Turn over a packet in your local supermarket and you’ll be bombarded with a list of numbers. Food additives are a fearsome, force to be reckoned with and most consumers don’t understand what they’re munching on. This week I aim to enhance your knowledge of food additives while preserving your sanity.
Food additives are chemicals that improve the flavour, texture, taste and shelf life of foods. No one wants to drink a glass of orange juice if the juice doesn’t look orange. Food additives can occur naturally in food liked nuts, shellfish, parmesan and tomatoes but most are added to processed products. Usually people that are sensitive to artificial additives are also sensitive to naturally occurring additives.
Additives are numbered according to their type. Those that improve the flavour of food have code numbers on labels that are in the 600s. Additives that add or restore colour to food are in the 100s. Preservatives that increase shelf life are in the 200s and antioxidants that prevent the deterioration of food are in the 300s.
Other food additives include emulsifiers that prevent oil and water separating like in mayonnaise in the 400s. Stabilisers which maintain the consistency of food like ice cream also in the 400s. Thickeners which increase the viscosity of foods like thickened cream in the 400s and 1000s and artificial sweeteners mostly in the 900s with a few bulk sweeteners in the 400s.
Processing agents like enzymes that pump up bread loaves and modified fish protein that control ice crystals in ice cream aren’t required to be listed. If an additive is present in a food but makes up less than 5 percent of the complete food or if the additive doesn’t perform a technological function it also doesn’t have to be listed. Some processed foods like canned, frozen foods and long-life milk don’t contain any additives at all.
Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) regulate and monitor food additives in Australia. All food additives undergo rigorous testing before they hit the market. The majority of food additives are tested in isolation rather than in combination with other additives. The long-term effect of ingesting a combination of different additives is currently unknown.
Food additives can cause reactions like diarrhoea, hyperactivity, insomnia, asthma, sinusitis, rhinitis, hives, rashes and swelling. Approximately, 50 of the 400 approved in Australia have been associated with adverse reactions. The most troublesome are the flavour enhancer MSG 621; food colours tartrazine 102, yellow 2G107, sunset yellow FCF110 cochineal; preservatives like benzoates, nitrates and sulphites and artificial sweeteners like aspartame 951.
The safety of many additives has been controversial. Food colours have been questioned after a large UK study showed a link to hyperactivity. They’ve also been linked to cancer in animals. The preservative benzene found in soft drink has been shown to be carcinogenic as has sodium nitrate in processed meats like ham and sausages. Artificial sweeteners have been linked to side effects and cancer. I would limit your intake of these particularly if you’re pregnant.
Food additives like salt have been around since humans began cooking. In most cases the benefit of additives outweighs the risk. Salmonella is far more dangerous than a preservative and being overweight is more hazardous than an artificial sweetener. Just watch the quantity you consume so that it doesn’t have an additive effect.