There are over 3000 additives that are approved for use in processed foods; the average American household spends almost 90% of their food budget on processed foods. It has gotten to the point that in order to decipher the many ingredients in processed foods, the consumer would need a chemistry degree. Unfortunately, many of these chemicals are seen as foreign invaders to the body; thus, they can potentially have significant health impacts, including allergic reactions and long-term effects.
In the last two articles, we have learned about several different types of food additives, including artificial sweeteners, artificial colours, and artificial flavours and their potential health implications. Now we will focus this last article in the series on preservatives and two other additives that are common in food that could also pose a health risk to the consumer.
Many food additives are used as preservatives. The list includes additives such as ascorbic acid, potassium sorbate, sodium nitrite, and calcium sorbate. These food additives are known as antioxidants; their primary function is to prevent fats contained in the food from becoming rancid (prevents oxidation). Rancidity can lead to flavour and colour changes. Antimicrobial preservatives inhibit spoilage by preventing the growth of microbes (molds, yeasts, bacteria). Sodium chloride (NaCl), or salt is the oldest known antimicrobial agent. Many processed foods have a high salt content for the purpose of preservation. The group of chemicals known as preservatives can be found in anything from canned fruits and vegetables, breads, cereals, chewing gum, cookies, potato chips, and vegetable oils. They are also present in the packaging surrounding foods.
Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) are synthetic antioxidants, used as preservatives found in many food products. They are also used in cosmetics, including moisturizers. Currently they are banned in some of the European countries and Japan; however, they are still in use in many other countries, including the United States and Canada. In a study done on amounts used, in the United States and Australia/New Zealand people consume almost twice as much BHA/BHT per year than is deemed an acceptable dietary intake. There is ongoing controversy about their safety. Studies clearly show that these preservatives can cause cancer in animals. Regarding BHA, a 2011 Report on Carcinogens states that it is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”
Both BHA and BHT have been shown to trigger allergic reactions in the skin when applied topically in creams, and causes hyperactivity in children. BHA also interferes with hormone function. Long-term exposure of BHT in high doses in mice studies triggered liver, thyroid, and kidney problems, and may cause reproductive problems due to its effects on the female and male sex hormones. Both BHA and BHT have been known to impair blood clotting and promote tumour growth when used in high doses. Countries that allow BHA and BHT state that the amounts used by people are at safe levels, therefore there is no need to ban them. However, independent studies conclude that “uncertainties exist, requiring that additional studies be conducted.”
Vitamin E, a natural antioxidant is often used instead of BHA/BHT. Look for the word “tocopherol” in the ingredient list which indicates any number of Vitamin E formulations. Tocopherols do not have the same length of shelf life as do BHA/BHT. So, ask yourself—which is more important, the shelf life or the safety of a food product?
Sodium benzoate is another commonly used preservative used in a wide variety of processed foods. Sodium benzoate has been in use for a century to prevent the growth of microorganisms in acidic foods. It appears to be safe for most people, though they cause hives, asthma, or other allergic reactions in sensitive individuals. A research study done in 2012 showed that sodium benzoate affected leptin release. Leptin is a hormone which helps to control our appetite. If leptin levels change in our body, it can increase appetite. Sodium benzoate can react with ascorbic acid (vitamin C) to produce benzene, a chemical that can cause leukemia and other cancers. This combination is widely used in fruit-flavoured soft drinks. The FDA recommended that soft-drink companies remove it from their beverages; since sodium benzoate is considered safe on its own, the FDA did not ban its use. Some companies have voluntarily removed sodium benzoate from their soft-drinks for this reason.
MONOSODIUM GLUTAMATE (MSG)
As we learned from the previous article, in the early 1900s, monosodium glutamate, or MSG was extracted from seaweed. Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is derived from glutamic acid, an amino acid, one of the building blocks of protein. Interestingly, glutamic acid itself does not have the unique, savoury “umami” taste, but MSG in food activates glutamate receptors in our taste buds. These receptors transmit signals to specific areas of the brain, and trigger us to “taste” the umami flavour. Today, MSG is made from corn starch, sugar cane, sugar beets, or molasses.
