· By Julia Boase

How Much do We Need to Worry About Preservatives and Food Additives in Kids Food?

Preservatives and food additives in general are a vexed issue. I’m going to begin this article by saying that we are very fortunate to live in a country that has a highly regulated food supply. Food Standards Australia & New Zealand are responsible for all facets of our food system and not only do they vigorously review the science and evidence around food additives, but also routinely monitor our food supply to ensure companies comply with our Food Standards Code. 


Throughout history humans have looked for ways to extend the “life” of fresh foods. Simple techniques such a drying and pickling foods have been used for thousands of years. As our knowledge of food and preserving has increased, more sophisticated techniques such as canning and of course now the use of preservatives, have come about. 


Of course there are other chemicals beyond preservatives that are added to our food supply as well. These include things like flavours, colours, flavour enhancers, emulsifiers, bulking agents, anti caking agents and thickeners, to name but a few. 


In this digital age where we have an abundance of information (not always from qualified professionals ) available at our finger tips,  what I see is a lot of scare mongering about food additives. There is often a blanket sense that they should be avoided because they are “bad”. In truth though, I find most people aren’t really aware of what food additives do, and why you might be choosing to avoid them. 


As an Accredited Practising Dietitian, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t follow evidence based guidelines when giving nutrition advice. There is also a difference between public health messages and what might be correct for the individual consumer (side note - if you think you have a problem with food additives then speak with your GP, who can put you in touch with a dietitian that can help you work through your problem). Part of our university training to become a dietitian, focuses on how to interpret evidence and gives us a deep understanding of what constitutes high quality evidence. Case reports or anecdotal evidence constitutes the lowest form. Unfortunately when we get into some of the “negative effects” of certain food additives, there is only anecdotal or case report level evidence. This is not good enough to make a blanket statement that additive “x” should be avoided. With this in mind, below is a list of food additives that are worth limiting or avoiding.


1. Nitrates and Nitrites


These are a type of preservative often added to processed meats (think ham, salami, sausages etc..). There is good evidence that diets high in red meat, and particularly processed meats, are a risk for developing bowel cancer. This is because nitrates produce N-nitroso chemicals when digested which can damage the cells lining the bowel. You can read more here.


2. Food Colours 


The “South Hampton Studies” are a set of now famous studies that were conducted out of South Hampton University in the UK between 2004 and 2007 that looked at the link between added food colourings as well as the preservative sodium benzoate (commonly found in lollies and soft drinks) and children’s behaviour. Whilst not a conclusive study, it was one of the first studies to find a statistically significant link between the two. Some researchers have hypothesised that some children may be more prone to hyperactive behaviour and are possibly “tipped over the edge” more easily by consuming these food colourings or preservatives.

Since this study, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has lowered the acceptable daily intake for some of these colours and required warning statements (May have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children) to be added to food packets that contain these food colours. 


3. MSG and Flavour Enhancers


Monosodium glutamate (MSG) has long had a bad wrap as it’s known to trigger symptoms of asthma in susceptible individuals, as well as an array of symptoms such as headache and nausea. It should be noted that these symptoms are be confined to a very small percentage of the population and for the vast majority of us, pose no harm.

There are many other flavour enhancers permitted in our food supply. Flavour enhancers “boost the savoury flavour of a food”, making it more desirable - almost as if it’s manufactured to make us want to eat more. I’m not a huge fan of them because they mostly occur in processed foods (think snack foods) that you don’t want to constitute a large part of your diet anyway. These foods often have flavours that aren’t replicated in nature (think of chicken flavoured crisps for example) and I often feel that the more of these heavily flavoured foods we consume, the less we appreciate the natural milder flavours of real food. I don’t have any evidence for this, it’s just a feeling I have, so feel free to ignore me on this one. I should also say that I still do buy and eat these types of foods occasionally, because I enjoy a flavoured chip as much as the next person, I’m just conscious about how much of these foods we consume as a family.  


4. Sulphites

Sulphites are a category of preservatives found in foods like soft drinks, some dried fruit, jellies and jams. It can induce asthma like symptoms in susceptible individuals, but again for the majority of population, it will be well tolerated. Because of the known sensitivity that some people have to sulphites, it is the Australian Law that sulphites must be declared on food label (either using the relevant code numbers 220 - 228) or the word “sulphite”.


 A word on gut health…

You’re probably getting the feeling by now that for the vast majority of us no real harm will come of consuming food additives. That said, I would always encourage a diet as full as possible of fresh mostly unprocessed food. Not only will it taste better, but it’s probably going to be higher in nutrients overall. There is also some interesting research emerging regarding some of the additives we use in food manufacturing, and its impact on the gut microbiome. Our large bowel is home to trillions of bacteria that play a vitally important role in our overall health. We’re still learning about the importance of good gut health and the role that it plays in preventing certain health conditions, but I think its fair to say that good gut health is associated with both your physical and mental health. Much of the research surrounding food additives and gut health has thus far been done in vitro (ie in the lab in test tubes) or in animal studies, but shows some interesting early negative associations. Of course we don’t eat food additives alone, but as part of a mixed diet, so it’s important that we have robust human studies done to investigate this further.


Putting it altogether…


One of my favourite sayings is that nutrition research is both complex and simple at the same time. As much as we may find interesting associations between individual food components and certain health outcomes, the dietary advice nearly always comes back to the same thing. Put most of your focus into consuming a diet high vegetables, fruits, wholegrains, quality protein, nuts and seeds, dairy or dairy alternatives and minimise the amount of processed food you consume. If you’re doing this most of the time then I don’t think you need to worry if you’re consuming some food additives here and there, we all need some help in the kitchen and we all need a few corners to cut!

Simple really isn’t it?


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