The Problem with Food Additives ...

What, asks Margaret Moss, do they add to my food?

We can have problems with foods for various reasons ...

The food itself
The food, by its very nature, may be harmful for us; it may change while stored; or various chemicals may be added. It may grow in soil that is contaminated with lead or arsenic, or it may be irrigated by water high in arsenic. Grains, fruit and vegetables are sprayed with chemicals, and these may combine to be far more potent than one chemical alone. Fish may be caught in areas of sea that are contaminated with mercury and arsenic. Meat may contain antibiotic residues. Farmed fish contains a chemical used to kill sea lice. Plastic containers and linings of tins may contain bisphenol A. Dried fruit and cheese rind can contain mineral oil. Oh dear! We have to eat, and we just have to find the best food we can, and treat it carefully. Compared with those in other countries, we are lucky to have access to information, and to have choice available in the shops and markets.

Food may be prepared by someone who does not know how to make the food safe. Eggs need enough cooking to kill off salmonella. Cashew nuts should be cooked briefly, to destroy a harmful chemical. Kidney beans should be thoroughly boiled, to deal with the lectin in them. A slow cooker is not adequate. Green potatoes should be thrown away, because of the solanine in them. The end of a mango near the stalk should be cut off and thrown away. Cassava is an important food in parts of the world where other food crops sometimes fail. It is soaked for a long time in a stream, and thoroughly boiled, without a lid, as this removes much of the cyanide.

We may make IgE antibodies to egg protein, making us allergic to it. The sugars in milk, sugar cane, sugar beet and fruit may damage our arteries. The sugar in sugar cane, sugar beet and fruit may encourage the growth of cancers, and their spread to other sites. Some aged foods may be a problem for some of us, for example, the tyramine in mature cheese. Mould may be a problem, if bread, nuts or cheese are kept too long. Peanuts can be expected to have mould on them, and it is best to roast them, and remove the skins. If we do not have enough activity of an enzyme called rhodenase, we may have a problem with cyanide in foods such as almonds and spinach. Chickpeas contain a nervous system and bone toxin. Eating them occasionally may be acceptable, but in famine, people rely on them, and this can lead to paralysis. Rhubarb, spinach and sesame seeds contain oxalic acid, which binds to minerals, causing them to be excreted. Eating a little of many foods is wise, as we are more likely to cope with a small amount of various toxins, rather than a lot of one. Also a varied diet is more likely to provide some of all the nutrients we need.

And additives ...
We may have problems with additives, substances deliberately added to foods, to add colour, to make them more tasty, to make them sweeter, to make them last longer, or to break down big fat globules into little ones, so that the fat and water do not separate. Some of these additives are natural, like the colourings annatto and curcumin, and the sweetener agave. Others are synthetic, such as the colourings tartrazine and sunset yellow, and the sweetener aspartame. In Europe, some additives have E numbers. Some E numbers are for good additives, like ascorbic acid, the antioxidant vitamin C, which is E300, or vitamin B2, the yellow vitamin, which is E101. However, unless you know what the E numbers mean, you should be suspicious.

Some additives are used to make foods look better, taste more, or taste sweeter. We do not need these. BHA and BHT are fat soluble antioxidants, but vitamin E can be used instead. However, if you want to buy lemon juice in a bottle to use over a period of weeks, it will have to contain a preservative, or it will not keep. The better alternative is to squeeze a lemon. Sodium nitrate and nitrite are in most ham, gammon, bacon and sausage, and in some Dutch cheese. They have been linked with cancers of the digestive tract. Most wine contains sulphite.

Some E numbers I avoid

E102 tartrazine
E104 quinoline yellow
E107 yellow 2G
E110 sunset yellow
E120 cochineal, carmine or carminic acid
E122 carmoisine
E123 amaranth
E124 ponceau 4R
E127 erythrosine
E128 red 2G
E129 allura red
E131 patent blue V
E132 indigo carmine
E133 brilliant blue FCF
E142 green S
E151 brilliant black 
E154 brown FK
E155 chocolate brown HT
E173 aluminium
E174 silver
E175 gold
E180 litholrubine


E210 benzoic acid
E211 sodium benzoate
E212 potassium benzoate
E213 calcium benzoate
E220 sulphur dioxide
E221 sodium sulphite
E222 sodium bisulphite
E223 sodium metabisulphite
E224 potassium metabisulphite
E226 calcium sulphite
E227 calcium bisulphite
E250 sodium nitrite
E251 sodium nitrate

E320 butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)
E321 butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)

Emulsifier, thickener, used for making suspensions and gels

E407 carrageenan

Flavour enhancers

E620 L-glutamic acid
E621 monosodium glutamate

Coating agent

E905 mineral hydrocarbons


E950 acesulphame K
E951 aspartame
E954 saccharin
E955 sucralose

I could go on....

Is it the food – or is it the additive?
When people give up milk or wheat, they may improve because the wheat lectin or lactose troubled them, but they may improve because the prepared foods they used to eat had harmful additives in them. They reduced these foods, as many had wheat or milk in them, and their health improved. The danger is that they then find prepared foods free from milk or wheat, but which contain the same additives, and their health deteriorates. Someone may decide to avoid sugar, but buy products containing agave, which is worse, because of its high fructose content.

