Five Myths about food-additives
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
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:
Ingerstam (president) bengt.ingerstam(at)konsumentsamverkan.se
Frid (food and trade policy officer) martin.frid(at)konsumentsamverkan.se
Swedish Consumer Coalition
577 22 Hultsfred