheimers and other mental health conditions. Even more worrying are the links to child behavioral conditions like ADHD, autism and hyper activity.
Other sweeteners commonly used are E954. Saccharin, which may have links with bladder cancer. Acesulfame-K, E950 which also has cancer links. Sorbitol, E420 which is used in chewing gums and may cause digestive problems like diarrhoea and bloating as does E421, Mannitol. E422, Glycerol may cause headaches, nausea, increased thirst and after blood sugar causing energy spikes and slumps.
Be aware, some very commonly used sweetening products don't have designated E numbers. Sucrolose, High Fructose Syrup and Xylitol may be on your food label but have been associated to bladder and other cancer, obesity, nausea, dizziness and type-2 diabetes. The dangerous thing about sweeteners is, that are highly addictive. Constant high amounts ingested have led to challenged brain chemistry which may lead to eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia and mental conditions including depression, anxiety and obsessive compulsion, especially in young people.
E102: Tartrazine. This synthetic yellow coloured dye is commonly used to colour fruit squash and cordials, soft drinks and sodas. Puddings, gum, sweets, ice lollies, and sauces to name just a few of a long list. Like aspartame there are links to hyperactivity, aggression and behavioral problems along with risks of allergic reactions, migraines and skin reactions. Its worth noting that its been thought that reactions are worse when used in conjunction with other additives such as E210, Benzoic acid. Special care should be taken if you're asthmatic or have an aspirin intolerance or sensitivity.
The reactions linked to Tartrazine are also linked to E103, E104, E 107, E110, E120, E122, E124, E127, E129, E131, E132, E133, E154, E155. All of these are used as colourings in food and some have been thought to increase risk of high or low blood pressure, hypertension, skin sensitivity, digestive problems, ulcers, insomnia and breathing problems.
Flavour Enhancers - to me this statement just installs the image of bland, processed food that needs something artificial to make it taste decent enough to be called 'food'. I'd personally like to add some herbs or spices but it seems some food manufactures prefer the unnatural route.
Look out for E622, Potassium Hydrogen Glutamate. E627, Guanosine. E631, Inosine and E621 Monosodium Glutamate (MSG). They, between them are linked to nausea, vomiting, stomach and digestive issues, breathlessness, asthmatic reactions and dizziness. MSG may even be linked to unconsciousness. MSG also may be responsible for unbalancing the receptors in the brain that tell us when we are full. Which may explain why after eating some take-away food, you're hungry half and hour later and go back for more.
Food decomposes. It goes off. Anything that grows or lives will have an optimum life span. So called food scientists have developed the use of chemicals to extend the shelf life of food produce. This has led to a change in shopping habits over the years and we now stock our cupboards long term rather than shop more frequently for fresh produce.
The following list of common preservatives have links to serious conditions including skin irritations, asthma and asthmatic hypersensitivity, anxiety, hyperactivity, gastric and digestive problems, nausea and ear, nose and throat problems.
E200-Sorbic Acid, E210-Benzoic Acid, E211-Sodium Benzoate, E212-Potassium Benzoate, E218-Methyl 4-benzoate, E219-Methyl 4-hydroxy benzoate, E220-Sulphur Dioxide, E221-Sodium Sulphite, E223-Sodium Metasulpahte, E224-Potassium Pyrosulphite, E226-Calcium Bisulphite, E230-Biphenyl, E239-Hexamine, E251-Sodium Nitrate, E252-Potassium Nitrate.
There are some E classified food additives that aren't only safe but may actually be beneficial to health. These are normally adapted from whole, natural foods and these days food and snack manufacturers are quick to highlight their inclusion on packaging in effort to pitch what is really unhealthy as a healthy choice. So be aware of misleading advertising.
The ultimate message is to take time to read the labels on your shopping. The ingredients hide behind these E numbers so make the effort to understand what each one means and make your choices with a little helpful knowledge.
The best of health,
Dan Davis is a Nutritional Therapist based in London and Kent in the UK and a member of the SingleMum.com.au Expert Panel. To learn more about Dan, please go to his Biography page here
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