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Food additives, dangerous or not?

We often worry about additives found on the list of ingredients in processed foods. We bypass them in favour of more natural ingredients. But did you know that many additives are made from natural ingredients? Let’s take a little foray into the world of additives.

What are additives?

Many additives are used to prolong shelf life and protect against food poisoning. Calcium propionate, for example, is added to bakery products to prevent mould growth. Other additives are included to obtain the desired texture: lecithin and diglycerides used in the manufacture of margarine and mayonnaise ensure perfect emulsion between oil and water. Agar-agar, alginates, carrageenan and gums (cellulose, carob, guar or xanthan) play the same role as gelatin or starch used in our kitchens for gelling or thickening recipes, except they are more resistant to conditions experienced when manufacturing processed foods, such as cooking at high heat, freezing or canning. Finally, there are additives that enhance or preserve taste and colour, such as acids, antioxidants, plus natural and artificial colours

An index of additives

According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an American consumer advocacy organization, it is a good idea to limit your consumption of the following additives:  

  • BHA and BHT: these artificial antioxidants are used to prevent the rancidity (spoiling) of fat and oil. However, once ingested, they can produce free radicals that are dangerous to our cell health. They are increasingly being replaced by safer compounds, such as vitamin E.
  • Propyl gallate: this antioxidant is often used in conjunction with BHA and BHT to prevent rancidity. Some studies link it with the development of cancer, at least in mice.
  • Nitrites and nitrates: they are added to cold cuts (ham, bacon, sausage) to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria. Nitrites transform into nitrosamines during digestion, potentially carcinogenic molecules. Cured meats without nitrites are now available on the market.
  • Artificial colouring: some colours are associated with the development of tumours in animals. Others are suspected of causing allergic reactions or attention deficit disorder in children. Health Canada wants to force food manufacturers to name the colours in their products (up until now, the generic term ‘colour’ was accepted). Manufacturers are seeking to replace artificial colouring with natural colouring extracted from fruit and vegetables.

10 harmless additives

  • Ascorbic acid (or sodium ascorbate): it’s just vitamin C, added to prevent oxidation and browning.
  • Citric acid: this acid is naturally present in fruit, especially citrus fruits.
  • Lactic acid: it is also found in cheese and yogurt.
  • Lecithin: it is found naturally in egg yolks and soy beans. This is an excellent emulsifier.
  • Alginate, carrageenan: these are seaweed extracts, gelling agents that are no more worrisome than gelatin.
  • Cellulose gum (or carboxymethyl cellulose): a thickening agent made from vinegar and wood fibres.
  • Maltodextrins: these are simply small starch molecules used as thickening agents.
  • Mono and diglycerides: naturally produced by the body during the digestion of fat. These are excellent emulsifying agents.
  • Calcium propionate: it prevents mould growth. Its calcium is beneficial. It is naturally found in, among other things, Emmental cheese.
  • Phosphoric acid: phosphate is an essential element for the body. Too much can cause calcium loss, but only a small amount of phosphate consumed comes from additives.

Who ensures they are safe?

This is part of Health Canada’s mandate. Their scientists constantly scrutinize studies from around the world on the safety of additives. The list of 400 additives allowed in Canada and their conditions of use is continually updated based on new data. However, doubts remain about the safety of some additives still in use, based on results when they were tested on lab animals in large doses. (Read “An index of additives”). If you want to limit your consumption of additives, read the list of ingredients: additives are listed in their order of importance. And remember: less processed foods or those you cook yourself are always a better choice!  

Christina Blais

For Christina Blais, explaining food chemistry to the masses is as simple as making a good omelet. Holding a Bachelor and Master degree in Nutrition, she has been a part-time lecturer for over 30 years in the Department of Nutrition at the Université de Montréal, where she teaches food science courses. She has been sharing the fruits of her experience with Ricardo since 2001, during his daily show broadcast on ICI Radio-Canada Télé. And diehards can also read her Food Chemistry on our website. You can follow her on Facebook at @Encuisineavecchristinablais.