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Truths and Myths about Food Additives

Truths and Myths about Food Additives

by FoodMaestro | 3 August 2016

By: Rhiannon Lewis (Student Dietitian)

We have previously discussed in the last article what food additives (E numbers) are, what they are used for and how to find out if they are in the food you are buying. They often grab the attention of the media when new research comes to light which can spark controversy around using them. So let’s explore their benefits and risks a bit more…

Food additives are a new thing – Myth!

Food preservation using additives dates back to ancient times! The Romans used to add sulphites to food and drink to preserve them for longer. For example, they added it to wine to prevent it from turning into vinegar!

They are unsafe – Myth!

When most people think of E numbers they think of something unhealthy or unnatural. So they are bad for you, right? It’s good news – this is an incorrect but common assumption. E numbers are basically any food additive deemed safe for consumption by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). The EFSA also regulate the amount of E numbers that can be added and to which foods particular E numbers can be added.

Some E numbers are healthy – Truth!

Vitamin C– E300. In case you cannot believe your eyes I will restate, it is a vitamin! It helps us to absorb iron from our diet which helps prevent anaemia, it aids wound healing and acts as an antioxidant which can help to reduce the risk of cancer. Some foods it is added to include sausages, jams and condensed milk but is also naturally present in citrus fruits and dark leafy greens.

Butyl hydroxy anisol (BHA) – E320 – is manufactured but also an antioxidant. It is often added to raisins, processed cheese, instant soups and peanut butter to prevent them from going rancid.

Cellulose – E460. Cellulose is a type of fibre. Fibre can help to reduce to risk of heart disease, stroke and bowel cancer and is naturally present in wholegrains such as brown rice, wholemeal bread and rolled oats. Its role as a food additive is to stabilise food. For example, preventing pre-packed grated cheese from clumping.

Low-calorie sweeteners are unsafe – Myth!

Aspartame – E951 – is one of the most commonly used sweeteners. It can be up to 200 times sweeter than sugar! It has been made rather famous – or infamous – as the media picked up on studies which suggested a link between aspartame and cancer.  Cancer Research UK has stated that low-calorie sweeteners do not cause cancer. Also, the EFSA reviewed the evidence in 2013 surrounding the safety of aspartame and concluded that it was safe for consumption.

MSG causes an allergic reaction in everyone – Myth!

Monosodium glutamate – E621 – is the sodium salt of an animo acid called glutamic acid (amino acids are the building blocks of protein). It naturally exists in some vegetables such as broccoli, mushrooms and tomatoes as well as cheese. Scientific research has failed to prove that MSG causes such reactions and so is deemed safe for the general population; but a small number of people may have intolerances to MSG.

The leading causes of food allergies are E numbers – Myth!

The leading sources of food allergies are actually milk, egg, shellfish, fish, soy, nuts and wheat.

Sulphite food additives can adversely affect some asthma sufferers – Truth!

Not all asthma sufferers will experience an adverse reaction to sulphites such as sulphur dioxide – E220 – often used to preserve wine. However, in the EU, companies are required to list sulphites in the ingredients list (as other food additives are) in order to alert asthma suffers to avoid the food as it can cause wheezing, tight chest and cough in some.

Food colouring causes hyperactivity in children – Up for debate!

The ‘Southampton Six’ includes Tartrazine (E 102), Ponceau 4 R (E 124), Sunset yellow (E 110), Carmoisine (E 122), Quinoline yellow (E 104) and Allura Red (E 129). They are added to foods such as soft drinks, bakery products and desserts. They have been a controversial topic since a study published in 2007 by Southampton University made a link between these colours to hyperactivity. The EFSA have prioritised this as part of their review and so far, has lowered regulated amounts of 3 of the 6 colours. In addition, food labelling of food products containing these are to include “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children”.