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What’s really in your food?

The term ‘food additive’ makes us think of scientists in white coats adding chemicals to our food, perhaps unnecessarily. Even though we are told there are additives, what exactly are manufacturers and food processors putting in our food? And should we be worried? Senior nutritionist Rose Carr investigates.

The main reasons manufacturers use food additives are to slow food spoilage and keep food safe to eat, to help with processing or to improve the flavour or appearance of food. All food ingredients, including any additives, must be listed on a food label. They will be listed by their class name (such as colour or thickener) followed by either the additive name or code number in brackets. For example: thickener (415) or thickener (Xanthan gum). Some code numbers may have an ‘E’ in front of them, which just means the food has been labelled for selling in the European Union. To find out what additive a code number is referring to, or the number for an additive, click here.

Some nutrition experts would argue salt (sodium chloride) is the most dangerous food additive in our food supply. While it’s true we need some salt in our diets, most of us get much more than the upper limit of just one teaspoon a day. There is strong evidence that the amount of salt consumed in a typical Western diet is linked to the development of cardiovascular disease. We get over 75 per cent of our salt from manufactured or prepared foods, where it’s used as a preservative, processing aid and flavour enhancer.

The good news? We can train our palates to prefer less salt on our food, and some manufacturers are gradually reducing the amount of salt in their processed foods. But this is one additive we should all be looking out for and aiming to reduce.

Preservatives are widely used to help keep food fresh and prevent spoilage by mould, bacteria and yeast.

Some names or numbers you might see: sodium benzoate (211), calcium propionate (282), sodium nitrate (251), calcium sorbate (203), potassium sorbate (202).

Ingredient spotlight: Sodium nitrate

  • What does it do? Nitrates and nitrites are commonly used as preservatives in cured meats, such as bacon and ham, to prevent botulism. They maintain the colour of the meats, and they are used in cheese processing.
  • What to look for on the label: Preservative (251) or preservative (sodium nitrate). Other nitrates and nitrites include potassium nitrite (249), sodium nitrite (250), and potassium nitrate (252).
  • Is it safe? There is some concern that nitrates and nitrites, from any source, may be involved in the development of cancer. Vegetables, however, are the biggest source of nitrates and nitrites in our diet and we know vegetables are good for our health. The contribution of nitrates and nitrites from processed foods is small and there is currently no evidence they pose a health risk.
  • This does not mean, however, processed meats are recommended. The World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) advises us to avoid processed meats because of their link with a higher risk of colorectal cancer. Although the link is clear, the specific reason for it is not. Higher consumption of processed meats is also linked to higher incidence of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
  • Our advice: Limit processed meat in your diet, including those meats containing nitrates.

Flavour enhancers are used to improve the flavour or taste of the food.

Some names or numbers you might see: monopotassium L-glutamate (622), calcium glutamate (623), monoammonium L-glutamate (624), glycine (640), L-leucine (641).

Ingredient spotlight: Monosodium L-glutamate or MSG

  • What does it do? Glutamate has a unique flavour which is a savouriness known as ‘umami’. MSG, by adding umami, brings out the flavour of foods.
  • What to look for on a label: Flavour enhancer (621), Monosodium L-glutamate (621) or MSG (621).
  • Is it safe? For the vast majority of people, MSG is entirely safe. The main component of MSG is an amino acid called glutamic acid or glutamate which is found naturally in meat, mushrooms, cheese and tomatoes. There is a very small number of people intolerant to MSG and it can cause an adverse reaction for them. If you believe you are one of those people, you should avoid MSG and possibly the other glutamates (622, 623, 624, 625). MSG is also permitted to be added to freshly-prepared restaurant food so if you are concerned, you should ask whether MSG or other glutamates have been added or whether it is contained in other ingredients.
  • Our advice: Most of us don’t need to worry about MSG, but if you think you’re sensitive to it, avoid MSG and other glutamates.

