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All Those Food Additives Do Have An Impact On Your Health

Earlier this month, Kellogg’s joined General Mills in the pledge to phase artificial colours and flavours out of their breakfast cereals.

We hear all the time about the health concerns around the use of artificial colours, flavours, and preservatives in our foods, but do they really pose a risk?

Various studies suggest they do.

In some cases, food manufacturers such as Kellogg’s and General Mills have taken action in response to public opinion and the desires of consumers. In others, regulators have had sufficient cause to force some additives off the market, or at the very least, require that they be clearly identified on lists of ingredients.

Take, for example, red food colouring, the most common form of dye added to the foods we eat.

Fresh food

Opt for fresh, whole foods instead of processed

There are two forms. One is derived from coal or petroleum products – in other words, the same family of compounds used to make gasoline for your car. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a non-profit watchdog and consumer advocacy group, has found that a particular one, Red 40, may contribute to cancer, as well as hyperactivity in children. In one study, it even damaged the DNA of mice.

A common alternative to petroleum-based red food colouring is derived from bugs.

Yes, we said bugs.

Look for carmine, cochineal extract, or natural red 4 on a list of ingredients. The bug in question is the cochineal, which the Native people of South America used to make dyes for their fabrics.

But aside from being an allergen for some people, this form of red food colouring has far fewer known risk factors or side effects than those derived from coal or petroleum.

More food for thought

In February, international weekly science journal “Nature” published the results of a study that raised a red flag about the use of various preservatives in many processed foods that could increase the risk of inflammatory bowel diseases and metabolic disorders.

According to the article, about 15 compounds are commonly used in various prepared foods we find in the grocery store as “emulsfiers.” In ice cream, these are used to improve texture, in mayonnaise, to keep it from separating.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, these are “generally regarded as safe” because there is no evidence that they increase a risk of cancer or have toxic effects in mammals.

But a controlled study by researchers at Georgia State University in Atlanta suggests otherwise.

In this study, common emulsifiers carboxymethylcellulose and polysorbate-80 were given to mice. These mice ate the same diet as a control group of mice that were not given these products, and yet, became obese and developed metabolic problems such as glucose intolerance. Why? Because of the effect that these emulsifiers had on the mice’s gut flora – the healthy bacteria we all need in our colons.

Other studies have found that some food additives become more hazardous in combination. A four-year study done by the National Food Institute at the Technical University of Denmark calls this the “cocktail effect.”

And then there is propyl paraben.

This is a chemical used as a food preservative that was struck from the list of safe food additives nine years ago by the European Union because it disrupts the body’s endocrine system.

In North America, however, it’s still widely used in dozens of brand name foods, such as tortillas, muffins, cakes, and food dyes.

The problem with propyl paraben is that it has weak estrogenic activity. That makes it suspect as a contributor to the onset of estrogen-sensitive cancers like breast cancer. It’s also been shown to impair fertility in women, and reduce sperm counts and testosterone levels in men. For children, it can alter hormone signaling and gene expression, impacting their reproductive, neurological, and immune system development.

So what’s the answer?

Be an informed and educated consumer. Read those nutrition labels. Even better, avoid processed and packaged foods as much as possible, and opt for whole and fresh alternatives.

As we head toward the start of a new school year and busy days back at work after summer vacations, be careful about those packaged alternatives for your family’s lunch bags. Convenience often comes with a price.

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