September 1, 2014
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Nutrition and Fitness

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Food additives: The good and the bug

Mmm, food additives. Those long lists of scary-looking chemicals in the ingredients in prepackaged foods. Nothing like what our grandparents ate... right? Well, actually, food additives are not new. They've been around for a long time - we just know more about them these days. And they're tightly regulated.

But what was that in the title about a bug?

First off, food additives are chemical substances that are added to food during preparation or storage and that either become a part of the food or achieve a technical effect (e.g., enhancing the appearance of the food). Generally, the reasons additives are added to food are:

  • to maintain its nutritional value
  • to enhance its ability to retain its flavour and freshness
  • to make it attractive
  • to aid in its processing, packaging, or storage

Nevertheless, when you get into the finer details of what these additives are specifically used for, it can become a bit dizzying. For example, the purposes of some of these agents are to preserve food, thicken it, firm it, bleach it, colour it, sweeten it, emulsify it, glaze it, moisten it, and deodorize it. (Hungry yet?)

Given the wide range of uses food additives fill - and their widespread presence in our pre-packaged groceries - you might wonder about their safety in our diet. In Canada, food additives are regulated by the Food and Drug Regulations issued by the Food Directorate of Health Canada. The good news is that to be approved for use, they must pass a rigorous testing process that assesses their quality, their effectiveness, and, critically, the health hazards they present to the consumer.

To learn about which additives are in the processed food you eat, check out the list of ingredients. These substances are usually added in small quantities, so they will appear towards the end of the list. If you want to verify whether or not an ingredient is a food additive, you can cross-check against the list provided by Health Canada of all food additives permitted in Canada. You can find this list at www.hc-sc.gc.ca. If the item in question doesn't appear on this list, it is not a food additive - or it's one not used in Canada.

If you're especially concerned about a particular substance, keep monitoring Health Canada's list. It is updated regularly, as products are added or removed from the marketplace.

In the US, a similar set-up regarding their food additive regulations is in place. They also have regulations and safety protocols and they are constantly updating/changing approvals for food additives.

Despite the government's safety regulations, some people have expressed concern over the safety of food additives. A large nutritional advocacy group in the US called the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI; www.cspinet.org) has raised concerns that the consumption of large amounts of some additives may be unsafe or promote poor nutrition or cause allergic reactions, and that more testing is needed. CSPI has produced and rated a list of food additives and their safety. The substances they deem we should most avoid or cut back on are:

  • sodium nitrate
  • saccharin
  • caffeine
  • olestra
  • acesulfame-potassium (also known as acesulfame-K)
  • artificial colouring

Of this group of six, only four are permitted in Canada: sodium nitrate (a colouring, a flavouring, and a preservative), caffeine (a familiar face! - a flavouring and a stimulant), acesulfame-potassium (an artificial sweetener), and artificial colourings (often found in nutritionally void products like candy and pop).

Lastly, the CSPI reminds us of two common additives that pose a substantial risk because we continue such a love affair with them: sugar and salt. In Canada, though, these are not considered food additives under the Food and Drug Regulations. But however these substances are defined, it would be wise to do yourself a favour and start cutting back.

Oh, and the bug in the system? It is a bug, literally. Carmine is a red food colouring harvested from dried, ground bodies of the female cochineal beetle. Carmine, or cochineal extract, is a dye used in a variety of foods such as candy, yogurt, ice cream, and beverages, as well as in some medications and cosmetics. It has been known to cause allergic reactions, even anaphylaxis, so advocacy groups are calling for better product labelling so those at risk (and those wishing to avoid animal products) can better identify it and other additives that may cause a serious allergic reaction.

Nicolette Blase


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