Myths and truths
Myths and truths
Food additives are substances that are not naturally present in the food but added to the food to prevent its spoilage, increase the shelf life of the product, and intensify or maintain its taste and appearance. Preservatives, colours, flavours, emulsifiers, stabilizers, and sweeteners are examples of food additives. These are added to the food at different stages – production, processing, treatment, packaging – and it is almost impossible to find any packaged food without some food additive. With the advent of processed foods containing additives, the misconceptions related to these foods have also started doing the rounds. Let’s have a look at some common myths related to food additives.
Myth 1: All food additives are synthetic
Truth: All food additives are not synthetic. Ingredients such as salt, sugar, and vinegar are used as preservatives. Colours such as anthocyanins, carotenoids, xanthophylls, curcumin, and caramel occur naturally and are used to enhance food appearance.
Myth 2: Natural additives do not have an adverse effect on health
Truth: If you think that food items that have natural additives can be consumed freely, then you are wrong.
Allergies related to additives It’s important to note that anybody can be allergic to additives—natural or synthetic—and develop allergic symptoms after their consumption. Annatto, which occurs naturally and is added to give a yellowish colour to food, has been proven to cause allergic symptoms such as development of hives.
Keep the amount in check
Salt, sugar, and oils are some natural food preservatives that are used widely in many food items but their excessive consumption is known
to cause lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, obesity, dyslipidemia, and hypertension.
Naturally occurring substitutes of additives are equally harmful
Consumption of certain caloric natural sweeteners such as high-fructose corn syrup (HFSC) is as harmful as consumption of sugar. Manufacturers use hydrogenated oils instead of vegetable oils or saturated fats to increase the shelf life of products or to reduce the production cost. Hydrogenated oils contain trans-fats in large amount. Trans-fats block the arteries and lead to severe heart diseases. In India, cacao butter, which is used to make chocolates and is an expensive commodity, is replaced by hydrogenated fats made from vegetable oils of coconut, palm, rapeseed, soybean, etc., which have large amounts of trans-fats.
Myth 3: FDA-approved/GRAS additives are safe and can be consumed freely
Truth: Generally Recognised as Safe (GRAS) is a nomination given to a chemical/substance added to food. It is considered to be safe by FDA as their consumption over the years has not caused any health ailment. The interesting fact is that all the approved additives are not thoroughly tested. The testing is done by manufacturers in order to provide an argument and evidence that the food product is safe for human consumption.
Any additive or even nutrient is safe for human consumption only if it’s taken in a certain amount. The Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) has set acceptable daily intake (ADI) limits for food additives and it’s mandatory for the manufacturers to adhere to it. The ADI is a measure of the amount of a food additive that can be ingested on a daily basis over a lifetime without an appreciable health risk. ADIs are expressed in mg of the food additive/kg body weight/day.
Myth 4: All sugar substitutes are equally good/ harmful
Truth: Excessive sugar consumption is associated with health disorders such as diabetes, obesity, and dental problems. Sugar substitutes were introduced in the market with the intent to sustain the taste factor in a food product without increasing its caloric content. Sugar substitutes are of two types: naturally occurring and artificial. Some of them are low-caloric and some others are non-caloric; the intensity of sweetness varies too. Some of them have an adverse impact on health, while some are actually a good substitute of sugar.
Acesulfame-K is the sugar substitute added to socalled diet drinks to reduce the calorie content. Its impact on health is still a subject of discussion and no clear verdicts could be given in favour or against it, although patients suffering from phenylketonuria must avoid its consumption.
Some scientific experiments have correlated artificial sweeteners like aspartame, saccharin, and cyclamate to cancer, due to which their consumption is avoided by many consumers and manufacturers also tend to avoid their usage in their products. However, these are still are used in some parts of the world.
Sucralose is an artificial sweetener that can be recommended to a diabetic since it has almost no side-effect. The most recommended sugar substitute is naturally occurring stevia, which is about 250 times sweeter than sugar. Stevia is a little expensive but because of its characteristic intense sweetness, very
less amount of it is required for any food preparation.
Sugar substitutes and gums
Manufacturers of chewing gums have replaced sugar with artificial and natural sugar substitutes to reduce the calorie content, to enhance the stability of the product, and to prevent the occurrence of dental carries. Xylitolbased gums should be preferred over other gums as xylitol is a naturally occurring sugar substitute.
Myth 5: Names of the additives are mentioned on the food label
Truth: Some manufacturers mention the name of the food additives on the food label, while some mention their E numbers or any other derivative of the food additive. Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a flavour enhancer known for its umami taste. It occurs naturally although its consumption has been correlated to several adverse effects on health. It is mandatory to state that a product has MSG. Some manufacturers directly state that a product contains added MSG, while others only mention that a product has ‘hydrolysed soy protein’ as an ingredient, which is actually MSG, or they mention it on the food label as E621 (the E number assigned to MSG).
Myth 6: The additives affect animals and humans similarly
Truth: Additives are added in very less amount in food items as per the regulatory guidelines. The results of animal study are not relevant mostly because a very large dose of additives is given to the animals to assess the impact of additives on animals. Also, the way an ingredient is digested and metabolised by an animal is very different from human beings.
Myth 7: Additives affect all humans equally
Truth: The action of food additives is greatly dependent on body weight and age of an individual. Consumption of an additive may lead to adverse effect on a child weighing 20 kg and may have no effect on an adult weighing 70 kg. A child must not be exposed to food additives frequently, which means that the child must not consume food products containing additives on a regular basis. Scientific studies have also proved that additives are known to induce hyperactivity in children.
There are certain food additives that must be avoided by women during pregnancy and lactation. These include monosodium glutamate, artificial sweeteners such as saccharin and aspartame, and food colours such as tartrazine, quinoline yellow, allura red, indigo carmine, ponceau 4R, and erythrosine.