A recent report found that 51 % of 2,537 U.S. adults surveyed thought that the average person faces a serious health risk from food additives over their lifetime. ‘Chemicals’ in foods have become a major cause for concern amongst consumers over the last few decades, a trend which producers, marketers and retailers are more than willing to cash in on.
Why are people concerned about food ingredients and additives?
As producers have tried to make food last longer, look more appealing or develop packaging to keep it fresh, more chemicals have found their way into our food. Subsequent research has expanded our understanding of these chemicals, and founded fears mixed with scaremongering and misinformation has left many consumers unsure of things that should be avoided, and which should be embraced.
Research has proven that there are additives, preservatives and other chemicals that produce unwelcome side effects or that should be consumed in moderation. Bisphenols (BPA) found in plastic food packaging and can linings, have been linked to endocrine disruption, nervous and immune disfunctions. Likewise phthalates, also found in packaging, have been linked to similar hormonal and neuronal problems.
Perchlorate occurs naturally in the environment and consequently finds its way into water supplies and some foods. Dried foods, including salami and rice cereals tend to be a higher risk category, likely reflecting their production processes. If exposed to sufficiently high levels, perchlorate can interfere with thyroid function and impact brain development in the very young.
Nitrites and nitrates are added to foods, especially meat fish and cheese, to reduce microbial growth, maintain the red color of meat and enhance flavor. There are, however, also naturally high levels in some vegetables and can enter the food chain via our water supply. Whilst they perform an important preservative role, like preventing horrific illness such as botulism, it is acknowledged that there are limits for safe consumption (currently 3.7 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day in the European Union (EU)).
Food colorings – the great debate
Whilst the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) maintains that artificial food dyes are safe, there have been contradictory studies that have muddied the waters for consumers and artificial colorings have been cited by parents to make their children hyperactive.
In the 1970s, pediatrician Benjamin Feingold published findings proposing a link between hyperactive behavior and artificial colorings. In 2007, a study showed that artificial colors and/or the common preservative sodium benzoate increased hyperactivity in children after which the EU started enforcing labeling requirements to declare a possible link to hyperactivity for the six dyes that had been investigated. In 2011, the FDA declared there to be insufficient evidence to prove the link and deemed the labeling unnecessary in the US – further investigation was required. A follow-up study in 2012 to analyze existing studies concluded that color additives have an effect on hyperactive behavior in children, with a small subset showing more extreme behavior than others. However, the study also highlighted the need for further work as many existing studies were based on very small group sizes.
With no clear and decisive argument one way or the other, consumer pressure, with government support in some countries, has pushed manufacturers to remove artificial colorings from their products, primarily for marketing rather than safety reasons. Nestlé, in a strive to remove all artificial colorings from their sweets, removed blue Smarties from their tubes in 2006 as they were unable to find a natural alternative. It wasn’t until 2008 that seaweed came to the rescue of the blue Smartie by providing a natural dye source. Many other manufacturers have followed suit, with Kraft removing Yellow No. 5 and Yellow No. 6 dyes, from its iconic Macaroni & Cheese product in January 2016. But are ‘natural’ ingredients really any better?
Are ‘natural’ ingredients safer?
Ask most people what the ingredients are in an egg or a banana and they’d tell you to stop being silly. An egg’s an egg right and a banana is a banana, they don’t have ingredients… or do they?
E-numbers and ‘chemicals’ on an ingredient list are thought of by many people as unnatural additives and things to be avoided – they have negative connotations. However, take any natural food item and you can break it down into its constituents as you would see listed for a manufactured product like a cake or salami. Suddenly it doesn’t look so ‘natural’ does it?
In reality, it’s about understanding that just because something has an e-number doesn’t mean that it’s not natural, and equally, natural foods contain chemicals that are toxic to humans. Here, the key is dose. Pears contain formaldehyde, apple seeds contain amygdalin which converts to cyanide when consumed, and even the innocuous courgette contains cucurbitacin E. but at levels far below a harmful dose. For many people seeing ‘toxic chemicals’ on food packaging would cause alarm yet we happily and safely consume them blindly. One man has been striving to open consumer’s eyes to the real meaning of this information by producing a poster series in which lots of natural products are broken down into their constituents, using E-numbers and IUPAC names instead of common names where they exist. James Kennedy, an Australian chemistry teacher, commented when speaking to io9 "I want to erode the fear that many people have of ‘chemicals’, and demonstrate that nature evolves compounds, mechanisms and structures far more complicated and unpredictable than anything we can produce in the lab."
Nitrates are a great example of a ‘demonized’ additive, yet experts estimate that less than 5% of nitrates in our food come from additives, the rest being from ‘natural’ foods. Clearly, there are chemicals and additives that we should be concerned about, however understanding that everything, natural and manufactured, is ultimately made of ‘chemicals’ is an important step.