Chemical Additives In Our Food

By Dr Harold Gunatillake
Health Writer

For survival during the winter months, our ancestors have been adding preservative chemicals to the food for thousands of years. To preserve the food during those non-hunting winter seasons man has used methods such as smoking, drying, curing, pickling, salting and adding a variety of local spices and herbs to prevent unstable food from deteriorating. Scientists use the word "oxidation" for that deterioration.

Portuguese and the Spaniards sailed all the way to Ceylon (Serendib, Taprobane) in search of spices like cardamom, nutmeg, and others, to preserve their fish and meat, whilst sailing on the far seas.Salt has been used to preserve meat and fish over thousand years.

In the Jewish community around 1600 BC the salting of foods was quite common. The Mesopotamians preserved both fish and cooked meats in fired clay vessels filled with sesame oil. In China soy sauce was used as a preservative for food and also for seasoning. We like to colour and improve the appearance of food we eat. Ancient Egyptians use colour their food yellow with saffron. Presently, we cure our meat with nitrates, and making cheese using acid precipitation of milk by using an enzyme rennin. Saltpeter (potassium nitrate) was added to meat to enhance its red colour and prevent browning. Copper was used to enhance the green colour of vegetables.

Over the centuries all aspect of our food supply have undergone changes of unprecedented magnitude, reflecting the rapid growth of science and technology in the more affluent countries. You only have to visit any shopping centre in the main cities, to see these changes. There has been a revolution in the agricultural food harvesting, processing, packaging and distribution and displaying on the shelves of most food outlets and shops.

Our vegetables are getting huge due to genetic modification and as a consequence less natural taste, compared with the organic vegetables that are more tasteful and smaller in size, produced in the less developed countries. Complex synthetic foods made out of chemically cross linked corn starch or textured soy proteins combined with the appropriate food colours, flavours, etc., have resulted in artificial cheese and extended meat protein products, and the consumers are attracted by the colouring and flavouring agents, emulsifiers, stabilizers, thickeners, clarifiers and bleaching agents of these food items that are displayed.

To maintain the freshness and prevent deterioration
You see those salads and other leafy vegetables displayed in salad bars, looking so fresh and crispy even after being exposed in those bowls for a whole day. Additives in the form of sprays are added against oxidation and rancidity which causes chemical changes in the displayed food. These chemical are called antioxidants, sequestrants and enzyme inhibitors. Additives can change the flavor, aroma, and texture and improve appearance through adding colouring, flavouring, sweetening, thickening and gelling agents, and the use of waxes, coating resins and carbonation.

Food additives used daily in the kitchen
We do not eat anything fresh, though we believe so. In the kitchen many chemicals are added to get the flavours and the required tastes whilst cooking. Vinegar (acetic acid) is used to marinade and tenderise meat. Egg yolk contains lecithin. Egg yolks are added to emulsify mayonnaiseCream of tartar (Potassium bitartrate) is added to stabilize beaten egg white.Garlic and mustard contain Allyl sulphides and allyl isothiocyanide are added to most Asian curries including flavouring meat dishes. Vegetable oils (Canola, Flax-seed, Corn) contains Linoleic and Linolenic acid, are used as lubricants for baking, stir frying, or tempering. Sugar (Sucrose) is used for all Chinese curries and most Asian curries. Diabetics should be aware of this when eating Chinese meals. Check your sugar level on your gluco-meter when you reach home, you'll be surprised. Honey (fructose) used as a preservative in cakes and biscuits.

These are added to preserve and increase the shelf life of food. They prevent unwanted chemical reactions after being processed and packaged. They also retard the growth of micro-organisms that are present in, or gain entry to, the food. Asthmatics have been found to suffer from increasing attacks and respiratory distress when exposed to some artificial food colours and preservatives. Patients with skin conditions (dermatitis) and children showing signs of hyperactive behavior may react to specific food colours, preservatives, and salicylates. A person who suffers from chest pain, palpitations, burning skin, headaches or an asthma attack after a Chinese meal is most likely suffering from, "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome", an adverse reaction to sodium glutamate (MSG).

