The Swedish Consumer Coalition 

Five Myths about food-additives

The modern, large-scale food manufacturing industry would not exist without the hundreds of additives allowed in our food. According to the law, ingredients must be listed on all packaged goods. It is a requirement so that people with allergies, for example, can avoid the substances they are allergic to. Some 320 additives (E-numbers) can be deciphered using a "key" published by the food manufacturing industry or government agencies. However, it does not shed much light on the risks involved with the different additives. Added to this there are around 2500 "aroma substances" on the market.

Consumers are subjected to a number of myths when it comes to food additives. Swedish Consumer Coalition has analysed five of the most common myths. We question why there are so many chemical additives in our foods. Who benefits from manipulated foods?

Myth number 1: The additives are safe
Expert-comments on chemical additives often result in cynical word-wars claiming how safe the synthetic additives are, especially when compared to natural toxins or other hazards like travelling by car or plane. To use comparisons between totally unrelated risks is a trick taught by consultants. Risk analysis as a concept has become widely known in the food industry. From the consumers perspective we are fighting to have the precautionary principle acknowledged as part of Risk analysis. One example of how positives can be weighed against negatives is Nitrite (E 249, E 250) and Nitrate (E 251, E 252); they are not usually allowed in Denmark although they may be used in Sweden in eg sausages. The Danish authorities base the prohibition on the fact that Nitrate/Nitrite can be converted to cancerogenic materials called Nitrosamines. Denmark's attempt to keep the country free from Nitrite has been criticised by experts in the European Commission. Seeing as Nitrite is an effective preservative, the industry has had a lot to gain in being allowed to continue using it.

Newer additives have also met strong criticism. Butylated hydroxyanisole (E 320) & Butylated hydroxytoulene (E 321) are two antioxidants listed as possible cancerogenic substances, according to WHO's cancer research. Avoid! The Azo colours are another example. They were prohibited in foods in Sweden but since joining the EU in 1995, Sweden has been forced to accept imported goods containing these colours, despite that they can cause allergic reactions in many people. EU's experts decided that there was too little evidence to prohibit them. Swedish Consumer Coalition did, however, manage to convince the Swedish food manufacturers to not use the Azo colours. A survey done in 1998 showed that 11% of candy in average shops contained the previously banned colours. A new survey done in 2001 published by the food manufacturing industry, showed that the Azo colours appear in 14 % of candy, fizzy drinks and snacks.

Medicines can also contain Azo colours eg Azorubine (E 122) and Sunset yellow (E 110). According to the Swedish Pharmaceutical Directory it is a well-known fact that colourants and preservatives (including antioxidants) cause allergic reactions (itchiness, skin irritations, hay fever) in individuals who are hypersensitive to the substances. Still, it is legal to use these dangerous substances in medicines.

Myth number 2: Additives are thoroughly tested

Chemical additives are generally harmful. In animal testing, 50% of the animals in a test (eg mice) are given high doses to decide the lethal dose. This dose is called the LD50 (Lethal Dose 50). The LD50 method has received criticism, partly because it does not give information about cross-reactions or how several additives work together, nor how children and other groups can be affected. Despite this, scientists at international expert-meetings determine the amount to be considered safe during normal consumption. Expert-meetings are conducted both within the EU and in a UN committee under Codex Alimentarius called JECFA (Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives). The research, which is the basis for the decisions is done by the companies. It is very hard to determine if the tests on animals are believable or not. The question if additives are dangerous or not becomes a dead-end if you want to find facts as different studies show differing results.

Synthetic sweeteners, eg Acesulphame (E 950), Aspartame (E 951) and Cyclamic acid (E 952) are especially risky. Out of the five studies on which JECFA based their decisions regarding Aspartam in 1981, two came from the company Ajinomoto and three from the company G.D. Searle. Both companies produced aspartame, which became a big hit and is found in everything from diet coke to ice cream and candy, yes - even in medicines. None of the five studies were published in any scientific paper and they cannot be seen as believable. All 70 studies concerning acesulphame, handed to JECFA by the German chemical giant Hoechst, in 1991, were unpublished. None of them have been analysed according to normal scientific routines, such as peer review. It is worth noting that the Swedish government has not conducted any own, impartial studies on these foreign sweeteners.

Myth number 3: The additives are necessary
Many ingredients and additives are not necessary. Water binding fibres are added to sausages to make the product cheaper. Bread often contains extra gluten, which also gives added volume with less real flour. In order to make the bread "feel" like bread one adds amylases and thickening agents. This is a way of making products very competitive on the market. Thus, the manufacturers can take market shares from their competitors. There is no concern about us, the consumers, who are going to pay for the food and eat it. Instead of extra fibre in sausages why not a thick slice of wholemeal bread?

Many people have simply stopped eating meat because it is so hard to find pure products that have not been treated in every last way. In meat you will find bits and pieces of everything from antibiotics to lead, cadmium PCB and DDT. Even though Swedish food is generally all right, research shows that there are more toxins in imported meats. New Zeeland recently voted against the tough FAO/WHO Codex rules concerning traces of DDT in lamb. EU only wanted to allow 1 mg per kg whereas New Zeeland believed that 5 mg ought to be acceptable - in order to save their export.