And what about supplements?
People often say to me that they have bought supplements from a reputable manufacturer, and yet these can contain the same sunset yellow or carrageenan as many prepared foods, and it is not even always labelled. For example, I recently discovered unlabelled sunset yellow in a brand of coenzyme Q10. The company tells me that the amount is legal. Yes, but so are cigarettes. Our ability to detoxify is individual. What one person tolerates another doesn’t. People who are very sensitive are likely to refuse to be part of a research project. So the safe levels may be based on people who are not sensitive, who were happy to be experimented on. If we draw a graph of the number of people with different heights, we find a few short ones, many of moderate height, and a few tall ones. This makes a bell-shaped graph. There is a tendency to assume that other human characteristics, like the ability to detoxify, also fit a bell shaped curve, but that is not true for detoxification. A minority of us are much less good at making toxins safe than the average person.

One or two? Quick acting or slow?
We know that some children can tolerate one additive, or another, but not the two together. Some additives may have an immediate effect, like hyperactivity from tartrazine, whereas others may kill you slowly, like carrageenan, which is linked with cancer and ulcerative colitis. Carrageenan is a natural additive, from seaweed, but being natural doesn’t make it safe. It is in various milk products, and some people will feel better on giving up milk products, because they are reducing their intake of carrageenan. Unfortunately it is in some free-from products, and some nutritional supplements, in particular, some of those vegetarian capsules that contain liquids.

And what about contamination?
Additives may be a problem themselves, but they can also be contaminated. Sunset yellow can be contaminated with the banned Sudan red food dye, or with aluminium, which harms the brain. Some high fructose corn syrup is contaminated with mercury.

And total load?
Researchers tend to test one substance at a time, and assume that, if someone is sensitive, they react every time they consume it. However, whether we react depends on the total load on the body at the time. If we are subject to a heavy load from pollen, allergenic foods, pesticides, wet paint, hair dye, Wi-Fi, and cordless phones, we may react to an additive we tolerate at other times. People often report coping with foods better when relaxed on holiday, in an unpolluted place. Two or more substances may multiply a harmful effect.

Some people do not react obviously badly to something they have every day, but stopping for four or five days and then trying it may unmask a problem. This is what happens with cigarettes. However, others may cope with something consumed occasionally, but start reacting if the substance is in the diet every day for a couple of months. Studies do not take this into consideration.

The American hormone specialist, Robert Lustig, tells us that his young patients with complex allergy histories recover when they limit their consumption of fructose. I wonder whether this is simply because of the fructose, or whether it is also because avoiding sugar and corn syrup in processed foods greatly reduces their intake of additives and hydrogenated oil. Yes, fructose is harmful in itself, but reducing it also reduces the children’s total chemical load.

Reading labels
Reading labels isn’t easy. Companies have to put so much information on labels that the print may be too small to be read without a magnifying glass, and how many of us take their magnifying glass out shopping? People sometimes show me packets, saying that the foods they bought are free from additives, when they are not. If a food just says it is free from sweeteners and preservatives, then the chances are that it contains flavourings and colourings. Another problem with labels is when a product is reformulated, but the old labels are used up on the new product, or the new labels are used before the old product has been stopped.

Prescription and OTC drugs
Prescription and over the counter drugs and treatments from hospitals and chemists’ shops can be expected to contain additives. They have to be different shapes and colours, so that they can be identified, if a child is poisoned or someone takes an overdose. However, do you want a fibre supplement containing aspartame? The aspartate in it over-excites the brain, and the methanol in it converts to formaldehyde in the body, just as in drinkers of methylated spirits. Do you want an antacid containing aluminium, or a vitamin containing sodium laurel sulphate? I asked a drug company if they could make a milk-free hormone pill for one of my clients’ doctor’s prescription. They said they could, but then told a colleague of mine that they would just grind up the tablets, and reconstitute them!

Eat home cooked....
Some free from food is useful, like the organic Rice Dream 'milk'. Cashew nut butter on corn thins can be useful in lunch boxes, or when camping. However, many schoolchildren have asked me for help, to design a packet food for those with allergies. The main message to them has to be: “Eat home cooked food like your great-grandmother used to prepare. It doesn’t have to take a lot of time.” Maybe reading labels is more trouble than simple cooking. It seems that, in some schools, food technology teaches children to keep to prepared food. The parents of an autistic child brought me wrappers off the tinned food, which was all he ate. Some parents came to me, saying they didn’t know what food to prepare for their baby, and so they just provided bought baby food. They needed to make good food for the whole family, and liquidise it for the baby. Sometimes people just need the confidence to try and cook. I provide my clients with simple recipes, on the assumption that good cooks will be able to do something more sophisticated, but it is the inexperienced cooks that need the help.

This seems rather a gloomy account of the state of our food, but good quality is available, and information can help us choose well.

Nutrition and Allergy Clinic
0161 432 0964

First published March 2014

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