If you’ve heard about chemicals and additives in food, it’s important to know what they are, what the truth is, and how they could impact you and your family.
What are additives?
Food additives are substances added to food products to enhance their taste, texture, appearance, and shelf life. They can be natural or synthetic and are used in a variety of food items, including processed and packaged goods, drinks, and restaurant meals. There are concerns about the safety of some additives, however, regulatory agencies such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have determined that they are safe for human consumption. Additives are added to food for specific purposes like texture, binding, color, or leavening. However, foods may contain trace amounts of additives due to packaging, storage, or handling, and manufacturers must ensure that all packaging materials are safe for use.
How are they regulated?
The WHO evaluates the safety of food additives before approving them for use in food products. The evaluation includes toxicological effects, exposure levels, and the specific foods in which they will be used. The safety of food additives is continually reassessed based on new scientific evidence. The FDA regulates food additives in the US and requires comprehensive safety testing before approving them for use in food products. The agency also limits the amount of food additives that can be used in food products.
Flaws in the system?
The Food Additives Amendment of 1958 requires formal agency review, public comment, and open rulemaking for new chemical additives, but there are gaps in data about potential health effects of food additives. There is concern about the GRAS process, which has become the process by which virtually all new food additives enter the market. The FDA does not have authority to obtain data on or reassess the safety of chemicals already on the market and does not regularly consider cumulative effects of food additives in the context of other chemical exposures. Additionally, the FDA’s toxicological testing recommendations have not been updated on the basis of new scientific information and may not be adequately protective.
Additives banned outside of the US
A number of additives that are still used in the United States today have been banned in other places like Europe, China, and India. See table below for some examples of additives that have been banned in these areas.
- Potassium bromate (or E924): Dough conditioner ingredients added to the flour mixtures used in bread, crackers, and other baked goods suspected carcinogen.
- Titanium dioxide (E171): Found in candy, coffee creamers, white sauces and baking decorations
- Brominated vegetable oil (BVO) (E443): Used in citrus soft drinks
- Azodicarbonamide (E927a): Used to bleach flour and make dough more elastic
- Propylparaben (E217): Preservative used in foods, drugs and cosmetics
MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is a widely used food additive. A number of studies have indicated that MSG can be harmful to a variety of age groups, including fetuses, children, adolescents, and adults. The toxic effects of MSG can cause complications such as hypertension, obesity, and gastrointestinal tract issues. The impact of MSG toxicity can vary based on the amount, route of administration, and duration of exposure.
To help preserve and enhance colors Nitrites and Nitrates have been used especially for processed meats. They have been linked to an increased risk of colorectal cancers and thyroid hormone disruption. In 2015 WHO classified processed meats as carcinogenic to humans.
Additives and Children
Other indirect additives that are mainly found in food packaging can potentially leak into foods have been found to interfere with hormones, growth, and development especially in children, who are more vulnerable to the effects of these additives. According to the American academy of pediatrics these additives include Bisphenols which is found plastic containers and cans, Phthalates found in plastic food wrap and Perfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFCs) which is found in grease proof paper and perchlorate found in food packaging.
American Academy of Pediatrics provides the following recommendations to reduce exposure:
- Prioritize consumption of fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables when possible and support that effort by developing a list of low-cost sources for fresh fruits and vegetables.
- Avoid processed meats, especially maternal consumption during pregnancy.
- Avoid microwaving food or beverages in plastic, if possible.
- Avoid placing plastics in the dishwasher.
- Use alternatives to plastic, such as glass or stainless steel, when possible.
- Look at the recycling code on the bottom of products to find the plastic type and avoid plastics with recycling codes 3 (phthalates). 6 (styrene), and 7 (bisphenol) unless plastics are labeled as “biobased” or “greenware,” indicating that they are made from corn and do not contain bisphenols.
- Encourage hand washing before handling foods and/or drinks and wash all fruits and vegetables that cannot be peeled.
It’s important to acknowledge the potential risks associated with some food additives, it’s also worth noting that many additives play a critical role in maintaining food quality and safety. For example, preservatives can prevent spoilage and extend the shelf life of perishable foods. In general, the majority of additives are considered safe and harmless. Additives are hard to avoid, and more research is required to show concrete evidence on long term effects on humans. Increasing one’s overall intake of whole minimally processed foods is the most beneficial way to help reduce intake of additives.
- CBS News. “U.S. food additives banned in Europe are making Americans sick, expert says.” CBS News, 2019, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/us-food-additives-banned-europe-making-americans-sick-expert-says/.
- Trasande L, Attina TM, Blustein J. “Food Additives and Child Health.” Pediatrics, vol. 142, no. 2, 2018, doi: 10.1542/peds.2018-1408.
- Levels Health. “Six Additives in Our Processed Food That Are Banned in Other Countries.” Levels Health, 2021, https://www.levelshealth.com/blog/six-additives-in-our-processed-food-that-are-banned-in-other-countries.
- WebMD. “Titanium Dioxide in Food: Is It Safe?” WebMD, 2021, https://www.webmd.com/diet/titanium-dioxide-in-food.
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “Azodicarbonamide (ADA) – Frequently Asked Questions.” FDA, 2021, https://www.fda.gov/food/food-additives-petitions/azodicarbonamide-ada-frequently-asked-questions.
- Darbre PD, Aljarrah A, Miller WR, et al. “Concentrations of parabens in human breast tumors.” Journal of Applied Toxicology, vol. 24, no. 1, 2004, doi: 10.1002/jat.958.
- Chen H, Chen Y, Chen L, et al. “Association between azodicarbonamide (ADA) exposure and asthma in the general population.” Environmental Science and Pollution Research, vol. 23, no. 23, 2016, doi: 10.1007/s11356-016-7865-6.
- Chakraborty SP. “Patho-physiological and toxicological aspects of monosodium glutamate.” Toxicology Mechanisms and Methods, vol. 29, no. 6, 2019, doi: 10.1080/15376516.2018.1528649
About the Author
My name is Safia Buh, I’m an international student from Mauritania. I completed my undergraduate degree at Meredith College, and I am currently in the Dietetics Program at Meredith College. I have completed rotations at UNC Rex hospital and at the Women Infants and Children program. I am currently interning at Avance Care for my wellness rotation. I am looking forward to incorporating all the knowledge I acquired at Avance Care in my future private practice once I move back home and help individuals prevent, manage and even reverse health conditions with the help of food and lifestyle modifications.