It is commonly added to food, to intensify and enhance the flavour of dishes. It is found in a variety of processed foods like frozen dinners, salty snacks and canned soups. It is also often added to foods in restaurants and at fast food places.
By law, monosodium glutamate (MSG) is not regulated as a food additive; however, it is often added to processed foods. The use of MSG in food is controversial. It is considered a flavour-enhancing ingredient yet does not have a flavour of its own. While there is no law that limits the amount of MSG that may be added to food, the law suggests that the amount of MSG added should be at levels consistent with Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP). In other words, only the smallest amount needed to enhance the flavour should be added to the food.
Health Canada has determined that the use of MSG is not a health hazard to consumers. However, they do acknowledge that some individuals who consume MSG may exhibit negative physical symptoms indicative of an allergic response or sensitivity. For those people, the effects of eating foods containing MSG may include: a burning sensation, facial pressure, headache, nausea and chest pains appearing about 20 minutes after consumption and disappearing about two hours later. Such reactions have generally been reported to be temporary and not associated with any long-term adverse health effects. Because of this potential sensitivity, many processed foods and restaurants advertise their products as containing no MSG.
Various studies done on MSG have suggested that there are toxic effects related to its consumption. In mice studies, high levels of glutamate are able to pass through the blood-brain barrier on newborn mice, and cause brain damage. It is suggested that because a human infant also has an immature blood-brain barrier, this could cause glutamate to pass into their brains from MSG in infant formulas. Other potential toxic effects include nervous system disorders, obesity, liver damage, reproductive malfunctions, cardiovascular disorders, weight gain, metabolic syndrome, headaches and high blood pressure.
Very small quantities of MSG are required to enhance the natural basic flavour in foods such as soups, casseroles, salads, gravies, and vegetable dishes. Because MSG is so prevalent in processed foods and in the restaurant industry, people are consuming it in higher than anticipated doses over a lifetime. Restaurants and food manufacturers are not required to indicate the actual amount of MSG used in their products. Health Canada states that MSG consumed in moderation is considered safe; however, any substance consumed to excess can be toxic, including MSG. Even though this continues to be an ongoing debate in the food industry due to its prevalence in our food supply, enough evidence is present to suggest that people should avoid MSG to reduce potential health risks associated with its use.
To determine if MSG is present in a food product, look at the ingredient list. It can be listed as monosodium glutamate, hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP), hydrolyzed plant protein (HPP), autolyzed yeast, soy extract and protein isolate. MSG will most likely be found near the bottom of the ingredient list because it is typically added in small amounts to a product.
Carrageenan has a long history. Centuries ago, people who lived along the coast in Ireland and Brittany used a type of seaweed called Irish Moss, boiling it with milk, and turning it into creamy pudding.
Currently, carrageenan is a common food additive, derived from red seaweeds, which is then processed with alkali (neutralizes acids), to create a substance that is considered a “natural” additive. It is found in many natural and organic foods because it is a plant-based ingredient. However, along with MSG, which is also derived from plants, we find that “natural” does not always mean safe. Consider all the plants that cause toxic effects on the human body, for example, tobacco and poison ivy
and you quickly realize that many plants can produce harmful effects on our health. Many plants are also medicines and should not be ingested as food. Therefore, we need to be aware that even foods labelled as natural may not be safe for consumption. Thus, checking ingredient lists and having knowledge about food additives is vital to our health. Again, avoiding processed foods as much as possible is the healthiest choice we can make.
