What Additives are in Your Food?

Do you know what’s in YOUR food?

Today, there is such easy availability of highly processed foods with common use of artificial additives. These chemicals are used for a variety of reasons including flavour enhancement, to add colour, alter texture or thickness or to increase shelf life. Food labels can be confusing and it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to know what is actually in our food let alone what this can do to our health!

More and more of us seem to be trying to do the right thing these days by eating organic or at least as local and fresh as possible. However, it’s not always possible to do this and trying to work out what is in pre-packaged ready meals or fast food can be a mine-field.

Additives are hidden ingredients that can have a huge impact on health. However, many of us at most only give the back of the label a quick eyeball, without ever really taking the time to understand what they are.

You may be taking care of yourself by taking more exercise and using organic or natural products on your body. So it should follow that it makes sense to educate yourself as to what you put in your body with your daily diet including benefits and risks to your health.

Here’s some information to help you on your way…

Food Additives

It’s important to note that not all food additives are bad for you and can actually be naturally occurring like salt and vinegar that are used as preservatives. For centuries saffron has been used as a natural colourant. Also, don’t assume that all processed foods have additives; take long life milk for example, this is processed but doesn’t have any chemicals added to it to increase its shelf life.

However, today, there are less and less processed foods that don’t have additives and this is because the average consumer is looking for convenience and foods that are sweetened or salted. Also, advertising is now slanted towards highly coloured foods and packaging to stand out over rival manufacturers’ offerings. It’s becoming more and more accepted that food needs to be fast, fun, attractive and tasty, maybe at a cost to our health.

Modern lifestyles have driven the demand for fast and processed food and this has increased availability. There are now so many companies offering a wide range of foods with chemical and natural additives and that’s why it’s so important to be able to distinguish what’s good for you and what’s not so good!

You don’t need a master class to become more informed about food additives. Start by checking the product label. Generally, if there is a long list that sounds like a chemical experiment then it’s probably a good idea to avoid. Also, take note that many specified ingredients could contain chemical additives but these are not listed. For example, margarine may be an ingredient but it will be listed as margarine and its particular ingredients will not be broken down.

A good rule is to become generally more informed as to the more common names of food additives before you do your food shop. One hugely important additive to food to be aware of are E-numbers. Are these all bad for you? Let’s have a look…

In Europe, E-numbers are assigned to food or in other words, additives are given a classification after testing and approval for use in food. Each additive will be assigned a number after the E. Colourings range from 100-199, Preservatives from 200-299, Antioxidants 300-399, Thickeners, emulsifiers and stabilisers 400-499 and so on. Some will be natural and some not. Take a look online at the most commonly problematic additives that you might wish to avoid.

For example, ‘The Southampton Six’ collection of food additives including E102 – Tartrazine and E110 – Sunset yellow, were highlighted in a 2007 study by The Food Standards Agency, on hyperactivity in children. Subsequently these additives are now required to be have more information on the label to warn parents of potential side effects. Other countries outside the EU are not required to add warnings therefore it’s important to be aware of these.

Try not to automatically eliminate foods from your diet that have E-numbers as some of these are natural additives and may not have a negative effect on health. All additives require regulation.

To ask the question are food additives safe is rather illogical and too broad a term to use. We should all try to use more common sense and avoid products with long lists of additives, seeking out more natural and whole foods.

Additives must be regulated and it has to be said that the overall effect on our health of combinations of these chemicals is as yet poorly understood. Many people are increasingly developing sensitivities and reactions to food additives and these can include –

  • Skin sensitivities
  • Digestive problems
  • Headaches
  • Allergic reactions
  • Breathing problems
  • Mood and behaviour issues

Food additives that may cause reactions to be mindful of are –

  • Aspartame – an artificial sweetener
  • Flavour enhancers – Monosodium Glutamate E621
  • Propionates – naturally occurring and found in foods like cheese
  • Sulphites
  • Antioxidants
  • Colourings

Preservatives, flavourings and colourings are probably the most well-known food additives. However, there are many others that serve particular purposes in foods. These might be acids, acidity regulators, and anti-caking, anti-foaming or bulking agents, humectants, sweeteners, thickeners and last but not least stabilisers.

The WHO reports that there are several thousand food additives in use currently and they assign acceptable daily intakes (ADI) after testing. The Food Standards Agency regulates and enforces laws in relation to food additives in the UK. They report that certain food additives will be used to make food safer as in nitrates and nitrites in meat products to reduce risk of food poisoning for example and sulphites in wine to minimise oxidation and increase freshness. However, some people have sensitivities to these additives.

We should remember that all foods contain chemicals and even natural chemicals may be toxic in differing degrees to those with food sensitivities. A lot of people are allergic to naturally occurring chemicals in nuts, shellfish and dairy products. However, generally it’s safe to say that for most of us, natural is best over synthetic with regard to chemicals in our food.