It was good to see the world's doctors and media warning
about the dangers of food additives during the late summer of 2007. The
following essay on food additives was written in June 1994 for the first edition
of my book Food For Thought. It is published here as I first wrote it. VC
Food manufacturers use flavourings,
preservatives and colourings to restore or improve the taste, texture or colour
of the foods they sell. Altogether they use several thousand different additives
and in recent years there has been a considerable amount of discussion about the
safety of these substances. Since the average consumer eats around 5.5lb (2.5kg)
of additives every year the problem clearly could be a massive one. Additives
enable manufacturers to debase foods in order to increase their own profits.
No one has the foggiest idea how safe food additives are but I honestly
don't think anyone in power gives a stuff about this. I have in front of me a
booklet which was published by a government agency. In this booklet the
Government sternly warns that `ham and bacon couldn't be sold without the
preservative that also gives them their pink colour' and claims that `scientists
and doctors who check safety evidence for the Government are satisfied the use
of these additives is safe'.
No, I thought
And you are right to be sceptical.
When bravely explaining
the fact that flavourings are not controlled as tightly as other additives the
same booklet boldly admits that this is because there are over 3,000 flavourings
in use, in many different combinations.
So, there you have it.
One official reason for not controlling flavourings tightly is that
there are too many of them to control properly.
My advice is to consume
as few additives as you possibly can. Try to eat fresh food whenever possible
and avoid buying prepacked foods that are stuffed with chemicals.
The types of additives
Flavourings Flavourings are sometimes added to give added or extra or
enhanced flavour to a product and they are sometimes used to give an entirely
different flavour to a rather bland product or to a product which has an
unpleasant taste. Monosodium glutamate is often used to stimulate the taste buds
and increase the sensation of flavour - despite the fact that it can cause
severe headaches. Manufacturers who use flavourings well can make just about
anything - including a ground up telephone directory - taste good.
Colourings Colourings are added to make food look more like the pictures
on the boxes! Without colourings your frozen peas would look dull and rather
grey rather than a nice bright green. Sometimes colourings are deliberately used
to deceive customers. For example, companies making meat products will use a red
dye to disguise the fat and other non meat ingredients in pies and sausages.
Sometimes there isn't much logic in the way in which colourings are used. For
example, custard consists mainly of corn starch flavoured with vanilla but
contains a dye to make it look yellow. This is done because when custard was
first introduced the customers were persuaded that the product was made from
eggs. Not many people still believe that custard has anything at all to do with
eggs but the yellow colour has become `normal' and so the dye is invariably
added to the mix.
3. Preservatives Preservatives are used to
stop micro-organisms developing - and to slow down the rate at which products go
bad. Amazingly, some preservatives are included to stop the colourings fading or
the flavourings going `off'.
4. Emulsifiers Emulsifiers are
used so that water can be included in a product. There are two reasons to do
this. First, water helps to give a product a smooth, firm texture. Second, water
is cheap and helps to increase the weight of a product without adding to its
cost. Food manufacturers often use water and emulsifiers to increase the weight
of meat products.
5. Stabilizers Stabilisers are used, often
in conjunction with emulsifiers, to stop water and fat separating and,
therefore, to improve the smoothness and creaminess of a food.
Acids Are used to help preserve food and to give it a sharper taste.
7. Anti-caking agent Added to stop food being lumpy.
8. Bulking agent Added to make you feel fuller and more
satisfied after a meal.
9. Sweeteners Added to make a food
10. Thickeners Are used to make food thicker
and to improve its consistency.
11. Glazing agents May help to
preserve food but also used to give food a shiny look.
rest Many of the available food additives are used to make foods easier
to process or pack. Some are included to make a product easier to spread or to
improve its consistency in other ways. Manufacturers sometimes add
anti-splattering agents to stop oil splashing out when wet chips are added.
Additives can, if used properly, enable a manufacturer to make a food look or
taste like virtually anything. Because meat tends to be expensive the most
common use of additives is in the preparation of meat products (which sometimes
contain very little genuine meat).
The harm additives can
do Additives included in food can kill vitamins and cause a massive
variety of symptoms and diseases including: asthma, eczema, dermatitis,
migraine, hyperactivity in children, dizziness, kidney problems, diarrhoea,
fits, palpitations, stomach pains, intestinal disorders and allergy
Many of the most commonly used additives have never been tested
to see if they are safe for human consumption. Those working in the food
industry excuse this bizarre fact by pointing out that there are several
thousand additives in use and that testing procedures are lengthy, expensive and
time consuming. I doubt if many consumers will take more comfort from this.
I have heard some food company representatives defending the use of food
additives by saying that only 1 in a 1000 people are likely to be adversely
affected by a particular additive. I don't find that particularly comforting for
1 in 1000 is not good odds. If 1,000,000 eat a particular food then a 1 in 1,000
risk means that 1,000 people are going to be made ill by it!
I am also
worried by the fact that many different additives are often used together. It is
widely acknowledged that chemicals often interact. If you include two different
chemical substances in one product then there is a real risk that the two will
combine and produce something quite different. Modern foods contain so many
different additives that it is quite easy to eat a meal which contains fifty
No one knows what all those additives are likely to
do to your health. No one knows what long-term side effects may be building up.
No one knows how those additives are likely to interact with one another.
Five tips to help you limit the number of additives you
consume 1.In order to minimise your consumption of food additives I
suggest that you try to buy as many fresh foods as you possibly can. 2. When
you do buy processed or packaged foods try to buy products with a short list of
additives. It is well worth remembering that the substance named first on the
packet is usually the one that appears in the largest quantity inside the packet
- other products should appear on the list in decreasing order of
quantity. 3. Grow as much of your own food as you possibly can. Even if you
only have a small garden you may be able to grow many of your own
vegetables. 4. If you (or anyone in your family) develops new or unusual
symptoms after eating a new product try to avoid that product in future. 5.
Become a cynic when reading food advertisements and food labels. Over the last
few years the food industry has managed to devalue the word `natural' so that it
has become virtually meaningless. For example, the phrase `only natural
ingredients' is sometimes used to describe foods which are stuffed with
additives if those additives are chemicals that occur naturally, or synthetic
versions of chemicals which occur naturally!
E Numbers to
Avoid In countries within the European Community some food additives
are given E numbers so that consumers can tell what they are buying. The E
numbers contained within a food are usually listed on the packet or
Though this list of potentially troublesome additives is by no means
exhaustive here are ten E numbers which I think you should try to avoid whenever
possible. Make a copy of this list when you go shopping. Try to find products
that do not include any of these additives. And try to avoid all additives as
much as you can.