Colours are used to make foods look more appealing. They can help identify flavours, make food look brighter, or restore food colour lost during processing. Some approved colours are synthetic but there are also natural colours, mainly derived from plants. Chlorophyll provides green colouring, carotenoids give red to yellow, and flavanoids, some of which are from red grapes and beetroot, provide red to blue colours.

Some names or numbers you might see: curcumin or turmeric (100), chlorophyll (140), caramel 1 (150a), carotene (160a), beet red (162), anthocyanins or grape skin extract or blackcurrant extract (163), saffron or crocetin or crocin (164), tartrazine (102), sunset yellow FCF (110), brilliant blue FCF (133), green S (142), brown HT (155).

Ingredient spotlight: Cochineal

  • What does it do? Makes food red.
  • What to look for on a label: Cochineal or carmines or carminic acid (120).
  • Is it safe? While it’s true food colours attract controversy (see box page 26), all food colours approved for use by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) have been found to be safe when used in the amounts approved. Cochineal is a natural colour derived from a small insect native to South America.
  • Our advice: The colourings in use in New Zealand are safe. However, colouring is not a necessary additive to food, and there are products available without colourings if you choose to avoid them.

These include emulsifiers (to keep oil and water-based ingredients mixed together), stabilisers, thickeners, humectants (to keep food moist) raising agents, gelling agents and foaming agents. These additives improve the texture of the food.

Some names or numbers you might see: agar (406), carrageenenan (407), guar gum (412), pectins (440), xylitol (967), isomalt (953), stearic acid or fatty acid (570).

Ingredient spotlight: Sodium bicarbonate

  • What does it do? We know it as baking soda – it’s often used as a raising agent in bakery products to make them rise, and as an anticaking agent to stop particles sticking together. It may also be used as an acidity regulator to adjust the acid or alkaline level in food or to maintain a sour or sharp taste.
  • What to look for on the label: Anticaking agent (500), acidity regulator (500), raising agent (500), sodium bicarbonate or sodium carbonate.
  • Is it safe? While we wouldn’t recommend taking it in large amounts, baking soda is considered very safe: dissolved in water, it’s even used to relieve indigestion.
  • Our advice: These additives typically improve the texture of foods, and don’t pose any health problems.

Antioxidants are used with foods containing oils or fats to keep them from oxidising and going rancid. They also slow down colour or flavour changes.

Some names or numbers you might see: ascorbic acid (300) also known as vitamin C, alpha-tocopherol (307) also known as vitamin E, butylated hydro-xyanisole (BHA) (320), butylated hydroxytuolene (BHT) (321), lecithin (322), citric acid (330), tartaric acid (334).

Ingredient spotlight: Ascorbic acid

  • What does it do? Ascorbic acid helps retain colour, for example, of fruits and vegetables during canning. Ascorbic acid (vitamin C) may also be added to replace nutrients lost in processing, for example, with fruit juice that has been dehydrated and rehydrated.What to look for on a label Antioxidant (300) or antioxidant (ascorbic acid). Related compounds which are also antioxidants are sodium ascorbate (301), calcium ascorbate (302), potassium ascorbate (303) and ascorbyl palmitate (304).
  • Is it safe? Like many ingredients, vitamin C can be toxic in very high amounts, but at levels approved for use in our food there are no safety concerns.
  • In drinks that contain both ascorbic acid and sodium benzoate (preservative number 211), a small amount of benzene can be formed. A 2006 investigation by FSANZ found a small number of drinks (seven per cent of those tested) had benzene levels above the standard for drinking water. Although the safety concern is minimal, recommendations were made to help minimise benzene formation, so this is not something we need to be concerned about.
  • Our advice: There is no cause for concern with these ingredients.

New Zealand law does not require a food manufacturer to identify the origin of the contents used in the bag, can or box their product comes in. It does not require point of sale country of origin information to be provided by retailers. However, many Kiwis would like to see this labelling on the foods they buy. In a recent poll of 730 Healthy Food Guide readers, 46 per cent said they always look for Country of Origin Labelling (CoOL) on products and 56 per cent said they would be prepared to pay more for food that had clear CoOL information.