When carrageenan is processed with acid instead of alkali, it changes from the “undegraded” form to a form called “degraded carrageenan.” This form of carrageenan is not allowed in food because it triggers the immune system to respond, recognizing it as a dangerous invader; this leads to significant and prolonged inflammation—in fact, it is used on laboratory animals to test the effectiveness of anti-inflammatory medications. It is so potent that degraded carrageenan is widely recognized as a carcinogen, i.e. it causes cancer. The concern is that our stomachs are a very highly acidic environment, and studies in animals prove that carrageenan can be transformed into the degraded form in the intestines, exposing the body to this strong carcinogen. Scientists have been concerned for decades that even the food-grade form of carrageenan causes harm. In testing food samples, it has been shown that many foods also contain degraded carrageenan as well as the approved undegraded carrageenan.
Carrageenan adds no nutritional value or flavour to foods or beverages. It is widely used by the food industry as a substitute for fat, and to thicken non-fat or low-fat foods, including dairy products such as yogurt and ice cream. It creates a fatty “mouthfeel” to low-fat foods, to enhance the food’s appeal. It is also used in dairy substitutes such as soymilk and coconut milk as well as a stabilizer in beverages that would separate unless shaken or stirred. It is even found in foods such as organic frozen pizzas and nutrition bars. Many canned pet foods also contain carrageenan. Some manufacturers have substituted guar gum, xanthan gum, locust bean gum, and gellan gum for carrageenan in their foods, knowing that consumers are becoming more aware of the dangers of carrageenan, and are avoiding products that contain it.
As early as the 1960s, researchers found that even undegraded carrageenan used in foods triggered gastrointestinal diseases in animals due to its inflammatory effects, including ulcerative colitive-type diseases and colon cancer. Then in 1981, two scientists conducted a review of all the studies done on carrageenan since the 1960s and raised concern about its widespread use as a food additive. They determined that the harmful effects of carrageenan were associated with the fact that it degrades when it passes through the gastrointestinal tract. They recommended extreme caution in the use of carrageenan as a food additive.
Researchers studying the effects of carrageenan on the human body found that using carrageenan on a daily basis creates a constant state of inflammation in the body. Chronic inflammation in the body is associated with over 100 diseases such as heart disease, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease and cancers. Many people who experience belly “bloat”, to irritable bowel syndrome, and more serious inflammatory bowel diseases find that eliminating carrageenan from their diet results in vast improvements in gastrointestinal health. More recent research shows that carrageenan impairs proper insulin function and causes glucose intolerance, both of which lead to diabetes. Carrageenan also reduces the activity of certain beneficial enzymes in human cells.
In 2008, Dr. Tobacman, the author of the 2001 Environmental Health Perspectives review, urged the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to prohibit the use of carrageenan in food. It was shown that the amount of carrageenan in foods is enough to trigger an inflammatory response. She concluded that, “The widespread use of carrageenan in the Western diet should be reconsidered” due to evidence that “exposure to undegraded as well as to degraded carrageenan was associated with the occurrence of intestinal ulcerations and neoplasms [cancerous tumours].”
The FDA chose to rely on research done by the food industry, and ignored additional studies that were done since 2008; therefore, in 2012, they denied the petition to remove carrageenan from the food supply. In 2016, the National Organic Standards Board voted to have carrageenan removed from organic foods, as they were able to determine that there were other substances that could replace carrageenan. In 2018, the United States Department of Agriculture, which oversees the National Organic Program decided to ignore the recommendation and carrageenan is still used widely in food products, including organic foods. The USDA determined that carrageenan is safe to use. Many food producers claim that there is no other natural substitute for carrageenan that provides the same effect in processed foods, therefore they continue to use it; however, many producers of organic foods have voluntarily removed carrageenan from their products. Other organizations feel that this decision undermines “the integrity of the US Organic label” and the future of the Organic label, as it brings into question whether organic food products are truly safe for consumption.
For over four decades, scientists have been urging government bodies to remove carrageenan as a food additive, but have been unsuccessful, and it is allowed as an additive in many countries around the world. The increase in ulcerative colitis worldwide has been linked to processed foods, and more specifically to carrageenan. There are strong ethical issues that come into play with governments and food regulators continuing to allow carrageenan to be used as a food additive despite studies that have proven over and over again that it is extremely harmful to the human body.
