Sunday, March 15, 2009

Food Additives


Courtney asked for my “thoughts on food additives in our diet. Specifically, what is your scientific and always logical take on artificial colors/dyes and preservatives in the food and their impact on behavior?”

The answer varies with the additive unfortunately.

Additives fall into a variety of categories but the first major split is into colours and others. Courtney specifically refers to colours, antioxidants and artificial sweeteners.

Colours are really for cosmetic purposes only and serve no useful purpose to the consumer. They can make pallid and insipid looking foods look more attractive (eg: adding yellow to pasta, cakes or ice-cream makes them look a richer colour, as if they have eggs in them.).

There is no doubt that colours are not necessary. They are an aesthetic additive.

Antioxidants (BHA, BHT, TBHQ)
These additives are generally added to oils and oil containing products to delay the onset of rancidity and extend shelf life; to this end they serve a useful purpose. As well as flavour deterioration, the by-products of rancidity, peroxides and acids, are considered to be harmful. This is where antioxidants have a problem: they are an additive but, unlike colours, they do serve a functional purpose. And this is where the regulators need to walk a fine line: the health risks of the additive vs the health risks of not using the additive.

Artificial Sweeteners
These are more insidious additives, in my mind. There is no denying that obesity is a growing problem (!) but is replacing sugar with something sweet but without calories the answer? It is not training people to enjoy unsweetened food but rather maintaining a need for a certain level of sweetness. Also people do false bargains with the devil when they say “I had a diet cola so I can have a chocolate bar”.

This is a fairly broad group of additives. Sulphur Dioxide is used very widely for different reasons. With the likes of sausages, they will not last a day raw without preservative (because you are seeding the minced raw meat with bacteria filled other components – flours, spices etc.). Dried fruit, such as apricots, go dark brown without preservative but will survive quite well without it IF they are properly dried. If they are kept still moist, (could they be being sold by weight?) yeasts can grow in them. Many soft drinks contain the preservative Benzoic Acid to prevent the growth of bacteria during storage. Again there is the issue of the health risks of using the additive vs the health risks of not using the additive.

At one level, it seems logical that manufacturers will not use additives unless they feel that they are needed in their food. Why incur an unnecessary cost? But reality is that the cost of the additive is not great and the ability of the manufacturers to control the amounts added is variable. Ultimately, as an insurance, they often use too muych rather than too little.

That was the easy bit.

“Are these additives harmful?” is a harder question. At some point everything is harmful. One grain of sand will bounce off you shoulder, a truck full dumped on you will smother you. Do additives impact on children’s behaviour? Quite possibly. There is the issue of causality though. This is something that I will probably come back to time and time again in this blog. Do colours make your child hyperactive? Or is it the sugars that are often present with the colours? Or something else altogether?

Ultimately it is something that must be decided on a case by case basis. If they affect your child, all the assurances of the ‘experts’ amount to nothing; they affect your child.


  1. I would disagree on food colourings being purely aesthetic - unless you ascribe taste to the aesthetic spectrum.

    Tests have proved that colour has an effect on our perception of taste. Scientists gave people food that was oddly coloured, with the result that people found it distasteful.

  2. I partly agree with you - the purpose of the colour is to fool your mind in some sense or other. Make the food look healthier, fresher, or just plain attractive. I worked in a steel mill once - they sold rust to pet food companies to make dog food look brown and appealing. Not to the dog, to the owner. Minced, cooked lung is a grey-pink colour otherwise. Same reason they put peas into pet food. The pets don't want it. The owners think it is healthy.

    You can't get white chicken eggs in the shops in Australia any more - people are sold on the idea that brown = healthy. (Oddly, the reverse is true but that will be another post.

  3. Yes - I've always ascribed ot the notion that pet foods are concocted more for the owners than the pets themselves.

    I ask you - beef flavour cat food? When was the last time you saw Tibbles taking down a fully grown wildebeest?

  4. I beg people to do your research on 'aspartame' the artifical sweetener in diet & zero coke (and many diet foods. Very toxic because it stimulates the body to crave fats and salt. Which is why we see so many obese people - a diet coke in one hand - chips in the other. The lab tests mice got fatter eating aspartame, hence the obesity epidemic is man made by the manufacturers of aspartame.


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