Antioxidants: These chemicals prevent oxygen molecules attacking the food. The food normally goes rancid due to a process called oxidation. Your front steel gate (if you have one) rusts due to the same reaction. These molecules will transform chemically the original shape, structure, edibility, and function. For this same reason all cooking oils should be kept in the refrigerator to prevent oxidation. These antioxidants are added onto oily and fatty foods, as they can dissolve in such media. These antioxidants are added to prevent rancidity, and the formation of "free radicals".

When rancid the food has a bitter taste, unpleasant flavor and odour and even more importantly producers toxic and cancer substances… These fat soluble antioxidants used in Australia and most other countries are butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), propyl, octyl,or dodectyl gallate, tocopherols (vitamin E) and phospholipids such as lecithin (in eggs). Except for BHT used in petrol, lubricating oils and rubber, all other fat soluble antioxidants are added to edible fats and oils, margarines, dairy blends, salad oils, lard, dripping, essential oils, confectionery, dried instant mashed potato, walnuts and pecan nut kernel,. BHA and BHT are also used in the manufacture of clear transparent polythene wrappers, and the amount of antioxidants migrating from the film to the food is not permitted to exceed 2mg/kg of food wrapped.

Food in which Propyl, octyl or dodecyl gallate antioxidants are permitted to be added are-edible fats, and oils, margarine, dairy blend, salad oils, lard and dripping, essential oils. Maximum proportion allowed is 100mg/kg. For essential oils the maximum amount allowed is 1g/kg. Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) antioxidant is allowed to be added to foods such as edible fats and oils, margarine, dairy blends, salad oils. Lard and dripping, up to a maximum of 200mg/kg. For essential oils 1g/kg: Masticatory confectionery 200mg/kg: Dried instant mashed potato, 100mg/kg: walnuts and pecan nut kernels, 70mg/kg.

Tocopherol (vitamin E) antioxidant is allowed to be added to any food and there is no limit imposed. Anti-microbial: There are many chemical agents added to foods to control the growth of micro-organisms, such as yeasts, moulds, and bacteria. These chemicals have allowed a greater variety of foods into the market-place, and impart a longer shelf life, compared to foods that are sterilized and pasteurized which also kill micro-organisms. Food can be dehydrated using sugar or salt and changing the acidity to an unfavourable growth environment for micro-organisms.

In some situations the unfavourable microbes can be destroyed by a controlled fermentation process, as occurs, for instance, during the production of yogurt. Salt, sugar and acid have been used as anti-microbial agents for thousands of years, and are still commonly used. Sulphur dioxide and related sulphites are also used to control microbial growth in low pH products, and to combat decomposition, antioxidation and both enzymatic and non-enzymatic browning of fruits and vegetables. Sulphur dioxide is added to wines, beer, dried milk, dried potato, mustard, and many other foods. Benzoic acid and its sodium and potassium salts have the capacity to retard growth of yeasts and moulds, and some foods which are acidic. Benzoates are added to carbonated drinks, fruit juices, cider, margarine, prepared salads and occur naturally in prunes, berries, cinnamon and cloves.

Colouring agents:
Colouring helps to correct the natural variations and changes during processing and storage. It makes the food appealing. Colour sprayed oranges and apples are more pleasing to eat, and better sold in markets. At the turn of the century the United States selected food colours from some eighty different coal tar dyes (carcinogenic), by 1980 only eight certified colours remained. These were FD and C. Citrus Red No 3 (Erythrosine), FD and C Red No 40 (Allura), FD and C Citrus Red2, FD and C Yellow No6 (Sunset Yellow FCF), FD and C Yellow No5 (Tartrazine), FD and C Green No 3 (Fast Green FCF), FD and C Blue N0 1(Brilliant Blue FCF), and FD and C Blue No 2 (Ingotine). Seven food colours were banned between the years 1956 and 1976 because of animal studies demonstrating evidence of carcinogenicity, or toxic effects. Today Australia uses thirteen, Britain sixteen, and United States, eight artificial colours. The small numbers of artificial colours used in these countries reflect not only the fact that animal studies have uncovered some real potential health hazards with some of the deleted colours.

