Food Additives

Vernon Coleman

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'.

Feel better?

No, I thought not.

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

1. 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.

2. 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.

6. 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 taste sweeter.

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.

12. The 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 problems.

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 different chemicals.

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 tin.

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.

1. E102 (tartrazine)
2. E110 (sunset yellow)
3. E123 (amaranth)
4. E127 (erythrosine)
5. E132 (indigo carmine)
6. E153 (carbon black)
7. E173 (aluminium)
8. E210 (benzoic acid)
9. E222 (sodium hydrogen sulphite)
10.E321 (butylated hydroxytoluene)

Copyright Vernon Coleman 1994 and October 2007