Do we know what we eat? (I): Food additives, are they harmless?

With time, consumers concern to know what they really eat and therefore, their interest to know what and  which kind of  food additives are present in food , increases. Considering that additives are part of  most of the food and drinks available in the market and with no doubt, part of our daily life.

For those who don’t really know what a food additive is, the ” Spanish Food Code” define food additive as “substances which are added to food products intentionally without a purpose to change its nutritius value, with the purpose to modificate its characteristics, elaboration technics, conservation and/or to improve its  adaptation to different conditions”.

Even tough,  natural additives as salt or vinegar have been used since remote ages, in the present, the use of synthetic additives is dramatically increasing , especially in pre-cooked meals. Several studies have showed that some of them can lead to toxic effects like allergies, asthma, eczemas, hypersensitivity reactions, hyperthyroidism, renal and hepatic impairments and a long etcetera.

Aditivos alimentarios

Food additives are added to most of the food we consume

Starting from the beginning , ¿Why are food additives used? ¿which is their purpose? ¿how and who control their use?. The origin of food additive use come from the need to control microbiological pollution , but currently they are also used to improve and accentuate food properties or even to artificially fake those properties.

The first thing that is done with additives is to test its innocuousness or toxicity on animals in different doses and periods of time, so that is possible to check the different effects. Those studies work as reference to set admissible daily doses as a lower dose than the lowest dose the most sensitive animals can tolerate, in order to keep a security margin. This decision is made by FAO and WHO and, in Europe, by the European Scientific Committee on Food.

So far so good, but the problem comes next. While the most logical step would be to continue their study in humans to test the possible need to modify the permissible dose or discover unexpected responses (interactions with other additives, cross-reactions with medications, etc.) this is skipped and so additives are directly send to the market for human consumption. Since this research is not usually carried out, there is not enough time to infer the real effect that those additives could have in the body. Moreover, it should be considered as well that certain part of the population may be more sensitive than others (pregnant women, elderly, children, sick …) , and thus the possible long term effects could vary.

In Europe, when additives are send to the market, they are designated by a code consisting of the letter E, which means that the additive has been evaluated and accepted to be  safe throughout the European Union. Then, there are some digits. The first digit indicates the category of additives (colorants, preservatives, antioxidants, …), the second refers to the family (color in case of colorants, chemical groups …) and finally the remaining digits (1 or 2 more depending on the additive) are used to specify and identify the substance. According to the Organization of Consumers and Users “in general Community legislation on additives is vague because it does not prohibit almost none of them, just limits the amounts that can be used.”

Part of the existing controversy regarding food additives misinformation, comes from consumers, who have to find their own initiative, the proper dictionary to explain the label since some of the listed ingredients are totally unknown to them. There is also a misuse by some food companies, that offer poor quality products and pretend that they have a better standard.

Above all, it is obvious that some additives are really necessary to continue the pace of modern life, as they are essential to keep food properties during the storage period and so be intact when they are consumed. In addition, it has to be considered that not all additives are toxic. For example, artificial sweeteners are very interesting for people who for medical reasons should control their sugar levels.

Aditivos alimentarios

Do we check labels when shopping?

The best option for the consumer could be to be aware and don’t panic for no reason, believing that all the information regarding harmful effects of additives is true, because it is not. As well, maybe it is time to think twice and chose products considering our health and not just our pocket.

Finally, note that  it is important to be careful with the label “no artificial colours or preservatives” as it can lead to a misconception about the product, because although they do not actually contain artificial colours or preservatives, they may contain other types of additives . (It is all about marketing!)

“We should be cautious about the guarantees afforded by the term safety: How to provide an evidence that leaves no doubt about the safety of a substance absorbed every year ?. We do not know much about the interactions within food and packaging, contact between the original substances and additives, including dyes, and even less about what is going on inside of the living organisms that consumes it. In addition, safety is never guaranteed permanently”. Gounelle of Pontanel before the French Academy of Medicine.

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Acerca de P.delaVega

Ambientóloga. Idealista soñadora y adicta a la lectura. Amante de la naturaleza que no mata ni un mosquito. Ni si, ni no, ni blanco, ni negro.
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