What’s the difference between ‘Made in New Zealand’ and ‘Product of New Zealand’?

‘Product of New Zealand’ means it was grown here. ‘Made in New Zealand’ means it was either grown here or processed here, from ingredients that could have come from New Zealand or anywhere.

What does ‘Made in New Zealand from local and/or imported ingredients’ mean?

Manufacturers are not legally required to put this information on a can or packet. ‘Made in New Zealand’ does not automatically mean the food contents of the can or pack were actually grown in New Zealand. For example, a can of baked beans with ‘Made in New Zealand’ on it could have been made from imported tomatoes and imported beans. Once the tomatoes and beans are made into ‘baked beans’ here in New Zealand, the manufacturer is legally entitled to put ‘Made in New Zealand’ on the can, even though neither of the food products in the can were grown here.

What about the ‘cocktail’ effect? Are we consuming dangerous amounts and combinations of additives by eating different foods which contain them?

This theory suggests there may be a multiplier effect when we consume a range of additives together, and they may interact with each other to our detriment. It is reassuring, however, to know that our food is naturally a ‘cocktail of chemicals’ and our bodies are well-accustomed to dealing with a mix of substances. The same processes of storing, neutralising, breaking down and excreting occur when we encounter new substances.

In the UK, the ‘Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment’ reviewed all available science surrounding multiple exposures to pesticide and other chemical residues in food. They found there were no cumulative effects or interactions when it comes to chemical additives, so any adverse reactions were highly unlikely.

John Reeve, Principal Adviser (Toxicology) at New Zealand Food Safety Authority (NZFSA) says: “New work is always being published and regulatory authorities… are always watching for anything that might change our views, and we are ready to act quickly if necessary.”

Our advice: Currently there is no reason for concern.

I have read about pesticide residues in produce in other countries. Should we worry about this in New Zealand?

No, not for our health. Testing by NZFSA shows there are no food safety concerns from any chemical residues in our foods. Last year the NZFSA analysed 120 commonly eaten foods to estimate our total exposure to chemical residues and contaminants. Maximum residue limits are set as an indicator of good agricultural practice, and these limits are usually hundreds of times lower than an amount that would cause a safety concern.

Our advice: We agree with Dr John Reeve, toxicologist at NZFSA, when he says: “The only worry people should have about fresh fruit and vegetables is that they are eating enough.”

Could I be allergic to natural food chemicals?

It is possible. Our foods naturally contain a wide array of chemical compounds, some of which some people are intolerant to. Some of the more common chemicals to cause problems are salicylates, amines and glutamate.

Salicylates are found in many fruits and vegetables as well as nuts, honey, tea, coffee, wine and beer. Amines are high in foods such as chocolate, wine, cheese and beer; some fruits and vegetables can be high in amines as well. Glutamate is one building block of protein. It’s found in MSG (621), but is also very high in ‘tasty/savoury’ foods such as tasty cheese, yeast extracts, soy sauce, gravies and tomato paste. Some fruits and vegetables are also very high in glutamate. Then there are FODMAPs (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols) which are found in a wide range of foods. FODMAPs can cause bloating in some people when consumed in amounts they can’t tolerate (see Are you intolerant to common foods?).

Our advice: If you think you may have a problem with intolerance, see your GP for referral to a dietitian.

Are we still using additives here that are banned overseas?

Up until recently, there were no food additives banned overseas that were allowed here. In November 2008, however, the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) instituted a voluntary ban on six food colours, all of which are permitted in New Zealand.Research suggested that consumption of mixes of certain artificial food colours and the preservative sodium benzoate could be linked to increased hyperactivity in some children. The artificial colours implicated were: tartrazine (102), quinoline yellow (104), sunset yellow FCF (110), azorubine or carmoisine (122), ponceau 4R (124) and allura red AC (129). These colours have been used in a wide range of foods that tend to be brightly coloured, including soft drinks, sweets, cakes and ice cream.