A new trend is the "enhancing" of various foods using vitamins and minerals. One can really question whether orange juice should be enhanced with added potassium - Swedish Consumer Coalition has put forward several objections to this kind of concocting with substances, which we prefer to call "adding". The chosen word ("enhancing") reveals a lot about the deception, which lies behind the marketing of new trendy food groups. We have especially pointed out that consumers do not see the benefit of adding vitamins and minerals to products as the effect is likely to be lesser than if the vitamins and minerals had been kept separately in air tight containers - oxidation cannot be ruled out.

A term we really dislike is "Functional Foods". Although the consumers have no need for it, the food industry is keen to bring out new products with patents on the market so they can make more money. Being a consumer organization we have introduced the term "minimalist foods" to make the food manufacturers realize that we have called their bluff when it comes to chips and fast foods with empty calories! We wish that this whole idea of "healthy additives" in our food were banned. Leave our food alone!

Myth number 4: The number of additives are getting less
Even organic products are allowed to contain certain additives, and the list is getting longer. Mainly it is modern industrial and processed foods, which contains additives in order to facilitate transport and storing of the finished product. Chemical additives are used widely as they are invented and marketed. Nowadays ice cream is made from cheap skim milk and thickeners so manufacturers do not have to use the more expensive real cream. It does not have to be like this.

Quality chocolate does not contain soy lecithin (E 322), a common thickener, which many people are allergic to and which may originate from genetically modified (GMO) soybeans. Caffeine is a toxin and is added to so-called energy drinks carrying a warning that they should not be consumed by young children. Natamycin (E 235) is an antibiotic, which should not be used as a preservative in cheese. Spices do not need anti-caking agents eg potassium carbonate (E 501) if they are dried properly and stored in airtight containers. Fed up with all the additives? Grow your own herbs and pick fresh leaves of basil, thyme, parsley etc in your own kitchen!

One additive that has been criticised since the 1960's is MSG or glutamate (E 620-E 624), which is known to cause headaches and dizziness. Some China-restaurants in parts of the world display signs that they do not use this "flavour enhancer" which dulls the taste buds and is believed to be quite addictive. Glutamate is present in many powder soups and barbecue spices. Protein hydrolysates is another group of flavour enhancers; they are added to broths to enhance the natural flavour. They contain a large percentage of amino acids. The raw materials used to make these substances can be eg potato peels and other waste products, which are ground up using high-pressured water. In some countries, pork was used to make glutamate. Glutamate should not be used in baby food. Sweeteners are also prohibited in foods intended for children 3 years or younger. Swedish Consumer Coalition feels this should be stated clearly on all diet or light products.

Myth number 5: Additives are not present in the end product
Margarine is an example of a product, which would be difficult to produce without using any additives or chemical substances. Despite this margarines are systematically marketed (especially on television), as natural. The TV ad for the Bregott (Swedish margarine) factory with cute cows grazing in a meadow is just an example. The name "Flora" was not chosen by accident. The whole idea behind margarine is to create a product, which resembles and imitates butter; where the end product has very different qualities to the raw materials used. Say for instance that we make margarine from rapeseed oil. Rapeseed oil has a green-yellow colour, a distinctive taste and it is a liquid. To make margarine the colour has to be changed, the taste needs altering (with artificial butter flavouring) as does the aroma and the consistency. This is not possible without a chemical remake of the original raw materials.

A common solvent used to extract the oil from the seeds is extraction benzine or hexane. Margarine manufacturers try to minimise the amount of extraction benzine later in the production, although due to financial and technical reasons they can only go so far. Governments have been forced to introduce minimum levels for these dangerous solvents. In Sweden, according to the food industry, the limit is 1 mg hexane per kilo cooking oil or margarine.

The solvent hexane is often used in industrial handling of soybeans. This means that the different soy products will contain traces of extraction benzine. "Defatted" soy products, sold for use in other foods, may contain up to 30 mg extraction benzine (hexane) per kilo. This is a high rate by comparison. It is so far unclear if these limits apply to soy sausages, soy patties, products containing soy lecithin etc. In any case most margarines contain soy lecithin, which, therefore, may also bring additional hexane to the consumer.

Consumers have the right to know what is in the products we buy and eat. The E-number system is good, though it has been used by the industry to introduce more additives, a risk to people with allergies and to children. There are many unnecessary additives, which should not be allowed. We desire impartial, peer-reviewed studies mapping toxicological risk in additives. One does, however, question if the tax payer ought to be paying the government to do the job: If it means conducting more painful tests on animals, would it not be better to just ban dubious substances? International legal work within EU and Codex needs to take in to consideration the precautionary approach. Advertising needs to be monitored to stop lies being fed to consumers when it comes to food products with harmful synthetic chemicals.

Text translated by Annette Abolins

For more information please contact:

Bengt Ingerstam (president) bengt.ingerstam(at)
Martin Frid (food and trade policy officer) martin.frid(at)

Swedish Consumer Coalition
Box 88
577 22 Hultsfred