DR MEGAN ROSSI: Are chemicals added to food that make you sick?

How concerned should we be about food additives such as emulsifiers, preservatives, artificial colors and sweeteners?

How concerned should we be about food additives such as emulsifiers, preservatives, artificial colors and sweeteners?

In the past, additives used in food were essentially quite simple: think of salt, which was used to help preserve food for longer.

But these days, pick up any processed food, from crackers to curry sauce, and the list of chemical additives it contains can outnumber ingredients you recognize as food. But are they bad for us?

Some people are definitely sensitive to certain food additives.

One of the most common sensitivities is to sulphites, which are mainly used as a preservative; you’ll find them in foods, such as dried fruit; jams and sauces such as guacamole; processed meats; fresh and frozen crustaceans such as shrimp; as well as drinks, including soft drinks, cider, beer, wine and cordials. (See labels for additive numbers E220-228 and E150b and 150d or names such as sulfur dioxide, sodium sulfite, and caramel sulfite of ammonia.)

How concerned should we be about food additives such as emulsifiers, preservatives, artificial colors and sweeteners?

People with eczema and asthma seem to have a greater sensitivity to sulfites; one theory is that they stimulate the nerves involved in breathing and irritate the airways.

Symptoms are not only specific to the gut, but sufferers may experience hives, bloating, wheezing or a stuffy nose. Bad hangovers have also been associated with sulfites in wine.

Currently, pre-packaged food sold in the UK must clearly state on the label by law if it contains sulphites above 10mg per kg or per litre.

Another problem is sensitivity to salicylates, which cause similar symptoms.

did you know

Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, has been shown to have an anti-inflammatory effect in clinical trials. Adding black pepper when cooking with turmeric can increase our body’s ability to absorb curcumin by 2,000 percent!

Salicylates are found naturally in herbs and spices, such as black pepper and cumin; in fruits, such as apples, strawberries and kiwi; and vegetables including asparagus and corn.

They are also found in many beverages such as coffee, black tea and apple juice. If you’re concerned about dietary salicylates, it’s best to consult a dietitian, as the amount can vary by processing and season, making it risky to try to tackle it alone.

Then there are, of course, food dyes linked to hyperactivity in some children, which is why the Food Standards Agency (FSA) has ruled that food and drink containing any of these six colours: sunset yellow (E110), quinoline yellow (E104). ), carmoisine (E122), allura red (E129), tartrazine (E102) or ponceau 4R (E124) – must carry a warning.

But some sensitivities may not be quite what they seem – following reported concerns about sensitivity to aspartame (eg headaches, dizziness and upset stomach), the FSA commissioned an inquiry to investigate.

The study, published in 2015, showed that there was no difference in reported symptoms after eating a cereal bar containing aspartame compared to a bar without aspartame.

If you are not sensitive to any food additives, should you be concerned about all these chemicals in our food? There are more than 300 additives that have been authorized by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) for use in food, which means that they have undergone a rigorous safety assessment.

However, in 2008 the EFSA stated that all food additives authorized for use in the EU before 2009 should be re-evaluated for safety. This has led to a number of changes. For example, as of last week titanium dioxide (E171), a coloring added to sweets and baked goods, is no longer allowed in the EU and Northern Ireland (although it is still used in the rest of the United Kingdom).

Despite this re-evaluation, many of the safety assessments have not considered the impact on our gut microbes that play such a key role in our health. That’s because many of these assessments were done before we understood the importance of these microbes.

Some animal studies have shown that certain types of artificial sweeteners, such as sucralose, saccharin and aspartame, have a negative effect on our gut microbes, including an elevated blood sugar response to food, inflammation of the liver and weight gain.

In human research, the evidence is not as strong, with conflicting results on artificial sweeteners and gut health. These different findings are likely explained by the fact that we all harbor different microbes that can respond in different ways.

For example, a very small but important study in Nature showed that daily intake of saccharin for a week negatively affected blood sugar responses in four out of seven people tested.

Other additives to mark are nitrates and nitrites. Our bodies naturally convert nitrates found in foods like spinach and beets into nitrites and then nitric oxide, which helps dilate blood vessels. This is good for lowering blood pressure, a risk factor for heart disease.

However, nitrites and nitrates added to food, particularly processed meat such as sausages, can be converted to nitrosamines, which can be carcinogenic (cancer-causing). Other additives, including stabilizers, thickeners, gelling agents, and emulsifiers found in a wide range of processed foods, especially frozen desserts, dairy-free milks, cakes, and cookies, have also been implicated in inflammatory bowel disease.

Our research team at King’s College London is investigating this with a world-first randomized controlled trial of food additives, where we are testing a diet low in food additives in people with active Crohn’s disease.

This is based on research that suggests it can cause intestinal inflammation in genetically susceptible people. If you have active Crohn’s, live in the UK and would like to take part in the study, please email ADDapt@kcl.ac.uk for more information.

There are still many unknowns in the field of food additives. But while we’re busy trying to understand the interactions, limiting additives wherever possible is a good approach for now.

Really this just reinforces what most of us inherently know: cooking at home with whole foods is always a better option.

With packaged foods, check the ingredients list and if you see more than one E number (often spelled out with words that don’t sound like food), you might want to consider whether it’s right for you.

As for fizzy drinks, try sparkling water flavored with frozen berries and mint the next time you’re craving a soda.

Try this: Chocolate Chip Zucchini Cookies

My answer to those cookie cravings: fiber-rich chocolate chip cookies, and the kids won’t taste the hidden vegetable!

Makes 18 cookies

  • 1 ripe banana (about 100 g)
  • 6 Medjool dates, pitted and cut into pieces
  • 50 ml extra virgin olive oil
  • 150 g of whole oats
  • 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract
  • 1 courgette, grated (140 g)
  • 60 g of dark chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to gas mark 4 and grease two baking trays. Place the banana, dates and olive oil, vanilla and half of the oats in a blender and blend until smooth.

Press the grated zucchini with a clean cloth to remove any moisture, then add to a bowl, along with the remaining chocolate chips and oats. Then add the blended contents of the food processor.

Stir well to combine into a thick mixture. Place on baking sheets, making 18 cookies, and gently smooth into flat rounds.

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until golden. Transfer to a wire rack and leave to cool.

Ask Megan

I had a hiatal hernia repair two years ago and since then I have terrible bloating and constipation and gas builds up in my chest and throat making it hard to breathe until I burp (which can take hours) . I have been diagnosed with dysphagia [difficulty swallowing]. I use lactulose [a laxative] a couple of times a week.

Maxine Naden, by email.

I’m sorry to hear about your bowel symptoms after surgery. It seems that the priority should be to overcome the dysphagia, as it is possible that this is to blame for the bloating and constipation.

This is because when people have trouble swallowing, they usually change their diet to accommodate, which can mean less fluid intake and softer, more processed foods.

I would recommend that you talk to your health care team about seeing a speech and language therapist who can teach you exercises to help rebuild and refine your swallowing muscles and mechanics.

They can also advise if you would benefit from thickening your fluids to ensure you stay hydrated, a common cause of constipation and bloating.

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