THE GRAS “LOOPHOLE”
Originally, there was a GRAS (“Generally Recognized As Safe”) designation in a law that was developed in 1958 that required companies to demonstrate the safety of food ingredients. However, there was also a GRAS “loophole” that was intended to spare only the most time-tested substances from the onerous pre-market approval process; examples of these are substances such as vinegar, salt and baking soda that were widely used and known to be safe.
However, in 1997, The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States introduced a new ruling that allowed food companies to decide for themselves which ingredients qualify as GRAS, and then report these designations to the FDA on a voluntary basis; because this reporting is voluntary, many ingredients have been designated as GRAS without any notice to the FDA. Therefore, proof of safety via independent checks and federal oversight is lacking. Critics of this ruling state that consumers are put at risk because critical independent checks on the safety of new ingredients are not necessary; the manufacturers of the ingredient are allowed to designate their products as GRAS. Once there is a GRAS designation and the ingredient is in our food supply, it is very difficult to reverse the designation. The FDA rarely takes further action, even when there is evidence that it is not safe. This is what is taking place in the case of carrageenan, even when independent studies show that the ingredient can cause negative health effects in animals and humans. For the past two years, the Environmental Defense Fund has been challenging the GRAS ruling, seeking to have the process deemed “unlawful”. As of April 2019, they are awaiting a ruling from the Federal court judge that heard their case.
This leaves us with the question, if the food companies are allowed to decide on the safety of their products, who is monitoring this obvious conflict of interest? The answer is—nobody. Since 1997, thousands of substances have been added to processed foods under this new rule. And many of these have never been put through an evaluation process outside of the manufacturer who produced them. How many of these are causing issues with our health without our knowledge? Lisa Lefferts, a food additive expert from the Center for Science in the Public Interest states that “the system for ensuring that ingredients added to food are safe is broken.”
And it continues, food producers conduct their own studies on their additives and they lobby the government to continue to allow these additives to be used in the production of processed foods, often contradicting studies that are done by independent groups which have no financial gain in either keeping or removing an additive from food products. As consumers, we need to be aware of the effects of these additives, and avoid them in order to protect our health. If enough people avoid foods that contain harmful ingredients, perhaps the producers of these foods will start to take notice when their finances suffer because of it. As consumers, we need to take action and pressure the food industry to remove harmful ingredients from our food supply, by deciding not to eat foods that are full of chemical additives, and by recognizing that “natural” does not always equate to “safe.”
CAN WE TRUST OUR FOOD?
In this article, several countries laws have been mentioned; however, the use of food additives and the laws regulating these substances are similar in many countries around the world. Food additives affect each of us over a lifetime of consuming chemicals and substances that are unnatural. The American Academy of Pediatrics warns about the harm of food additives in children. Because they are smaller, the amount they get is larger in comparison to their body mass. Their bodies are still developing so they are at a higher risk of harm; and because they are young, these chemicals have more time to do damage.
As we have seen throughout this series of articles, just because an additive is allowed in a food, does not make it safe. Many additives have been allowed in processed foods that have later been proven to be harmful to the human body. For example, additives such as trans fats, and certain artificial sweeteners and colours have been removed from foods when evidence of their harm became undeniable. And, if an additive has been shown to have cancer-causing properties, then no amount would be considered safe. How many more chemical additives are contained in our food that may be proven to be harmful to us, after we have consumed them for many years? Our safety lies in avoiding processed foods as much as possible, and adhering to the natural diet given to man at creation.
“Some fall into the error, that because they leave meat they have no need to supply its place with the best of fruits and vegetables, prepared in their most natural state, free from grease and spices. If they will only skillfully arrange the bounties the Creator has surrounded them with, and with a clear conscience parents and children unitedly engage in the work, they would enjoy simple food, and would then be able to speak understandingly of health reform. “ –Appeal to the Battle Creek Church, p. 80