Natural colours:
Caramel is the mostly used colouring matter added to food. It is used in beer, gravy, spirits, soft drinks, and vinegar. It gives a brown to black colour. Cur cumin is used as a natural yellow colour. This is freely used in Asian curries. Cur cumin water is also used in Asian homes and temples sprinkling daily on the floor as a disinfectant. Riboflavin (vitamin B2) is used to colour the food to give an orange-yellow colour. Chlorophyll extracted from plants is used to give a green colour. Beetroot is used to give a red colour to the food. There are a few more natural colours used which are very safe, not mentioned here.

Taste, odour and texture modifiers
Flavouring agents: There are over thousand different flavor modifiers or enhancers added to foods, either to enhance or reduce the taste or smell of a food. Some give a sour or bitter taste or impart an aroma similar to fruits such as pineapple or passion fruit, for example. Artificial sweeteners These are used for low calorie diets to replace the high calorie sugars, like glucose, sucrose, fructose and lactose. Some of them are: Saccharin, Cyclamate Aspartame and Acesulfame K.

These are widely used food additives. When oil and water do not mix, emulsifying agents reduce the surface tension at the interface of the water and oil layers. These are used in mayonnaise, margarine, salad dressing, soups, coffee whiteners, snack dips, ice creams, and sausages. They are used in the bakery industry to increase the shelf life of bread. Some of the emulsifiers are; Ammonium salts of phosphatidic acids, Diacetyl tartaric ester of mono and diglycerides, Phospholipids derived from natural sources, including lecithin, and a few others.
Anticaking agents, sequestrants and humectants

A variety of mineral salts like table salt, vegetable salts, sugars, coffee, whiteners and baking powder, is used to prevent lumping, caking and the absorption of moisture. They are also used to remove unwanted minerals which cause undesirable changes in flavor, colour, and turbidity and may reduce the shelf life of a product by accelerating rancidity.

The dilemma
We are made to understand and believe, what we purchase from our vegetable stores, looking so fresh, are free of chemicals, but the truth is that those vegetables have been grown by spraying pesticides and herbicides to keep away the pests that destroy the crops. Spraying such poisonous pesticides is curtailed only during the last few weeks before harvesting. In addition, many chemicals are used in the cooking methods to give the required taste, flavor, colour and appearance. Strictly speaking the food that we eat is organic biological chemicals. These include carbohydrates, proteins and fats, the three major macronutrients. We also depend on micronutrients such as vitamins, trace elements, minerals, and other essential factors like beta-carotene, taurine and choline.

These macro and micronutrient organic chemicals have been consumed by humans as normal food for thousands of years. Only recently our foods have undergone chemical modification. Such products include textured soy proteins, modified starches, polyunsaturated vegetable oils, which may be handled differently by the body. We know that margarine is a product made from vegetable oils that has undergone many processes to form an unnatural trans-fat which look like butter.

This is a completely different structure even though it has the same chemical composition as normal fat.

The body is known to react differently to this particular fat and cause damage to every cell membrane in the body. Most cookery demonstrations seen on television in Sri Lanka and affluent countries are health hazards.

The demonstrators go for taste, colour and presentation, by adding many chemicals, and heating or baking in ovens, using too much of oil in most situations. Don't you think that we should learn from our ancestors, and cook food at boiling temperature of water, adding a few spices? Also, shouldn't we grow our own organic vegetables in our backyard?

Ref: FOOD CHEMICALS SENSITIVITY, Robert Buist PhD.: Harper & Row Publishers,Sydney

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