Here’s what you should know about con­tro­ver­sial food ad­di­tives – in­clud­ing why and where they’re used

The Globe and Mail (Alberta Edition) - - NEWS - LES­LIE BECK

Most syn­thetic ad­di­tives used by man­u­fac­tur­ers have ex­cel­lent safety records, but it’s still im­por­tant to check food la­bels and know where and why con­tro­ver­sial ones are used

Most of us don’t have time to pre­pare all of our meals and meal in­gre­di­ents from scratch. We rely on pro­cessed foods such as ready to­break­fast ce­re­als, sliced bread, canned toma­toes, frozen meals, pack­aged snack foods and store-bought condi­ments.

Read in­gre­di­ent lists and you may find that food ad­di­tives are a big­ger part of your diet than you thought. Most have ex­cel­lent safety records, but oth­ers are con­tro­ver­sial be­cause ques­tions about their safety have been dif­fi­cult to an­swer. Food ad­di­tives are used by man­u­fac­tur­ers to im­prove tex­ture, en­hance taste and/or ap­pear­ance, main­tain nutri­tional qual­ity or pre­vent spoilage.

Reg­u­lated by Food and Drug Reg­u­la­tions is­sued by Health Canada, food ad­di­tives must pass through rig­or­ous test­ing that as­sesses their ef­fec­tive­ness and safety. Still, some sci­en­tists and watch­dog groups are con­cerned that con­sum­ing cer­tain per­mit­ted ad­di­tives may pose health risks.

In some peo­ple, ad­di­tives can trig­ger hives, headaches, diar­rhea, asthma, even se­vere ana­phy­lac­tic al­ler­gic re­ac­tions. And, some may con­tain car­cino­genic com­pounds.

Here’s what you need to know about con­tro­ver­sial syn­thetic ad­di­tives – what they’re used for, which foods you’ll find them in and how to avoid them.


These syn­thetic dyes are used to en­hance a food’s nat­u­ral colour or add colour that’s not nat­u­rally present. On in­gre­di­ent lists, they also go by FD&C Red No. 40 (Allura Red), FD&C Yel­low No. 6 (Sun­set Yel­low) and FD&C Yel­low No. 5 (tartrazine).

These ar­ti­fi­cial colours are al­lowed to be added to jams and jel­lies, candy, fruit-juice con­cen­trates, caviar, rel­ish, ketchup, smoked fish, lobster paste and sher­bet. Sun­set Yel­low can also be used to colour cheese-flavoured corn chips and sausage cas­ings.

Food dyes have been linked to hy­per­ac­tiv­ity and ag­gres­sive­ness in a small per­cent­age of chil­dren, even those with no prior be­havioural prob­lems. In Europe, food prod­ucts that con­tain these dyes must carry a warn­ing that the ad­di­tives “may have ad­verse ef­fects on ac­tiv­ity and at­ten­tion in chil­dren.” Tartrazine may cause al­ler­gic re­ac­tions such as hives, itch­ing and nasal con­ges­tion in some peo­ple.

Lab stud­ies also sug­gest these dyes con­tain can­cer-caus­ing con­tam­i­nants. One such chem­i­cal in Allura Red is thought to be pos­si­bly car­cino­genic to hu­mans. To date, there’s no ev­i­dence that con­sum­ing foods con­tain­ing these dyes in­crease can­cer risk in peo­ple. And the ev­i­dence that they do so in lab ro­dents is con­tro­ver­sial and in­con­clu­sive.

Even so, it seems an un­nec­es­sary risk to be eat­ing foods that con­tain ar­ti­fi­cial colours.


Al­lowed in short­en­ing, olive oil, mar­garine, potato chips, break­fast ce­re­als, par­boiled rice and chew­ing gum, these preser­va­tives pre­vent oils in foods from ox­i­diz­ing and be­com­ing ran­cid.

Most stud­ies on BHA (buty­lated hy­drox­yanisole) and BHT (buty­lated hy­drox­y­toluene) have been con­ducted in an­i­mals and test tubes, not in peo­ple. While find­ings on BHT have been mixed, in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions have found BHA to cause can­cer in lab an­i­mals.

In 2010, after eval­u­at­ing the sci­ence, Health Canada con­cluded that BHA is not harm­ful to hu­man health at cur­rent lev­els of ex­po­sure. Use of BHA and BHT in foods is re­stricted in Europe.


This dough-con­di­tion­ing agent may be added to white and whole-wheat flour to add vol­ume and tex­ture to prod­ucts such as ham­burger buns, English muffins, pizza dough and dough­nuts.

ADA was banned in Europe after the dis­cov­ery that the ad­di­tive breaks down to form car­cino­genic chem­i­cals dur­ing bak­ing. Health Canada has deemed the ad­di­tive and its byprod­ucts safe after an as­sess­ment of data col­lected by Sta­tis­tics Canada four decades ago – out­dated re­search ac­cord­ing to some ex­perts.

If ADA is added to flour that’s used as an in­gre­di­ent in bread, the food ad­di­tive does not have to be in­cluded on the in­gre­di­ent list. (It must be de­clared on in­gre­di­ent lists in the United States.)


Banned in Europe and Ja­pan, brominated oils are per­mit­ted in Canada. They are added to some soft drinks and sports drinks to pre­vent cit­rus flavour­ing from sep­a­rat­ing and float­ing to the sur­face. The con­cern: Brominated oils con­tain bromine, a chem­i­cal el­e­ment also found in brominated flame re­tar­dants. Bromine ap­pears to ac­cu­mu­late in the body, and some re­ports sug­gest that con­sum­ing drinks with brominated oils may lead to mus­cle prob­lems, fa­tigue and mem­ory loss.


To avoid these syn­thetic ad­di­tives, read in­gre­di­ents lists to find out if they’re in a food prod­uct (this doesn’t work for bak­ery prod­ucts made from flour with ADA).

Use your voice. It’s up to food man­u­fac­tur­ers to de­cide whether or not to use cer­tain ad­di­tives; let them know your con­cerns.

Eat more whole foods such as fruits and veg­eta­bles, whole grains, nuts, eggs, fish and poul­try. Make time to cook more foods from scratch; batch-cook on the week­end. Con­sider choos­ing or­ganic foods, which are pro­duced with­out syn­thetic ad­di­tives.


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