The issue of food additives is fresh in our minds due to the recent Maggi Noodles controversy. Nestle’s Maggi came to the media spotlight when government lab tests revealed that the noodles contained MSG contrary to its claim of “No added MSG”. This issue was further aggravated when the central FSSAI lab at Kolkata found the noodles were contaminated with lead. While Maggi Noodles has finally emerged from this controversy unscathed and resumed sales, the issue of food additives has remained firmly in our minds.
Food additives have been a part of our menus since ages to enhance flavor and appearance. Any chemical substance that is added to food during preparation or storage that affects the quality of the food item is considered to be a food additive. There are many ways through which food additives enter our palates; they are generally added during processing, packaging or storage of food products.
Common food additives
Common examples of food additives are coloring agents that make food attractive, anti-caking materials that prevent clumping of powders like salt, flour, food preservatives that prevent and postpone spoilage and some sweeteners that heighten sweetness of items without increasing the caloric value. Do food additives really ‘add’ value to the food? And do they cause side effects?
Here is a list of 10 most-used food additives along with their side effects:
|Aspartame||Low-calorie sweetener||Beverages, chewing gum, puddings, yogurt, sugar-free products, etc.||Some people are allergic to aspartame who could suffer migraine headaches|
|Saccharin||Sweetener||Fruit juice, jellies, carbonated beverages, canned fruits, preservatives and as sugar replacement||Demonstrated to cause cancer in lab animals|
|High Fructose Corn Syrup||Sweetener||Salad dressings, bread, cereals, candy and flavored yogurt.||Contributes towards weight gain, type-2 diabetes and heart issues.|
|Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)||Flavor-enhancer||Dressings, frozen food, canned vegetables||Considered harmful to children; Long-term consumption can cause diabetes, high blood pressure, adrenal gland dysfunction, strokes|
|Trans Fats||To extend shelf life of food products||Chips, baked food, margarine and fast food in general||Increase in bad cholesterol level, increase in heart risk and stroke, contributes to diabetes|
|Sodium Sulfite||Prevents discoloration of fruits||Dried apples, wine, dehydrated potatoes||Some people are allergic to sulfites, who could suffer mild headaches or in rare cases, severe reactions like anaphylactic shock|
|Sodium Nitrate/Sodium Nitrite||Preservative and color fixative||Smoked fish, meat preparations||Could mix with stomach chemicals to produce nitrosamine, a carcinogenic material|
|Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)||Preservative and prevents discoloration; BHA used for defoaming* in yeast||Foods with high fat and oil content like butter; preserved meats, baked items, chewing gum, cereals, beer and snacks||Known to cause liver, kidney damage and thyroid issues among lab animals|
|Brominated vegetable oil (BVO)||Used to emulsify citrus-flavored soft drinks||Citrus-flavored soft drinks||Excess use of soft-drinks can cause memory loss, tremors, fatigue, loss of muscle coordination|
|Potassium Bromate||To strengthen dough and to add appealing white color to bread||Flour||Found to increase risk of tumors among lab animals; could lead to genetic defects in long-run|
MSG issue in Noodles
In accordance with the Food Safety and Standard Rules 2011, Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is considered a flavor-enhancer that should not be added to food products given to infants below 12 months. It is also not allowed in about 50 different items including noodles and pastas given to children since it can affect their nervous system. However, MSG is allowed in the seasoning prepared for them, which is added as it arouses the nervous system, making the food appear attractive.
Dealing with Food Additives
We cannot completely scratch out packaged foods from our dining tables, so food additives are bound to be part of our lives. But we can take some measures to reduce their harmful effects on our body.
- Reading the labels: The best way to avoid consuming harmful food additives is by reading the labels of ingredient lists of the products. The Nutrition Facts column on a product is followed by a list of ingredients in fine print, which mentions the ingredients according to their contribution in the food in a descending order.
- When a chemical preservative is used to produce food, the ingredient list must include both the common and scientific name of the preservative along with the function that it serves. For instance: “preservative to promote color retention”. When artificial colors are used in a product, then the name is mentioned depending on whether it is certified or not. For instance, when a certified color is used, then the abbreviated name can be mentioned- like ‘Red 40’; when a non-certified color is used, it is listed as “artificial coloring” or with specific names like “colored with beet juice”.
- Preventive measure: Foods that contain tartrazine (food colorant), diacetyl (food flavor), nitrites or nitrates, propyl paraben and olestra should be avoided. You can also use mobile phone apps that tell you the level of harm caused by a food additive along with tips to buy healthy food items. Some phone apps under the Health and Fitness category which inform you about food additives are: Eat Informed, Food Additives 2 and E-Codes Free.
- Organic food diet: Food additives can be removed to the highest level possible by following an organic food diet. Organic products only contain those additives that are required by law such as Sodium Benzoate or Sulfur Dioxide. Rules governing the production and storage of organic food prevent the use of any harmful food additives like artificial sweeteners, flavorings and colorings. One of the most significant non-organic additive allowed in the organic food is sulfur dioxide, which acts as a preservative, bleaching agent and antioxidant.
- Natural food additives: Research is underway to find natural alternatives to the artificially prepared additives. Natural substances containing antimicrobial properties can be used as food preservatives, which can be categorized as follows:
• Herbs: Cumin, fennel, peppers, clove, basil, cinnamon, cardamom, oregano, thyme, coriander, mind, caraway, nutmeg and onion;
• Microorganisms: Colicins, nisin, reuterin, lactacin, bulgaricin, plantaricin and others.
• Antimicrobials from animals: Lysozyme, chitosan, pleurocigin, defensins and lactoferrin.