Should we be concerned about food additives like emulsifiers, preservatives, colors, and artificial sweeteners?
Historically, food additives were relatively simple, such as salt, which was used to preserve food longer.
However, if you pick up any processed food today, from cookies to curry sauce, the list of chemical additives may outnumber the actual food ingredients. But are they unhealthy?
Several individuals are sensitive to particular food additives.
One of the most common sensitivities is to sulfites, which are primarily used as a preservative — you can find them in foods such as dried fruit; jams and dips such as guacamole; processed meats; fresh and frozen crustaceans such as prawns; and beverages such as soft drinks, cider, beer, wine, and cordials. (Check labels for additive numbers E220-228 and E150b and 150d, as well as names such as sulfur dioxide, sodium sulfite, and sulfite ammonia caramel.)
People with eczema and asthma appear to be more sensitive to sulfites; one idea is that they excite breathing-related nerves and irritate the respiratory system.
In addition to gastrointestinal symptoms, individuals may endure hives, edema, asthma, and a stuffy nose. Likewise, sulfites in wine have been connected with unpleasant hangovers.
Today, prepackaged food marketed in the United Kingdom must explicitly indicate on the label whether it contains sulfites over 10mg per kilogram or per liter.
The sensitivity to salicylates, which causes comparable symptoms, is another issue.
Herbs and spices, such as black pepper and cumin, as well as fruits and vegetables, such as apples, strawberries, and kiwis, contain naturally occurring salicylates.
They are also found in beverages including coffee, black tea, and apple juice. Consult a nutritionist if you are concerned about dietary salicylates, as the amount might vary according to processing and season, making it unsafe to tackle it on your own.
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has mandated that food and beverages containing any of the following six colors — sunset yellow (E110), quinoline yellow (E104), carmoisine (E122), Allura red (E129), tartrazine (E102), or ponceau 4R (E124) — must display a warning label.
However, not all sensitivities may be as they appear; in response to reported concerns concerning aspartame sensitivity (e.g., headaches, dizziness, and stomach disturbances), the FSA commissioned research to explore.
The 2015 study revealed that there was no difference between the symptoms reported after consuming an aspartame-containing cereal bar and a bar without aspartame.
Should you be concerned about all these chemicals in our food if you don’t have an allergy to any of them? The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has authorized more than 300 additives for use in food, indicating that they have passed a rigorous safety evaluation.
Nonetheless, the EFSA ruled in 2008 that the safety of all food additives authorized for use in the EU before 2009 must be re-evaluated. This has led to a variety of adjustments. Titanium dioxide (E171), a coloring agent applied to candies and baked products, is no longer permitted in the EU and Northern Ireland (but it is still used in the rest of the United Kingdom).
Despite this reevaluation, many of the safety assessments have not taken into account the impact on our gut microorganisms, which are so important to our health. This is because many of these evaluations were conducted before we realized the significance of these bacteria.
Certain types of artificial sweeteners, such as sucralose, saccharin, and aspartame, have harmful effects on our gut microorganisms, including an increased blood sugar response to food, liver inflammation, and weight gain, according to animal research.
In human studies, the data is not as robust, and there are contradictory findings regarding artificial sweeteners and intestinal health. These disparate findings are likely attributable to the fact that we all harbor different microorganisms that can respond differently.
For example, a relatively small but significant study published in Nature revealed that daily consumption of saccharin for one week had a deleterious effect on blood sugar responses in four out of seven participants.
In addition to nitrates and nitrites, nitrates and nitrites should be highlighted. Nitrates contained in foods such as spinach and beets are converted by our bodies into nitrites and subsequently nitric oxide, which helps dilate blood vessels. This is beneficial for decreasing blood pressure, a cardiovascular disease risk factor.
However, the nitrites and nitrates added to food — particularly processed meats like sausages — can be transformed into nitrosamines, which are potentially carcinogenic (cancer-causing). Other chemicals, such as stabilizers, thickeners, gelling agents, and emulsifiers, found in a vast array of processed foods, especially frozen desserts, dairy-free milk, cakes, and cookies, have also been linked to inflammatory bowel disease.
Our research team at King’s College London is conducting a first-of-its-kind randomized controlled study on food additives, examining a reduced food additive diet on individuals with active Crohn’s disease.
This is based on research demonstrating that genetically vulnerable individuals may develop an inflammatory gastrointestinal condition. If you have active Crohn’s, reside in the United Kingdom, and would want to participate in the trial, please email ADDapt@kcl.ac.uk for additional information.
There are still numerous unknowns in the realm of food additives. However, while we are attempting to comprehend the interactions, it is prudent to restrict chemicals wherever possible.
Check the ingredient list of packaged foods, and if you find more than one E-number (typically written as phrases that don’t seem like food), you may want to reconsider if it’s suitable for you.
The next time you have a longing for soda, try flavoring sparkling water with frozen berries and mint.