Reading the list of ingredients in industrial products often makes you dizzy: beyond the foodstuffs used in the recipe, you may come across a whole host of substances, often with obscure names beginning with “E”.
These food additives are not all harmless if they are intended to optimize our food! Discover how they work and their effects on health.
What is a food additive?
Food additives are substances, or mixtures, added in small quantities to the products we eat for a specific purpose.
Depending on their nature, additives perform different functions
improvement of the quality of the food: holding, color, aroma, etc. ;
preservation of foodstuffs.
Did you know that? This practice is not recent: salt is one of man’s first additives to have been used to ensure the preservation of meat in particular. The Egyptians used dyes and flavors, and the Romans used saltpeter, spices, and dyes to make their food more attractive.
Main types of additives
Food additives can be grouped into different categories. The main ones are:
- colorants (E 100 to E 199): they restore a coloring lost during the elaboration of the product, strengthen the original color or create particular shades;
- preservatives (E 200 to E 299): they prevent the degradation of food under the effect of micro-organisms;
- Antioxidants (E 300 to E 321): they limit oxidation reactions to avoid browning or rancidity of foodstuffs;
- Texture agents (E 322 to E 495) improve the products’ appearance. These are emulsifiers, stabilizers, thickeners, and gelling agents;
- Taste enhancers (E 620 to E 637).
Food additives are strictly regulated: only those on positive lists can be used.
Note: some food additives are associated with an ADI (acceptable daily intake). It corresponds to the amount that you can ingest daily without health risk. It is expressed in milligrams of additive per kg of body weight.
Controversial food additives: various effects
Although competent authorities particularly monitor these substances, some are suspected of having undesirable effects on health. There are many controversies, with experts having difficulty agreeing on their point of view.
In addition, studies on potential dangers generally focus on individual substances and do not consider the “cocktail” effect linked to the combination of several of them.
Good to know: the association between the consumption of ultra-processed foods and depression could be partly favored by the presence of additives such as emulsifiers or molecules transformed by high temperatures, which could induce microbiota alterations.
Food coloring linked to hyperactivity?
In the 1970s, some researchers suggested that the increase in hyperactivity in children was linked to changes in consumption habits, particularly the ingestion of colorants in industrial products.
A study was carried out on approximately 300 children aged 3 to 9 years who did not have a hyperactivity problem.
Some children were given fruit juice containing colorants (E110, E 122, E 102, E 124, E 104, E 129) and a preservative, sodium benzoate (E 211).
The others received fruit juice without additives.
The scientists found that the first group had an increase in the level of hyperactivity.
Additives at the origin of neurological disorders?
Aluminum is a substance whose toxicity is known:
It accumulates in the kidneys, liver, heart, brain, and bones.
Its ingestion would be one of the causes of the appearance of Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s diseases.
It triggers allergies in some people.
Aluminum is used as a food additive under the name E 173; it is a grey colorant used to tint the surface of candies and cakes.
Good to know: It is banned in Australia.
Other additives contain aluminum:
- E 520 through E 523, aluminum sulfates used as structural stabilizers, found in candied cherries and egg whites;
- E 555, E 556, and E 559, aluminum silicates, were recently banned; E554, belonging to the same group, is still used in fine salt for treating the surface of ripened cheeses.
- E 1452, a modified starch, is used as a stabilizer in foods for young children.
Monosodium glutamate (E 621), a taste enhancer, is also suspected of playing a role in the development of neurodegenerative diseases associated with nerve cell destruction (Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, multiple sclerosis). In addition, it seems to modify the perception of the sensation of satiety, which can lead to obesity;
it would trigger migraine attacks or headaches in people prone to them.
Potentially carcinogenic additives
Although no additive is considered carcinogenic, some are suspected of being so. These include:
- Titanium dioxide (colorant E171) in the form of nanoparticles (i.e., less than 100 nanometers in size). These are present in many food and cosmetic products, medicines, and toothpaste tubes. Titanium dioxide is classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a possible carcinogen. After oral ingestion, the absorption of titanium dioxide particles is low. Still, they are likely to accumulate in the body”, which does not rule out a risk of genotoxicity that could lead to carcinogenic risk.
- Parabens (E 214 to E 219). In addition to their potentially carcinogenic effect, they would disrupt the endocrine system. Avoid deli meats, pie doughs, cookies, and sweets that contain them.
- Nitrites and nitrates (E 249 to E 252) are present in deli meats to fix the color and the flavors and preserve the product. They react, under certain conditions of acidity and heat, with proteins to form nitrosamines. Most of these are very dangerous and are classified as proven carcinogens.
- Antioxidants such as butylated hydroxyanisole (E 320), or butylated hydroxytoluene (E 321), are found in ready meals and chewing gum.
- Dyes, such as quinoline yellow (E 104) present in sodas, confectionery, jams, and alcoholic beverages. For example, cochineal red is found in chorizo, the black shiny (E151) is found in herring …
Note: some of these additives are allowed in some countries and prohibited in others.