The NZFSA has not banned these colours here, as it does not believe the research was robust. They say it’s very difficult to hide food colouring from parents in this type of research, so their expectations and beliefs have the potential to strongly influence how they rate children’s behaviour.

The FSA has taken a pragmatic stance, given the media hype which surrounded the issue in the UK, and the so-called ‘ban’ is entirely voluntary. The FSA advises parents that “it is important to remember that hyperactivity is also associated with many other factors, so dietary advice may help manage hyperactive behaviour but may not be the total solution. Other factors include premature birth, genetics and upbringing.” The research authors also point out that removing the colours “would not be a panacea for ADHD”.

Our advice: While the science still cannot establish any solid link between food colourings and behaviour in children, it’s common sense that if you believe your child is affected by food colourings then it’s a good idea to avoid them. It’s also worth remembering the types of foods which contain colourings often also have high levels of salt, sugar and saturated fat, so it’s not a great idea for any of us to eat these types of food too often.

Surely a natural product (like butter) is better for me than one full of chemicals (like margarine)?

While we are great fans of unprocessed foods like vegetables, fruits and whole grains, it’s not always true something ‘natural’ must be better for us. Salt is natural, but it is one of the few food additives where there is good evidence that it’s harmful to our health in amounts commonly consumed. A reduced-fat spread is a lot better for us than butter. It’s been well documented that a diet high in saturated fat increases cholesterol levels and the risk of heart disease. Less saturated fat in our diets is one of the important factors in the dramatic reduction in our rate of heart disease since the 1970s. Butter contains 55 per cent saturated fat whereas a reduced-fat spread may have anything from less than one to 16 per cent saturated fat.

Our advice: We recommend you are wary of claims that ‘natural’ is always better and ‘processed’ is always bad.

In order to have food that’s safe, convenient and inexpensive, food additives are a part of our modern lives. After researching the subject for this article, we are reassured that most of us are safe from adverse effects because of additives in our food. We are lucky in New Zealand to have a very robust system of checks and balances which keep track of what goes into our food, and makes changes where necessary.

There are some ingredients – including natural ones – which can cause problems for some people, and if you or a family member are one of these people, you may prefer to avoid certain additives, as outlined in this article. The rest of us do have a choice: if we want to avoid additives in our food, we can do so, but we’ll need to be prepared to work for it. For example, most of our everyday bread will contain preservatives, so if we don’t want preservative in our bread we can pay extra for an artisan loaf which only keeps for a day or two, or we can make our own bread. We also have power as consumers to let manufacturers know what we want. Food safety is essential, but some additives, like colourings, are not, and if we don’t buy products containing them, they are unlikely to stay on the shelves.

Finally, we believe that if we are worried about what our food is doing to us long-term, it’s more important when we’re choosing what to eat and feed our families to pay attention to the things that are proven to be doing harm: excessive amounts of saturated fat, salt and sugar.

How food scientists bake a cake

Warm the glycerol esters of fatty acids (in butter) to increase their plasticity, then cream with sucrose (sugar) to trap air particles in the mixture. Beat the phosphtidyl-ethanolamine (in eggs) into the matrix until it becomes a foam emulsion. Add amylopectin and amylase (in flour), sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) and gluten (in flour). Blend until cross-linking between disulphide bonds in the gluten create a rubbery texture, with air trapped in the mix. Heat. The air and water particles will now expand and the foam rise. Ovalbumin (in eggs) will coagulate and stiffen the lining of the cells. Amylopectin and amylase undergo gelatinisation to further stiffen the mixture. The foam will expand to become a solid gel with a light, porous mixture. Yum!

Modified from: In The Mix – Additives and Ingredients for Healthy Living. Food Additives and Ingredients Association.

Did you know? There are over 500,000 natural chemicals in food, including natural pesticides to protect a plant from attack, and few of these have been tested.

First published: Aug 2010



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